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.

------------------------ -------------

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.


j.d. said...

I'll be thinking these over, but one additional point of leverage...

I would like to see Euro phil doctoral programs hire people, at the junior level, from fellow Euro phil programs. And so SPEP address this issue.

This has been a problem for awhile. Part of how young scholars become important for doctoral programs is by being on the doctoral scene from the outset. I don't think that makes much sense, but that's the game for now. To use myself as an example, my two books, a third contracted, edited volume, and two dozen articles...that won't ever make me the object of doctoral program pursuit. (Let's ignore other issues with me!) What's strange about that, actually, is that I don't even imagine it would. Why not? Because I didn't make the early move to a Ph.D. program.

Apologies for self-exampling. Of course there are many other folks like me. I get that. It's stupid, etc., but that's how it goes. I'm not interested here in talking about the problems with fast-tracking being the only-track.

SPEP-affiliated programs often don't hire from other SPEP-affiliated programs. They fall victim to the pedigree fetish. That's been bad for Euro phil. The work done from pedigree-fancy programs...well, it has never seemed to turn into important, innovative commentators.

SPEP ends up being more party, some ideas, but not much for making its members the kind of scholars (reputation-wise) who can step up and elevate a graduate program.

KHG said...

I don't know how much talking in private and public and on the internet about what we're calling poaching will stop for a reason you mentioned. Senior faculty members need to be able to change jobs and cities and duties. They need to be able to leave their departments. I think the way to allow this to happen without it crushing the departments they leave is also something you addressed in several different ways. Departments need to hire Continentally trained junior faculty and groom their junior faculty members from the start. Your suggestions for SPEP's involvement on that front seem spot on.

Last, a thought about the draft/match idea: This runs the risk of worsening the already difficult situation we encounter on the job market-- being required to leave families, communities, and cities we love to go to places we don't particularly know or like. This works for residencies because it's for limited period and because in the end there's the promise of lots of money and a job anywhere one wants. I'm afraid we don't have the same carrots.

Doctor J said...

j.d.: I think I addressed your concern about hiring junior ppl from SPEP-affiliated programs in my "intervention" #2. Or at least I think I did. The point is, I agree with you that it should be a priority of SPEP to promote its constiuency in all kinds of ways, including "officially" endorsing the programs that are producing its future scholars (as I suggest in #2).

KHG: Point taken. You're right that the "med school" model doesn't exactly map onto our situation in a way that makes the analogy coherent. At leas not until we all start getting paid mucho deneros, that is. Or euros. Or good old-fashioned American dollars.

for-everyone-else-who-has-yet-to-respond: My suggestions here are really just a kind of fast-and-loose set of guidelines. Obviously, if I really thought I had the secret formula, I would draw this up as an official suggestion to SPEP. Which I haven't done. Presuming, of course, that the Executive Committee doesn't already make it a habit to read my blog. (Now that's some funny sh*t.)

j.d. said...

Ah, so I read you as saying something a bit more limited, like having a standard designated for including, say, a program on the SPEP online list. But you're right, now that I have that straight (my mistake), and would say something just like what I'm saying.

I still think the fact that no one goes to papers at SPEP is a problem...seriously. But that's off-topic.

Original topic:

Maybe the first step for Memphis is to open the door to hiring alumni...smiling...kinda...ha.

anotherpanacea said...

It's a good point: Dr. J would be a great replacement for Robert....

Joe B. said...

I was pointed to this discussion by Ammon (in this context, "Ideas Man"?), and have found it very interesting/enlightening, so thanks for that.

Now for a few random thoughts, not necessarily in order of importance or relevance:

1) I am not convinced of the truth of one of the main assumptions underlying these posts, viz. that SPEP style grad programs are dwindling in number. I am pretty sure that I can count as many (or maybe even more) as I would have when I was first in grad school, though their relative strengths may now differ. In any event, I will leave it at that in deference to your desire to not list or rank grad programs...

2) It is not clear that the medical residency match program does work well; lawsuits have been raised against it (though dismissed, I believe) because it promotes unfair bargaining practices...

3) I think your first two suggestions for what SPEP might do to help the "poaching" problem are really bad ideas insofar as they would amount to self-ghettoization, and would drive away grad programs with continental components that do not want to be so strongly aligned with SPEP. I, for one, am not convinced that non-or-not-entirely-SPEPpy programs aren't possibly really good places to study continental phil, and thus shouldn't be assumed to be against us (even if they wouldn't self-identify).
And I can't help but wonder (and this is partly--but only partly--a joke) where the idea behind point two might end. The program I got my phd from was clearly SPEPriffic, if not SPEPtacular, when I was there--and so would pass whatever legitimacy test might fulfill point two. But I fear being fingered as a closet SPEP enemy--I am not sure I am really "legit" (I have written about people at Pitt, after all...). Do we need individual certification?

4) Your point 4 is a really good idea, though, and I want some of that money. Seriously, though, it is a great idea (and I do want the money).

5) Finally, I am not sure poaching (whether bad or not) is really that big a problem (in the grand scheme of things, of course--it is obviously presently a problem for Memphis, has recently been for Nova, etc.)--it is pervasive throughout philosophy (just ask Pitt about Chicago), and academia as a whole, and life seems to go on, with occasional rough patches...

Soon-to-be Dr. T said...

I wonder too what will come of holding SPEP responsible for this poaching. Perhaps that's an overstatement of what we're doing, but not too much. I don't fully know the situation, but it seems to me that the University of Memphis has some responsibility as an institution for not doing enough to maintain its program (as the Nova administration could have been accused in the past). I worry that making it a SPEP problem prevents it from being the particular problems of particular institutions. In the end, I think Nova has come through, Penn State as well. Now I expect that Dr. J will say it's a matter of money, and perhaps, but it's amazing how money turns up when it's really important and needs to be found. Money seems like a reason administrators use to pass the buck. I don't generally think professors take jobs for money (especially since the more money must be balanced by living in Happy Valley) so I don't think the money involved is salary as much as bringing in good students, promoting good conferences and good scholarships for underserved individuals (both of which Memphis does seem to do so maybe this doesn't apply to Memphis).

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I also want some of that SPEP money. Barring that, I'll settle for more regular panel acceptance at SPEP.

I'm pretty sure that I concur with all of your proposals, Dr. J; I think they would be great.

On Joe's question of whether self-identifying SPEPPY programs is a bad idea; I don't think that necessarily follows if one simply makes the (correct, I think) analogy to unions that Dr. J. makes: It might be the case (and for reasons that I outlined in my previous tract think is in fact the case) that there is good continental work done outside of the SPEP world, but it doesn't follow from that that SPEP doesn't have an interest in promoting the well-being of faculty and students who come from the places it's membership comes from. This is why I would propoose an extensive, rather than intensive definition of a "SPEPPY" or "Europhil" or "Continental program" and simply find a way of defining it as those places where significant proportions of grad. faculty and students attend SPEP. (Note that Joe would therefore be safe by my def; or rather, Joe couldn't be safe since my def. doesn't apply to individuals; but he would be an individul who would count towards a SPEPPY program).

And just as unions advocacy can do good things for non-union workers working in a similiar field, we can hope that SPEP's advocating on behalf of the well-being of the programs its members belongs to would be good for continental philosophy, whether served straight up (SPEP) or on the rocks (of non-continental programs).

And while the academic draft issue does have the problems that KG and JB (any coincidence that these are the intials of the due behind Tenacious D?) --- point out, I can't help but wonder if there isn't a better system than the current one (I like to think I'd wonder that even if the current system worked better than me, but I see no problem with self-exampling). . . Of course, although any real solution would require lots more structural changes to philosophy and academia (not the least of which would indeed be mo' money) I can't help but wonder if there aren't any short term problems (again, I'll point to the fact that people from SPEPPY programs do much better at schools that have institutional links to SPEP than in other markets).

Now, on the question that Dr. J. reserves judgment on: just as some unions have become more about enriching union bosses than anything else, might there be a problem that SPEP's structure advocates better for senior faculty than junior faculty... I'd never be that cynical.

P.S. In case it's not obvious, the title "Ideas Man, Ph.D." is intended to be tongue in cheek. Just want to make sure that people don't think I'm a tremendous ass (or at least not for that reason.)

Ideas "Man"

j.d. said...

Screw it, let's rank programs according to performance in the Final Four!

j.d. said...

Since my institution does not give grades, but rather elaborate narrative evaluations, I've been way too buried in work to say this last bit. Seriously. When you don't give grades, there ain't no shortcut...ugh. I'm on board for the programme, but it is tiring. The "other side" of my awesomely light teaching load.


I think SPEP should rank programs. Every program that has graduated a PHD thesis on a European philosopher in some regularity (say, once every two years on average, for ten years? I don't know) gets ranked. M.A. programs too.

Now, that will surely be like the Leiter "Report." But, you know what? The Leiter Report is a real blow. It is not nothing. So, whatever the over-reach, it gives the profession something to look at and think about, even if just to reject.

The Leiter Report got inside people's heads. I believe that. Why not give a push back? I don't think "rankings" of Euro phil programs is all personal taste. Clearly Depaul is better than Loyola, Penn State better than Memphis, and so on. Why not generate a measure or a few and make a list? I imagine it is wholly unpopular, but I'm all for it.

Why NOT rank, given how people outside Euro phil (read: prospective employers outside grad programs) are pretty much ignorant (which is fine) of the professional shifts and powers in graduate programs?

Doctor J said...

I've been swamped for the last few days and couldn't respond here... but I wanted to get back to Joe B, soon-to-be-Dr-T, and jd.

Joe first, since he gave "numbered" points to which I can respond..

to Joe B's point #1: I suppose it all depends on how you count, but although I *might* be able to concede that you can count "as many" programs now, I am highly suspicious that there are *more.* How could we figure this out more scientifically? Hmmm... maybe by LISTING the programs to "count"! Which brings me to...

Joe's point #3: Your argument here involves a pretty slick slight-of-hand. You say "identifying progrmas that are affiliated with SPEP" would be the same as "identifying 'enemies' of SPEP or 'those who are against it'." That's not what I am proposing SPEP do. If SPEP, using whatever criteris it chooses (though I hope its something like "really good schools to study continental phil"), makes a list of those schools, and then subsequently THE SCHOOL decides it doesn't want to be aligned (or allied) with SPEP... well, then that's a decision that the individual school has made (not SPEP) and is something that, I suppose, prospective students of that program should take into consideration.

Joe's point #5: I'm confused. Are you saying that "poaching is not that big of a problem" or that "it is pervasive thoughout acaedmia (just ask Pitt, Memphis, Nova, etc, etc, etc)"?

Doctor J said...


I never said that we should hold SPEP responsible for "poaching." And I don't think that. My basic point here is that IF it is the case that this activity seems to be doing damage to the constiuency that SPEP represents, then SPEP may be the best place to look for potential solutions. If a large number of people in SPEP suddenly came down with some rare disease, I wouldn't say SPEP is responsible for their getting sick, but that inasmuch as SPEP is an already-established organization committed to their interests, that SPEP could do something to address (or at least bring attention to) the proglem.

I'm less interested in talking about the responsibilities or liabilities of individual programs (and even less so individual philosophers) who are getting sick since there is little that can be done that way.

Doctor J said...


I'm pretty sure that SPEP has already outright rejected the idea of ranking programs in the way that Leiter does. (So has the APA.)

j.d. said...

I am also pretty sure (no, sure) that SPEP has said "no" to the ranking thing, but I also think that was a mistake. And the mistake is pretty severe, if you ask me.

There is a certain sense, in my view, in which the "no ranking" is just some lame moral high-ground. Like we'll not do it, but watch while the Leiter Report decimates (I really think that) our side of the profession. I think a blow back to that report was in order and still is...rank back, I say.

I also think a number of programs, maybe most, benefit from not ranking. The benefit means being better positioned to scrap for scraps on the job market. In three categories:

1. Fake Euro phil places like UChicago can watch while their students get the primo jobs. Great benefit, one they'd probably have anyway. Academia is continuously, pathetically, drawn in by pedigrees like some sort of badly rewritten Fitzgerald novel.

2. Penn State, Vandy, Boston College, and Emory benefit from their already heightened status, as they are schools with generally higher visibility. Second and third tier on the prestige scale, to be sure, but not off the map, as with some.

3. Some in that "some" grouping is helped by the Catholic circuit. Loyola, Marquette, Villanova, even maybe Depaul keep some visibility with the whole Catholic thing.

That leaves, say, Memphis in a shitty place, no? We can't compete as a "good school," and the state-institution thing gets us outside the Catholic circuit.

Surely we could fold other programs into this, as places like Depaul don't resonate on the Catholic circuit like Georgetown or BC.

I don't see the problem with ranking and comment, doing it like Leiter does. My only problem with Leiter, to be honest, is his pure prejudice against Euro phil. I know that puts me in the minority. Or maybe alone?

I feel like Euro phil (real SPEPpy phil) is like the unaffiliated schools in the NCAA. Great, if you're Notre Dame. You show every Saturday. But if you're Seattle University and moving into Division I (it's true, the new independent!), no one notices you. On the job market, I have to say that this has been a total catastrophe for SPEP based Euro phil.

Failure to recognize this as a catastrophe, the job market, is the real issue for SPEP. It's not just bad. It's a catastrophe. Folks with a dozen articles, a book, no chance at a job. I've never seen SPEP think aggressively about the market, how our very best people often get 4/4 loads out of graduate school IF LUCKY, and how that is just not the case with other areas of the discipline. (Unthinkable in analytic philosophy. Let's be honest.) Some aggressive marketing, as it were, has long been in order. A ranking, for all its contestedness, might let folks know out in Real America (my figure for where we get jobs) where Ph.D.s in Euro phil are coming from and why, say, a really smart person from the top of their class might choose Memphis or Depaul or Villanova over Chicago, Yale, or Penn.

How can we send that message? Fuck it, I say, affirm the segregation (it ain't going away in a dying discipline) and let's open for business, competition, ranking, and all that.

I get the objections, I think (I've been at the "business meetings" ...ugh... for the debate about Leiter). At the same time, I've never been convinced that it's in our actual interest to withdraw from that game.

Last bit of anti-disclaimer: I've done super-fab in terms of jobs, so this is not self-complaining. My job is awesome and I've have other awesome jobs on the way to here. But, wow, that's been pretty freakin' lucky and way outside the norm.

Joe said...

A few responses to your responses to my numbered points:

On point 1) Here is why I think it is reasonable to say that there are more SPEP-style PhD programs then there were when I started grad school (in the fall of 97). a) No really prominent SPEPpy program de-SPEPed during that time (well--Kelly Oliver left UT after I started grad school, but I think that train had already left the station; the same could be said about Northwestern, which has yo-yoed a bit over the years). b) All of the usual suspect programs still exist; of course a few have had their ups and downs during that time, but remained SPEP-style programs. c)Programs have emerged during that time with a SPEP identity, with the most obvious being Oregon (but perhaps also Texas A&M?). By a very quick count I can think of a dozen PhD programs with significant links to SPEP not including any of the schools I have mentioned.

On point 5) to clarify what I meant--I think the fact that poaching is so pervasive, and has been for decades, shows that it is not that big of a problem in broad terms. Life goes on for the programs involved, usually (though I am sure there are instances of programs that never really recover). This is not to say that I think it is a good thing, nor that I think it isn't problematic in some obvious respects. I guess my main point is that it isn't new, surprising, or a phenomenon limited to continental phil programs.

And point 3) I will concede some of your point regarding self-identification, but you do, in the original post, speak of SPEP setting criteria that determines who "counts" and who is "legit." That language seems fairly exclusionary to me, and I am not sure what is to be gained by that. Granted, the criterion you actually mention--"any graduate program with 3 or more tenured philosophers working in SPEP-focused traditions (European philosophy, race theory, feminism, aesthetics, whatever)"--is really broad, in fact, that it would include all kinds of non-SPEPpy programs. And not just Chicago (which strikes me as a pretty good place to do continental) or Stanford, but, say, Harvard (and even NYU would only be a person short). (Of course one might think that the people at those schools don't "really" do continental, but it will require much more fine-grained criteria to show why that is the case.) When it is that broad I am really not sure what it would accomplish, but if it is much narrower I fear it would be exclusionary in a bad way.