August 16, 2003

Some Philosophers Are Really Strange

Professor Richard Heck writes:

General Remarks about the Philosophical Gourmet Report: ...Even if they were accurate, the rankings by specialty would still be misleading. What they purport to measure is the quality of faculty working in a given area in a department. But, and this point really can not be stated with sufficient emphasis: The quality of the education a department is able to provide to students who are working in a particular area does not depend upon the number and quality of the faculty who are working in that area.

I can testify that--in Economics at least--this claim that the quality of education does not depend on the number and quality of faculty in a subdiscipline is completely, ludicrously, laughably false. After Ken Rogoff and Jeff Frankel left Berkeley--reducing our international economics group to Maury Obstfeld and that half of Barry Eichengreen not committed elsewhere--the quality of graduate education in international economics at Berkeley did suffer noticeably.

Which is one reason that I am very pleased to note that both Chang-Tai Hsieh and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas has now arrived...

Posted by DeLong at August 16, 2003 09:36 AM | TrackBack


"The quality of the education a department is able to provide to students who are working in a particular area does not depend upon the number and quality of the faculty who are working in that area."

Then why have any faculty of any quality in any area? Down with teaching. Duh.

Faily Balanced or Not

Posted by: anne on August 16, 2003 09:53 AM

I think that his point was that a school with a top-notch research faculty might not be a good place to go if the members of the faculty don't teach much or don't teach well. I doubt that he was saying that a bad faculty could teach well. He probably was also talking to people deciding between schools near each other on the pecking order, rather than telling people that the #50 school might be just as good as the #1 school.

Posted by: zizka on August 16, 2003 10:31 AM


Why be generous? we can play.

Ever Fair and Balanced

Posted by: dahl on August 16, 2003 10:48 AM

True, the best researchers are often not the best teachers. Good teaching takes time that good researchers often don't want to spend. On the other hand, clearly, good teaching and good research are both highly correlated with clear and original thinking.

But the main connection is likely this: Quality researchers attract quality students (attracted by the good jobs it will get them as much as the quality of instruction) and classes and seminars become better learning spaces for all involved when the smarter more driven students are involved (peer-effects). So when two top researchers leave Berkeley the 'quality of education' in that discipline can still fall even if their replacements are MUCH better teachers but less famous researchers.

Posted by: zzi on August 16, 2003 02:17 PM

That research quality doesn't necessarily track teaching quality is, I think, only part of Heck's point. He also has in mind something that might be more common in academic philosophy than in other disciplines, which is the fact that there are a number of all-around brilliant folks in the field who work in a number of subfields and, for just that reason, don't show up in the evoked set of specialists in a particular area. Asked to name, say, prominent epistemologists, the philosopher on the street is going to tend to list only those whose acknowledged academic speciality is epistemology. Such a list is going to leave out people who might be better philosophers and who are also fully competent in that subfield, just because the latter aren't "epistemologists" in the taxonomy of the profession. But these latter are quite often those who can better train graduate students.

So it's not that Heck is denying a link between the quality of the faculty and the quality of the training graduate students receive. What he's saying is that when we call a department "strong" in a particular subfield, we tend to mean only that the department has an impressive number of people who officially specialize in that subfield, and this provides a distorted picture of which departments do quality work in a given area.

Posted by: aa on August 16, 2003 03:14 PM

aa sugests that ranking *Philosophy* by subfields is possibly a fairly dubious exercise, and I actually do have some sympathy for the idea. Many philosophers I have known do tend towards a polymathishness (ick) that could make them very useful to students pursuing research outside of the mentor's specialty. But that does sound pretty silly for other fields. It would be absolutely ludicrous in biology, for example.

A weaker version of this idea is that it isn't the absolute reputation of a program that is all important, but the combination of the fact that a program is above some threshold *and* the mentor and student have a really good fit. Of course, a department with more facutly in a given specialty does increase the chances of finding a good fit...

Posted by: Jonathan King on August 16, 2003 09:42 PM


Does Andy Rose from the B-school not count?


Posted by: Tom on August 18, 2003 11:25 AM

As a recovering philosopher, I can tell you that it is EXACTLY this attitude of its professional members that is the problem. For so long, they have escapes scrutiny and accountability for results, that these departments have become strange little fiefdoms, where each imagines itself best.

In addition, most philosophers seem to regard those who study and then do not teach at a University as the lessers of the profession. The problem is that it means the worst students go out and represent philosophy beyond the ivory tower, with predictable resulting failure. The professors themselves contribute to this problem by only preparing their grad students for an academic teaching and research life. If they were better economists, they would realize that this model is not sustainable.

When I speak with some of my old colleagues from the Academy about working at the World Bank and other such projects, I get a mixture of envy ("why don't my ideas influence the world like his?") and befuddlement ("but, doesn't he want a university position?").

I think philosophy, as a discipline, is in danger of losing its respectability both within the campus (because of post modernism and its related fashionable nonsense) and beyond (because of its unsustainable model).


Posted by: SZ - FairAndBalanced on August 18, 2003 01:06 PM

Here's his explanation:

Third, it is natural to expect a program's strength in a given area (say, epistemology) to be a function of the department's strength in that area: That is, it is natural to think that how good a program will be at training students who want to work in a given area should correlate with the philosophical depth and power of the research programs being pursued by faculty at that department who are active in that area.3 That is a natural assumption, but however natural it may be, it is still false: Departmental strength in an area, in this sense, is neither necessary nor sufficient for program strength in that area. It is not sufficient, because most of what one needs to learn, to be a good philosopher of any kind, has nothing to do with the specific area in which one chooses to write a dissertation: Most of what one learns are general skills, such as those falling under (iii) and (iv) above. Unless a program does a good job of 'training' its students, of teaching them the craft of philosophy, it will not produce good students in any area. (And you may well learn more about the craft from people who don't work in your chosen area than from people who do. Judy Thomson and Tom Kuhn were especially important figures, in this respect, in my own education.)
But, more importantly, a department simply doesn't need to have strong faculty in a given area, in this narrow sense, to be able to train students in that area. There is a very simple reason for that: Whether one is capable of being a good advisor of theses in a certain area has almost nothing to do with whether one has an active research project in that area. Of course, your advisor needs to know what's going on in your area to advise you effectively: If s'he doesn't 'know the literature' h'erself, s'he can hardly guide you through it, and h'er comments on your work may not be up to date, as it were. But h'er having that sort of knowledge and ability is an entirely different matter from h'er having an active research project in the area. Every established philosopher has substantial, and current, knowledge of many areas of philosophy other than those in which s'he actively works: In whatever area one works, there will be nearby areas that bear u

Posted by: Thomas on August 18, 2003 08:33 PM
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