Friday, July 12, 2013

Be Employable, Study Philosophy

Via Leiter, I found this nice little article about the benefits of a philosophical education. The author is a journalist who thinks that aspiring journalists should study philosophy, not journalism. Some choice quotes:
But a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn't benefit from being able to think something through clearly.
I express some version of this idea on the first day of every class I teach.
Because it delivers real skills, philosophy doesn't go out of fashion the way the vague, trendy subjects do. The University of Windsor just announced it's closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, after 11 years. I suspect some of the problem there may be that no one can actually define "social justice." And the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we're talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.
To be fair, it's at least kind of likely that nobody can define social justice because the nature of justice--social and otherwise--is a matter of ongoing philosophical controversy.

There's an amusing polemic against postmodernism, which leads into the following quip:
I've long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring -- the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense. 
The article concludes with some observations about the value of clear thinking.

Maybe I like this article only because it flatters my philosophical vanity. But I also like it because of the students I see some through my classes. A substantial proportion of my freshman-level students think that "if p then q" means "p is true, and so is q". Now, it seems to me that they can't really be that confused, because if they were they would be completely unable to reason about anything and would quickly die of starvation or accidental poisoning. But when they try to think carefully, this mistake consistently emerges. When they are trying to think carefully. I want to generate interest in the discipline of philosophy, and I want to generate interest in our major, sure. But if I can generate clear-thinking students who major in other things, I'll happily take it.

--Mr. Zero

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is all well and good, but anyone who does well in their Philosophy courses will be encouraged to study it at the graduate level. Those who do so are likely doomed to unemployment. Those who don't will be viewed by the field as failures or sell-outs, or be denounced for failing to appreciate the purity of philosophy.

The field needs to do what some other fields have already learned. My partner teaches in a Writing Across the Curriculum Program. That program has twice as many TT faculty as my department. And it has no majors. None. Zero. Years ago, the writing faculty realized that they don't need to have majors, if they can convince every other department of their value. Not one major (it doesn't even exist on this campus), but they have several hundreds of students with a declared Writing minor. Because of the demand, and because other departments now require (for their majors) course only offered by the Writing Program, they have plenty of faculty. Administration loves the program, despite have no majors, because they recognize that there is not a single job out there for a college-educated person that does not desire (in some cases require) strong skills in written communication.

There is no reason why Philosophy can't consider something similar (not cutting majors, but convincing other departments of the value of their offerings for critical thinking across disciplines). No reason, of course, except for professional Philosophers who don't see the value in such work.

Anonymous said...

11:18 has a good point, but I don't think it will work with critical thinking. Here is my experience with critical thinking across the disciplines.

EVERY discipline thinks they teach "critical thinking" skills, and so you don't get much traction. What can happen is that every gen ed class has a critical thinking component and the logic/critical thinking classes in philosophy are screwed. Or rhetoric is taught in English departments and you have to compete with that crap.

The thing with writing is that it is hard and no one wants to teach it (because they want to focus on their discipline -- like teaching philosophy and not writing). So of course people love the writing faculty. And when students suck at writing, they can blame someone else.

I saw this with ethics/business ethics at another university as well. When you become a service department and it is something other than writing or math, guess what, in hard times, you get the ax!

Just what I have witnessed over the years people.

Anonymous said...

anyone who does well in their Philosophy courses will be encouraged to study it at the graduate level.

What??
I have taught maybe a thousand students. Maybe 300 got A's. I have only suggested to three that they might want to consider graduate school.

Anonymous said...

11:18 here again.

"When you become a service department and it is something other than writing or math, guess what, in hard times, you get the ax!"

We are not already getting the ax? I know of some departments that are shrinking, some that are moving almost entirely to adjunct labor to teach a massive load of service courses for university gen-eds, and some that are being moved into other departments (as comprehensive "humanities" programs, or "Religion and Philosophy"). The ax is falling. The question is, how do we stop it? One way might be to make ourselves necessary to the university, or at least to other departments. (My partner's program offers courses that several departments require for their own majors.) Writing is necessary; so is math. Th question is, what do we offer that is necessary, and how can we make that necessity clear to the rest of the university?

I think part of the point is that Philosophy programs need to do a better job of explaining what they offer that is necessary to a university education, and not offered by other programs. Yes, other departments claim to (and perhaps in their own way) teach "critical thinking"; it's our job to explain how and why Philosophy provides something unique and necessary. Too often, Philosophy faculty either don't want to do that work, or can't. I know many faculty who complain - in person, on blogs, etc. - that people outside of the field don't understand what we do and why it's important; very often, those same faculty can't be bothered to try and change that: publications, conference presentations, etc. aimed at non-specialists is deemed inferior work (some going to so far as to call it completely worthless); offering courses for non-majors is seen as "service" (i.e. inferior) teaching; collaborative teaching ventures (such as team teaching a Business Ethics course with faculty from the School of Business, or aesthetics with Art History faculty) is sometimes seen as a watering down of the philosophical education.

Certainly, not everyone feels this way. And more often than not, these views are held by those who teach at major research institutions. However, that means that those people are training grad students, many of whom will not work at major research institutions themselves (but carry those biases with them). And too often, people in the field seem to spend more time trying to please those people, and in the long run are sacrificing the growth and vitality of the field in doing so.

I guess what I'm saying is, if we as a field have come to believe that the only worthy work in Philosophy is that which is published in journals aimed at specialist audiences - and if we can't do a better job of translating what we do to non-specialists or connect our work with other programs - then perhaps we don't belong in a university environment. If we can't do a better job of explaining why we are necessary to a comprehensive liberal arts education, then maybe we don't belong in one.

Anonymous said...

This discussion prompts me to be thankful for the Catholic colleges and universities that still have multiple philosophy courses mandated as part of the core curriculum. (My Catholic institution is alas not one of them.) Once you lose that position, it's really hard to get it back, for all sorts of reasons. Yet another reason to resist the evisceration of core curricula into mere labeling devices - tags of 'learning outcomes' slapped onto courses to achieve detente in turf wars between departments.

Anonymous said...

@11:18: There are plenty, and I mean plenty, of Philosophy departments across North America that have in fact worked with other programs to make intro level philosophy courses either required, or one of a disjunctive set of courses required for those programs. These programs ensure work for grad student TAs, and a certain level of student enrolment.
It does not, however, translate to students taking upper division courses, or to majors, or even minors. And having full upper division courses is what is needed (though far from sufficient) to justify hires of research faculty.

Anonymous said...

"And having full upper division courses is what is needed (though far from sufficient) to justify hires of research faculty."

Right. So just fill them. I'm sure you have a plan.

Anonymous said...

11:18 here again:

"These programs ensure work for grad student TAs, and a certain level of student enrolment. It does not, however, translate to students taking upper division courses, or to majors, or even minors. And having full upper division courses is what is needed (though far from sufficient) to justify hires of research faculty."

You are correct, if you assume that research faculty should not be teaching lower-division courses. As I see it, enrollment really isn't a problem at major research institutions. The problem exists at smaller schools.

However, if there is a situation where there is plenty of work for graduate TAs and adjuncts, but not nearly enough work for TT faculty, then the department needs to readjust its priorities. Clearly, that department has too many adjuncts and graduate TAs, and can afford to shift some of that work back to the TT faculty.

Ultimately, the question is this: for those schools that have problems filling classes, how do we solve those problems? One way is by tying upper-division courses to other programs; you'll note that in my previous comments, I never suggested that only lower-division courses should be paired with other programs. To use an actual example from the Writing Program I alluded to earlier: Grant Writing is an upper-division course taught by the Writing Program, and is a required course for students majoring in every program offered by the School of Business. It's an upper-division course that runs every semester, and is taught only by a member of the Writing Program. There are certain courses in Philosophy programs - upper-division courses - that one could make the case for including as requirements in other majors.

In short, although common practice in universities seems to be that interdisciplinary education exists largely (if not solely) in lower-division/gen-ed programs, there's no reason why that needs to be true.

Another possible solution is selling students on the value of a minor in the field. If you have enough minors in your program, you still justify the necessity of TT faculty teaching upper-division, specialized courses. (Administration cares more about how many students are enrolled in classes, than they care about the number of majors. I point to my partner's Writing Program as an example: no majors, multiple TT faculty. Their courses fill, every semester.)

I guess the long and short of it is this: there is a problem in the field. The old solutions no longer work. So now we need new solutions. Leading the charge to change, to adapt, is far more productive than sitting back and waiting for administration to make the changes for us.

Anonymous said...

Now that the details of what happened between Dr. McGinn and the student are coming out, I think it'd be best if we let this one go. It's just a sad situation for all involved, and the community's backpedaling should illustrate to all of us the importance of not jumping to conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"Now that the details of what happened between Dr. McGinn and the student are coming out"

Do you mean McGinn's posts, or is there a third party source of information?

Anonymous said...

Which "community" is backpedaling? What in the world are you talking about 4:51? Are you even aware that you posted this comment on the wrong thread?