The Politicization of Job Advertisements in Philosophy

It has been noted that job advertisements in philosophy are increasingly moving away from core areas such as metaphysics and epistemology. For example, Prof. Marcus Arvan, of the University of Tampa, counted the number of times an area is mentioned as a desired area of specialization (AOS) in PhilJobs job advertisements in the period from August 1, 2016 to May 31st, 2017. For entry-level, tenure-track positions, he came up with the following numbers:

Area Mentions (AOS)
Metaphysics 5.5
Epistemology 4.5
Logic 1.3
Ethics 50
Philosophy of mind 6.4
Philosophy of language 2.3
Feminist philosophy 6
Non-Western philosophy 12
Philosophy of race 9.5

Table 1 Number of times an area is mentioned as AOS (if, in a particular advertisement, x areas are mentioned as AOS, then each area is considered to have been mentioned 1/x times).

Note that feminist philosophy, non-Western philosophy and philosophy of race get more mentions than each of the following areas: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and philosophy of language—all “core” areas of philosophy with the possible exception of philosophy of language. Non-Western philosophy and philosophy of race even get more mentions than any of the other areas, with the exception of ethics.

In job advertisements, areas mentioned among the AOSs are of course just one indication that a certain kind of candidate is preferred. A job advertisement may also indicate such a preference by mentioning certain areas of competence (AOCs), or courses that the successful candidate may be expected to teach. On 26 November, 2017, I counted the number of times African(a) philosophy, feminist philosophy, philosophy of gender, and philosophy of race are mentioned in non-expired job advertisements on PhilJobs. The total was 31/147 = 22.6% for tenure-track, continuing and permanent positions in academia (in other words, the most attractive positions). Restricting my search to advertisements for positions in North America and the UK, the total became 31/121 = 25.6%. Including social justice as AOS or AOC, the total became 32/121 = 26.4%. Excluding African(a) philosophy, the total became 27/121 = 22.3% (without social justice) and 23.1% (with social justice).

The question is why these non-core areas are mentioned so frequently (to be precise, in about 1/4th of all ads for jobs in North America and the UK). Brian Leiter considers these areas to be “trendy”, but, in fact, a quick look at the top journals of (general) philosophy does not reveal any such trend. For example, 48 papers are presently listed on PhilPapers as either 2017 or forthcoming publications in the Journal of Philosophy, but only one of these (2%) falls within the aforementioned non-core categories. Similarly, 40 papers are presently listed on PhilPapers as either 2017 or forthcoming publications in the Philosophical Review, but none of these (0%) fall within the aforementioned non-core categories. Hence, the aforementioned non-core areas do not seem to be trendy as far as philosophical research is concerned. Of course, this should not surprise anyone suspecting that political correctness affects the reviewing process. After all, if that is the case, then there simply is not enough room for a lively debate (say, between realists and social constructivists).

So there must be another explanation for why non-core areas are overrepresented in job advertisements. Here are two alternative explanations, which do not exclude each other.

First, philosophy departments are very eager to have more members from so-called underrepresented groups; women and nonwhites in particular. Since, in comparison with core areas, there is a much higher proportion of blacks and women in the areas of African philosophy and feminist philosophy respectively, mentioning these areas among the AOSs or AOCs will help to meet the goal of recruitment.

Second, the Leftist establishment in philosophy departments is increasingly worried that a younger generation might not buy into its Leftist dogmas. It is therefore looking for ways to discern Left from Right at the recruitment stage. Given that Leftist views are nowadays expressed mainly in terms of race, gender and sexuality (rather than class), the most obvious way to achieve this goal is to require job applicants to express views on these subjects before they are hired; for example, by asking them how they have taught these subjects, or how they would teach them. Such questions inevitably come up if the job advertisement specifies, for example, philosophy of race and gender as a desired AOS or AOC. Everyone knows this, and so conservative or right-wing philosophers will not even bother to apply (see my earlier post).

Regarding the second explanation, one might think that conservatives still stand a reasonable chance when it comes to the remaining 75% of job openings. But this is not true: the remaining 75% includes job openings in the areas of, for example, applied ethics and social and political philosophy, where Leftist bias is bound to play an important role as well. Moreover, unmentioned until now are other subtle cues in job advertisements; for example, a stated preference for candidates who can demonstrate commitment to “diversity” and “inclusiveness” (see also this post).

When all of this is factored in, it is pretty unlikely that a conservative will land a tenure-track or permanent job in North America or the UK.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

View All Posts

17 Comments

  1. Your analysis by current *research* trends doesn’t support your conclusion.

    When a university hires for a non-“open” philosophy position, the requirements are almost always driven by teaching needs. The current mix of offers can be explained by departments wanting, or not wanting but feeling the need, to offer courses in feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, and non-western philosophy. The present high numbers are likely due to departments presently transitioning from offering few or no classes in those areas to some number of classes. If that is what is driving the current market, the numbers will later balance out once the relevant departments have the people needed to teach those subjects. That change of mix might change the publication ratios a small amount, but universities and colleges could fill *all* open positions with, for example, non-western philosophy specialists for a couple years without much changing the overall ratios of who works on what, given that professors tend to work for 30 years or more. The current concentration is far less dramatic than that.

    Such trendiness negatively affects those who chose non-trendy fields. But “the world doesn’t owe you anything”, blah blah bootstraps blah blah, etc. etc.

    • The question (I was addressing) of course is why departments suddenly want or “feel the need” to offer courses in feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of gender, and so on. Again, a quick look at the research published in the major journals doesn’t suggest a shift in this direction. For example, it’s not that feminist philosophy, or the philosophy of race and gender, are what the philosophy of mind and language used to be in the 70s, 80s and 90s: fields attracting the young and brightest because of people like Davidson, Kripke, and Putnam. Hence, my two alternative explanations.

    • Following through on either of your alternative explanations would be self-undermining for the departments in question unless students enroll in the added classes. Almost all departments have some incentives tied to enrollment.

      One advantage of adding feminist and race courses is that a portion of students will sign up for them without having to “sell” them. Buddhism is (or has been) trendy recently because of the media attention on mindfulness and meditation. LEM has always been a harder sell and will only get harder still.

      Departments have flexibility about what they offer, but not as much as you seem to imagine. The majority of jobs are at “teaching schools” and those schools simply don’t hire based on current research trends.

    • Also: the current emphasis on LEM in relation to other areas of philosophy is partly due to that work of the 70s through 90s. That era ended and the current one isn’t generating interest to even a fraction of that degree. It’s natural that it would contract in favor of other subjects. One reason for the emphasis on new sub-areas in general is a feeling that the existing ones are spinning their wheels.

  2. Feminist philosophy and philosophy of race and gender are very much a phenomenon at research institutions, too: Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, NYU, Oxford,… I don’t think the distinction between research/teaching institutions is very relevant here. In order to persuade me that there is no political motivation behind the recent promotion of these non-core areas (which happen to correspond to the Left’s current obsessions), I’m afraid you’ll have to name at least one or two conservative philosophers who have been hired to teach feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, or philosophy of gender.

    • Yes, well, there aren’t that many atheist theologians either.

      I don’t imagine I can persuade you about much of anything. I’m just pointing out how your argument is unpersuasive.

  3. “There aren’t that many atheist theologians either.”

    Is that truly an analogous case? What is your claim here, that conservative academics aren’t interested in gender identity and philosophy of race?

    • Analogous in a way. These areas of “philosophy” teach the new religion, Equalism, and right wingers or scientists who know empirical facts about race and sex are heretics. If these were areas of real philosophy there’d be an analogue of philosophy of religion (which atheists often do teach) but there’s only an analogue of theology. I could teach a great course presenting arguments for race realism or write papers debunking race denial but then I’d lose my job and get death threats. Not worth it; so the ideologues conclude these things are indefensible. And people deny there is politicization.

    • Sure. I’m trying to figure out what your positive claim is here with the analogy. Is it, “Because most people don’t care about the lack of atheists in theology, we likewise shouldn’t care about the lack of conservatives in gender studies”?
      By the way, I’d say you are wrong that there aren’t many atheist theologians. There are plenty. At the very least, there are far more of those than there are conservatives in the gender studies programs.

    • “Sure. I’m trying to figure out what your positive claim is here with the analogy.” It’s that *generally speaking* when hiring for someone to teach in area X you’re not looking for someone who is a skeptic about all of the literature in area X. Research institutions might do this on occasion, but the drop rate on a class in gender studies where the professor says “I’m going to explain how each of these readings is BS” will tend to be high.

      I think this point is pretty obvious if you take the political aspect of out it. If some university advertises a job with an open AOS and an AOC in epistemology, and interviews a candidate who works in ethics and says “oh yeah, I can teach epistemology. I know a lot of that literature — it’s a bunch of bs top to bottom”, they’re probably going to be at a disadvantage.

    • Look, I’m not contesting the obvious strong left tilt in contemporary philosophy departments. I’m pointing out the failure of imagination of the main argument in this post. Flambeur seems unable to comprehend that the departmental powers that be might be hiring in these areas because they think they are important, and under-represented in the prominent journals because of past bias and chicken-and-egg problems. They might well be wrong about that! But this post claims that the areas themselves are entirely irrelevant, and *consciously* chosen just for instrumental reason of who is likely to get hired.

    • Just for good understanding: I haven’t claimed that the topics (race, gender, sexuality) are “entirely irrelevant” or even unimportant. I’ve merely claimed that there is as yet no research-based justification for making these topics (which could easily be addressed in philosophy of biology, metaphysics or applied ethics) into the subjects of independent courses across the US and the UK. Moreover, I haven’t claimed that hiring preferences are the only reason for introducing these courses (in the way that they are now introduced, that is, as a result of a concerted, top-down effort to set the agenda for future teaching and research). There may be other reasons; for example, the opportunity to inculcate certain left-wing ideas in undergraduates, and moral grandstanding (“in our department, we care about racism and sexism”). However, these other reasons presuppose a preference for hiring left-wing candidates.

    • Oh, okay. Yes you are not generally looking for someone who is skeptical of a whole literature to be your guy in that area.

      I definitely agree with Flambeur about the first reason these areas are popular–departments desperately want to make diversity hires. But yes, I’m more skeptical of the second reason–which seems to be that the departments are using these criteria to discern leftists candidates from those who are not. I don’t think that is going on as extensively as this post suggests. You are right that there is an enrollment factor. However, the diversity statement requirements in the application process, which a strong minority of schools are requiring, is absolutely a litmus test.

    • “However, the diversity statement requirements in the application process, which a strong minority of schools are requiring, is absolutely a litmus test.”

      I haven’t yet encountered a diversity statement request that wasn’t required at the university/college level rather than the department level. There may be a few philosophy departments doing that, but the impetus seems to come more from the administration level.

      The diversity hiring explanation works better for philosophy of race than feminist philosophy, and not well at all for non-western. Women work in a wide variety of areas and departments that want to hire women can bias their hiring towards those women as they wish. There doesn’t seem to be much of a diversity trend in those who work on non-western. And, for that matter, there’s nothing particularly leftist about a number of those traditions, e.g. Confucianism.

  4. The discussion here so far concerns mainly what these departments have in mind when doing hires that conveniently increase the leftist bias of course offerings. Whether it’s because the departments want to increase the amount of leftism or because they’re responding to a market demand, the end result is the same: more leftist bias. This added leftist bias would not fail to feed further into the Trumpian and rightist narratives about the increasing cultural-political disconnect between the universities and everyone/everywhere else.

    Bob le flambeur makes a very telling point that (market-demand considerations notwithstanding) these politically-correct/leftist AOS/AOCs don’t appear to have a strong research demand. So something has gone very awry, whatever the causes. The very least those in the academy could do is to be honest and forthright about this pathology. But it would appear based on the larger trend that things will get worse before they get better. If you don’t feel some visceral disgust at the way Profs. Wax and Alexander were met with cries of racism by Ivy League students and faculty, then you may be part of the problem.

Leave a Reply (Be sure to read our comment disclaimer)