Friday, July 31, 2009

The most significant philosophical problem of all: the two-body problem

In comments, anon 11:01 asks,
I'm wondering what people think about whether philosophy couples ought to go on the job market together. Does going separately compromise the chances of getting jobs in the same university or area? Or is this whole thing such a crapshoot anyway that it doesn't matter? Is there even received wisdom on this? I've heard very different advice given to people with the two body problem.
I have a little experience with this problem, but no concrete advice and no idea whether my strategy is a winning one in the long term. Mrs. Zero is an academic in another field--whose job market situation is even more horrible than mine--and she's managed to find adjunct-level work wherever we've had to live. As of right now, we're just hoping to keep it up. We'll cross the tenure track bridge when we come to it.

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What is it like to be a bat TT professor?

In comments, Rabbit asks,

As a grad student, I often wonder what it might be like to actually have a TT job. Any chance of hearing from readers who have graduated, but have yet to receive tenure, about the pressures of such jobs and how they differ from those of grad school?

So, how about it?

--Mr. Zero

Monday, July 27, 2009

Apocryphal philosophy stories

This comic about an apocryphal philosophy story made me think about another one: the one about the philosophy professor whose final exam consisted of a single question, "What is courage?" and the only student who ever got an A+ in all the years the professor gave that final exam wrote the word 'this' and that's all. (Or, maybe the student stood up, said, "this is" and walked out of the room without taking the exam at all. Oooooh.)

Several people have told me that story since I first got interested in philosophy. I think the first time I heard it an exasperated fellow philosopher told it, but I've heard it at least five times from non-philosophers who thought it represented a profound truth I had never considered and would be captivated by.

I always thought it was a dumb story, but now that I actually am a philosophy professor who routinely gives exams (and how), I have a whole appreciation for how incredibly stupid it is. Let me count the ways.

1. If I ask a question like that, I am not asking for an example. I am asking for what it is about the example that makes it an instance of courage. I am asking for an account of the nature of courage--a non-trivial set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.

2. If I do ask for an example, there are hundreds of better examples. ("Give me an example of courage." "This." "...")

3. If "courage" is anything, it's a character trait. Actions might be courageous or exhibit courage, but they are not themselves literally courage. The student therefore makes a basic category mistake that would rule out the A+.

4.I'd wouldn't use a final exam to do a "formulate and defend your own view"-type question; I'd use a paper for something like that. The way I see it, exams are best suited for "did you do the reading and were you paying attention during class"-type questions. Asking students to formulate and defend their own views on an in-class exam is a guaranteed way to get a huge stack of hastily-written, poorly-though-out garbage in illegible handwriting. At least with papers you can demand that they type it.

5. If I did use a final exam in this way, I'd want to see an argument, or at least a consideration of some objections. i.e. "This. I think so because.... However, some would say it's not, because.... But that's wrong, and here's why...."

6. If the student actually walked out without writing anything down, there's some possibility that I wouldn't know his name and that I'd be unable to award credit for whatever courage he displayed. It's always a wise policy to attach your name to your work. Maybe if he wore a baseball jersey with his name across the back.

7. Philosophically, the answer is deeply problematic in itself. Perhaps reflection on Aristotle's doctrine of the mean would reveal that, rather than exhibiting it, the student commits the vice of excess relative to courage. If that were the case, the student deserves an F since "this" is foolhardy, not courageous. The student in the story did not demonstrate that he had considered this possibility, and so at best deserves a C.

8. Furthermore, it is a genuine instance of courage only if it is not. For suppose the act is courageous and the student knows it (if he didn't know, why did he do it?) If the behavior is courageous, then he knows he'll get the A+; if he knows he'll get the A+, then it didn't take courage to submit the answer. So submitting the exam was not genuinely courageous. But if it didn't take courage to submit the answer, then he couldn't have known that he'd get the A+. And if he didn't know he'd get the A+, then it did take courage to submit the answer. But if it did, then it didn't. And so on.

This seems to me to be a vicious regress that not even awarding an F would stop (because if he deserved the F, submitting the exam as written would be courageous). The only conclusion to draw is that the story is impossible.

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What is the point of conferences?

There has been some discussion in comments lately about what the point of conferences is. Some people have suggested that the point is just to get a line on the CV. But while I like getting lines on my CV, I don't see that as the point.

For one thing, I don't see it as just a line on the CV. I hope that my conference activity demonstrates to search committees that I am an active participant in the profession. I hope it shows that I am out there presenting papers and doing stuff. (In addition to getting stuff into journals.) I hope that they don't just think I wanted to go on a junket to Omaha.

For another thing, I typically find conferences to be extremely helpful. Although I've been to some clunkers, I've also gotten excellent feedback from commentators and during Q & A sessions.

For another thing, I enjoy commenting on the work of others. There are gaps in my philosophical education, and commenting helps me to fill those gaps by forcing me to write a short paper about something I usually don't know an awful lot about going in. (Now, I don't comment on stuff I literally know nothing about, but I've learned a lot by commenting on papers in areas related to those I work in, but haven't thought deeply about.)

For another thing, conferences provide a nice opportunity to catch up with old friends. One of the drawbacks to the academic lifestyle is that you usually don't end up living very near your friends from college and grad school, and the right conference can make otherwise impossible reunions happen.

So I guess I think conferences are pretty valuable.

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A ray of sunshine

Amid the doom and gloom of state budget cuts and fearmongering about (or perhaps just fearing) the look of the market in the fall, ODU has put out a TT ad looking to scoop people up before everything really gets going (due 9/15). Feels good to see it.

And hey, VA's for lovers so all you budding epistemologists out there hop to it.

-- Second Suitor

Updated: Worth noting, I just saw the TT Southern Miss job for continental philosophers.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I know people who have kids

At this point in my life, I don't really want kids, but someday I do. When I think about it--and these thoughts are purely in the abstract--I think how could I ever afford something like that? and, where would I ever find the time for something like that? Something would have to give in a serious way.

Now, I know that there are plenty of people with less money than me who have kids. And I know there are plenty of people a lot busier than me who have kids. But I guess I don't get how they do it.

This is one of the things I really can't stand about the VAP situation. I feel unsettled. I don't know where I'll be living a year from right now, or how much money I'll be making, or whether I'll have to move across the country, or what Mrs. Zero's job situation will look like. I can't see how a kid would fit into this kind of life, so I feel like there's this door that's closed to me. Now, I'm not desperate to walk through this door; if it were open, I might wait a few more years before taking that step. But it would be nice if I could feel that it were open.

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I second

I don't know how many of ya'll follow PEAsoup, but this rant is a must. I'd like to second that. I know a lot of this is our fault. When was the last time outside of class you actually tried to engage someone (I'm including fellow academics) in a philosophical discussion? That said, come on! If philosophy's not going to be able to deal with 'enduring questions' what are we doing?

-- Second Suitor

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Poster boy

I've been invited to do a poster presentation. I've been aware that these things happen for a while, but I've never done one, and I've also never seen one done. So I'm a little worried. People who've seen them done, and done well, I have a question for you. What makes for a good poster? What should I avoid? I'm sort of tempted to make a big handout; would that be wrong?

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Andrew Cullison is helping the Journal Wiki

Here. Check it out, leave feedback, and join me in expressing gratitude. Thanks, Andrew.

--Mr. Zero