Leiter on Vanderbilt

I will not comment on this in detail, because I am leaving a public record, and it would be inexpedient to say what I really feel. Nevertheless, some of you will probably find this NYT article on Leiter's Gourmet Report along with Leiter's response, rather interesting.

Here is an excerpt from the latter:

...[W]hat is more appalling is the nonsense about Penn State, Stony Brook, and Vanderbilt. First of all, they don't have good departments, they have weak departments overall (with honorable exceptions etc. etc. etc.), whether you're interested in philosophy of language or ancient philosophy or Continental philosophy. Second, it is simply false that "they do not participate in the ratings." Each of them have been included in the ratings, and each time they fared quite poorly overall, even if they each have some areas of strength.

But most breathtaking is John Stuhr's idiotic comment that Rutgers "doesn't emphasize what we do," where "we" means Vanderbilt. It is true that Rutgers doesn't much emphasize history of philosophy or Continental philosophy (that's why NYU is #1, and Rutgers #2), but how could that explain why Vanderbilt has never been close to the top 50 and barely rates in any historical areas? The difference between Rutgers and Vanderbilt isn't "emphasis": it's that Vanderbilt has a weak faculty, even in most of the areas it purports to "emphasize" like post-Kantian Continental philosophy. (Rutgers, by the way, is obviously much stronger in the history of ancient and early modern philosophy than Vanderbilt; only in American pragmatism does Vanderbilt have an edge.) One would need only ask the dozens of philosophers specializing in those areas who completed the PGR surveys, after all.

Leiter is good enough to malign both my alma mater and my current institution. I must say, though, had I not gone to a school like Penn State, I probably would have never gotten into philosophy. Analytic philosophers have a distinct talent for sapping the life out of even the most exciting topics (see, e.g., an anthology on the Philosophy of Sex that I used a year and a half ago).

Of course, it's unfair to impugn the group as a whole. There are quite a few distinctly analytic philosophers doing interesting work today, not to mention the fact that good historians of philosophy--the ones who read original texts closely and charitably and who know the relevant historical background well enough to avoid anachronistic interpretations--can just as easily come from either "branch" of contemporary philosophy.

I could say more, but I will stop myself before I say anything potentially incriminating.


Joshua said...

Dealt with this at my blog too. I think it's a mistake to turn this into another debate between two categories of philosopher that no one really identifies with anymore.

Anonymous said...

May be you should take issue with his data instead of making some vague suggestion that there is something amiss in his unfavorable assessment of your department. Last I checked, his methods were publicly available.

I must admit, Vanderbilt's placement record is not so hot in recent years.

How do you suggest we assess the quality of the program if not by the placement record and peer review?

Anonymous said...

By the way, if you really had such strong beliefs about Leiter's remarks, as you seem to suggest with your dodginess, you could have just posted them as an anonymous comment thereby getting the word out (in a cowardly (virtuous?)) and pragmatically successful manner.

If you are really that worried about self-incrimination, your comments about how you don't want to be self-incriminating are suggestive enough to do the job. So grow some.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Oh, so I might follow your example, one who is too cowardly to post non-anonymously at the blog of some unknown grad student?

Look, everyone in this department feels "strongly" about the Leiter report. Nevertheless, we are getting an excellent education here in a department that is truly pluralistic. Quality cannot be determined by a popularity contest.

Anonymous said...

And how do you know you are getting great education there? What other experiences in graduate programs are in your contrast class? Are you an expert in pedagogy? You are in no more of a position to evaluate the quality of education you are receiving in your graduate program than are the undergraduates in the courses you teach to evaluate the quality of your teaching. It is rather cute, however, to read your comments about how great it is there, kind of like that show "Kids say the darndest things".

P.S. I thought cowardice was a virtue. Also, expert opinion, or what what you call a "popularity contest" is fair criterion to use in the Leiter Report since it reflects the opinions of the discipline (i.e., those who will not be giving you a job in a couple years). It is good to have an idea of where your institution stands in the eyes of the philosophical community at large, as it gives a very rough idea of what you can expect going on the job market. Also, I see no reason not to trust the opinions of the community in evaluating the quality of philosophy programs. No one is in a better position to judge than fellow philosophers.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Part of the reason I didn't go into much detail initially is that I didn't want to get in a conversation like this. The only reason I responded brusquely to your comments was because you were personally attacking me for no good reason.

I'm aware of the difficulties with getting a job--I understand that the PGR has a lot of influence for many departments. Still, ours is a highly competitive program; we tend to get nearly 200 applicants annually for only 6 slots. Among schools in a certain circle (those involved with SPEP and so forth) we're well regarded.

Nevertheless, I'm not interested in making a comparative claim here. Based on my personal experience, I can see that my thinking has seriously developed in the years I've been here, that I've learned a tremendous amount.

Academic philosophers have limits to their expertise. They have no more basis for comparison than I do in terms of assessing quality of education. Yes, they might be able to rank based on prestige of faculty members and other such things, but that's something different. In fact, sometimes the most prestigious faculty members make the worst teachers and advisors.

In any case, I'm happy here, and that's what really matters to me. Going into philosophy I knew getting a job would be difficult in any case. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Brian said...

Well said, Matthew.