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?"


David said...

Like you, I deplore the fact that Continental programs these days can only seem to get stronger at the expense of other Continental programs. In the foreseeable future, we could end up with only two or three viable programs (at this point, Depaul, Penn St, perhaps Stony Brook).
The situation in Memphis is even more dire than your blog indicates, as Tom Nenon has left the department to be a full-time administrator and Bill Lawson is openly hostile to Continental philosophy. This leaves Memphis with three dedicated Continental faculty: MB, Kas, and Pleshette.
This means that at this time, we are neither a reputable analytic department nor a big-time Continental program (despite wonderful and up-coming people like MB or Pleshette). On top of that, we set out to make a history hire this year and failed.
Memphis does not have many options with respect to the direction it can now take. It can either go after names to replace Robert and Len, thereby perpetuating the poaching cycle (and posing the dangerous question: how many senior faculty actually want to come to Memphis?), and do all it can to keep MB, Kas, and Pleshette. Or, it can completely change its identity, laying the foundation (with Sarah, Bill, Deb, Remy, and an eventual big name analytic hire) for a strong analytic program down the road.
The third option is unthinkable: that Memphis slowly disappear from the philosophy "relevance map" altogether, becoming a middling program, dabbling in analytic, race theory, and Continental, but asserting itself in none of those.
Regardless of the outcome, the department most of us have known (and which had already changed drastically over the five years I was there) is no more, which saddens me more than I'd anticipated when all of this started in December.

Doctor J said...

quick note, david:

I would put Vandy on the (increasingly short) list of "viable-Continental-programs-in-the-foreseeable-future."

David said...

Ah, good call. I had the feeling I was forgetting one.

CF said...

Lots and lots of issues to consider here, both narrow with respect to Memphis, and more broadly with regard to Continental philosophy at large.

As I said previously, the question about M.A.R. (Memphis after Robert) has been asked at least since I started back in Fall of '94, when Robert was guesting at the New School. I would expect that folks in the department (read: Tom Nenon) have kept a shortlist of possible candidates for such a position. And I have heard through the grapevine that Tom has been issuing assurances that the department isn't going anywhere.

When the Moss Chair was instituted, as I have heard the story told, the decision to go Continental was made largely on the basis of being able to do more, with less money, by aiming the department in a continental direction. That was good strategic thinking, and it paid big dividends. Some of the folks who helped to make that decision (Tom, John Tienson) are still around.

That said, the analytic side of the department has always struck me as healthier, with regard to its hiring and internal issues. In particular, and this is what I see as THE big failing of the department up until this point, the continentals have had a bad record when it comes to the retention of junior faculty. Sara Beardsworth? Alan Kim? Jackie Scott? Neither of the first two made it to tenure, while Jackie was hired away. While there is surely lots of blame to go around, it simply is a fact that senior faculty need to be concerned with junior faculty retention and advancement. And I think that when it comes to junior faculty working in continental philosophy, the department's record is nothing to boast about.

That said, I have to go talk about Mill. I'll have more to say later about the trend of headhunting in continental philosophy.

anotherpanacea said...

Good post, though I must admit I'm less disturbed than amused by the job market these days.

It seems to me that the rankings and market squeeze have turned the profession into a sport, which is why I like to say that continental philosophy is functions like baseball. Some teams are farm teams, some are money teams; some departments take young scholars and make them great, some buy the great scholars with their wads of cash. Maybe we should institute an academic draft.

As an ecology, it works, unless you're a graduate student: undergrads don't pick universities on the basis of one department in the humanities, nor do donors. But of course, graduate students are people too, and it seems like their interests should be considered.

If you manage to make the SPEP connection clearer in the next post, I'll be quite interested. I strongly suspect that the real problem here is a general one tied to the academic star system, and the role of SPEP in perpetuating that star system is key. That's tied to the divergence between graduate instruction and scholarship, on the one hand, and the revenue-generating work of the university (teaching undergraduates how to think), on the other. In turn, this is tied to the surfeit of young scholars and economics of grad student and adjunct teaching. A star scholar can get you publishing revenue, donor dollars, and cheap grad student labor all in one fell swoop, so the efficient decision is to bid up the price, and bid down the teaching load on stars. They serve as loss-leaders.

Analytic philosophy is partly able to avoid this problem because it's large enough to support whole constellations of ideas, and because names matter less than arguments. So long as continental philosophy insists on dropping names instead of arguing about ideas, I think we'll always be in this boat. French fetishism is the real culprit, there, and I'm as big a sucker for that as anyone else. That said, I'm not at all looking forward to the crop of Badiou-ians I expect to see in a decade.

Doctor J said...

CFox: none of them (Beardsworth, Kim or Scott) made it to tenure at Memphis. Technically, they were ALL "hired away." But I get your point.

anotherpanacea: kudos on your analysis of the "star system." I have much to say about SPEP in the next post, which I am pathologically editing in such a way as to avoid professional suicide. Also, I'm not super-excited about the Badiou-ians, either... but I can admit admit that may be because I don't understand game theory. I'd bet that the Deleuzians get their turn first, though.

CF said...


Indeed. I once proposed the "academic draft/lottery" idea to Robert, who wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea.


I share a number of your concerns. But I do wonder whether the department will be quick to throw overboard a brand (analytic/continental crossover) they had spent eighteen years developing.

While the Moss Chair hire will be key, I think the second line is going to be just as crucial, if not more so. I don't know that it has to be someone who is a "name." As others have commented, Len wasn't a "name" when he arrived at Memphis. But it has to be someone who is broad and serious. Could be an associate somewhere else--not that Memphis has money to go throwing at tenured faculty.


In the interest of also avoiding professional suicide, we'll leave it at that. Wink and a nod and all that.

Doctor J said...

david and Cfox:

I think one of the things that hasn't been mentioned--but which may be one of the most crucial factors at work here-- is that the decision on the part of UMemphis to "rebuild" is less about *what* they want than *whether* or not they can afford what they want. Obviously, if it were just about what Memphis wanted, they would've kept Len and Robert. But the (sad) truth is, UMemphis can't afford to match the money and resources that places like Penn State offers.

[Note: I realize, of course, that there is probably a lot more that the admin at Memphis could've done than they did do, but the point still holds that UMemphis doesn't have the same arsenal of resources that a place like Penn State has, and that is part of what makes all this kind of "poaching" possible. At any rate, the bottom line now is that Memphis can't go out and *buy* replacements for Len and Robert like Penn State could *buy* replacements for Sallis, Scott, etc.]

So, the problem is not exactly as david posed it (i.e., "how do you convince senior people to come and live in Memphis?") because, and I'm speaking from experience here, it's not that easy to convince senior people to lay down roots in Happy Valley, either. I mean, at least Memphis is a "city", which you would be hard-pressed to say about State College.

So, in short, I think Memphis' problem is more complicated than just deciding what to do next. If it were just a matter of deciding whether or not to re-poach, I think Memphis would gladly do that. But my guess is that they *can't* do that.

David said...

Points well taken, Chris. And I agree that Len's replacement just might be the key hire. I think it would be a mistake to settle for a junior hire, though I also agree that the person need not necessarily be a huge "name." But as you point out, we shouldn't forget that some of this will also be determined by financial considerations.

CF said...

Dr.J and David,

Indeed: I didn't mean to suggest that money isn't a BIG deal here.

This is true both with respect to faculty salaries and with respect to the funding the university receives from the state. On both counts, Memphis is at a serious disadvantage, because salaries are relatively low, and because the legislature under-funds the university to such a scandalous degree.

To be frank, I wonder whether this latter point had more to do with Robert's move than did salary issues. Lots of places have offered Robert lots of money, and up until now, he has stayed put. But the fact that state monies are uncertain (remember that budget fiasco in 2002, when state workers were sent home?), and the legislature's recalcitrance to fund, meant that Robert may not have been able to do the sorts of things there that he could elsewhere.

I also recall that Vandy made a serious play for him a number of years ago, and I seem to recall hearing that the deal-breaker was their unwillingness to fund and support the sort of work in Race and African-American that interested him. The fact that they've also hired Katherine shows that Penn State is willing to do what Robert sees as adventageous, and that they're willing to pony up.

However, it is also true that you can't simply throw resources around and expect to get your money's worth. It is on this count that I think Memphis traditionally did a brilliant job of doing more with less. Your initial description, Leigh, of the different paths to departmental success makes precisely this point.

Originality and vision are what got Memphis this far. Those were the things that brought Robert there, and I suspect they will still be there after he's gone. Robert, himself, often says that once he finished his graduate work, he never imagined he'd actually go on to have a successful career in philosophy. I see no reason why persons of similar breadth and vision should be less available now than in the late 1980's. We found Robert: we can find the next rising star, if that's our intention.

As for David's point, I REALLY think they need to hire at the Associate level, minimum, if only so there are enough continental senior faculty to sit on student committees and supervise dissertations. Getting accredited as Graduate Faculty can take time, and I really think that if they want to keep the continental side of the department, that they need to sweeten the second position as much as they possibly can.

Robert carried an enormous burden within the department, for a very long time. A couple of years ago I heard him say that he had sat on EVERY dissertation committee. As people become qualified to direct, I hope they begin to try to redistribute dissertation supervision, so that so much doesn't rest on one person.

MEH said...

I know very little about the situation of Memphis in particular, my (excessively long) comments have more to do with Continental philosophy as a whole. Full disclosure for me, I no longer self-identify as Continental, in part because of the frustrations I express below.

I'm with anotherpanacea in targeting the 'academic star system' as a root cause of departmental poaching and its effects. Also unhealthy for the dwindling profession of Continental philosophy, and a contributing factor in these cannibalistic cycles exhibited by Continental departments, must be the star system's unavoidable educational effects (particularly on grad students, but also on undergrads--in my short time teaching, i've already seen multiple undergrads shy away from a phil major because they detect these dynamics).

The interests of grad students, and their development into well-turned Continentally-minded faculty members, cannot but be considered as the interest of Continental philosophy as a whole. The culture of 'big names' is self-perpetuating, and it seems to be one of the few ways dignity is organized and recognized in Continental philosophy circles. As a grad student, when one is learning the ropes of the profession, how can one possibly avoid becoming complicit in these types of power plays? One must learn how to recognize the signs of 'big names', and respond correctly, if only to survive. And beyond survival, don't we have to ask very seriously, what does graduate student excellence look like? There are 'star' grad students too, I'm sure everyone can think of a few examples. Sometimes they are intelligent, perceptive, and hard-working; other times they excel at mimicking their teachers' strategies to cultivate a signature aura of mystical unquestionability, and they get jobs based on the authoritative reputations of their teachers.

From what I've seen (which, granted, isn't much, though it feels like too much already), a bulk of Continental philosophical work itself interprets its own concealment, of its own inner workings, as a virtue. Here is an extreme example, since anotherpanacea mentioned Badiou. I only went to SPEP once, it was the year Badiou gave the keynote. From the few audience members who were brazen enough to ask questions, and from Badiou's strange responses, I think it was clear that an embarassingly small portion of the audience had a clue what the talk had been about. I remember, as part of that talk, hearing Badiou utter a few phrases that sounded like jabs at Heidegger. And yet, for all of the formidable students of Heidegger in that audience, not a single one of them asked an objecting question. I don't blame them, it's horrifying to question something as obscure as that talk had been, I certainly didn't ask a question. And yet, given the obscurity of so much of Continental philosophical work, I would say that the profession is desperately in need of seeing (and feeling the force of) examples of the kind of courage that would enable someone to stand up at a keynote talk at SPEP and object, when the talk has been either totally nuts, or so far beyond the comprehension of the audience that it might as well be totally nuts. Otherwise, the whole display becomes a ritualized farce.

At Vandy, we have examples of a willingness (eagerness, even) to object, mostly coming from our more analytically-minded faculty members. The continental contingent, at least among the grad students, complains (sometimes with good reason) of the inappropriateness of the analytic faculty's animated (sometimes aggressive) behavior. This has developed into a cultural divide in the department, according to which analytic types are deemed probingly aggressive (or mean and rude), and continental types are believed to be considerate and gentle (or sentimental and undisciplined). I have no cure to propose for the ills of Continental philosophy, as I worry that its problems are systemic and not accidental. It seems to me, however, that the practices of current Continental circles discourage vigorous questioning in a way that's bound to lead to decay.

j.d. said...

Very interesting series of comments. I have a lot to say, but will just say a few things.

The star system has always been an issue. It means that Associate level folks, no matter how good, don't "count" as real impacts on departments. We shouldn't be surprised about the star system. I don't think it has to do with a lack of vigorous questioning (in fact, I have no idea what that means), but is a natural outgrowth to the intellectual orientation. Think 'bout it: we have the star system as a meta-system. Who are Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, etc. other than superstars? We all know a Heidegger scholar and a Dilthey scholar face very different professional worlds.

"Continental" philosophy (hey, Europe is not a continent!) has always struggled to be about philosophical problems and not just great thinkers. I believe in the great thinker tradition, I really do, but the phrasing of issues AS issues has always been a problem. This leads to a strange seniority thing, where the accumulation of pages - rather than quirky or important intervention in ideas - marks one as more or less senior.

Mostly, though, I blame a lot of continental programs themselves. With some real consistency, Ph.D. programs have hired new faculty without real continental degrees, people from places of analytic orientation where some euro phil is done, like, say, U of Chicago. That's been a suicide pact. You hire people to please a Dean (who doesn't like the prestigious degree? whatever), but then you don't see a powerful set of books coming from those hires. Training matters. It is a very different thing to have taken maybe a course per semester in Euro phil and taking three or four per semester. It adds up.

The result has been a number of hires where no blossoming into proto-superstars has happened. Sure, I got reservations about the superstar system, but that's the game for now. The future of superstars looks pretty shaky.

Memphis always has the disadvantage of money and, let's be honest, the idea of living in Memphis. I really like the city. I do. But it is a hard sell for a hell of a lot of people. Robert was exceptional in that regard.

Rambling, I know. Sorry. More later. Mostly, I'm just so sad that Memphis is going to undergo this.

Lastly...Memphis' autonomous M.A. program has been a real gem. For real. I hope that continues to be a strength, and wish PSU would do that...since they stole our people!

Soon to be Dr. T said...

One thing that I have noticed is what happens when we begin to say THIS is a strong continental program, and this, but not others. I am slightly offended that Villanova is not even remotely considered and it seems that is clearly because Schmidt and Caputo left and we didn't end up poaching. But that our name gets left off the list seems to be precisely the reason that people do poach -- because these conversations see to require their be the superstars that drive a department.
Yet Villanova has people doing continental history and contemporary philosophy and given that strong dual commitment that I think is only really matched by DePaul (at least right now) I think it's problematic to leave VU off that list. DePaul's advantage is their dream team.
I think it's important that we move away from the superstar-measure. Partly because I think it might make for better and less fragile departments, so that poaching is not destroying a department because there is more depth than the big shots in any department.

So in that vein, we should recognize that there are other emerging programs that should be considered as well. For example, Claire Katz, Dan Conway and Ted George are all faculty at Texas A&M which appears to be emerging as a continental graduate program.
Just as significant standard for a strong program as senior faculty could be the quality of the people they turn out. This is a difficult thing to measure, but as Dr. J has mentioned, cannot be ignored.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm not a fan of the page-count measures of fame, but many of the 'stars' we're discussing have been elevated to that level on the basis of graduate student devotion, not contributions to the scholarship. Though I'm quite pleased by the hires, I suspect that we overestimate the value of these scholars by giving them credit for 'important interventions,' or even 'quirky interventions.' Part of what makes the star system so effective is that one person becomes a standard source, and combines insights and ideas developed by others into a single work. Though they participate in a research community, credit tends to accrete to the few with memorable last names. The analytic tradition, with its higher standards of citation and attribution, reduces the risk of this sort of cherry-picking. (Though the anti-historical bent occasionally leads to absurd attributions of, for instance, metaphysical accounts of causality or responsibility that originate with Aristotle!)

The Penn State hire looks an awful lot more like a race poach than a continental poach. If PSU is re-inventing itself as a good school for Philosophy of Race (and there's no question, that's the intention) then what we're seeing is the inevitable result of an undervalued field of candidates being gathered together in one place. The result is a program that can produce philosophers of race, and feed the demand of the profession for skilled and thoughtful race theorists. Insofar as Memphis couldn't quite do that for race, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. In the same way that a good continental scholar requires more than a single course in her field, a race scholar from a focused program will do immeasurably better than one who followed the star/mentor track.

One last thing: Vandy seems to be a place where analytic and continental sides of the equation are quite comfortable raising interesting questions together and bringing their resources to the same problems. Perhaps part of what we're seeing is a decrease in the value of these sorts of continental/analytic distinctions altogether. Anymore, I'd rather be a political philosopher who's read Hegel and Derrida than a continental philosopher who's read Rawls and Berlin, but I find that that's not an option for me.

CF said...


"I'm not a fan of the page-count measures of fame, but many of the 'stars' we're discussing have been elevated to that level on the basis of graduate student devotion, not contributions to the scholarship."

What "stars" in particular do you have in mind? Because if your contention is that Robert and Len haven't contributed to the scholarship in their respective areas, you have some reading to do. A lot, in fact.

j.d. said...

"I'm not a fan of the page-count measures of fame, but many of the 'stars' we're discussing have been elevated to that level on the basis of graduate student devotion, not contributions to the scholarship."

I'll reiterate and even extend the claim: no superstars have failed to earn that status with substantial work. May not like it, but it is real and substantial work.

j.d. said...

Hit enter too soon...

"The analytic tradition, with its higher standards of citation and attribution, "

That's patently false and an absurd claim. It really is.

Doctor J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
j.d. said...

"Analytic philosophy is partly able to avoid this problem because it's large enough to support whole constellations of ideas, and because names matter less than arguments."

This makes for an interesting point, as well. It's not true, of course. Anyone who thinks Rawls or Quine were just another professor with good arguments is kidding you. That recommendation gets you a job. Person X may have a bitchin' article in Nous, but Davidson, well, that's another thing altogether. So, the star system works just fine in analytic philosophy. It would be foolish to think otherwise.

One of the things that analytic philosophy has that Euro phil doesn't: the star of star systems. You know, the old aristocracy. Harvard. Yale. Princeton. And so on.

This star of star systems means everything when it comes to job market stuff.

Doctor J said...

soon to be Dr. T:

I agree with you that Villanova is still one of the "viable" graduate programs in Continental philosophy. And I also agree with you that there are a few programs out there that seem to be up-and-comers for Continental philosophy. (To be honest, though, if Texas A&M wants to be thought of that way, they need to get their name on SPEP's list of programs!) I was just hoping that we could avoid resorting to a Leiter-like discussion of particular programs. The larger point, I think, still holds, i.e., there are fewer of them now than there used to be.

j.d. and cf:

play nice.

Eric B. said...

ZOMG what did you delete!!!???

anotherpanacea said...

Because if your contention is that Robert and Len haven't contributed to the scholarship in their respective areas, you have some reading to do. A lot, in fact.

And you need to learn to read charitably. Against the standards of the "meta-star" system that Dr. J is talking about (where contributions to the scholarship are measured against Heidegger and Deleuze) neither Rob nor Len has made "important" or "quirky" interventions. That's not really the business we're in, so I don't see that as a criticism. Our job, and theirs, is to teach and write books that our colleagues will read. We can't all radically rethink ontological difference or presence or the human condition.

I like and respect both of these guys! I'm not criticizing them, but rather pointing out something about the star system: that good commentaries, small extensions of an idea, and clear and lucid assembly of arguments comes to stand in for the one paradigm shifting book, because we can't all radically remake the face of the discipline.

To my mind, this is much preferable to the French system, which churns out a 'new Derrida' or a 'new Althusser' every decade or so, according to the needs of its star system, who we then devote a whole cadre of dissertations and books to. Let me put it another way: could you really imagine going out on the job market with a dissertation written on Lawlor or Bernasconi? "Lawlor and Temporality?" "Bernasconi and the Other"?

Look, you don't know me and I don't know you. But we both know Dr. J so I don't see why we can't grant each other the benefit of the doubt. I'm a nice person, really.

CF said...


While I continue to hesitate over some of your observations, I would like to retract the snark. I post here at the pleaure of the good Doctor, and don't want to go about stinking up the place. I apologize for giving offense.

I'll start by agreeing with one of your premises: for the most part, the folks traded around the continental system as 'stars' aren't operating on the order of magnitude of a Heidegger, or a somewhat more common genius (sic) like a Derrida or Merleau-Ponty. This is probably fair to say of the present cadre of senior faculty at the departments we've been discussing. And I agree that this may or may not be relevant to their role in the American academy.

But neither does my reading of the thread show me that I was wrong to challenge your assertion that specific current "star" faculty (whoever they may be) may not have made significant contributions to scholarship. Your response, that Doctor J. was using the "meta-star" metric against which to measure current faculty "stars" in continental philosophy, seems to me to fall short, since it was jd who introduced the distinction, after the good Doctor had endorsed your analysis of the "star system" with reference to senior faculty. Whether one asseses the work of current senior faculty as spadework or as groundbreaking, my sense is that their reputations are largely deserved.

With regard to Len and Robert, particularly, I think your characterization is largely on the mark as to their relative stature compared to the major figures we all read and discuss. But I also think that Len, in particular, has broken with his forbears, and has begun to philosophize in his own right. To that extent, he may already be satisfying the "quirky" or "important" intervention stated by j.d.

Final point: I tend to agree that the celebrity hero worship of French thinkers is out of hand. I think it is, or potentially is, one of the virtues of American continental philosophy to subject such folks to rigorous, protracted, philsophical analysis. Cults of any kind are objectionable, all the more so when they are so faddish.

It is indeed the case that we have never met, anotherpanacea. I take your ideas seriously, and hope that I have understood them sufficiently well.

Eric B. said...

Post the SPEP thing!!!

anotherpanacea said...

Thanks, j.d. for the thoughtful response.

I'd like to say something about 'philosophizing in one's own right.' It seems to me that this precisely is true of Len, and of Robert, too, but that it may not be quite as unique as you make it out to be. Arendt wrote of speculative thought that it is like Penelope's tapestry: constantly weaving and unweaving its conclusions. Part of the project I hope we're all engaged in is simply this: taking part in something, an activity and a tradition, that is older than us,; keeping it alive; and gifting it to the next generation of scholars. It turns out that you can't keep thought alive without making it your own. What we're doing is transmuting the idiomatic into the idiosyncratic, and vice versa. Lawlor and Bernasconi have definitely done this, and I am glad that their success has been recognized and rewarded.

My worry with the star system is that it tends, like capitalism, to concentrate those rewards in relatively few hands, and suppress the leisure required for speculation for most others by overloading them with repetitive, and sometimes alienating, teaching duties. This is especially true when undergraduate teaching happens in the large lecture hall rather than the intimate seminar room, and is judged by multiple-choice exams rather than essay writing.

Are these two scholars to blame for the changes in the division of labor throughout the academy? Of course not. But Penn State's decision to poach them in this way contributes to it: Penn State gambled, rightly, that they could teach the same number of revenue-generating credit hours by over-paying these two scholars and underpaying the graduate students who would flock to work with them, and then, probably from their second year onward, teach fifty undergraduates a semester, unassisted. One doesn't have to look to Marx's account of the commodity fetish to understand that graduate programs are no longer exactly apprenticeships. What I am trying to suggest is that these considerations of scholarly worth cannot be separated from the economic considerations that vault some to the forefront of the discipline and leave others to toil in anonymity. Markets need scarcity to justify their existence, and if there is no natural scarcity of curiosity and talent, the market will produce it.

As I've said, please read my comments as a criticism of the profession and of the academy, and NOT as a criticism of Rob and Len, who I am pleased to see join the Penn State faculty.

I'd also like to reiterate that these hires place Penn State in serious competition for the Philosophy of Race, not necessarily at the forefront of Continental or History of Philosophy.

Thanks for continuing to engage with me on this topic, and Dr. J, let's hear you drop some science on SPEP!

anotherpanacea said...

Ack! I meant to address my comments to cf, not j.d.

May I recommend more substantial monikers in the future?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


What a long and fascinating set of commentaries. Thanks, Dr. J. for getting this going.

Some time when we're in a forum that doesn't leave an electronic footprint, remind me to tell you about the prank I wanted to play at SPEP pertaining to certain star(s) that would, I like to think, have made my reputation but ruined my career in one fell swoop (it certainly would have ruined my career; it might not have made my reputation --- but since I might end up ruining my career on my own and since I'm a kept man that doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world). Actually there are at least three pranks that I've wanted to pull only one of which even came close to fruition.

Now, on to serious matters.

I agree with the general tenor of the discussion up to this point, particularly Dr. J.'s initial post, and just want to add two things:

1) When I was teaching the continental courses at Penn, one of my students who was the head of their undergraduate philosophy club wanted me to do a colloquium with one of their senior analytic people about "analytic versus continental philosophy." I told him that if he dropped the "vs." I'd be happy to, but as I suspected nothing ever came of it (my hunch is that none of the senior analytic people were interested with or without the vs.)

But it did get me spending a lot of time thinking about what the analytic-continental split amounts to these days. The analytic world probably thinks it's going away but those of us who do echte continentalische Philosophie know better, as the tenor of these posts imply.

Still, though I'm not unconvinced that the most interesting work being done in Continental philosophy (or at least the Heideggerian/Derridean corner of the discipline that I inhabit --- I'm not even 30 but already feel too old to bother caring about Badiou or Ranciere) isn't being done by folks who either bridge that divide or who are almost entirely analytic --- Dan Dahlstrom and even Robert Brandom come to mind on Heidegger --- In contrast, a lot of the big name Heideggerians in continental philosophy don't really even write about him anymore (Bernasconi is a great example; another one would be David Krell if he weren't too sui generis to be exemplary of anything).

I also have to admit that I have some hope that even though people who read continental figures in an analytic way --- that king of self-promoters who lets' just call "Brian L." comes to mind, or an example of someone who does better might be his new colleague, Martha Nussbaum --- read these figures "wrongly" that the fact that they think that they are reading them will open up the door for graduate students who are interested in continental figures to do do this work in a "continentally" (if not SPEP-y) way within "analytic programs." I once interviewed for a job listed as AOS continental at an analytic powerhouse and they seemed in principle open to the idea of taking on graduate students doing very continentally work. Now granted, I didn't get the job and someone from Chicago did, but I like to think it was because she was more qualified than me --- she was --- and not because the committee dismissed SPEPy continental phil out of hand.

We also have to add the fact that within certain sub-disciplines the boundary is becoming increasingly porous: I have had just as much encouragement from "analytic" folks as continental folks when it comes to my work in aesthetics even though I am writing out of a thoroughly continental tradition. I think that someone with enough chutzpah could do really interesting things finding a way to talk about specific sub-problems within the "return to metaphysics" that has been taking place in both analytic and continental philosophy. But I digress.

We all know that the analytic-continental split is a made-up institutional split more than a real philosophical split. We all bemoan it; and yet, the tendency of great continental schools to poach from one another reifies the split. So we could ask the question as to whether or not the disappearing number of strictly continental schools is an entirely bad thing --- it might simply mean that an arbitrary dividing line is vanishing.

Even though I think that this is partially true, I think that there are still at least two good reasons to be worried:

A) If the analytic-continental split could disappear overnight in a way that wasn't simply the absorption of one tradition by the other would that really be a good thing? It would be a partially good thing but it would end the one thing that SPEP has been good at (and notwithstanding the things SPEP has been bad at, not the least of which was rejecting the kick-ass panel that Katie, Dr. J and I put together) --- bringing together people who wouldn't otherwise talk and forcing them to talk. Compare the dysfunctionality of SPEP to the dysfunctioanlity of the APA as a whole. I define what I do as a mixture of aesthetics and metaphysics --- but I'm pretty confident that I know a hell of a lot more about the history of philosophy and feminism and psychoanalysis and political theory and probably lots of other things than do my analytic counterparts b/c the small size of the continental world forces us to continue to talk to one another. I would be afraid that if the analytic-continental split vanished overnight the institutional need for this co-operation would vanish and that would be a genuine loss.

Of course, that's not an argument for the retention of the star system, since the star system is what gets in the way of this happening more at SPEP.

B) The second reason to be worried is because I, and presumably many of the other participants in this discussion want a job; and unless continental programs that fall outside of the mainstream American academy continue to be recognized as top-notch programs in their own right, that won't happen. Right now, folks from the Continental programs compete with one another for jobs in a market that is somewhat separate from the mainstream market (again, to take an example I am familiar with, I am very competitive for some of the few aesthetic jobs and not for others --- the difference isn't the quality of the school I'm applying to --- it's the extent to which that school is affiliated with SPEP).

It's entirely possible that the shrinkage of viable continental programs directly stems from the fact that there are job candidates from traditionally non-continental schools competing for these continental jobs --- Less demand among graduate students --- the inevitable result of a bad market or a market with other alternatives that might seem equal to an undergraduate not steeped in the byzantine twists of academic politics --- means less demand for graduate faculty on the whole; This in turn will mean increased demand for the biggest fish, who will concentrate and decreased demand for everyone else --- At least that's what I seem to remember from Econ 101's section on Applied problems in Academic Hires.

2) (I'll bet you forgot there was a 2). To follow up on Soon to be Dr. T.'s points about Villanova in particular.

I actually think that Villanova did the right thing in this instance even though they were forced to do so kicking and screaming by the intractability of certain folks in the administrations (and we'll leave it at that for all the reasons other people have already engaged in innuendo).

I was the last dissertation that Denny directed at Villanova (he was already at Penn State by then but was grandfathered in as my director) --- and the final of three people who were fool-hardy enough to have both Denny and Caputs on my committee (actually, although I can't speak for the experience of the other two --- both of which were well before my time and among the first disses to be written at Villanova, for me the experience with both of them was great; I genuinely have no complaints).

Nonetheless, when Denny left, I seriously considered transferring to Penn State (as did other people writing on this blog) --- The reason I decided not to was b/c I didn't want to have to redo my coursework and because I felt that I was too involved in Villanova institutional life --- particularly graduate life --- to be able to think about starting over (I'm very change averse --- see my previous reasons for not wanting to read Badiou).

I'm on the last year of a three-year appointment as a non-tenure track faculty member at Villanova. During this time I found myself in a very odd situation: because I had worked with the two faculty members whose "poaching" had thrown our department into considerable dissarray I had the odd (but very rewarding for me) experience of being able to teach a lot of core undergraduate continental courses at a major continental school despite being a junior untenurable faculty member.

This was great for me but probably not so great for the department as a whole, which needed the aforementioned big names to keep our graduate profile high and to integrate the undergraduate, graduate and facultative components of the department.

The people who suffered the most were, I think, the remaining senior core continental philosophy faculty. Walter Brogan and Tom Busch in particular ended up having to chair lots of committees and do lots of work to keep the graduate program viable. And the graduate students did a great job of keeping intellectual life going.

But the truth is that if the department hadn't stopped trying its strategy of unsuccessful poaches (we're not rich or macho enough to be hunter-gatherers --- we must instead cultivate our own gardens) these stop-gap measures would have been unsustainable.

In the end we were forced to make the virtuous choice of hiring promising junior faculty members. And over the last two years we've hired four people either in continental philosophy or fields immediately adjacent. It remains to be seen how well this strategy pays off, but all four are dedicated and energetic departmental members, and I have every hope that it will.

But let's say that Villanova is successful and at least a few of these new hires grow their own graduate constituency and reputation: does poaching by bigger and more well-moneyed schools become the inevitable result?

Only if we regard continental philosophy as a zero-sum game and let the big names define what the field is. If it weren't for people like Bernasconi, would we consider Race Theory to be part of the Continental World? Would a unique style of doing ancient philosophy have become central to American Continental philosophy (arguably more central to it than it is to Eurpoean Continental philosophy) if Sallis hadn't gotten so interested in the trajectory of Heidegger devoted to ancient philosophy? Lots of smaller, more junior names ought to allow the field for what counts as continental philosophy to expand (forgive me my utopian rantings momentarily).

And if that happens, then there can be all sorts of inter-institutional reasons why smaller programs could keep the junior faculty they had grown: because they are happy to work with like minded people, because they have been integrated into academic life outside of just their department; maybe even because they like the uniqueness of their graduate program.

Ok, that's enough ravings for now. Sorry for the length of this comment.

Doctor J said...

Ideas Man: All good (even if not quite succinctly stated) points. I am particularly appreciative of others' insights who have had the first-hand experience of a department melt-down. As you know, of course, I was also at Villanova during its, um, "transition." Ditto with Penn State. And, now, I'm back in Memphis for what looks like Round 3. Wait a sec...

I'm afraid to speculate upon what appears to be a consistent element in these three events.

KHG said...

Am I the only one who thinks that despite the fact that it is not an island, Europe actually is a continent?

I don't have any particular position to add to the thoughtful discussion you all are having. But I do have a separate point to make about the practicalities of this situation.

I was also at Villanova during their poaching (after which they floundered a bit but eventually recovered). I wish two things about that time would have happened differently for everyone's sake.

1. I wish that the feeling of frenzied anxiety that filled the department during that time could have been squelched. This is clearly not entirely possible (not for Villanova, or Memphis, or anywhere). But I bring it up now because I think Dr. J is mostly right that SPEP and all Continental-ish programs need to talk, talk, talk about this. The exception right now is Memphis. Memphis needs to decide on what it wants its departmental identity to be through informed departmental conversations. But it doesn't need to worry about the future of Continental philosophy right now. Memphis is clearly going to go through a period of rebuilding and be okay. And while that happens the people who are at Memphis are going to do their work well and teach their students and (for grad students) go on the market and get jobs. It's just that they might do all that with a lot more anxiety than they'd otherwise have-- I hope they can avoid that, though.

2. I wish Villanova had started rebuilding by going for several solid assistant hires before trying to fill its senior positions. I mention this now because I know everyone thinks Memphis should think about its Moss Chair first, and I disagree. It often takes several years to find a good match for an endowed chair. It can be disheartening to conduct senior searches for several years in a department that already feels like the lover who's been left. I think it's so, so, so much better to hire the junior people who can help to carry the everyday load of the department first. Those people are lining up by the hundreds to be hired! Then the department's got the resources to fill a chair. I know this method sounds like it doesn't address the need for star power. But the thing is, you get the star power just as quickly this way as the other. It's just that you get something else while you're waiting for the "star".

Doctor J said...

KHG: yes, yes, yes.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I think it's pretty clear that I'm incapable of being succinct. I try, I really do: But it's sort the ability you acquire as a teacher to talk about anything for either 50 minutes or 75 minutes. I can't seem to write anything in under 1000 words (this makes for trouble when I have to write notes for Elena at school)

Anonymous said...

Allan Kim was not "hired away". He also didn't "not make it tenure." It was also not the case with Sara Beardsworth. Kim's tenure application was rejected; Beardsworth withdrew hers under similar circumstances, when it was clear it would fail. SIU snapped her up.

Anonymous said...

As an alum of Memphis, I am forced to be somewhat concerned with whatever happens at Memphis. That doesn't mean that it matters to me personally. Lawlor and Bernasconi were both good scholars. I think only the latter was truly a good teacher. But irrespective of this, they were 'big names'. The problem is, as someone else has pointed out, big names in continental philosophy these days comment, they don't create. In this sense, I don't understand what about continental philosophy hasn't been turned entirely into "the history of some European philosophers from the 20th century and what they said about one another". That's not philosophy, by definition. As long as continental "philosophy" as it is currently practiced eschews originative thought, and pushes at the limits of intelligibility, it will continue to die, and die specifically as history, not philosophy. This is part of the "poaching" pattern--one wants to get as many birds as one can before the end of the season. You can't prevent poaching. The funny thing about poaching on the continental side is the absolutely unthinking, incandescent rage associated with it; one gets an image of the 4 year-old whining about his Tonka truck being taken. It's really wrong, people exclaim! In analytic philosophy, where poaching is very prevalent as well, it's just business as usual, without all the psychological angst surrounding it. Where will Memphis' department go? I have no idea. Meteoritic rises at graduate departments are often followed by dips--or whole crashes. I hope as an alum that it doesn't crash. But if it dips and reinvents itself, all the better for it. The bottom line is that continental programs can only get stronger by poaching because it's generating fewer scholars ALONG with fewer big names, the two going hand in hand. The field is drying up financially and academically, and is being forced to consolidate.