Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cleaning the inbox: 'ethical' dilemmas edition

Soon, I hope, I'll get back into this blogging business regularly (though Zero is holding down the fort quite well). In the meantime, I have two e-mailed comments/questions that have been burning a hole in my Inbox. The first from true believer Zombie, who points us towards this question sent into the NYT's Ethicist column, which left him "virtually speechless". The offending solicitation for advice:
I am a university professor. Several graduate students I advise are seeking teaching positions during one of the worst job markets in memory. Would it be ethical to discourage those who still have funding from doing so this year or to tone down their letters of recommendation if they insist on entering the work force, in order to give more senior — and more desperate — students a better chance at getting jobs? Some of my colleagues advocate this. NAME WITHHELD
Long story short, the advisor ended up writing rec's "based solely on his view of the students" hopefully of his own accord and without having to receive advice from a columnist with a B.A. in Music. Still. I wonder why the fuck the advisor couldn't just tell the students with one more year of funding not to go on the market this year, since there really isn't an ethical dilemma here. As Zombie quipped, "I hope this professor isn't a philosopher." Me too.

Second, new fellow smoker MH asks:
Does anybody else find it unacceptable that a department that is hiring would list the names of its job candidates on its website? Such lists effectively become lists of the "losers" after the winners' names are posted on Leiter's blog.
Here, MH is referring to the fact that some schools that are hiring post "Job Talk" on their events pages (or something similar) next to those they giving on-campus talks. I'm not sure I have much of a problem with the practice, after all, if you are giving a job talk, you're already a winner in most everyone's book (fuck, you are a winner if you managed an interview; or, so I like to think), but I can see how it might be offensive. Opinions?

--Jaded Dissertator

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two reasons why MH should unknot his/her drawers:

1) Minus the recent gaffe, Leiter posts the name of the person who was hired, but just because someone was hired doesn't mean that no one else was offered the job. In lots of cases, the lucky dude/dudette who makes his/her way onto the Leiter-Board does so because some other dude/dudette turned down the offer. The folks that you are so quick to call "loser" may in fact be anything but.

2) Folks routinely list these job talks on their CVs, so I can't see how the listing the talks on a dept. webpage does anyone a disservice.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a great idea to put job talks online. I'm pretty convinced that the one interview I had was stitched up in advance in favor of a particular candidate who fit the department's needs well, knew people in the department, wouldn't likely have better offers in this market, etc... So, I knew the interview was a waste of time. I also knew that a campus interview would be a waste of time. They often are. Seeing that you landed the interview on campus but didn't land the job, I think, could send signals that you don't want sent to potential employers.

Some of us also don't want it known that we're looking for jobs. I'm in a TT job that I'm trying to get out of. I have friends in similar situations. (Don't bitch and moan, I know for a fact that if I leave there will be a hastily thrown together search for someone to take my spot and most of you would be happy where I am. _I'd_ be happy where I was if it wasn't for personal reasons that motivate me to move away.) We don't want people seeing that we're doing on campus visits elsewhere. Fucks things up at home between us and the rest of the department.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody else find it unacceptable that a department that is hiring would list the names of its job candidates on its website? Such lists effectively become lists of the "losers" after the winners' names are posted on Leiter's blog.

First things first: just because candidate X gives a job talk at department Y and is not subsequently employed at department Y doesn't entail candidate X wasn't offered the job. It could be that candidate X 1) was offered the job but turned it down, 2) was offered a better job by another school and withdrew her/his application before department Y extended any offer, or 3) some other plausible, non-loser-implying explanation.

I assume this question was submitted by a job market candidate who got a fly-out, didn't get the job, and has simply lost perspective on things. Fact of the matter is, this job market is absolutely horrible, and there's no correlation whatsoever between the terms 'loser' and 'got a fly-out but didn't get the job'. To think otherwise, I would argue, implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of hiring in our profession.

Asstro said...

(A) That professor is a moron.

(B) I can't imagine that it is detrimental, in any respect, to a job candidate to have her job talk listed. I would imagine quite the opposite, that it could be helpful. If done early enough in advance, it can also, I have to believe, be helpful to the candidate as she arrives on campus for her interview.

I recall that I knew my competition at several of my interviews. Naturally, I sized myself up against these other candidates. What this did was to help me feel more "normal," less flukey. For schools where I didn't know the competition, I often felt insecure and ill about my prospects. I much preferred to know who I was up against.

Anonymous said...

I find such lists of job candidates quite helpful in several ways. First, it helps other students in the program see who is currently on the market and keep a better tab on how things are going. (Yes, we're in the department, but you'd be surprised how little we know about what's going on in it.) Second, it helps other students outside the department see, if they want, how things are going elsewhere. And one could, for example, peruse the names and take a gander at their CVs to see what may have gotten them the job (or not if that's the case). All very helpful info. I imagine the only people who know you personally enough to think you're a loser will already know what would go on some website anyway. Suck it up.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:28

The only way your colleagues would learn that you gave a job talk, that I can think of, would be by either (a) googling you, or (b) browsing the colloquium schedule of some other school. Neither seems particularly likely to me.

Anonymous said...

9:29, no, there's another, much more likely way: a friend of your colleague's who was looking at the colloquium schedule (lives in the area, is giving a colloquium herself, whatever) might see the name and casually mention, "So, your colleague is on the market I see..."

Seriously. Not all that long ago someone did mention this to me, about a colleague of mine. As it happens, the colleague was not on the market but just happened to be giving a talk at this place in February -- my friend thought it was a job talk.

Moral: do not underestimate the gossipiness of philosophers.

Anonymous said...

Re B:

Having served as a member of numerous search committees, I can tell you that I google those candidates that we fly out, in the hopes that other schools that might have scheduled them for fly-outs as well will post that information on their websites.

This has allowed my colleagues and me to have a sense of what our competition was for a candidate that we were hoping to woo.

Before anyone gets worried that it might hurt a candidate's chances if we saw that s/he was interviewing on campus with a "better" school, at least in my experience that has not influenced our decision as to who should get our job offer.

Indeed, I know of one case in which a candidate had fly-outs at a number of top-30 Leiter programs, but wound up taking a job with our (admittedly very good) SLAC. (Who knows if he had any offers from those places, of course.)

Anonymous said...

(A) The Ethicist is a moron. But what does it say about the public respect (or lack of it) for Philosophy that instead of a respected professor of Ethics writing that column we have someone who, as JD notes, apparently has a BA in Music...? WTF?

Anonymous said...

Re (B). I am also concerned about this practice.

First, I am pretty sure it is only in academia that candidates for a job can expect to have their names posted on the employer's website. Such a practice would be considered disrespectful to the candidates in any other profession. So once again, the philosophy/academic job market is the only circus of its kind in town.

Second, why can't the hiring department just post that Jane Smith is giving a talk on Descartes's dualism without adding in parentheses (as some depts do) that this is a "job talk"? Why is it relevant to the public that this is a job talk rather than just a philosophy talk?

Anonymous said...

I find "The Ethicist's" introduction in his book quite illuminating. The NY Times editors picked him because "in a democracy, ethics ought not to be a specialized field, but should comprise a set of questions every ordinary citizen can—must—address."

So they apparently picked someone who couldn't explain to them what was wrong with the argument: "Ethics should be a field that every ordinary citizen can address. Therefore, ethics is a field that every ordinary citizen can address."

Sigh.... Maybe if I win some Emmys I'll be able to get a job doing ethics.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous at 1:02 pm:

I'm pretty sure he's the resident "ethicist" because his job is to entertain readers and sell newspapers, not to actually resolve moral quandaries. In this regard being an Emmy-award winning writer is probably more salient than philosophical training.

Ben said...

"2) Folks routinely list these job talks on their CVs, so I can't see how the listing the talks on a dept. webpage does anyone a disservice."

Is this true? And, if so, how exactly are they listed? Should they simply go with all other invited presentations or should they be clearly labelled as job talks?

The former looks possibly disingenuous - as if trying to pass them off for something else - but the latter may give off bad signals (especially since the fact that you're still on the market may be taken to signal that they were unsuccessful job talks).

Anonymous said...

Ben,

I think this question has been discussed at the Smoker before.

I think it is indeed very common to list job talks on one's CV. You're right that either method presents some awkwardness. My impression is that the prevailing convention is to list them with all other invited talks. As long as CV readers understand that this is the convention(!), nobody will think you're trying to mislead them. (I wouldn't think you were trying to pull one over on me, for sure.)

A mitigating factor is that it tends to be fairly obvious which talks on your CV are job talks. That changes if you ever give job talks for senior positions, but at that point it's no longer a big deal.

Anonymous said...

1:02pm here. I agree about Randy Cohen's actual function at the Times. It's just a shame that they dress up their advice columnist in an ethicist costume.

I have actually heard someone cite the ethicist as an ethical authority—as in, "The ethicist at the New York Times said it was okay to do that sort of thing." Though I suppose that's no more surprising than, "Dear Abbi said it was okay to do that sort of thing."

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:02 wrote:

"So they apparently picked someone who couldn't explain to them what was wrong with the argument: 'Ethics should be a field that every ordinary citizen can address. Therefore, ethics is a field that every ordinary citizen can address.'"

Thank you for giving me a good laugh at this ungodly hour.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 1:02 pm

Doesn't "ought" imply "can"?

Anonymous said...

There are many schools that incorporate the "job talk" into an already running colloquium/lecture series. The department uses the "job talk" as an additional talk in the series so that they can mention in an end of the year report that so and so from such and such a place participated in their lecture series.

I've given two such talks already this year and have another coming up in the next few weeks. I don't see how these talks are any different from when I've been invited to a campus to give a talk. My preparation is the same, my talk length is the same, and so forth. A talk is a talk. It's not like I'm just reading my paper and sitting down.

I don't see why you wouldn't list a "job talk" under your "Invited Talks" section on your CV. You gave a talk, you were invited, it was open to the campus community, etc.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't "ought" imply "can"?

Not in this case. Compare:

"It ought to be the case that a kid who grows up poor can get into Harvard just as easily as a kid who grows up rich. Therefore, a kid who grows up poor can get into Harvard just as easily as a kid who grows up rich."

And yet, inequality refuses to vanish a puff of deontic logic....

Glaucon said...

Anon7:03am asks,

Doesn't "ought" imply "can"?

and 10:32 answers, "Not in this case."

I think you're both missing the point, which is about the relation between is and ought (though not the usual, Humean one), not about the relation between ought and can.

That ethics should be a field that every ordinary citizen can address doesn't imply that ethics is such a field -- though it certainly can/could be.

zombie said...

I find The Ethicist entertaining, and I think his advice is generally reasonable. But his job is primarily to scold people who offer lame justificatory reasons for behavior they already know to be morally questionable (otherwise, why would they bother asking about it?). And he frequently consults with actual ethicists.

But as an ethicist, and a long-time journalist, I'd like to steal his job.

Anonymous said...

Late to the party, but it's important to get these things straight. Anon 10:32 wrote:

"It ought to be the case that a kid who grows up poor can get into Harvard just as easily as a kid who grows up rich. Therefore, a kid who grows up poor can get into Harvard just as easily as a kid who grows up rich."

I'm pretty sure that invocations of "ought implies can" have done significantly more harm than good, but this isn't a counterexample. You're being sloppy with your operators! A more careful replacement would get you "It can [could] be the case that a kid who grows up poor can [could] get into Harvard just as easily as a kid who grows up rich," which is of course plausible interpreted in just the way the deontic operator would have it, e.g., as an intelligible if distant goal of social reform.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:51,

Anon 10:32 here. I agree with you that there's some slippage in the operators here—but that's the point. The example wasn't supposed to be a counterexample to the claim that 'ought' implies 'can'. It was supposed to show that the original argument—the one attributed to the Times editors at 1:02—isn't governed by "ought implies can."

Glaucon got the point I was trying to make, though he didn't get that I was trying to make it. This is not really about what could be the case. It's about what is the case. So it's an ought–is problem, not an ought–can problem.

Clearly I could have been clearer.