Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Philosophy Smoker Controversy

For those of you fortunate enough not to know what a "Philosophy Smoker" is, let me begin by saying that it has nothing to do with either "smoking" or "Philosophy." "Philosophy Smoker" is, rather, the informal term used to reference end-of-the-day receptions held at professional Philosophy conferences. Generally speaking, Philosophy Smokers are garden-variety academic conference receptions: there is finger food, there is a bar, they're usually held in a big hotel ballroom, where conference participants mingle and chat with one another, comfortably or awkwardly as is their wont/ability. They're called "smokers" because it used to be the case that one could actually smoke cigarettes (or pipes, or cigars) at these receptions, but since you'd be hard-pressed to find a conference hotel nowadays that would allow smoking in one of its meeting spaces, tobacco consumption is actually verboten at Philosophy Smokers. (For a hilarious flashback to the days when smoking and Philosophy were still bedfellows, see Bertrand Russell's interview commentary on his own smoking habits.) Something like a Philosophy Smoker happens at most Philosophy conferences, but when people reference "THE Philosophy Smoker," they're actually talking about one particular conference and its particular variant of the Smoker. Specifically, they're talking about the receptions held each year by the APA (American Philosophical Association) at its Eastern Division meeting, which happens also to be the meeting where applicants for professional positions in the upcoming academic year undergo the first round of interviewing.

Consequently, the Philosophy Smoker (the one at the Eastern APA) is NOT your garden-variety Philosophy Smoker. The stakes are considerably higher, especially for job candidates. At the end of the day, everyone gathers in the conference ballroom for the Philosophy Smoker-- there is finger food, there is a bar, people chat with one another, comfortably or awkwardly as is their wont/ability-- but the APA Philosophy Smoker, unlike others, is only nominally an "informal social gathering." In reality, in many cases, it serves as another (off-the-books) chance for the faculty of hiring departments to vet job candidates. So, most job candidates assume (rightly, I think) that they should be at the Philosophy Smoker and, what's more, that their "performance" at the Philosophy Smoker is another one of the many performances by which they will be measured in their pursuit of a job.

The Philosophy Smoker has been the source of much Sturm and Drang over the years and is regularly bemoaned by hiring departments and job-seekers alike for the frustrating ambiguity generated by its coincidental importance and unimportance. It is, on its surface, merely (and perhaps only nominally) a "social gathering"... but, alas, professional philosophers are not, on the whole, the most socially adept population. Consequently, the social, psychological and professional skills required to successfully maneuver one's way through Philosophy Smokers causes great anxiety for a great many. Add to that the fact that the socializing constituency present at Philosophy Smokers are primarily defined by a massive and massively significant power asymmetry (job-seekers and job-hirers) and you've got what can only be described as PAYDIRT for some grad student majoring in psychopathology seeking a dissertation topic. (Really, why hasn't there been a study like the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment focusing on the Philosophy Smoker? I'm serious, Psych students, Social Anthropology students, Foucault scholars: This. Is. PAYDIRT.) Every year, for as long as I've been around anyway, the moaning and gnashing of teeth surrounding Philosophy Smokers has been deafening... and also ignored.

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of criticism directed toward the Philosophy Smoker as a consequence of a Smoker-related horror story published on the blog What Is It Like To Be A Woman in Philosophy?. That story was linked on both of the most-widely-read philosophy blogs (Leiter Reports here and newAPPS here), and has served as the catalyst for the newAPPS blog's recent "Plea to end informal interviews at the APA." There, the contributors to newAPPS (Mark Lance, Helen De Cruz, John Protevi, Berit Brogaard, Eric Schliesser, Mohan Matthen, Jeff Bell, Dennis Des Chene, and Catarina Dutilh Noveas) argue that the Philosophy Smoker, which they characterizes as a venue for "informal interviews," ought to be disavowed by hiring departments and banned by the APA for a number of reasons, inlcuding:

(1) its informal/unstructured nature fosters bias in the hiring process, since a uniform and non-preferential environment for candidates who are interacted with at the Smoker cannot be guaranteed, and as a result
(2) the natural environment of the Smoker disadvantages some job candidates (newAPPS cites "pregnant folks, sick folks, shy folks, those with even the slightest bit of social anxiety, anyone with any sort of hearing problem") over other candidates,
(3) the presence of alcohol at Philosophy Smokers (NB: each APA attendee is issued two free "drink tickets" to the Philosophy Smoker) impairs performance on the part of interviewees and judgment on the part of interviewees AND interviewers, and
(4) it is unclear what role the conversations between interviewees and interviewers at the Philosophy Smoker plays in the overall hiring process. Job candidates operate under the assumption that they should solicit conversations with their potential hirers at the Philosophy Smoker, despite the fact that this is quite often not the case and can actually work against the job candidate.

NewAPPS' plea asks not only that hiring departments cease requesting candidates to "drop by their table" at the Philosophy Smoker, but also that the APA explicitly ban any sort of "informal interviewing" at the Philosophy Smoker. For all of the reasons that they lay out, I think the former is a reasonable-- in fact, imperative-- request. I'm less persuaded by the latter.

Let me start by saying that I am sympathetic with all of newAPPS' reasons for imploring the APA to ban informal interviewing at Philosophy Smokers (similar to 1994 APA ban on interviewing in "sleeping" rooms, which was issued for many of the same reasons). My hesitancy about newAPPS request is not a result of thinking that it's a bad idea, but rather a real concern about how one might enforce a ban on all of the other Philosophy-Smoker-like "informal interviewing" that happens outside of the actual Philosophy Smoker. My suspicion is that, were such a ban to be issued by the APA, the very same (objectionable) informal interviewing that currently takes place at the Philosophy Smoker would simply move to the hotel hallways, or to the hotel bar, or to nearby restaurants, or to the huddled gatherings of Philosophers-Actually-Smoking that one can always find wherever the conference hotel has located its outdoor ashtrays. That is to say, I don't think there is any way to ban "informal interviewing," which I understand to be the real heart of newAPPS' plea, and I'm seriously concerned about what sort of thicket the APA is entangling itself in by attempting to ensure that such a thing doesn't occur at its conferences.

Let's suppose that the APA does issue such a ban and, as I've somewhat pessimistically anticipated, a Search Committee member instead says to one of his or her candidates at the end of the "formal" interview: "We're meeting in the lobby bar this evening for a drink. Feel free to stop by and say hello if you're around. I'd love to hear more about your work on x." (In my experience, FWIW, solicitations to "drop by our table at the Philosophy Smoker" are quite often phrased in just this manner. And I say that as someone who's been both the issuer and the recipient of said solicitation.) Is that conversation off-limits, pursuant to the APA ban? If the target of the APA's putative ban is "informal/biased/preferential interviewing practices," is the APA then obligated to intervene in cases of informal interviewing that replicate the Philosophy Smoker, even if they don't actually occur at a Philosophy Smoker? Do we expect the APA to go so far as to prohibit all non-formal interaction between job candidates and hiring faculty on the same principle, for example, that prohibits interaction between attorneys/plaintiffs/defendants in a legal case and the judges/juries that decide those cases?

I think this kind of a ban is impractical, if not impossible. I'm not even convinced it's advisable. Hiring departments are, after all, not just hiring "a philosopher," but also a teacher and a colleague. I'm not entirely persuaded that the kinds of social skills put to the test in informal "social" environments are irrelevant to choosing the best candidate. Obviously, those social environments should not be constructed in such a way as to effectively exclude the kinds of candidates that newAPPS notes in its criticisms of the Philosophy Smoker environment. But the idea that jobs should be issued simply on the merits of a candidate qua "philosopher" masks a whole other set of hidden, and prejudicial, criteria for judgment. (That's a topic for another day.) I, for one, would oppose a proscription of informal interactions with job candidates. And I would even oppose a proscription of using informal interactions with job candidates as a criterion in one's judgement of a candidate's viability for the job under consideration. Those reservations notwithstanding, I agree with newAPPS that the structure of the Philosophy Smoker is deeply problematic, and those easily identifiable problems ought to be addressed by the APA.

Instead of soliciting the APA to disavow the Philosophy Smoker, we should change the environment of the Philosophy Smoker to minimize, if not eliminate, its structurally problematic elements. Here are my suggestions:

(1) Ban hiring departments from soliciting candidates to attend the Philosophy Smoker at all. No explicit or implicit invitations to "drop by our table" and, more importantly, no APA publications that identify who is (or will be) or isn't (or won't be) present at the Smoker. At the very least, this would require job hirers to seek out job candidates to engage in (presumably innocent) conversations about philosophy at the Smoker, rather than the current arrangement, which effectively requires job candidates to seek out job hirers for conversation. That is to say, eliminating the APA "table chart" might mitigate, if not in some sense reverse, the social power-dynamic of the Smoker. In order for this to be effective, of course, ALL job candidate would have to be aware of, and encouraged to report violations of, the APA's prohibition.

(2) Remove alcohol from the Philosophy Smoker altogether. No more bar (not even cash bar) and, for the love of Wisdom, no more "free drink tickets." That's always been a terrible idea. If attendees want to socialize over a drink before (or instead of) the Philosophy Smoker, that's their (unsanctioned by the APA) decision and there's always the hotel lobby bar for those informal meetings. We can't reasonably expect the APA to regulate all of the "informal interactions" between job-hirers and job-seekers, nor can we reasonably expect the APA to take some kind of a moral-prohibitionist stand about the demerits of alcohol-influence on social interactions. We can, however, reasonably expect that the APA won't officially structure an environment where drinkers are prejudicially advantaged or disadvantaged.

(3) Schedule the Philosophy Smoker for earlier in the evening or, more ideally, some time that might reasonably be considered within the regular "interview time" of the day.
This would not only remove the vague social pressure to consume alcohol at the Smoker, but it would also accommodate the needs of child-carers who are asymmetrically burdened by extra-hours interviewing requirements.

I will concede that my suggestions don't eliminate the concerns articulated in newAPPS' points (1) and (4) above, and they only mitigate newAPPS' point (2), but I'm not convinced that anything short of a total ban on informal interactions between interviewers and interviewees could effectively address those concerns. However, my suggestions are consistent with newAPPS' more general concern to minimize the effective (and affective) bias realized by the current structure of the Philosophy Smoker.

I can say, with relative confidence, that I've never made a hiring decision entirely based on my informal interactions with a job candidate at the Philosophy Smoker. However, it is certainly the case that Philosophy Smoker interactions have been, when they occurred, one of many things that have influenced my final judgment of a candidate. I'd like to think that those candidates who opted not to attend the Philosophy Smoker have not been diminished in my judgment as a result of that decision, just as I'd like to think that those who "performed" badly at the Philosophy Smoker have not been significantly harmed in my judgment by those interactions... though I am, of course, aware that one cannot always impartially measure those effects. Nevertheless, my (now three-time) experience as a SLAC (small liberal arts college) Hiring Committee Member has inclined me to consider my informal interactions with job candidates to be very significant interactions, even if not interactions exactly equivalent to those that happen in the formal interview.

Comments section is open and, as always, your comments are encouraged.


Jeff Hamrick / Constable Sam said...

A brief comment on policies and procedures at the Joint Mathematics Meetings: there is a formal ban on informal interviews in hallways, restaurants, hotel rooms, bars, etc. The ban is almost entirely ineffectual. In fact, I would say that roughly 35-40% of all interviewing activity actually occurs through these venues. The main motivator seems to be the high price of renting a 2-person or 4-person interview table from the conference.

A better approach is to acknowledge that propping up the prices of the interview tables with a ban that everybody disregards is silly. We should instead make use of the tables "free" and then spread the cost of organizing the interviewing venue over all conference participants. After all, matching good candidate employees to good candidate employers serves the whole profession and should, at least in principle, be supported by all conference attendees (vis-a-vis registration fees). After all, many of the conference attendees either *have* benefited from or *will* benefit from a well-organized interviewing venue.

What does not work is a mildly embarrassing system by which people "meet clandestinely," joke awkwardly about how they are breaching conference/MAA policy, and then proceed anyway with formally informal (or is that informally formal?) interviews.

Though I disagree with 45% of what Art Carden has to say, this is a great example in which "regulation from above" results in an stupid collection of unintended consequences.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm highly sympathetic to this group of writers and their concerns, and I agree that the Smoker should be eliminated. Frankly, I think the Smoker is a madhouse and a professional embarrassment. But I don't think their reasons suffice to justify that conclusion.

In general many of the implicit bias concerns, both alcohol and non-alcohol related, will come up for job seekers at the campus visit stage if they were avoided at the APA. And as you point out, this may not even be such a bad thing. The apt comparison for me seems to be law firms, which use a variety of techniques to test a candidates' "off-stage" personality, some involving alcohol, because they aren't simply making a hire: they're considering a possible co-owner of the firm, a partner. The same is true of a tenure-track hire: hiring committees are evaluating candidates as a co-governor of their department, and they'd be irresponsible to limit their evaluations to the highly formalized interview and job talk.

I'd like to know if there's evidence of implicit bias at this stage of the hire: we have plenty of evidence of implicit bias in picking which CVs to interview, but I'm not sure if we have the same quality of evidence for the formal and informal interview stage, if only because it's more difficult to create a rigorous experiment.

Of course it stands to reason that implicit biases play a role in this stage as well, but as Jeff Hamrick suggests, the APA may not be able to handle this from above. We can't formalize every single interaction between interview and tenure-review, so there will be plenty of opportunities for bias to impact a candidate.

So: I say get rid of the Smoker, but I'm not betting it'll get any easier to be a woman in philosophy.

Paul Haught said...

I think you've about covered it, Leigh. Every now and then--and now again thanks to your post--I wonder whether The Smoker played a role in me 'blowing it' my first year on the market. Just as you describe, I was invited by each of the committees to visit them at their respective tables at the smoker. I was pretty green and certainly overwhelmed by the carnival atmosphere (okay, I exaggerate, but it does get loud in there), but I thought things went pretty well all in all. The exception was that members of one institution failed to show at either of their two tables. It was a position I was especially interested in, so I was eager to meet with them. But after waiting and waiting, and with the place thinning out, I headed out for less intense socializing.

The next morning, as I was coming out of a session, I ran into one of the committee members, who recognized me and asked, "Where were you last night? We were waiting for you." Needless to say, I was flabbergasted, and wasted whatever remaining time to make an impression explaining my own failure to locate them at the smoker (and of course wondering what kind of cosmic accident made that failure possible).

On the whole, despite agreeing with your criticisms of it, I haven't been too bothered by the smoker, although I do find it awkward to share the interview experience with the competition. More than once I've sat down at a table with respected colleagues and friends who are also candidates for the same job. Those have often turned into good conversations, however, and sometimes that's all you need to get a visit to campus.

Emma B. said...

As far as I know, the practice at MLA is that hiring institutions throw parties at their suites or otherwise conduct "informal" meetings elsewhere. The strange semi-formality of the "smoker" is an excrescent purgatory that could only be thought up by the ranks of the most socially awkward philosophers. Even worse is the official APA advice to job seekers: "approach the table with a sheepish expression on your face." So we're going to set up a situation to enable "informal" interactions between candidates and hiring committees, only to then tell you you only ought to attend while grinding your knees into broken glass? Madness.

However, I think I disagree that these informal evening alcohol-assisted events should be discouraged, since part of being a colleague is participating in this sort of "collegiality" (entertaining visiting speakers, etc.). I wish I were more sympathetic to the pregnant woman on the blog you cite, but I don't think the entire conduct of a professional society should be based on the comfort of someone in a relatively unusual situation. And really, alcohol is the only thing that makes the whole business even remotely bearable.

Josh Kurdys said...

Maybe because I'm viewing things from the outside, I'm still under the naive impression that these events are supposed to be professional interactions. To be honest, I've never been comfortable with the idea expressed in your post, as well as several of the responses, that a search committee is making more than a hire in selecting a colleague. To be fair, this attitude pervades graduate school, so this attitude regarding the Smoker is not an isolated phenomenon.

There are many types of professional relationship, but they are all professional. To endorse the use of anything but professional standards in the process of selecting a colleague is a disgusting abuse of authority on the part of search committees and bad faith on the part of job seekers. With that said, acknowledging the role these interactions play and the underlying attitudes that motivate them is a valuable professional service and I thank you and your respondents for it.

In conclusion, I think that abandoning the Smoker is a good start, but this general attitude of acceptance for non-professional standards of evaluation also needs to be on the horizon for critics of the Smoker.

Dr. Moore said...

Though I'm sympathetic with Emma B.'s assessment of the social ineptitude of our little world, after dismissing the inconveniences and prejudices thereto of motherhood as relatively uncommon (and 'therefore' not worth addressing?), Emma B. goes on to note that the alcohol component makes the whole thing bearable...
Is the main issue not so much how we go about being together as the fact that we're (perhaps) all fairly dysfunctional as academics in the first place? Of course, if you're in a 'condition' where alcohol or other coping mechanisms are unreliable or undesirable, it appears you have already selected yourself out of the pool. This is to say, why are we so much in need of social crutches in the first place if not because this system makes us crazy?

Emma B. said...

Thanks for responding Dr. Moore. First I want to make it clear that I am all in favor of mothers being professional academics and doing as much as we can as a profession to enable and encourage that! It's just not clear to me that being in a situation where you can't drink because of pregnancy (not motherhood but its very temporary precondition!) should be the basis for drinking being banned at the smoker (or similar evening type event). Sipping cranberry juice is not an indignity nor will it weigh against you at the smoker (in fact if you remain sober it will probably act in your favor!)

However, the point about lateness etc. is well taken. It seems to me that if hiring committees want to meet candidates in a "less formal setting" maybe they should provide an *additional* option of a daytime cafe meet or something for those who don't wish to deal with a late night scene, rather than banning or outlawing the evening "party" setting. I'm also not sure that desiring alcohol in such settings is a sign of dysfunction! There's plenty of dysfunction, to be sure, but even if everyone were "fully functional" I'm not sure that alcohol wouldn't be appreciated. The particular stress and artificiality of the cattle call conference seems to naturally call for it. I do worry, in fact, about calls for "temperance" especially when they are made in the name of women's interests. There is an unavoidable aspect of this profession which requires one to be able to be "professional" in the evening, when socializing, and when alcohol is flowing (even if one does not partake). And as a general anti-Puritan I don't think the interests of the non-partakers should trump those of the partakers.