Monday, March 31, 2008

What's SPEP Got To Do With It?

Ahhhh, SPEP. It's a guilty pleasure for most of us. The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy conferences happen only once every year, and for folks like me anyway, it's about the only chance I get to see my far-flung friends. Sure, it's also a chance to reunite with the Continental Philosophy Diaspora, to see what's new and hot and exciting in our field, to glad-hand with publishing reps, and to get cheap(er) books... but, admit it, for a lot of people, SPEP is also the organizing body for one helluva an annual cocktail party.

However, officially, SPEP is the professional organization that represents European/Continental philosophy and, by extension, European/Continental philosophers... or, more accurately, mostly American philosophers working in the European/Continental tradition. There is a long history that explains why SPEP, sometime in the early 1960's, became necessary, first as an alternative and later a supplement to the APA (American Philosophical Association). I can't go into all of that history here, but you can read a short version of it on the SPEP website. According to the SPEP Constitution, the purpose of the organization is "to promote scholarship, teaching, research, and publication affiliated with phenomenology, existentialism, and other traditions associated with continental philosophy." And for most of it's history, SPEP has done just that. As they used to say in the Virginia Slims ads, we've come a long way, baby.

So what does SPEP have to do with the issues we have been discussing herein-- i.e., the diminishing number of viable Continental graduate programs and the regularity with which one of those (already few) programs rises to prominence at the expense of another? My basic (and I think pretty non-radical) claim is that this problem ought to be of serious concern to SPEP. Of course, I don't know what goes on in the Executive Committee meetings, so maybe this already is of some concern to SPEP... but I do know what is reported at the annual business meetings, and I can't say that I've heard anything about this in any official capacity for at least the decade that I have been attending meetings. (When Walter Brogran was in charge of the SPEP Advocacy Committee, I felt like I heard an inkling of these kinds of concerns, but far less so now.) But we do have an Advocacy Committee... and I think that we may also have something that needs advocating.

One problem, on my view, is that the original aim of the Advocacy Committee was "to take a more active role in promoting and furthering [SPEP members'] interests in relation to the wider philosophical community." (My emphasis added) That is, we originally needed the Advocacy Committee to advocate on behalf if SPEP members to the APA, something which I think we can all agree that committee has been largely successful in doing. The alleged antagonism between these two organizations, which necessitated said advocacy, pre-dates me a bit, so I can't comment too much on how things were. But my experience now is that there isn't much left of a vigorous "Us-vs.-Them" battle between SPEP and the APA, (where the APA was presumed to represent a "threat" to the survival of Continental philosophy).

Rather, there is an "Us-vs.-Us" problem.

It's not necessary to rehash it again here, as I think the problems have been sufficiently elaborated in the discussion following my previous post. Let me instead forward the following proposition: If it is the case that SPEP is the professional organization that represents the interests of Continental philosophers, then the dwindling number of viable Continental grad programs (which, of course, are the primary supply source for future SPEP-ers) ought to be, in my humble opinion, Agenda Item Number One for the organization. So, the question is: "is this a problem that calls for some intervention on the part of SPEP?" or, less charitably formulated, "does the fact that this problem doesn't seem to be an explicit issue for SPEP possibly implicate SPEP as part of the problem?"

I say "duh, YES" to the first question. To the second, I'm reserving judgment...


I don't have a ready-to-hand manifesto laying out a plan of action for how I think SPEP should intervene. (Well, I kind of do... but you'll have to keep reading.) There are a host of obvious problems with even suggesting that SPEP could effectively intervene. But, inasmuch as SPEP already has a history of thinking about itself as "promoting and furthering [its members'] interests in the wider philosophical community," then it seems like we ought to be able to recognize when something is broken in our own ranks and is prohibiting the promotion and furtherance of our interests.

Let me acknowledge (and try to head off at the pass) a few of these obvious objections:

Objection #1: SPEP cannot tell individual departments how to build (or re-build) their graduate philosophy programs. Such decisions fall under the purview of those institutions, are subject to a host of considerations known only to those institutions, and are limited by resources provided only by those institutions.

Of course, this is true. SPEP has no say in how Penn State or Memphis or DePaul or whatever other school with a Continental philosophy program decides to construct its department. Our SPEP dues do not contribute to the offers and counter-offers that motivate senior faculty to move (or to stay put), nor do they supplement graduate student stipends. However, I would argue that it might be the case that SPEP (and its members) underestimate the kind of influence they can and do have on the way Continental philosophy departments do what they do. More on that below.

Objection #2: Professional philosophers are people, too. Membership in SPEP does not mean that we have forfieted our right to determine the direction of our own lives: where we work, when and if we move, how much we get paid, etc. Even if SPEP were to "strongly suggest" that more people stay put in order to preserve the integrity of more programs, nobody is obligated to toe the Party Line.

Again, conceded. Although more than one person in the previous discussion suggested something akin to an "academic draft," which may not be the worst idea ever. Look at the med school "matching" model. That works pretty well. At any rate, my suggested "interventions" will be far more tame...

Objection #3: SPEP is not a union. Its obligations to its members are qualitatively different, and its membership does not constitute a "bargaining unit." The "interests" of the SPEP membership are not unified enough for the organization to step in and try to prescribe/proscribe a course of action for the whole of Continental philosophy.

Maybe. I'm not so sure. The history of the interaction between SPEP and the APA does suggest that, for some time now, SPEP has viewed itself very much on the model of a union. And that same history also suggests that SPEP has some experience with prescribing courses of action that are (perceived to be) in the service of protecting the integrity and survival of Continetal philosophy as a "whole." Maybe we need to have a larger debate about whether or not the problems we have discussed here are in fact real problems, whether or not they really pose a threat to the integrity of our little corner of academia... but the beginning of that conversation, I think, must at least acknowledge the possibility that Continental graduate programs are diminishing in number and stability. And, hopefully, we can all at least agree that as the grad programs go, so goes the rest of us.

Objection #4: There's no problem here. This is just a natural cycle. It happens in every discipline and subdiscipline of academia.

Describing something as "natural" does not mean that its not also still problematic. See: the majority of literature from race theory, feminism and queer theory. Jeez.

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I will now be brief and to the point. Here are a few modest suggestions for how I think SPEP may be able to effectively intervene in this trend:

1. Establish a committee-- separate from the Advocacy Committee, but perhaps reporting to it-- that is comprised of one representative from every self-identified "Continental" graduate program. Require (and fund) biannual meetings of those representatives to discuss the number, stability, and health of graduate programs in Continental philosophy. Make the report of that committee a part of the regular SPEP business meeting.
This is the first step, I think, to "officially" acknowledging these issues as issues of genuine and immediate concern to SPEP and its membership. The monster you know is better than the monster you don't know.

2. Set some standards for what counts as a "Continental" philosophy grad program.
I know this is going to be an unpopular suggestion, but I think this can be done in relatively non-objectionable ways. For example, "any graduate program with 3 or more tenured philosophers working in SPEP-focused traditions (European philosophy, race theory, feminism, aesthetics, whatever) constitutes a SPEP-recognized program." The point is not to "rank" these programs (God forbid!), but rather to set some standard for judging when they might be in trouble. It would also be a way to clearly identify, for job market purposes, which people are coming out of "legit" programs in Continental philosophy.

3. More prizes for junior faculty scholarship. Prizes with money.
One (non-poaching) way to "build" new programs is to develop junior scholars. This can't be the sole responsibility of the individual departments, many of which are strapped for resources, time and mentors. At last year's business meeting for SPEP, the Treasurer reported that the organization is about $10 grand in the black. Let's "incentivize."

4. Require the SPEP Executive Director to deliver a "State of the Union" address at every annual meeting. This address should include explicit references to the number and health of Continental grad programs in any given year.
The point here-- and this is really my major point-- is that we need to talk, talk, talk about this. In public places. All together. The only way to develop the kind of organizational ethos in which SPEP members see themselves as personally invested in the survival (and strengthening) of our graduate programs is to make the recent diminishment of those programs a central component of our public discourse. Obviously, the ideal situation would be one in which the strength of each of the individual programs is tied to the strength of the others. This can only happen, I think, if SPEP makes a real and concrete effort to re-orient the way that its membership prioritizes their investments in Continental philosophy.

That's it. Discuss.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Problem with Poaching

As promised, here is the first of my reflections on what I see as a very troubling trend in Continental philosophy. I call it "poaching," Brian Leiter calls it "plundering," and over the last several years I've heard it called many other things that I wouldn't repeat in front of small children or my mother...

Of course, I am speaking of the semi-regularity with which many major Continental philosophy programs-- of which there are fewer and fewer-- hire away, or "poach," the senior faculty of other Continental philosophy programs. The most recent (and dramatic) instance of this is Penn State’s hiring of Robert Bernasconi and Len Lawlor from the University of Memphis... but that wasn’t the first or the only instance, and it certainly won’t be the last.

[Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the University of Memphis, where I got my Bachelor’s in philosophy and studied with both Bernasconi and Lawlor. I am also a graduate of Penn State, where I did my Ph.D., directed by Shannon Sullivan. I feel a tremendous amount of loyalty and affection for both programs and all of the people involved... so nothing I say herein should be taken as a comment on those particular people or programs.]

First, I should acknowledge some of the more obvious facts of the matter. These recent events are obviously good news for Penn State, which has had more than a few problems in the last several years. And despite what I say in the rest of this post, Penn State has every right to build the strongest program it can, which means, of course, hiring the best people that it can. Similarly, these moves are probably, in the end, going to be very good for Bernasconi and Lawlor as well. Since Penn State has demonstrated that it is fully committed to directing whatever resources necessary to supporting its philosophy program, the truth is that Len and Robert will probably be able to do a lot of things that they weren't able to do at Memphis. So, neither Penn State nor its new hires can be held totally responsible for the Memphis fall-out that will inevitably result.

However, it simply is a very real possibility that the departure of Bernasconi and Lawlor might wipe the University of Memphis philosophy program off the "Continental" map in one fell swoop. That's not to say that there aren't still people-- very good people-- doing Continental philosophy at Memphis. There are. UM still has great young people like Mary Beth Mader, Kas Saghafi and Pleshette DeArmitt. And there's also more "senior" Continental people like Tom Nenon. But it would be terribly naive, not to mention manifestly false, to claim that Memphis will still be considered one of the "top" Continental grad programs after Robert and Len's departure.

Which brings me to the first major problem with poaching... There are only about a handful of strong graduate programs in Continental philosophy in the country. Some of them, like the University of Memphis, aren't even exclusively "Continental" programs. I'm not Brian Leiter so I'm not going to try to list them, but if you held a gun to my head and forced me to give you a count, I would say that right now (before the PSU-UM thing) there are about 5 very strong programs and another 4 or 5 strong programs for Continental philosophy. About 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said there were twice that many. My point is, we're shrinking. I'm in the process of prepping a couple of my own students who will be applying to Continental programs next year, and I was shocked to discover that the programs that I can recommend to them are actually fewer than the ones I considered when I went to grad school. And I went to graduate school only 7 years ago...

Many disciplines build strong graduate programs around 2 or 3 senior-and-very-well-known scholars, and Continental philosophy is no different. But it seems like over the last couple of decades these people are getting more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer programs. So, you may be thinking that nothing can be done here, because there just aren't enough "franchise players" to go around. If "strong graduate program" = "presence of senior superstars", then the only thing that middling programs can do to boost their prestige is to go and poach other programs' faculty supply. That's what they all have done. That's the only way to do things.

But if you were thinking that, you would be wrong. See: University of Memphis.

The UofM is the rare case, I think, where we can see a graduate program that has risen to prominence not by poaching. Rather, the UofM got rich (in scholars, in reputation, in job placement) the old fashioned way-- they earned it. I think a lot of people forget that Robert and Len weren't "Bernasconi" and "Lawlor" when they got to Memphis, they became who they are now at Memphis. So, Memphis never was a program that went out and "bought" its reputation. Scholars were developed there. Other programs know this, of course, as even a cursory glance over the careers of Memphis' evacuees shows. Memphis has been developing quality (junior and senior) faculty for many, many years, only to have them snatched up by other programs. (Tina Chanter, Jackie Scott, Ron Sundstrom, Sara Beardsworth, Terry Horgan, Mark Timmons, etc, etc, etc...) Other schools have been picking our apple tree for a long time now, so it's not surprising that two of our best apples got picked. But my point is: that's not the only way to build a strong program.

Memphis' reputation also wasn't entirely about its people, either. It was also about a vision that they had about expanding the demographics of professional philosophy, and their commitment to actually bringing that about. I was there in the early-to-mid-90's when UM decided to bring more women (and feminism) into the program, and I was also there in the mid-to-late-90's when they decided to bring in more non-white students (and race theory). Surely, we have to acknowledge, those trends had just as much to do with Memphis' rise in the ranks of Continental philosophy as the people who were teaching in that program.

So, on the Memphis model, there are at least 2 (non-exclusive) other ways to build or re-build a strong program: (1) commit to and develop junior faculty (like Len Lawlor!), and (2) have a vision and an identity as a program. Neither of which, I want to note for the record, necessarily involves poaching.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this topic. Next up: "What's SPEP got to do with it?"

Friday, March 28, 2008


Since it is now "public" news, let me be the first to offer my congratulations to the Penn State Philosophy Department for comepleting what will surely go down in the history books as the single greatest faculty-recruiting season EVER. My (Ph.D.) alma mater came down South and poached my other (B.A.) alma mater, and now eminent philosophers Len Lawlor and Robert Bernasconi are officially beings-toward-Happy-Valley. (Penn State also got another UMemphis alum in Katheryn Gines, but they stole her away from our other Tennessee powerhouse, Vandy.) These hires would be a major coup for any philosophy department in any year, but given the troubles of Penn State over the last several years, this is a particularly impresive show of resolve and dedication to that department's rebuilding efforts. Kudos to department Head Shannon Sullivan-- full disclosure: Shannon was also my dissertation director-- who has in just three short years implemented every imaginable mechanism to demonstrate that Penn State is rebuilding.

Correction: Penn State is now "rebuilt." Q.E.D.

I am, of course, ambivalent about this recent tidal wave of change. On the one hand, I have "Penn State" permanently attached to my name and to my doctorate, so I am personally invested in that program remaining strong. On the other hand, I am also now living and working in Memphis and am extremely sad to lose what amounts to about 50% of the population of senior Continental philosophers in this town. To be honest, I've also got a little bit of ressentiment going on... why couldn't this have happened 3 or 4 years ago, when I was there? Argh.

Many of you, over the last several years, have heard me raise much Sturm und Drang about the practice of (especially Continental) graduate programs "feeding" on one another... and that rant is coming again in the next post. But, for now, I don't want to sully the festivities. Congratulations to Robert, Len and Katheryn for making what must have been a difficult, but sure to be rewarding, decision! And congrats to the Penn Staters, now and to-come, who will no doubt only be confirmed and reconfirmed in the wisdom of their decisions.