Are We Less Rankings-Obsessed Than We Used To Be?


“Is there a way to reduce the obsession over rankings in our discipline?”

That’s the opening question of a reader’s message currently under discussion at The Philosophers’ Cocoon.

[from Color Numeral Series (1969) by Jasper Johns]

My reaction was: haven’t we?

When I think back to ten or twenty years ago it seems that concern about rankings was much more intense and widespread than it is now. Back then, rankings might be brought up routinely as something to be considered in many kinds of decisions an individual or a department might make (for example), and even when not explicitly mentioned they seemed important to keep in mind.

Nowadays, such rankings (both departmental and journal rankings are mentioned by the writer) seem less important. That’s not to say they can’t be useful. But we seem less obsessed with them. Perhaps that there is now, more than ever before, a greater amount of easily accessible information about the profession, departments, journals, and individual philosophers, and that there are more available metrics and measures, diminishes the extent to which any one ranking looms everpresently large in our thoughts.

Or is it just me? I’m getting older, and it’s normal as one ages to care less about what “everyone” thinks (and rankings are one attempt at representing that). I’m not a graduate student or early career philosopher, for whom rankings might be more significant. Additionally, I might be biased on this question, given one of the reasons for creating Daily Nous in the first place (if you know, you know—I don’t feel like getting into it).

I imagine some disagree, and that some think the question too broad. I’m curious to hear what you think. (Perhaps it would be especially helpful to hear from those who, a decade or two back, were already quite senior in the profession.) Comment here or at the Cocoon (or both).

(I should note that the topic here is philosophy-specific rankings. I don’t mean to be referring to general rankings like the REF in the UK, or US News & World Report rankings.)

 

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someone
someone
1 month ago

Something to note: People from marginal communities are much more ranking-obsessed and for good reason. If you are a student at Harvard you don’t need to look at any ranking because you could just ask your professors what schools have good professors. If you are a student from, e.g., Iran, you have to rely on rankings to choose what school to attend. A corollary is that whatever grudge people have about rankings, we should in no way abandon or discredit them without finding a replacement for people from peripheral communities. Also, to see whether people are becoming less obsessed about rankings, we should look whether these people have moved towards the center of the philosophical community.

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  someone
1 month ago

Surely people from marginalized communities are generally harmed by the ranking obsession even if there is this one benefit. A superb philosopher with a PhD from Iran would seem to have no chance at all at being hired in a US research-focussed department. So the idea that we must preserve the status quo for the sake of the marginalized seems dubious

cecilia wobbslesbury
cecilia wobbslesbury
Reply to  Grad student
1 month ago

> A superb philosopher with a PhD from Iran would seem to have no chance at all at being hired in a US research-focused department.

Surely formal rankings play a very small role in that.

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  cecilia wobbslesbury
1 month ago

Please elaborate

Devin
Devin
Reply to  someone
1 month ago

I’m no fan of the PGR, but it always frustrated me that discussions around it so often seemed to assume that every grad school applicant has the access to information (not to mention the time) to figure out what departments to even start looking at. Even in the US, if you’re at a school with 1 or 2 philosophy faculty, who may not have had the time to engage much with the contemporary philosophy scene for several years, you might not know anyone who can give you advice.

Devin
Devin
Reply to  someone
1 month ago

I think it’s also easy to forget that the prestige of philosophy programs comes apart from the overall popular prestige of schools. If you’re not already knowledgeable, it might not even occur to you to look at e.g. CUNY.

Caligula's Goat
1 month ago

I think we’re less rankings obsessed than we used to be Justin but there’s an availability-heuristic explanation for why it seems otherwise. You say, for example, that

When I think back to ten or twenty years ago it seems that concern about rankings was much more intense and widespread than it is now. Back then, rankings might be brought up routinely as something to be considered in many kinds of decisions an individual or a department might make, and even when not explicitly mentioned they seemed important to keep in mind.

But what I think has happened is that 10-20 years ago the only real game in town for online philosophy spaces was Leiter’s Blog. Yes there were some spaces like the Garden of Forking Paths, the Philosophy Smoker, the Feminist Philosophy Blog, etc., but they’re actually mostly-of-a-piece here. They represented, almost universally, the thoughts, concerns, and obsessions of elite philosophers (or graduate students).

The major representation online of philosophy was at that time filled with the concerns of R1, mostly elite R1, faculty. These faculty were then, and are now, rankings obsessed. In part this is understandable and defensible (getting tenure at a place like that requires that you become sensitive to elitism as a proxy for quality) but it’s also partially vanity and self-selection.

It’s always been true that the vast vast majority of philosophers do not work at R1 universities and most of these philosophers don’t, in my experience, care all that much about rankings. If you’re at a university where a book review counts as a publication toward tenure and where a good number of your students are working full-time jobs and/or parenting, publications in Nous or PPR or Ethics are going to feel a lot less meaningful than they might be if your livelihood and reputation depend on them.

Even Daily Nous is an elite space in that respect (you are the major voice of Daily Nous Justin and you’re at an R1 and dictate the content that appears here). Today, however, we have a proliferation of philosophy blogs, substacks, medium accounts, and pop philosophy written by philosophers outside the elite sphere. Discussions there don’t tend to be about whether a publication in JOVI is bad for your career (something my advisor once literally told me).

I don’t deny that there still exists a large elite-R1 dominated philosophere online (including, again, this blog) but the share of the philosophere that it occupies is, I would guess, actually smaller than it was 10-20 years ago.

abd grad
abd grad
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
1 month ago

I agree that there’s something right about this point. This is only anecdotal, but I went to a small teaching-focused college with only three full time philosophy faculty. I didn’t even know what philosophy rankings were until I decided I wanted to apply to grad school. My professors always joked about ‘fancy’ places and imparted to me a healthy skepticism that they meant anything regarding the quality of the philosophy.

When I found myself as a senior in undergrad combing through rankings, considering my own career prospects, I initially resented that sentiment as out of touch and unhelpful to me. As I finish up my dissertation, I couldn’t agree with them more. I fervently hope for the day when I never have to think about rankings again!

Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

It definitely seems like there’s both less obsession with rankings, and less discourse about attacking rankings, and both developments seem healthy to me! Rankings are a useful part of a balanced diet of discussion of the profession, but shouldn’t dominate it.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
1 month ago

I think it’s really interesting that the first comment says the non-elite are more interested in rankings and the second one says the elite are more interested in rankings. (I think the first comment, by ‘someone’, is closer to the mark, but that’s just adding my own individual impression to the other two.)

One reason people are less interested in journal rankings, I bet, is that the internet has made journals more homogeneous. When I read a paper 25 years ago I could almost always remember where I read it, and even now I can remember where those papers were published. <I>The Journal of Philosophy</I> just looks so different from <I>The Monist</I>! But now all articles look like Times Roman words on my computer screen. I no longer can remember where (recent) articles appeared, unless I have some particular reason to remember.
Along the same lines, I used to go to the library and browse the latest issues, so I had to make some judgment about which journals to browse. I don’t do that anymore so I don’t have to make the judgment.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
1 month ago

My point was this Jamie:

Someone at an R1 is going to send material to places that they consider good venues. They’re going to help their graduate students get good jobs. They’re going to attend good conferences at good universities.

Good, in this context, is going to consistent of a pretty narrow set of places and occupations defined by their exclusivity.

I don’t doubt the point about the Iranian student. To me, that’s less about marginalization than it is about someone with aspirations to entering Western elite institutions (Iranian universities have their own rankings as would universities in South Africa or Colombia or Vietnam, etc etc). So obsession about Western, English-speaking, rankings only makes sense for those already in those institutions (R-1 professors and graduate students who have been taught to see those as the only valuable ways of doing philosophy) or those with aspirations for entering that sphere.

For everyone else (the 90%+ of working philosophers), I seriously doubt that they care too much about rankings. The philosophere gives a false picture of academic philosophical interests (and obsessions) for all the same reasons that social media presents us with a false picture of social/political values.

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
1 month ago

For what it’s worth, obsession about Western, English-speaking rankings makes a lot of sense for lots of universities outside of Western elite institutions. We have our own local rankings. But the Western ones are also the dominant ones, internationally, and they still carry weight in various administrative evaluations and decisions.

Last edited 1 month ago by Peter Finocchiaro
Steve
Steve
1 month ago

As a graduate student, there is widespread and not unfounded perception that if you’re at a top-10 philosophy department, you don’t have to work as hard as the rest of us to get a job, and get a good job. Ie, the idea that someone at my institution could get a TT job without a publication is considered absurd. Not so at the fanciest places.

Grad at fancy department
Grad at fancy department
Reply to  Steve
1 month ago

At least at my (fancy) department getting a TT job without publication is considered pretty absurd as well. And to be decently competitive you better have a top-5 ish publication. Not saying that reputation doesn’t help–obviously it does–but probably not to the extreme extent that this post makes it seem

Steve
Steve
Reply to  Grad at fancy department
1 month ago

I’m not saying that it guarantees you a slot, but anecdotally, I do know of more than one graduate from Rutgers/NYU/Princeton who got a TT job with 0 publications. I know of no such person from my institution.

Candle
Candle
Reply to  Steve
1 month ago

I think the claim being made above is not really supported by what’s said. You say that, if you’re at a top 10 place you don’t have to work as hard as the rest of us to get a job, and the evidence supporting this concerns people getting jobs without publications. But the idea that any such student isn’t working hard because they don’t have publications doesn’t follow. It’s worth noting that people write dissertations for their advisors and this can be incredibly demanding (or do you think impressing big-name-professors at big-name school with your dissertation is just a given??). Note that there are advisors that want students to work hard on their dissertations and not focus on getting published right away and this is still work. So the evidence you are citing doesn’t quite show what you say it does, if I’m allowed to respectfully offer this suggestion.

sisyphus
sisyphus
Reply to  Candle
1 month ago

But in this response to Steve, isn’t an implicit assumption being made that a dissertation from a top 10 place is inherently more valuable (or that someone worked harder for it) than one from somewhere else? Isn’t that a bad assumption to make? Doesn’t it seem that, other things being equal, a dissertation plus a publication ought stand for more than a dissertation without any publications? Or should we treat dissertations from top 10 schools as worth more?

Candle
Candle
Reply to  sisyphus
1 month ago

No, I’m just pointing out that you can’t infer from the fact that someone wrote a publication that they’re working more than someone who didn’t since there are other types of work that’s occuring. You can’t know the details of how much people work without asking people or gathering some evidence (so I think assumptions are being made here). For myself, everyone I knew in grad school worked incredibly hard, regardless of their publications.

sisyphus
sisyphus
Reply to  Candle
1 month ago

That’s true – I don’t disagree. Racking up publications doesn’t necessarily mean someone is the hardest worker. (Is “hard worker” what should be the measure of who should get jobs?) However, my impression is that most of us work very hard. So, my point is: shouldn’t that just be a default assumption, i.e. majority of us who have earned a phd have worked hard, regardless of where the phd came from?

So, as per Steve’s comment, it’s odd when you see someone from a fancy department get a job with few or no publications, while many other people from far less fancy departments, who may nevertheless have far more solid publications, but who we can assume have worked equally as hard, don’t even get interviewed? (Admittedly, I have an axe to grind – this has been me on more than one occasion.) Those kind of instances lead to the conclusion that people who do the hiring tend to believe, implicitly or otherwise, that coming from a fancy place is worth more because people coming from those places work harder… or something? I’m not sure. Or am I missing something?

Last edited 1 month ago by sisyphus
Candle
Candle
Reply to  sisyphus
1 month ago

Respectfully I don’t see how what you say follows. I believe it is incorrect to think that somehow publishing some articles automatically means that someone is doing work at the same level as someone else that hasn’t published. That doesn’t follow and is not evidence of that. E.g., there could be a fancy professor at a top university who is advising someone who’s working on their dissertation, and the student is told to focus on that, rather than rack up publications. And the fancy professor is very well respected in the field and has a good eye for what counts as “excellent work.” This will likely trump publications in many cases because of the recommendation being made by the professor. I don’t see that this is particularly wrongheaded—that people may trust the judgement of a professor over the fact that someone is published somewhere. So, again, I think there are some assumptions being made here when people are comparing “the published” vs “the less published.” I mean all of this respectfully here….decisions about hiring are more complicated than just where did you publish and how much or whatever, from what I can surmise in my experience.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Candle
1 month ago

I see where Candle’s coming from, but I think it’s overstated to say that a publication record vs. no publication record ‘is not evidence of’ doing work ‘on a higher level’ (we were talking about working hard, but Candle’s most recent comment is now about the ‘level’ of the work, which I read as being about its quality). For one thing, evidence is cheap, even if in many cases it is only very weak.

But more generally, the idea seems to be that publications bear the imprimatur of a higher standard of quality assessment than does completing a dissertation. This is because the evaluators are anonymous and (almost always) not from the philosopher’s home institution. So, barring evidence you may have that you’re dealing with an unusual case (e.g., a very good dissertation advisor who is requiring the student to forego publishing to write a killer diss), ceteris paribus, in nomine Patris et al., etc., it seems publications should tilt you in favour of that candidate.

I think that idea is correct. And its not nearly as strong as what Candle takes themselves to be arguing against – that publications ‘automatically mean’ whatever. They’re just (weak, defeasible) evidence.

Eugene D
Eugene D
1 month ago

It does seem like there is a lot less discussion about rankings.

Why? It seems to me that there is simply a lot less to discuss. The Philosophical Gourmet is next to useless now, since it is much less frequently updated and there are only ~20 members on the advisory board compared to ~60 in the late 2000s. And the APDA now provides clear and uncontroversial rankings of departments in terms of the one thing most of the PG’s former users cared about, namely, information relevant to figuring out which departments will help them get good academic jobs.

Some postdoc
Some postdoc
1 month ago

I see people discuss departmental rankings less, but I wonder whether this isn’t mostly explained in terms of changes in conversational, social norms rather than in terms of people caring less about rankings. That is, I think a lot of people see explicit acknowledgement of rankings as elitest and betraying a problematic set of values (regardless of whether this is in fact true).

In my experience, people talk about *journal* rankings far more than departmental rankings. I think this might be partly explained by the idea that journal rankings have a much looser relation to the elitest ideology just mentioned.

A Philosopher Named Slickback
A Philosopher Named Slickback
1 month ago

For many BIPOC (especially Black and Brown folks), rankings are, to some degree, ever-present; that is, they remain a constant reminder of the prestige bias, and white domination of the discipline that we continuously stay out of. And again, notice there are very few of us in the T10 schools, let alone in the T20. I, A Philosopher Named Slickback, am one of maybe 5 in my racial group and perhaps the only one who grew up and still is below the poverty line among the T20 schools. Lord, notice, however, that yall are just starting to talk about class stratification in philosophy; poor folks have been locked out and have been historically locked out of the T20 schools, and if you are BIPOC and poor, you will fare, historically much worse! Now you are in this group of poor and BIPOC; you are in for a shock because, in every setting within philosophy, I have been the poorest among the darkest people in the room. And it does get tiring to know that apart from having to work harder to have “my type of philosophy” respected among the gatekeepers, there is already a biased due to the racial history of the dept, so yes, it indeed would help if I was at a T10 where the gold star prestige seal of approval gives me a leg up, among those who have had nothing but legs up not just in their lives but generationally. But! The reality is that there are MANY Black and Brown folks outside of the T50 doing amazing work, but whether or not they will break into the inner circle of philosophy is another story, and that really sucks. So yes, maybe among YALL, rankings matter less and less, but how much less? Are yall willing to look at the Jose Juan Perez’s (not a real person) from Temple U? U Washington? or even abroad? For their philosophical merit? Or will you still look at the John Smith from Harvard (no pubs) and give them a leg up? I think I have a feeling already.

Last edited 1 month ago by A Philosopher Named Slickback
julian
julian
1 month ago

Talking to graduate students, I don’t get the impression that rankings matter less now.

There’s a strong sense that a top 5 PhD guarantees you a job. There’s a lot of resentment about unpublished (or perhaps one collected volume paper) people from top 10 departments landing top 20 jobs. There’s a lot of panic about having to catch up by publishing in high ranked journals, and then even more resentment when this does not help. There’s a lot of chatter about how the rankings skew the playing field, as it were, against mid ranked department graduates.

(This is a report, not a judgment about whether these things are happening or a comment on what the best explanation for this is).

Perhaps senior folk find it a bit gauche now to talk too much about rankings, but it is unclear how much this has affected what is happening on the ground.

Last edited 1 month ago by julian
Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  julian
1 month ago

“When I think back to ten or twenty years ago it seems that concern about rankings was much more intense and widespread than it is now.”

Yes, this sounds an awful lot like, ‘Compared to when I was on the job market and working to get tenure, it seems like rankings don’t matter as much anymore.’

Being on, or prospectively on, the academic job market is a state of constantly being ranked and having one’s livelihood and professional future determined by those rankings.

Michel
1 month ago

Applicants are still applying to 20+ programs, and doing so basically just by applying to the T20 ranked departments. Given the givens, this approach does make sense, but I think it just reinforces the ranking obsession/over-valuation. For years, applicants have been using the rankings to identify their undergraduate departments as top-x departments, as though the rankings were measures of undergraduate program quality or prestige. If you spend some time on the GradCafe and other applicant spaces, it’s hard to believe that applicants are less rankings-focused than they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

I’d also like to observe that I have seen/heard a fair few people say, here and elsewhere, in both the distant and the recent past, that the students at the highest-ranked programs are just better than those at lower-ranked programs. (In applicant spaces, this is taken pretty much as an ordinal ranking which, while not quite what people posting here mean when they say it, is really not that far off.) The idea is that if you look at the pool as a whole, you’ll find that NYU takes all of the best applicants, and Utah (or whatever) gets the leavings. So, in the end, it makes sense that the ranks of the R1 professoriate are peopled by philosophers trained at a small handful of top programs, and have virtually nobody from Utah (or wherever).

I don’t believe that story for a moment (I think a good philosopher/researcher/whatever is made–and made over time–not born), but it seems like one that’s still quite widespread. It’s possible that it’s in decline, in which case the hiring data should eventually reflect that. But I don’t know.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Michel
1 month ago

Michel thinks  that  good philosophers, researchers or whatever are made – and made over time – not born. This kind of opinion has often been voiced on Daily Nous. However I have to say that it is wholly  inconsistent with my experience. (I was going to say ‘utter garbage’  but I guess it’s true of some people.) I have had a number of students who have gone on to successful careers – in some cases very distinguished careers – as professional philosophers, and in almost every case their talents  were obvious from the word go.  And when I say ‘from the word go’ I mean AS UNDERGRADUATES, since although I teach  at what is  formally   an R1 university  – we award doctorates – I really haven’t had many graduate students. (We don’t have a graduate program in the American sense.)   Speaking for myself, the papers I wrote or drafted as a graduate student – after three years as an undergraduate and two or three years of graduate study, mostly self-directed – are among the best I have produced or am ever likely to produce.  Indeed, I am inclined to  say that one of the great things about Philosophy is that relative beginners can start producing at a high level  without that much formal training. 

How does this affect the rankings issue? Well, depending on how reliable their  talent detection devices are, the top schools are likely, on the whole, to soak up  the top talents with  ‘Utah (or whatever)’ – Michel’s phrase not mine – getting the leavings. The NYU students are also likely to receive a superior education. However, I am on record as arguing  that  pedigree should not be a factor in making appointments, which should be done on the basis of research achievements (as measured in papers published).  I think it likely that under this system the NYU alumni will do better than those from Boondock U, but they should not be rewarded twice over  – once for having made the best of a superior education (and hence producing superior papers) and a second time for having had the chance to do so. That way at least the talented PhD from Boondock U will be in with a chance.  

Enrico Matassa
Enrico Matassa
Reply to  Charles Pigden
1 month ago

I’ve seen this argument so many times. And every time I think of all the damning arguments against it….
At best anecdotal arguments carry little weight given vanishingly small sample size and the well known fact that memory can be very selective and inaccurate about these things. Then of course students professors deem clever pick up on it snd are motivated by that fact alone. More importantly they have attention lavished on them by faculty and ….
But then of course I realize that all those points are neither here nor there since if the supposed wunderkind students of theirs these guys gesture at to show that native talent is what matters actually existed and were in any way impressive names would be dropped left and right.

Michel
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
1 month ago

As it happens, there used to be a yearly post on one of the blogs naming the most promising graduates on the market that year.

The practice ended maybe ten or so years ago. (Which is good–I don’t think it did anyone any favours!)

David Wallace
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
1 month ago

Names get dropped all the time, just not in public-facing spaces like this.

Back in my day...
Back in my day...
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

This is absolutely true. Worse: the dropped names are also unexceptionally from the Leiterific departments. It would be fine, if such name-droppings had no impact on hiring practices, but in my experience they are the most impactful factor in hiring decisions.

I used to hear stories about Quine or Goodman giving their buddies at Princeton a call to get their students hired and used to think we came so far until I was on the market. In reality we have not come far and may even have regressed a bit.

Last edited 1 month ago by Back in my day...
sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Back in my day...
1 month ago

I never witnessed this phenomenon myself. That must bode poorly for me. And would explain my terrible performance on the market.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
1 month ago

So good philosophers are made not born,  with the making being supposedly a long-drawn-out  process? Here’s a reason to think otherwise. Most people with a European or Australasian  thesis-only PhD began to work independently on their dissertations after completing just three or four years of undergraduate or honours  study, often with little more direct help than a couple of hours per fortnight with their supervisors.   Yet quite a few of us have managed to draft or write not only publishable,  but *well-cited* books or papers based on those PhDs, and this  without the aid of the elaborate ‘making’ that  you think necessary. I have two  papers in Phil Quarterly and a paper in the AJP, all three closely based on my PhD,  with a total now  (after thirty-five years) of  273 citations.  (The figure swells to 561 if we add in a paper in Singer’s Companion to Ethics which is rather more loosely based on the thesis.) The most cited of these was done with no support whatever from my supervisor, not because he was neglectful – it was rather I who neglected him  – but because, being partly a paper in philosophical logic, it was largely beyond his ken (he was a good but rather old-fashioned meta-ethicist).  I have two colleagues who came late to philosophy  Colin Cheyne and Greg Dawes.   Colin  embarked on his thesis-only PhD after only four years of part-time philosophical  study,  resulting in the well-received book  ‘Knowledge Cause and Abstract Objects’ published by Routledge.  Greg embarked on his thesis only PhD  with no formal training in Philosophy  at all (though he did have a Bachelors and a PhD in Theology) . That  too resulted in a well-received book with Routledge ,‘Theism and Explanation’. Another name to drop  is Tim Mulgan. He was one of my first students after I joined the Otago Department in mid-1988. It was obvious even as an undergraduate that he was smarter than I was (not an opinion have about many people) and I often wondered whether I could say anything to him that he could not have thought of for himself.  He was a master of the dialogue format producing brilliant pastiches of Plato. He completed an honours degree in 1990 (four years) and after a brief stint in Treasury (1991) he went on to do a DPhil in Oxford, (1992-1995) completing his doctorate in three years. During that time he published a paper in Phil Quarterly (1993) , a paper in Ratio (1994)  and a paper  in Analysis (1994) with a total, according to Google Scholar, of 47 citations. Then there are the Swedish-style PhDs,  where your PhD thesis largely consists of a series of published papers which you  write pretty much off your own bat. So to take yet another acquaintance as an example,  Jonas Olson’s PhD thesis  (which he completed in four years including a stint as a lecturer at Otago) contains inter alia a paper published in Phil Quarterly, a paper published in PPR, a paper published in Utilitas and a paper  published in ETMP  with a combined total for all its contents of 283 citations. A recent addition to the Otago staff is Stuart Brock (he is a Deputy Vice-Chancellor).  He got  a paper published in Mind *as an undergraduate*  at Monash. 
So No,  with quite a lot of people philosophical ability manifests itself when they are fairly young  (at least qua philosophers), and high-quality work is often produced with relatively  little by way of formal instruction. Such precocious philosophers are not so much ‘made’ (by someone else) as *self- made*, though of course it helps if they are provided with an environment that facilitates self-making.  Let me quote the acknowledgments  in the preface to my own PhD:  ‘Thirdly, my thanks to the Latrobe philosophy department as a whole – a civilised, scholarly and friendly community. .. From the first I was treated as an equal; my concerns and comments taken seriously.  There is hardly one member of the Department with whom I have not had at some time and illuminating conversation… [there follow a list] The willingness of these and others to act as unpaid supervisors has been an enormous  help to me, especially in the writing of Chapter VII.’ *That’s* the kind environment  that facilitates self-making, but note that I learned by *talking* to others not from being taught or lectured to , and that the people I talked to  treated me as an equal, not somebody  who had yet to be ‘made’ into a respectable philosopher.  

Now of course, some people take a little longer to grow into  their talent.  I would never recommend anyone to go on to a doctorate  unless I thought they had the makings not only of a professional philosopher but of an *above-average*  professional philosopher. Still I have at, least one former student who I used to think would be merely good but whose work is now (in my view ) not just good but excellent.  (Lots of publications in high-end journals, books with OUP and a vivid polemical prose style.)   She has  considerably exceeded my expectations and some credit must go to her graduate school..  But since she too did a thesis only PhD, it was a matter of *fostering her talent *rather than  ‘making’ her into the  good, or rather, the  *superior*, philosopher that she has now become

Does the recognition of potential talent mean that attention and  effort is sucked away from the other students and lavished on  the favoured sons or daughters? Not in my experience, no. The thing about the really good students is that they can be left to get on with it by themselves with relatively little input   It’s the subpar students  who require time and effort to shove them over the finish line.   When  a promising student writes an essay that I agree with there often isn’t much to say  except ‘Good point’ , ‘Excellent’  ‘Nicely formulated argument’ or even ‘I never thought of that’. When they write an essay that I *disagree* with I often end up writing something like this. ‘This is an excellent essay , well-written , well-argued and admirably clear.   I think that it is deeply wrong but I could not explain why without writing an entire counter-essay which I don’t have time for. So here is your A+. Perhaps we can discuss it either in my office hours or at the pub?’ [Staff and senior students at Otago regularly meet at the pub on Wednesdays.] 

How dismal it must be to be taught as an undergraduate  (or even a graduate student)  by the likes of Michel and Matassa where the message, even to the best students,  is  ‘You are not special.  Your ideas and argument arguments of no interest, and you won’t be able to produce anything worthwhile  until you have slogged your way through a great many taught courses  [and, I suspect, learned to conform to the current orthodoxies]’ Perhaps this is  why so much professional philosophy is so dreary and unadventurous   The kind of  ‘good’ philosopher that you get ‘made’ into at some graduate schools  (not all of them, of course)  is a dreary and unadventurous hack who has been educated to believe that the best  they can do is make minor contributions  to somebody else’s research agenda. 

V. Alan White
1 month ago

My worry is that the constant attacks on philosophy programs will inevitably result in an increased emphasis on perceived rankings. I came from an outside-50 program way back when (Tennessee) but managed to have a good career until retirement only because Wisconsin had a robust and huge system of campuses that provided an opportunity for me. It no longer has that–my department no longer exists, and former tenured colleagues at existing campuses are facing layoffs. The combination of political erosion of support for higher ed and demographic changes will not provide hope for any increase of the availability of positions, especially tenure-track, in any near-future scenario. That means a Darwinian struggle for existing ones and that means increased emphasis on perceived pedigree among all non-community college campuses, and even in the latter some pressure to hire “better”. All this implies an increased emphasis on rankings IMO.

Daniel Weltman
1 month ago

I’m hoping to empirically answer this question with my planned project, the Philosophical Rankings Gourmet Report. I am going to ask philosophers to rank how rankings-obsessed they believe each of their colleagues to be, and which rankings they are obsessed with to what degree, and then I will compile this into a sortable ranking of how rankings-obsessed each philosopher is.

I am encountering some difficulties because I’m trying to figure how much to add to someone’s “ranking obsession” score based on how many other people they are willing to rank as ranking obsessed. I can’t tell if having views about how many other people are ranking obsessed is a sign of ranking obsession, or if people who are less ranking obsessed are more cavalier about assigning degrees of ranking obsession to others, and thus more willing to rank others. A tricky predicament!

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
1 month ago

Curious readers might like to know that this is the 11th best comment on Daily Nous this year. I am keeping track of everyone’s score in a super-scientific way and hope to publish my results soon.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
1 month ago

There are two classes of people. The better class rank people who are more likely to ascribe ranking-obsession to others a lower degree of ranking-obsession; the lesser class rank people who are more likely to ascribe ranking-obsession to others a higher degree of ranking-obsession. Hope that clears things up.

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  sahpa
1 month ago

Now I just need to know which class I belong to, so that I can behave accordingly.

academic migrant
academic migrant
1 month ago

There are apparently very bad rankings out there, e.g. QS. If philosophers stop producing our own rankings, wouldn’t we just be outsourcing the authority to rank philosophy programs to QS?

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  academic migrant
1 month ago

This is often said, but it’s not clear that the QS rankings are any worse than eg the PGR ones. The complaint seems to be that American institutions aren’t quite so prominent

Matt L
Reply to  Grad student
1 month ago

For what it’s worth, I took part in the QS rankings for law and philosophy, for both the US and Australia, this last year. What they consisted in is asking me to name 10 institutions that I thought of as particularly good in those fields. That’s it! No faculty lists, nothing trying, even loosely, to reduce a halo effect, no ranking w/in that order (even though there’s a big difference between the 1st and the 10th best program in philosophy in Australia, just because the sizes are massively different, if nothing else). If all the rankings are like that (maybe they include some other aspects) they really are garbage, and this part, at least, is not at all good. Also, I was allowed to specify which areas of the world I wanted to rank universities. I could have claimed to be able to do so about continental Europe or Asia, even though I have basically zero confidence in my ability to make such judgments if I wanted to do so. I would give them close to zero credibility except as a measure of name recognition. They are obviously worse than the PGR.

Matthew Kramer
Reply to  Matt L
1 month ago

Above, I have applauded your comment and have added a bit to it.

Matthew Kramer
Reply to  Grad student
1 month ago

As Matt Lister has said, you’re badly uninformed if you think that the PGR rankings are no more solid than the QS rankings. I’ve participated on multiple occasions in each of those systems of rankings. The methodology of the PGR is vastly superior to the methodology of the QS. There are no faculty lists or indeed any other guidance for the QS rankings, and there are no restrictions against ranking one’s own institution. By contrast, the PGR includes faculty lists and extensive guidance, and an evaluator is not permitted to vote for his or her own institution. Acting as an evaluator for the QS typically consumes about 20 minutes of my time, whereas acting as an evaluator for the PGR typically consumes 8-10 hours of my time.

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  Matthew Kramer
1 month ago

Useful to know, thank you. But to be clear, my point wasn’t that the QS ranking methodology is good. Rather, it was that the PGR isn’t clearly good. Why are faculty lists so great? As many have observed, the PGR seems like a puffed up exercise in back scratching.

Matt L
Reply to  Grad student
1 month ago

Why are faculty lists so great?

The PGR is meant to be a ranking of faculty quality. The faculty list is what the rankers are supposed to focus on. If you don’t have a list, it’s much harder to focus on that. (At least originally, the lists were given w/o the name of the institution, to help reduce a “halo” effect. Of course, anyone really competent to judge the quality of facult will recognize most of the institutions from the list, but it’s likely still better to focus on the list, rather than the name.) Also, even well plugged-in evaluators are unlikely to know who is at every institution ranked, so the list helps with that.

the PGR seems like a puffed up exercise in back scratching.

I’m not sure how this would work. I suppose some people might reach out to others, suggesting that they exchange high ratings, but I’m pretty skeptical that this happens often, if at all. Or do you have something less concrete in mind?

academic migrant
academic migrant
Reply to  Grad student
1 month ago

Sorry but I quote your previous reply

“it’s not clear that the QS rankings are any worse than eg the PGR ones”

I thought this was your point, as you wrote this as a response to my suggestion that PGR is better than QS. I believe that we shouldn’t outsource rankings to something far inferior.

tenure and promotion
tenure and promotion
1 month ago

I agree with a lot of the commentators here that the impression that people are less rankings-obsessed is often coming from being in a professional position where it becomes less important to us individually. I also think rankings are seriously problematic. But I just wanted to mention one use of them that seems pretty valuable to me that hasn’t come up: in tenure and promotion to full cases, many people, especially at R1 and/or more prestigious universities, need external letters. And those letters are often supposed to be from peer plus or at least peer institutions. And that they are needs to be somehow justified to an administration (if, as is relatively common, it is mostly the department that is selecting the letter writers). At least in my department, the philosophical gourmet rankings are regularly appealed to in order to justify a choice (these are totally fictional examples, but this might happen if e.g. people at USC or Georgetown wanted to get a letter from someone at CUNY or Rutgers). And our administration accepts that. But I’m not as sure they would accept something like “our department thinks that this philosophy department is stronger than ours”; they would be worried that we were just gaming the system to try to promote our people. Now, none of this is ideal; we could complain about how tenure and promotion work. But it is a fact that at lots of schools external letters FROM PEOPLE IN MORE PRESTIGIOUS DEPARTMENTS are often the single most important factor in how tenure cases are decided at levels above the departmental level. I suspect there are more things like this where rankings themselves are necessary given the very non-ideal world we live in (aside from the ones already brought up by people in this thread). I don’t know what to do about that and it’s not an endorsement of rankings. But I do think the broader academic world basically requires us to have them.

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
1 month ago

I conjecture that there’s less focus on departmental and journal rankings and more focus on the citation metrics of individual scholars (e.g., Google Scholar), while the overall degree of attention to these types of metrics as a whole remains approximately the same.

Original reader
Original reader
1 month ago

I think there is an obsession and want to reduce that. I am wondering this. Suppose we have now all denounced PGR ranking. What would be realistic consequences of that? On top of my mind, a few super quick thoughts. (1) prospective students will still remember for years to come that (say) NYU, MIT and Princeton were ranked as top programs. It is not the case that they will become ignorant just because the ranking had been denounced. And on the bright side, they would hopefully pay a bit more attention to more faculty work intrinsically than the attached prestige. There would be less boring comparison of rankings during campus visit. (2) Similarly, hiring would be a bit more guided by faculty interest, fit and overall more subjective judgement, which I think is also good. (3) The problem is, as one commentator pointed out, we would have one less tool to justify various decisions to higher admins.
Maybe I am naive, happy to hear more!

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Original reader
1 month ago

Regarding 1: prospective grad students are usually in no position to evaluate faculty work ‘intrinsically’. They also do not always know which faculty to look at, even if they could evaluate that work on its own merits. These problems are compounded since students are well-advised to seek out more well-rounded departments (all else equal), which requires evaluating the work of philosophers doing all kinds of different things. The more realistic consequence is that they will be even more dependent on the opinions and recommendations of whoever happens to mentor them in undergrad (if anyone does).

Regarding 2: more subjective judgments in hiring could easily increase, not decrease, network effects, cronyism, and morally problematic (e.g., racist, sexist) bias.

Billy
1 month ago

What was it like in philosophy before the PGR? I don’t remember a time when the PGR did not exist. I’m 45 and graduated from my PhD in 2009. Just wondering what things were like in philosophy (in relation to rankings or lack thereof) prior to the PGR. Were things healthier than? Did people implicitly do rankings and pass them on through word of mouth? Or did implicit ranking just not happen much because there were no explicit rankings available?

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Billy
1 month ago

I’m a bit older than you — I started my PhD in 1997, coming from overseas. I don’t think things were healthier before the PGR at all, but that’s primarily because, pre-internet, there was far less information available across the board.* No doubt the PGR had some value in pointing people to programs that were better than their university prestige might suggest. But the primary difference between then and now is that there is just a ton more information available (and people know that).

*”Pre-internet” in the sense that not every department had much of a web presence in the mid-90s. I distinctly remember that Berkeley had a good website back then, and I was very happy to see they had three people I’d read: Williams, Waldron, and Scheffler. I knew there were a bunch of famous people at Harvard and Princeton too, but otherwise when I thought about studying in the US, I had no idea which people were where or what that meant about the strength of different departments. So institutional prestige was really the only salient consideration. That’s changed now, but not fundamentally because of the PGR.

Billy
Reply to  SCM
1 month ago

Interesting. Thanks for responding.

Louis Zapst
Reply to  Billy
1 month ago

Applying to grad schools in the pre-internet late 80’s, I had to send universities postcards requesting physical university bulletins. These bulletins were sometimes pretty outdated. So, I called departments I was interested in to ask the administrative assistants whether so and so was currently teaching. I would then do my own bibliographical research to find out what these professors had published and where. I would also call the offices of individual professors to ask questions about their department, curriculum, research interests, and their own students’ placement. Sometimes generous professors would spend time giving me advice about applying to their own department and guide me to other comparable departments which might interest me. Another resource of the pre-internet era was The Review of Metaphysics that each year would dedicate an issue to listing all PhDs awarded that year in North America, with dissertation titles and advisors’ names. That was the a very useful resource for discovering who and what kind of work was being done at which universities.

Chris
Chris
1 month ago

New book of relevance (though not philosophy specific!): https://theordinalsociety.com/images/tos_sample.pdf