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should grad students stop publishing? (or: why philosophers need sociology)

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(This is a guest post from Samuel Loncar in response to David Velleman’s “The Publication Emergency”)

In his recent post at The Daily Nous, David Velleman of New York University and Philosopher’s Imprint argues that graduate students should stop publishing articles and that departments and journals should create organizational pressure to prevent student publications.

Professor Velleman’s post addresses an important and real problem. Velleman’s proposal, however, is an example of good thinking that becomes ineffective because it is inadequately informed by the broader institutional context in which the problems it addresses are occurring. The argument (stop letting graduate student submit to journals and stop counting their publications towards tenure) is premised on this idea: the problem of graduate student publication in philosophy is a problem created only or primarily by trends within philosophy, which makes it amenable to resolution through alteration of the practices of professional philosophers.

Let’s consider whether this is reasonable. First, it is plausible that professional philosophy, like every discipline, has some space of relative autonomy – that is taken for granted and clearly correct. Second, however, it is not only plausible but obvious and sociologically demonstrable that philosophy, like every academic discipline, is subject to transdisciplinary forces and trends. So the relevant question, with respect to this premise, is: whether the move to graduate school publication has arisen primarily due to transdisciplinary – that is, broader academic trends – or trends primarily within academic philosophy. The answer to that is: the burden of proof lies overwhelmingly with any professional philosopher to argue that it isn’t a result of transdisciplinary trends. Why? Because the same pressure exists now across all disciplines. Grad student publishing is a pressure not created by any single discipline but by the system in which disciplines exists, and is directly related to the general increase in publishing, documented, for example, in Andrew Abbott’s work. It is still theoretically possible that, acknowledging this, one could say: but let’s still try something in our little corner of academia. But this becomes questionable as to its 1) unintended consequences (which commenters on the site already noted) and its 2) professional prudence.

The most likely effect of Velleman’s proposal would be to harm those most vulnerable in academia (graduate students and assistant professors), whose job and tenure prospects are determined not by any single professor but by the entire academic system, as represented by the deans, provosts, etc. of their universities, many of which not only would not accept Dr. Velleman’s ideas, but would simply count the lack of publications against a prospective hire or tenure applicant.

A distinct, related, and properly philosophical issue that Velleman does not raise is why philosophers publish they way they do anyway, and why their publications are perceived to have any cognitive value. This is a major problem for any serious academic, given the abundance of work and the fact that no one can read all of it, and is one I have written about in an argument about disciplinary philosophy (“Why Listen to Philosophers?” in Metaphilosophy). It’s important because Velleman is grabbing the tip of an iceberg and trying to wrestle it out of the ocean. That’s not going to work without considering the sociological and institutional framework in which the problems exist and need to be theorized. There is a chain of assumptions, for example, in contemporary academia that run as follows: the university exists to create and transmit knowledge; the humanities are like the sciences in that they produce and transmit knowledge – that’s why they belong in the universities; the sciences are the paradigm of what counts as knowledge; the sciences are journal based fields; journals are reliable indicators of cognitively valuable material; peer review is the main mechanism of ensuring this legitimacy; so humanists need to publish journal articles to belong in the research university. Whatever one thinks of that chain of reasoning, it is neither self-evident nor unquestionable. Moreover, the philosophical significance of these broader issues about the academic system of publication and prestige require thoughtful consideration in order to assess any concrete problem downstream of them, like the fact that there are too many submissions to journals. Until academics, including professional philosophers, can at least acknowledge and adequately describe why their work takes the institutional form it does, it seems unlikely they can resolve the problems arising from those institutional dynamics. Such description and theorization of disciplinary forces is what I am doing in “Why Listen to Philosophers?” and my current book project. (It’s also being taken up in work by Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle, and others.)

Until professional philosophy acknowledges the novelty and significance of its institutional location and the fact that most of even the canonical figures in its own conceptualization of the discipline were not professors and did not share the contemporary view of professional philosophy, it seems unlikely it can philosophically and practically deal with the problems posed by its embeddedness in the research and now corporate university, one dimension of which is the pressure to publish and its attendant problems.

To do that, philosophers will need to start taking sociology, among other disciplines, much more seriously, since it provides so much useful data and theory relevant to understanding the institutional dynamics of the modern university and professional system.

Samuel Loncar is a doctoral candidate at Yale and the editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books.

Written by jeffguhin

August 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm