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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Recruiting Philosophy Majors

One of my favorite things to do at the end of the semester involves sending emails to those particularly excellent students I had in class and trying to recruit them to the Philosophy major.  I don't think I tell students often enough during the regular term that they're doing good work, or that they have real talent, or that I'm genuinely impressed-- I'm working on that!-- but I really do try to make a point of doing so after I finish grading and before we all go on break for the holidays or the summer.  The Philosophy major is not always an easy sell, even to students who have a talent for it and are predisposed to love it, for a number of (cultural, social, economic, et al) reasons.  It often takes just a little push, a professorially-sanctioned hey-you're-really-good-at-this confirmation, the relay of a few helpful details that prospective majors might take home to reassure Mom and Dad that they won't just be serving "fries with that" after all, in order to make it possible for talented Philosophy students to see the major as a real possibility.  So, at the end of each semester, I send an email.

Those of you who know me will know that OF COURSE I HAVE A TEMPLATE ALREADY for these Philosophy-major-recruitment emails. And, since several hundred of you downloaded my "Recommendation Letter Form" (a super-time-saving template for writing rec letters), I'm going to assume these things are useful.

Below is the basic form of the email that I send to students who I'd like to see declare a major or minor in Philosophy.

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Dear [student],

Now that the semester is over, I wanted to take moment to write to you personally, first, to congratulate you on your excellent performance in [insert course] and, second, to encourage you to think seriously about majoring or minoring in Philosophy.  I could see a real talent for [insert student’s specific strengths] in the work you completed for my course this term.  Those talents are especially well-suited for Philosophy and, with more training and study, I think you have the potential to be a very strong student in our Department.

I know what you’re thinking.  But what can I do with a Philosophy major

The short answer to that is: almost anything. A major in Philosophy trains you think broadly and critically, sharpens your capacity to effectively assess others’ positions as well as precisely articulate your own and, perhaps most importantly, equips you with the sorts of fundamental problem-solving skills necessary for any future occupation.  Studies have shown that Philosophy majors regularly score the best or near best on the LSAT, the MCAT, and the GRE.  Just this last year, there have been a number of articles reporting that Philosophy majors are increasingly attractive job candidates in business and technology fields as well. Former students of mine who majored in Philosophy have gone on to law school, medical school, business school and graduate school in various disciplines; others have gone into advocacy/nonprofit work, politics, film and media, journalism and, of course, education.

Because most students come to college without any prior exposure to the discipline of Philosophy, the question what can you do with a major in Philosophy? is a natural and unfortunately anticipatable one.  That question really ought to be: what CAN'T you do with a major in Philosophy? I can see in you and in your work this semester that you have not only the critical skills, but also the creative and curious disposition of mind, necessary for asking that second question.

Not to suggest that it’s all about the money—but, then again, everybody needs to eat!—so I’ll also just point you to this recent study showing that Philosophy majors out-earn almost all other degrees in the humanities.

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, or if you have any questions about the major or the Department, please do feel free to come and speak with me.  

You have been an excellent student and a genuine pleasure to have in class, so I hope that whatever you choose as a major is something that you love, that inspires and challenges you, and that permits you to excel in all the ways that I am confident you are capable.

Thank you for your work this term.  I hope you enjoy your break and I look forward to seeing you again, if not in class, then in the hallways and community.

Best,
Dr. J
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If you're interested, you can download a copy of the above "Philosophy Major Recruitment Email" here

For what it's worth, I have a slightly different version that I send to female students, queer-identifying students and students of color, which includes another (tbh, aggressively coercive) paragraph on how much the discipline of Philosophy needs them specifically.  Feel free to adapt this template to your own purposes, of course, but please do let me know (or comment below) if you have helpful edits to add.


3 comments:

lr said...

I like this idea and do not wish to criticize but a couple things worth thinking about (1) why only 'good students.' Why not enthusiastic students/students who really seem to love philosophy, etc.?

I say this because I have learned something very humbling over the years, which is: I don't know if I can predict which students are really 'good' in the sense that I am sure some students are not-good. And a less humble point I can make is: I doubt anyone else can, either. We probably miss a lot of good students/students with the potential to be good. Some students can become good when someone shows confidence in them and helps them.

Also, I think philosophy can benefit all sorts of students.

(2) A second thing is that I actively reject the idea that anyone who is going to be an outsider is academic philosophy should be recruited because 'we need them.' Clearly, we do need them. But I would say 'tough luck for us' if they are put off. An alternative might be to say something more along the lines--'Academic philosophy has historically had a way of making people who are interested in it believe they can't do it or they don't belong. This is nonsense, of course, but it may be something you've noticed. If this issue concerns you, and is putting you off majoring when you really want to major, I'd love to talk about it with you.'

I'd actually put that in every letter--not single out students based on identity. We can't really know what their identity means to them (or even know what their identity is--not everyone has a visible identity).

It's up to us to make philosophy hospitable for students who are likely to feel like outsiders (because they are treated like outsiders)--so if we want to address that point, we need to put it on us and not on them.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...I could steal most of this template to try to recruit physics majors. We haven't moved so far away from "natural philosophy," I suppose.

JD said...

Your links don't work. You need to use a unique link, not the generic "My Drive" URL (since that will log everyone in to their own personal Drive account, not your Drive account). Alternatively, you could see if Blogger allows you to upload the files directly to the post.