With a new PGR imminent, I ought to return to a topic about which I get asked periodically. For example, several months ago, a graduate student in art history wrote:
I have been an interested reader of the Philosophical Gourmet Report for several years. As an undergraduate art history major applying to graduate school, I wished that such a report existed for art history. Now I am about to finish my PhD, and I still wish that such a report existed for art history!
Right now I’m mainly worried about my own career. But if, in a few years, I have a good tenured job and there is still no Art Historical Gourmet report, I will want to create one.
I wanted to ask if you would consider posting a list of “advice for those considering starting reports on other disciplines,” or perhaps you have already done so and I missed it. I’m sure that there is a lot of work involved and a lot of potential pitfalls.
In the meantime, thanks for your work on the PGR.
Over the years, I've certainly heard similar sentiments from many grad students or aspiring grad students in history, political science, and other fields. More recently, I've learned of efforts by a grad student and some supportive faculty in classics to set up such a report in that field. It is hardly surprising that such reports do not exist--for reasons I'll make clear, below--but perhaps with the success of the PGR, others will be inspired to undertake the task in other fields, where it would no doubt help students. The benefit for students are obvious and legion: those "out of the loop" of leading departments can find out what leading scholars, senior and junior, think about the best programs, and those attending undergrad at leading departments can get some perspective on the opinions offered by their faculty advisors. That such a report has an obvious value for students is, alas, no obstacle to its reception among academics. More on that in a moment.
My correspondent is obviously right to think about an Art History Gourmet Report as a post-tenure endeavor. Systematically evaluating your professional colleagues is not a ticket to career advancement! The work involved in the PGR in the form it has assumed over the last decade is, indeed, substantial: identifying evaluators, collecting information on their educational backgrounds and specialties, entering this into spreadsheets, creating the on-line survey, and then processing, transcribing and double-checking the results. Many of the pitfalls of the undertaking only became apparent over time. The PGR, as longtime readers will know, emerged as the force it is in academic philosophy through a serious of accidental accretions of influence (there is a decent account here, though you can see my cantekerous gripes about some inaccuracies in this account here). When I first started doing a simple version of it in 1989 and subsequent years, circulating it to a few friends, who circulated it to theirs, I never anticipated where it would be twenty years later. Entry on to the Internet in 1996 increased the PGR's influence, and made necessary more systematic methods of evaluation, which has been all too the good.
But the "pitfalls" for such an enterprise are, alas, many. Human beings are often vain, academics especially so, and people's self-image is, not surprisingly, usually out of sync (in part always, sometimes in whole) with the perception of others. Rankings therefore are guaranteed to make some people angry. (If you want to be universally loved, or are particularly sensitive to what people think of you, producing rankings is not the way to go!) Some academics are "control freaks" and are furious when their ability to indoctrinate their students with a particular vision of the field is contradicted by a very public resource, which represents the input of hundreds of equally or more distinguished philosophers. Many academics--maybe this is especially true of philosophers--seem to be in denial as to the fact that theirs is a profession, with hierarchies and a complicated sociology of institutional status and chains of influence, all of which it behooves students to be aware of. All faculty, of course, profess an interest in the well-being of students, but the human capacity for self-deception is quite substantial. The vain, the control freaks, and others will never cast their objections to an evaluation effort candidly, needless to say. I have yet to encounter a critic of the PGR who has subsequently done anything constructive to help prospective students. The best suggestions and constructive criticism will usually come from those who participate in the evaluation process, since they are the ones who see some value in collecting and aggregating expert assessments, and so have an interest in improving the procedures. I would attend to that advice especially carefully. But even those disengaged from the process sometimes raise interesting isssues (I'll discuss an example next week).
There is one genuine danger associated with any evaluation enterprise if that enterprise is as successful and influential as the PGR has been. People undoubtedly adjust their behavior in reponse to evaluation metrics, and it is important to make sure that the incentives created by such metrics encourage constructive adjustments. Producing both overall and specialty rankings ensures that there are many different benchmarks on which faculties can improve their standing. Including in the evaluator pool senior and junior scholars, and scholars from a diverse array of sub-specialties, ensures that no one vision of the field dominates. (Although in the current iteration of the PGR, coming out on Monday, specialists in Continental philosophy are probably slightly over-represented relative to their numbers in the profession, this will not, I am sure, cause even the slightest hesitation by certain marginalized cliques from misrepresenting the PGR, as they always do. Any field with a noisy minority faction will be impossible to satisfy in any serious evaluation effort.) How to deal with the self-reflexive character of a regular evaluation exercise is a topic on which I continue to welcome input and advice.
I have to confess that sometimes I'm not sure I would have undertaken the efforts in the beginning if I had realized how disgracefully alleged professionals and adults would have behaved over the years. Don't misunderstand: I am both glad and proud to have helped so many students who shared my own enthusiasm for philosophy, and I do appreciate the many hundreds of e-mails students have sent me over the years, and the tremendous support and encouragement from hundreds of professional philosophers as well. I am glad that leading PhD programs now provide unusually detailed information about job placement, something I forced them to do with the threat of embarrassment by calling attention to their secrecy (this, of course, led to much indignation including, memorably, by a leading Kantian moral philosopher: obviously it violates the categorical imperative to let prospective students know if PhD graduates from a school are getting jobs!). I am pleased to have broken the mindless focus on pedigree that predated the PGR, in which "Ivy League" or "Berkeley" or "Chicago" were arbiters of excellence, without any regard for the quality of the faculties at these institutions. But the costs--in terms of having to defend the enterprise again and again (rarely against meritorious criticism), and to suffer at times mindless abuse and defamation--have sometimes been quite tiresome. Being above average in pugnacity, needless to say, is also a useful attribute in this kind of undertaking, since the more successful it is, the more often it will be attacked.