Wanted: A future for philosophy

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How goes it with the institution of philosophy? Consider the situation of “Jeremy,” a Ph.D. student in the graduate program at the University of North Texas. As a second-year student, he has a teaching fellowship. This means that in addition to taking nine credit hours of graduate coursework, he teaches two sections of “Contemporary Moral Issues” each semester. Each section has 45 students. Jeremy is responsible for the entirety of the class, just as any professor would be.

In 2014, for teaching four courses a year, Jeremy earns $14,199. That’s about $2,500 above the poverty level as established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But Jeremy, like most graduate students at UNT, does not receive a tuition waiver. After he pays tuition and fees—some $8,000 a year—his annual salary comes to about $6,000 for nine months’ work.

Granted, these are exploitation wages, and compensation is at least marginally better at some other universities. But Jeremy is doing what he loves. It is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to read great books with care. Moreover, in addition to the private pleasure involved, individuals with highly developed philosophical skills constitute a public good. Our culture is improved by having people who can analyze complex arguments, and who are able to carry forward a 2,500-year-old tradition of thought. Yes, he will accumulate some debt, but for good reason. And he can pay back his loans when he starts working.

Work: there’s the issue. For the job market in philosophy is abysmal. It has been that way for decades. Good numbers are hard to come by, because professional organizations like the American Philosophical Association have not put much effort into collecting placement statistics. Philosophers are supposed to be above all that; moreover, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. But there has been at least one attempt to systematically survey the job market. It shows that things look pretty good at the top, with 91 percent of Ph.D. graduates of Yale’s philosophy program holding tenured or tenure-track positions. But by the time you get to the 35th-ranked program, the odds of a Ph.D. graduate’s holding a tenured or tenure-track position have dropped to 50 percent. The figure is 13 percent for the 60th-ranked Ph.D. program. And 40 lower-ranking programs didn’t even make the list.

Departmental placement rates should be posted on the website of each of the 100 or so Ph.D. programs in philosophy in the United States. (Increasingly, placement anecdotes are posted, but that is different from statistics.) To do so, however, would call attention to contradictions that affect the profession in general. No doubt about it, we are heading for a cliff: Too many graduate students chasing tenure-track jobs that are themselves disappearing; rising societal demands for accountability coupled with budget cuts; the loss of faith in ‘higher knowledge’; and an insular philosophic culture, in which professors write nearly exclusively for one another. Nor is philosophy the only field facing this crisis. As a recent study from the Modern Language Association notes, “We are faced with an unsustainable reality.”

Many graduate philosophy programs rely upon what could be characterized as a game of bait and switch. These programs exist not because there is a job market for their graduates. They exist for a variety of reasons, including the intrinsic value of philosophy and institutional mandates to produce Ph.D.’s. But they also exist in part to help universities reduce the cost of tuition while providing faculty members with the opportunity to conduct research.

Let’s continue with the example of North Texas. In addition to 25 Ph.D. students, there are 13 tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the philosophy department. Each faculty member teaches one or two courses per semester, usually small, upper-division classes. Faculty members also commonly teach one graduate course every third semester, consisting of perhaps eight or 10 students. In 2014, departmental tenure and tenure-track faculty salaries averaged $85,500 per year.

With 180 students per year and a net salary of $6,000, Jeremy costs the university $33 per student. The average faculty member in the department costs $690 per student, given the higher salary and lower enrollments (in one recent year, averaging 124 students per faculty member). Faculty courses, then, are more than 20 times as expensive per student as courses taught by graduate students. This may be on the extreme end, but such disparities exist in other graduate programs, speaking to the underlying financial reality facing public universities.

How is this situation justified? First, professors perform services that graduate students do not, such as advising students and updating curricula, which help keep the profession and the university running smoothly. Second, professors are certainly more practiced and presumably better teachers. Greater skill at teaching should result in students’ being more inspired and better prepared as writers and thinkers. Such skills constitute a significant public good. Whether in business or in politics, society needs clear and incisive thinkers. Third, professors produce a significant amount of philosophical research. Nationwide, each philosophy professor typically publishes an article or two per year in professional journals, and averages a book perhaps once a decade published by a university press. But whether at UNT or elsewhere, what are the outcomes of this research? Who reads these books and articles, and to what societal good do they contribute?

Here answers get more difficult to come by. Judging by press runs (typically 500 or 750 copies for academic books) these works are read only by other professors. Indeed, it is not clear that even professors read one another’s articles and books; most academic books are sold to university libraries rather than individuals, as is the case with the professional journals that publish philosophy articles. Philosophers produce an increasing amount of material, but it is far from clear who is reading that work. Most of it is cited sparsely, if at all. Indeed, the chief function of this research seems to be to provide criteria for deciding whether the authors are worthy of tenure.

To sum up our argument: In the majority of graduate programs, students are overworked and underpaid during their time in school, and they have few prospects for work once they graduate. And the beneficiaries of this system—again, setting aside the pleasure of studying philosophy for a period of one’s life—are the universities, which save costs on instruction, and the professors, who practice their specialties in graduate courses and use their reduced workload to produce philosophical research.

There is more to be said on this score, and we are writing a book to say some of it. To be candid: We are unsure about some of the points we make here, because university financing can be maddeningly complex and less than fully transparent. One of our hopes is that this essay will spur conversation (and, yes, refutation) on these points, to the benefit of all.

But a couple of points seem clear. First, we have an ethical obligation to explain this situation to incoming graduate students. It is possible that students will still enroll; after all, studying philosophy is a wonderful thing to do with a part of one’s life. But we can no longer ignore the issue of placement. Moreover, we must explore the possibility of careers for our Ph.D. students outside of academe. (This is something we have had some success with at North Texas. Our specialty, environmental philosophy, lends itself to our students’ being relevant outside of philosophy.)

Second, with the exception of a few prestigious (or privately funded) programs, it is unlikely that philosophers and other humanists are going to be funded much longer to produce research that is sparsely read and of interest to only a small disciplinary cohort. Because most philosophers work at public universities, a significant part of their research should be on issues relevant to the wider community. This is in keeping with our Socratic heritage. (Again, at UNT we regularly engage scientists, engineers, and policy makers, bring in significant grant dollars, and even operate a field station in Chile.)

Something is out of joint: Overworked and underpaid graduate students are taking on major teaching responsibilities, apparently at least in part so that parents can get a discount on tuition, and professors can produce books and articles of dubious societal value. If we love philosophy and the humanities, we need to address those concerns before someone less sympathetic does it for us.

Author Bios: Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas. Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity.

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