Thursday, September 25, 2014

How Leiterism Can Be Bad for You

I did my graduate studies in a department in which, for better or for worse, no one ever talked about the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR). In fact, believe it or not, I didn't even know about the PGR until the year I hit the philosophy job market for the first time. I was mind-blown! "What a great idea!", I thought. And I knew it wasn't for the prospective graduate students or at least it wasn't primarily for them. People who tell you otherwise are lying either to you or to themselves  ("Think of the grad students!"). It was primarily for the rest of us. Because. let's admit it, as academics, we are competitive and ambitious and the idea that there could be One True Ranking of all philosophy departments (or at least all "good enough" departments) is just too appealing to us.

From there, it's a short step to what I like to call 'Leiterism'. Leiterism is the view that an individual philosopher's "philosophical worth" is proportional to the rank of the department(s) they are associated with (where one is associated with both the department that awarded them their PhD and the departments one has worked/works for). Of course, I do not think Brian Leiter or any of the people who produce or consume the PGR would admit they are Leiterists. In fact, most philosophers (even you, I bet, dear reader), would vehemently deny that they are Leiterists but Leiterism (like some contemporary racism) acts more as a (more or less) implicit bias than as an openly endorsed doctrine. I hate to admit that, despite my best efforts, I myself am still a Leiterist. Leiterism subtly and surreptitiously influences my judgements--which papers I choose to read, which people I choose to cite, which talks I attend, .... I often make a conscious effort to counteract my unconscious Leiterism but unconscious Leiterism is hard to eradicate.

You probably won't be surprised to find out that I think that Leiterism is a bad thing! (Didn't I compare it to racism after all? Luckily, it's not nearly as bad as racism, as it affects mostly very privileged people, people who, like you and I, had the privilege of being in a position to (try to) become professional philosophers.) I'm not going to get into the reasons why Leiterism is bad in general here. Here, I want to tell you how I learned that Leiterism can be bad for you. Actually, I'm going to tell you an anecdote about how my own Leiterism was bad for me.

As I mentioned above, I only learned about the PGR the year I first hit the job market. At the time I wasn't quite yet done with my dissertation and wasn't really hoping to get a fancy TT job at a Leiterific department, but I had a young family to support and I couldn't afford one more year in grad school. Plus I thought I would at least learn something about the job market from the whole experience and I hoped that securing at least a temporary position would give me a better shot at a Leiterific job the following year.

Anyway, at some point towards the end of the job season, I finally received an offer for a 1-year VAP from a top-50 department. They expressed a lot of interest in me and made me feel like I was being courted. By a top-50 department, nonetheless! Plus they repeatedly mentioned that they would likely advertise the tenure-track version of the position they were offering me the following year (strongly, implying that I would be in a good position to get it if I were to accept the job). At the time, I was still in the running for two other temporary positions at Leiterific departments but neither of those positions came with the possibility of a permanent position at the end of the rainbow. And, anyway, and this was what really clinched it for me--how could I possibly turn down a position from a Leiterific department???

Of course, I ended up accepting the offer. And my family and I spent a miserable year in [...]. With hindsight, I feel it was one of the most questionable decisions we have made as a family and I feel that my Leiterism played a crucial role in making what turned out to be a very bad decision for us. When I was on the market the following year, I made a conscious effort to prioritize other considerations over Leiterificity. I made some counterintuitive decisions (counterintuitive for a Leiterist, that is) and I ended up accepting a tenure-track position at a lovely non-Leiterific department in a nice city. I have never really regretted it. I know that some people will assume I am less worthy of a philosopher because I don't work for a Leiterific department. I see it happening all the time, but I try not to be bothered by it because I know that, in some possible world, there is a much more miserable version of me working at some Leiterific department in the middle of nowhere.

Let me be clear---I don't blame anyone else for my own mistakes  (I can hardly blame my oldest child, who was just six month old at the time of the decision, or my wife for them and don't blame other Leiterists!). I was professionally inexperienced and very naive at the time. And, ultimately, I think I have learned a number of valuable lessons from that experience. One of them is to distrust the Leiterist in me.

PS I should add that my year as a VAP wasn't a completely negative experience. First, I probably learned more about professional philosophy in my one year as a VAP at [...] than in all of my years of grad school and I think that what I learned really gave me an edge on the job market the following year. Second, I met some really nice people, some of whom I'm still in contact with. Last but most importantly, our second child was born in [...] ;-)

PPS Also, I should mention that our year in [...] was miserable for a number of reasons--not just because of the location--and that there are perfectly sensible people who love living there---insofar as our miserableness was caused by the location, I guess it's just a matter of personal taste.


  1. Anonymous due to contentSeptember 25, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    I appealed to authority and used the PGR. It didn't account for many issues. I happily attended high-ranked university in my field, only to be sexually assaulted by the professor I found via the PGR AND learn this was not said professor's first or even second time assaulting female students.

    A miserable, scaring lesson learned.

  2. I am very sorry to hear your (unfortunately not-too-uncommon) story. Unfortunately, it seems that some departments are willing to "feed" grad students to their "minotaurs" and look the other way insofar as the "minotaur"'s professional reputation is likely to affect their PGR standing positively.

    1. This is arguably one of the most harmful indirect consequences of Leiterism....