Saturday, October 20, 2012

What Ph.D. Granting Institutions Can Do to Prepare Philosophers for a Job at a SLAC

I'd like to begin by posing what one might call "the problem of the graduate student."  It's a problem that is a problem both for those who are graduate students and for those who want their graduate students to get a good job as a professional philosopher (where 'good' means a job that is well-paying and at which one can thrive at as a person, scholar and teacher).

Here is the problem:

Graduate students are students, and as such, they are regarded as students.  Yes, at some middle ground, all professors and graduate students hope that graduate students will make that imperceptible but all-important transition from student to colleague, and while many make that transition as graduate students, protocol and good mentorship calls for regarding them as students.

On the other hand, because graduate students are students, we professors tend not to share with them at any point either the ugly or the beautiful side of what it means to be a teacher of students, be they undergraduate or graduate students.

This post is intended to help Ph.D-granting institutions that want their graduates to be excellent candidates for jobs at SLACs (Small Liberal Arts Colleges).  However, the advice given here is advice that I think would serve any Ph.D. program well and would serve any philosophy graduate student who  is planning to apply for a job in the academy.

1.  Talk About Teaching Early And Often.  Your first-year graduate students may seem like students to you, but many of them have now been thrust into the role of being a teacher, with no previous experience or education about how to be a teacher.  Take some time to ask your graduate students, be they first-year or beyond, about what teaching has been like for them, their challenges and their successes.  Be honest about the pitfalls you have faced as a teacher and how you worked productively to address them.  There is a difference, I know, between leading TAs and being a graduate adviser.  Part of what I am recommending here is that one engage this conversation early and often in both roles.  This makes more clear that one's life as a scholar and one's life as a teacher are not divorced in reality once one gets a job.

2.  Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.  Whether we like it or not, the dominant paradigm of a philosopher is as of a philosopher interacting with other philosophers and with graduate students qua future philosophers.  We don't often interact with one another or with our graduate students as fellow teachers and as future teachers.  This is not healthy for philosophy or for those who practice philosophy.  Philosophy was born and survives as a cultural practice.  We have an obligation to our collective future to teach well and to encourage others to teach well.

3.  Teaching is Not Magic.  I'm stealing this motto from my fellow-blogger, Michael Cholbi.  Teaching is not some magical thing that one has innately or that one "gets" or that one gets the hang of after a few years of exposure.  Most philosophers are rightly skeptical of scholarly literature in what one might call "education studies."  But thankfully, philosophy has its own association of philosophy teachers (the AAPT) and its own journal (Teaching Philosophy) that both share that skepticism and recognize that good teaching is at the very least not something that every philosopher should have to figure out on her own.  It should be informed by argument, reason and evidence.  Its not good enough to point one's graduate students to these resources.  Graduate programs should be centrally involved in the AAPT and in Teaching Philosophy, because arguably, Ph.D programs are most responsible for the students who have learned the most.  Share the wealth, folks - how did you do it?

4.  Be a Teaching Role Model.  When you talk with your students about teaching, inevitably, you will talk about what makes it painful and difficult and exasperating.  Grading twenty papers in a weekend is awful.  Reading sentences like "A.A. Milne's theory of Utilitarianism says..." is maddening.  Reading a paper where the student clearly has no grasp of basic grammar is downright depressing.  Talk to them about it.  Tell them how you deal with it.  Sympathize.  But don't encourage them to be dismissive of students.  Sadly, most students in college have been duped into thinking that they were educated when they weren't.  Our society has failed them.  These folks have been totally hosed.  Most of them want to learn but don't know how.

These pieces of advice won't help advisers who are wanting to help graduate students who are applying to SLACs and other non-R1 institutions now.  But they will help them to teach their students in a way that makes them excellent candidates for SLACs in the future.


  1. "Most philosophers are rightly skeptical of scholarly literature in what one might call "education studies."

    Any reason for this opinion, i.e. any evidence or argument to support it?

  2. Anon: Well, I've certainly heard skeptical views about ed studies and ed psych expressed by philosophers, particularly in the philosophical blogosphere. Funny how philosophers are falling are over themselves to incorporate psychological research into their scholarship but reject psychological research that bears on their teaching.

    But as to the post: Yes Becko, definitely good advice for grad students and grad instructors. I'd add that a thread connecting your various bits of advice is that graduate training should prepare us to see teaching as a worthwhile activity rather than something we put up with so that we can be part of the academic community. The fact is that most philosophers do not work at R1 schools and will spend more hours in their careers attending to teaching than to any other professional task. A graduate education that does not follow your advice is likely to produce faculty whose attitudes toward teaching are cynical, bitter, and dismissive. And who wants to harbor those feelings for three decades?

  3. Michael, that is exactly right and it gets to the heart of the matter. It was what I was trying to say - as usual you are way more articulate and to-the-point than I.

  4. I've heard skeptical views about ed. studies and ed. psych. expressed by psychologists. One difference, I think, is that psychologists see their work as being more genuinely scientific than that of educational psychologists, which (allegedly) is more prone to faddishness as a result. I would very much like to see any relevant evidence one way or the other though.

  5. I think part of the skepticism is that it is very difficult to be empirically informed when the subject matter is as broad as "education." On the other hand, empirically informed work seems much more possible when it comes to "math education" or "sport education" or "philosophy education" or "arts education" etc.

  6. It's sort of a quixotic quest you're suggesting: faculty at R1s who train graduate students were themselves selected for work at R1s where real teaching (as opposed to self-important pontification) is rarely rewarded or encouraged. It was pretty difficult for me to learn anything about teaching from the large faculty at my graduate school; mostly they don't know anything and so are constantly frustrated by their undergrads. "Try harder," to those without the tools is useless advice.

    I think that you're a little too kind in your fourth paragraph of advice, about the whining. Our jobs as teachers are to take the students we're given and move them a little further along. In my experience, teachers who spend a lot of time complaining about their students and their preparation just don't have their heads straight about their work. They should probably not be teaching, let along teaching others how to teach. Those people are poisonous and should be isolated, quarantined, ignored.

    But who'd be left at an R1? Not many.

    The burden really has to fall on the APA, with its broader membership, and on the AAPT, a great organization of which I'm proud to be associated. At the AAPT talks and workshops, one rarely hears cynical complaints about underprepared students. Discussion is more often about how to better do one's work, from people with exciting and innovative ideas.

    Young philosophers who want to best prepare themselves for the kind of rewarding work one finds as a teacher in a SLAC or other teaching place would be well-advised to learn as much cool philosophy from their graduate instructors as they can and to seek counsel about teaching elsewhere.

  7. Russell, I get your frustration - what you are describing is what I am trying to change. As someone who went to an R1 as both an undergrad and as a graduate student, I learned a lot from my teachers by TAing for them. That was the model I used when I got to my SLAC and it worked pretty well for me. But I didn't have a lot of conversations with my great teachers about teaching. So at least in my own experience, I felt like I had really good teachers and really good role models but that there was a missed opportunity to engage in a mentor-mentee relationship that would help me think more explicitly and effectively about teaching.

    I know everyone's experience is different. I also know that teaching is not emphasized or valued enough at R1s - but I think it easily could be and it would benefit all of us.

  8. All of this is really great. I've only ever had to learn about teaching from non-philosophers, and I wish my program had had some kind of "Teaching Philosophy" seminar that all grad students had to go through. So it's good to see people urging professors to talk about teaching in addition to philosophy. When should young philosophers learn about committee work, faculty meetings, advising, applying for grants, and all the other non-teaching obligations that come along with the job?

    -Anon Grad Student


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!