Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pandemic Training

Over the last few weeks on our campus, we have been under an injunction to get 'trained' for the eventuality that we may one day get hit by a flu pandemic. Everyone is required to undergo this 'training' and then sign a form acknowledging having completed the task.

The 'training' itself actually amounts to watching a half-hour presentation on DVD. This can either be done with others in one of the mass screenings, or simply watching the DVD on one's own computer. I am happy to say that I am now fully 'trained'.

The DVD presentation is quite 'special' (in the sense of 'special education'). It consists of campus 'stars' -- the media person, the health care worker, the safety guy and the campus cop, who discuss the issues we need to know about. I threatened to post the video to YouTube and the media person host begged me not to, for fear of the embarrassment. This gives an idea of the thrilling nature of this video nasty.

The video itself starts off in a rather unpromising manner, by explaining the 'flu' is actually short for 'influenza'. The accompanying Power Point graphic really helped me remember this vital information. The health care worker then helpfully explains that influenza is a kind of virus. Of course, this was the first laugh in the video, as the claim is simply not true! As the CDC tells us, there are at least three kinds of flu virus. Oh well, who would expect a University person to get the facts correct?

What follows is then an amusing segment on how flu is spread. The video recommends practising 'safe coughing' and 'safe sneezing'. Who would have thought that there were such things? Perhaps a little less savory was the advice (again from the medical person), that one should cough, or sneeze into one's sleeve, should a tissue not be available! I seem to recall my Mother having quite strong views, which contradicted this advice. They did have a great picture of someone sneezing though, a bit like this one -- Nice! (Tasteful).

The next great bit of advice was that we should wash our hands in hot water for twenty seconds on a regular basis. Now, this seems like sound advice, or at least it would be, if there was any hot water available in my building. This sounded almost as practical as the advice that we should wear face masks.

Next, the presentation moved on to a discussion of pandemic flu. There was a certain post-modern feel to this part of the presentation. For instance, we were first informed (with more 'helpful' Power Point slides) that flu could only be spread between members of the same species. However, they then went on to explain that flu could also be spread across species (WTF? only Derrida could reconcile those claims). This was the moment at which the dreaded 'bird flu' was introduced, accompanied by lots more worrying sounding statistics, presented via yet more Power Point. These slides were done in an ominous grey.

The final phase of the presentation concerned our University Pandemic plan. Apparently, we are currently in phase one of this plan, where we get to watch silly DVDs. Should a pandemic flu show up we will move to phase two, in which we are supposed to watch the news, keep at least three feet from one another and prepare for phase three. In phase three, the campus will close and we will watch more news. We may get sick too. Eventually, phase four will follow and the campus will open again. Of course, phase four is exactly the same as phase two, as there may be further pandemic outbreaks.

The conclusion of the video just repeated the information we had already heard, along with some recommendations. These recommendations appeared to be identical to the standard hurricane preparedness texts. After all, why should we need to stockpile flashlights during a pandemic?

So, I now feel fully trained and ready for a flu pandemic. I have signed the form. Apparently, detailed plans will be distributed in the near future. I'm sure that the 'think safe' memo is being prepared for the philosophy department, as I write...Jeez!

The CP

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Week of Death

For me, last week was a week of death. Four people I knew died. I have heard people from my parents generation complaining about how all they ever do is go to funerals and how many of the people they know are now dead. Last week, I got a taste of what this must be like.

It began with a telephone call that arrived while I was on the highway. The call was from a neighbour of mine. She wanted to know whether I knew anything about the health, or recent activities of another neighbour, Burt. It turned out that when the neighbour who called me was on the way home, she had been surprised to see the police blocking the end of our street. It seemed that Burt had been found dead in his drive way. As such a death is a little unusual, the police decided to initially treat it as a suspicious death.

I had known Burt for quite a while. He was very active in our neighbourhood. Indeed, he was the head of one of our neighbourhood organization, that I am also involved with. We had collaborated on a couple of major projects. All in all, Burt was a good guy. He was a little unconventional, but was very passionate about his causes. I will miss him.

The next death I learned about came in by e-mail. It seems that Henry Kyburg had passed away. Henry was an excellent and well-known philosopher of science, among other things. I got to know Henry during grad school, when I had dinner with him on several occasions. Although we had not seen each other in a few years, I was still fond of him. He was one of the few philosophers who knew anything about farming. He also loved to discuss farming matters, often with a very amusing philosophical twist. Thus, I will miss Henry too.

The next bit of bad news that came in concerned a friend of mine called Joe. Joe was an accomplished Zydeco musician. While not everyone liked Joe's playing style, I was a big fan. His style was very old time Creole -- the kind of sound that one seldom gets to hear these days.

Strangely enough, I had not seen Joe for some time, until the previous weekend. I asked him what he had been up to. He told me, using a wonderfully colorful local turn of phrase, that he had "caught a stroke". He told me though that he had recovered successfully and was back playing again. The next thing I know, it seems that he has died. I have put Joe's CD in the player in my truck, by way of a memorial.

The final death was probably the closest to me. When I got back from class one day last week, there was a message on my voice mail. It was from a philosophy faculty member who retired several years previously. It seems that another former philosophy professor, Bob, had passed away. Bob had been ill for quite some time, so the news was not a total surprise, but it was a little unexpected. One of the reason that Bob's death felt especially close to me is that fact that I was hired as Bob's replacement, when he retired. He was a nice and gentle man.

I am hoping that this next week will be a little less dramatic. As it is our last week of classes, there is likely to be some student based pantomimes, but hopefully nothing quite like last week.

The CP

Monday, November 19, 2007

Applying For A Philosophy Job: Getting To The APA

Recently, there has been a flurry of discussion about the process of applying for a faculty position in a philosophy department. Indeed, there is now a blog going by the title A Philosophy Job Market Blog. A particular post there was commented on at length at The Leiter Reports Blog and has even inspired extensive comments.

Having served on numerous hiring committees, both in philosophy and in another discipline, I have a few words of advice for people who are going on the market. I will share these thoughts here. At some point in the future, I will have some suggestions for people about the notorious APA interviewing process. Before beginning though, let me add a couple of caveats. First, I succeeded in getting a tenure-track position my first year on the market. As this was during one of the tougher phases in the market, I may know a thing or two about how to succeed, as I was not graduating from an especially fancy school, however this does not mean that I am an expert on these matters. Second, I can only offer advice based upon my own experiences, as a member of a hiring committee. The views of others should also be consulted. Finally, it is also probably worth noting that what is said here may also apply to other academic areas -- just substitute your subject area's 'hiring fair' for 'APA', etc., if you are not a philosopher.

1) It is a profound mistake, though a common one, to think that the academic hiring process is a rational one. As philosophers, we have an inordinate affection for rationality. This affection can blind us to the fact that even philosophers are human and, as such, are subject to all sorts of foibles. Although a veneer of rationality is maintained during the hiring process, it is nothing more than a veneer. There are all sorts of preferences and prejudices that show themselves when committees are meeting and trying to make sensible choices. I will support this claim with just two examples. In one case, a file that I thought had some merit was rejected simply on the basis that the candidate described themselves as coming from 'The Commonwealth of Virginia'. To this day, I have no idea why this was viewed as being problematic, or even relevant to employment as a philosopher, but both other members of the committee would not permit this application to move forward once this had been noticed. In another case, a candidate who had reasonable publications and areas of specialization and competence that would have made them a very good fit for the position was rejected because the chair of the committee had met this individual and believed that they were "an arsehole". No amount of argument could persuade him/her to put this person onto the APA interview list. The point here is that the hiring process is not rational.

2) If you want to have a chance of getting onto the APA shortlist, publications really matter. There seem to be two views on publications in grad school. One view is that one should try and publish and publish as much as possible. The other view is that one should just get on and finish the dissertation. While it is true that being ABD and being nowhere near finished is certainly a deal breaker, I at least think that publications matter. One reason for this is that publishing is not an entirely straightforward matter. It is important to know where to send your work. It is also the case that it is worth getting used to the fact that it can take months, or years between submitting a manuscript and getting a final answer on the disposition of the paper. One also generally has to learn to handle the occasional referee who wants changes that make no sense. Learning how to navigate the world of academic publishing can take some time. Thus, a person who has some publications will be better equipped for life on the tenure-track, than a person who has no publications.

Another reason why publications matter is due to the fact that in most cases, past performance is the best predictor of future performance. When a file is being looked at for a tenure-track position, one of the questions that the committee members are probably asking themselves (or at least they should be) is whether they are looking at the file of a person who can make tenure, or not. Many freshly minted Ph.Ds appear to have 'potential'. Unfortunately, the vagaries of life in general and the academic game in particular, means that not everyone will actualize their full potential. Thus, a person who is on the way to having a tenure file that is well stocked will appear much more attractive (and thus, a much better candidate for an APA interview) than someone with mere potential. These then are the reasons why publications really matter.

There is one final thing to mention here though. Sometimes having publications can count against you too! Some departments have an internal tension between faculty members who are productive researchers and faculty members who are not (they usually see their role primarily as being that of a teacher). In such cases, the 'teachers' may see too many publications as a sign that a candidate will naturally gravitate to the other camp. Thus, although it makes very little sense, in such a case, publications can actually count against you.

3) Show the committee that you understand the profession and that you can read! This may seem like silly advice, but it is not. There is always a temptation to apply for the job that does not really sound like you, but which you think you might be able to do, in a pinch. Please, DO NOT DO THIS!!! It is a waste of paper, a waste of stamps and a waste of your time and ours.

Sitting down in front of a huge stack of application files is a long and tedious job. The job is made much worse by applicants who clearly are not suitable for the position, but thought that they would send in an application 'on the off chance'. On one famous occasion, I was sitting on a hiring committee for a position in a rather new and quite technical area. As I was going through the files, I came across two files that just made me angry. One was from an engineer, with no philosophical training, who thought that he/she could do the job, because they wanted to. The second file was even stranger. It came from an individual who was actually quite strong in their own historical area, but had no apparent skills in our area of interest. The explanation for the application appeared in the letter of application. The applicant informed us that as nobody really knew too much about the new technical area we were hiring in, they were perfectly qualified for the position! I leave it to the reader to try and figure out the missing parts of the argument here.

One final thing on this point, it is always a good idea to proof read your application letters! When an applicant appears to be applying to the wrong department, or in the wrong area, they seldom get offered an APA interview. So, it pays to check your application letter before putting it in the mail.

4) Make sure you put a telephone number where you can be reached somewhere easy to find in your application materials. This may again sound obvious, but is important. On no less than two occasions we have wanted to meet with candidates at the APA, only to discover that we cannot get in touch with them. I recommend numbers on the first page of the Vitae and in the application letter. It is also a good idea to put alternative numbers too. Many people do not check their office telephones over the break. Sometimes, people travel for the holidays. If some place wants to talk to you at the APA, they want to hear a human voice, not just a message. This is because scheduling interviews is often quite tricky. Leaving a message and sending an e-mail and then not hearing back within twenty-four hours is a pretty sure method to lose your chance of that all important first APA meeting.

5) In your application materials, try and avoid saying things which are too obvious. After a day or two of digging through files, reading for the umpteenth time that a person has an 'important' research program, or that they 'love to teach' does not impress too much. One thing to ask yourself about claims that you are going to make is 'how would the opposite claim sound?' It is pretty obvious that nobody is ever going to claim that their research program is 'profoundly irrelevant', or that they 'hate to teach'. However, this fact alone makes such optimistic assertions of dubious merit.

If you want to impress people with your research, try giving a concrete example of why your work matters. Just saying that 'my dissertation research has implications for metaphysics and epistemology' is not going to cut it. Pointing out how some of the research has been accepted into print, is much more effective. Another effective strategy is to make the case that your work should be able to attract grant funding. However, here you need to give specifics. Saying 'I expect to attract big grants' cuts very little ice. However saying, 'I intend to explore funding from the Whatever-Foundation, under their Really-Important-Philosophy-Stuff program' will be much more effective.

Similar points apply with teaching. As students, we have all probably had professors who made it clear that they think that they are quite brilliant and gifted teachers, when in fact they were no much good at all. So, in the case of teaching, explain what you do that makes your classes so exceptionally good. The thing to keep in mind in all these cases is that evidence always beats rhetoric.

6) Be modest about your exceptional skills. Some candidate are tempted to make themselves sound more interesting in their applications by emphasizing their skills outside philosophy. You may have a black belt in origami, play concert violin, cook world class cookies, or whatever. Unfortunately, none of this is relevant to an application for a philosophy job. Leave mentioning this kind of thing to your letter writers. You might be a brilliant Celtic musician, but the committee is not interested in this, they want to know about your philosophy skills. Indeed, this kind of thing can worry committee members. After all, if you really are that good at 'whatever', then how much time and energy will you have left over to do the job you hope to get hired for? However, if a referee says in a letter something like "X is nice to have around, as they can play the Y wonderfully/can cook the best cookies in the world/is fabulous at 'whatever'", then it becomes a bonus, not a liability.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful to those who are in the process of putting themselves forward for philosophy positions this year. We have all been there. We know how tough the process can be. We really do hope that you succeed. However, by writing this, I hope that you can gain a little insight into what it is like to be on the other side of the process. You have your dissertation to finish, papers to send to journals and probably a huge pile of grading to boot. Although we do not have the mill stone of the dissertation, we too have the papers to get out and probably an even larger stack of grading. Instead of the dissertation, we have a huge pile of files from applicants desperate to secure our position. Thus, we are in parallel binds. Good luck!

The CP

Monday, November 12, 2007

Library Tricks

One of the 'challenges' of my current institution comes from the library. Basically, our library is not very good, especially with respect to journal publications in my research areas. This can make certain tasks more difficult than they would be in a place with better facilities.

Just recently, I had a paper accepted by a rather good journal. This paper is the result of a project that I started a long time ago. The final product is nothing like I had originally imagined. When the paper was accepted, there were no major editorial revisions. This was thrilling, as I was a little uncertain about the final results of this project. However, the referees did request that I add some updated citations. With a poor library, satisfying such a request requires some ingenuity.

My initial strategy was to check the various indices, looking for relevant recent publications. Fortunately, there were not many. Less fortunately, only one of these publications was included in our collection. As this is a circumstance I have met before, I have developed a few tricks to get around this kind of problem. I will share them here. Although most of these are pretty obvious, a collection of these tricks may be useful to some.

1. E-mail the author(s) of a paper you need and see if they will send you a .pdf file, or an off-print. It is a pretty good rule that the majority of people who are working in an academic area will have some kind of university (or equivalent) affiliation. This being the case, most people will have an institutional e-mail address. Of course, not all e-mail addresses are listed on web pages. However, by learning about the standard format of e-mail at the institution, it is often possible to guess even unlisted e-mail addresses. Most people like to have their work cited (I certainly do!). For this reason, they are often more than willing to share their .pdf versions of papers, or off-prints.

2. Have friends and/or former graduate students who are at institutions with better libraries. There are many advantages to having a network of academic contacts. Getting papers you need is one of them. Former doctoral students in particular are usually more than willing to help out with access to a paper. They can send a few .pdf files, that can save a great deal of driving to better libraries. This too is a very useful mechanism for getting access to otherwise hard to access papers. Of course, one has to be prepared to return the favour, if asked. However, a mutual self-help network like this can be very helpful indeed.

3. Get library access at a your closest 'good' library and know people who also live in the same city. Sometimes, there are no choices but to take a road trip in order to get access to research materials. If one can do this, while also seeing friends, then this can make the chore more enjoyable. Should the trip be a long one, then having a place to stay can also be helpful. This is one method of making what would otherwise be a bit of a bore into a fun trip.

4. Get to be friends with your local Interlibrary Loans people. Most academics know the value of good librarians, especially reference librarians. The people who run the Interlibrary Loans (ILL) office though can be an amazing breed. If you have good ILL people and they like you, then they can perform miracles! I once wanted to read a Doctoral dissertation that was only available for personal inspection at the degree granting institution, which was also in another country. I could neither afford the time, nor the cost to make that trip. However, an especially astute ILL librarian remembered that another institution had, for a while, had a policy of copying all dissertations that they borrowed from overseas. Lo and behold, it turned out that there was a copy of the dissertation hidden away in the library of this second institution. So, I was able to get access to the material that I needed.

5. Do not be afraid to ask! Sometimes, one will run across a paper, or a book that steadfastly remains inaccessible, despite the deployment of all the best tricks. Once all other avenues have been exhausted, one can make use of one of the many professional mailing lists that serve most academic disciplines. Posting a request to such lists often has yielded good results for me in the past. It is worth noting though that this should be done cautiously. It is not a substitute for going though all the other options first -- it is really a method of last resort. However, this method too can mitigate against the horrors of a bad library.

It would be nice if we all had access to good libraries. We do not. By using these tricks though, the worst privations of a deficient library can be overcome. Many of these strategies are predicated upon people being willing to help others out. I always feel a need to do this, due to the huge debt that I owe others, in this respect. A little bit of mutual help can make scholarship move forward more efficiently. This method has certainly been helpful to me in updating the bibliography of the paper I am currently finishing the changes on.

The CP

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Nut Job E-mail

One of the 'joys' of being a philosophy professor, especially one with a reasonable profile on the Internet, is that one gets 'strange' e-mails from time to time. Today, I got an especially odd e-mail. As this is a side of the philosophy profession that seldom sees the light of day, I thought it might be of interest to share the curious kinds of things that show up in a philosophers e-mail inbox (in addition to the usual spam, tedious memos and student e-mails).

From: <'A Nut Job'>
Date: Tue, 6 Nov 2007 20:51:45 -0600
To: <'Combat Philosopher'>
Subject: Whoever is detected in a shameful fraud is ever after not believed even if they speak the truth.

Ave! :)
I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead -- not sick, not wounded -- dead. Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun. Life has a practice of living you, if you don't live it.

I guess someone forgot their Lithium today! I wonder whether other professions also suffer from such curious e-mails? Should anyone be in a position to make anything that might remotely sound like sense out of this, I would be delighted to hear. In the meantime, 'enjoy'...

The CP

Monday, November 05, 2007

Free Speech?

An interesting conundrum has arisen in my neck of the woods of late. When the advising season comes around, we have a habit of handing out lists of courses that will be taught in our program next semester. It has been my habit when doing this to give the students a few moment to look over the list and then ask whether they have any questions. The students often have questions.

The questions that the students ask are usually quite sensible. However, one kind of question is of the "Which section for class X do you recommend?" It has been my practice to try and answer these questions as best I can. As a faculty member, I have a much better idea about the relative virtues of various sections than the average undergraduate.

Consider our Critical Thinking classes. We have one faculty member who, quite frankly, is notoriously problematic. S/he teaches this class. This semester, in the first six weeks of this semester, this individual managed to teach 5 out of a potential 12 classes (the section meets on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule). No reason was given for the cancelled classes, yet the faculty member concerned told the students that they were still responsible for the material. I know about this, because some of the students came to ask me about what they might be able to do about the situation. Of course, this should be a matter for our program coordinator, but s/he is too useless and busy harassing productive faculty members to do anything about the situation.

When students ask me about whether a section of Critical Thinking taught by my often missing co-worker should be taken, what should I say? It seems to me that the reasonable and honest thing to do is to warn the students that they should try and take this course (that is required for many of them) from another faculty member. Apparently, the moronic coordinator believes that such candour should not be allowed. I got one of his/her harassment write ups, for telling the students the truth!

In an analogous case, one of my favorite courses has now been given by the coordinator to their new faculty friend (the newly hired unpublished assistant professor). In exchange, I get a 101 hell class. When the students asked me about the course I used to teach and for which I got great evaluations, what am I supposed to say? The individual now slated to teach this class has never passed a comprehensive exam in the area. From what I have heard, chatting to them, his/her knowledge of the area is sophomoric and superficial. I know of at least one major scholarly mistake that s/he made in another course, in the same philosophical area. Indeed, the only qualification this individual appears to have for teaching this class is that they wish to and our coordinator appears to be in love with them. I think that it is morally dubious not to warn students that there could be 'issues' with this class, especially as it is the follow on from the one I am teaching this semester. Apparently, this too is reprehensible, according to the coordinator.

I am thus in a bit of a bind. Should I obey the silly dictates from my 'glorious leader', or should I continue to be honest with the students? Now, the obvious move is to file formal charges against the administrative moron. This I intend to do, but what with publication obligations, conference talks to give etc. I have had little time to do this. I will get to it, should I ever get some time. Currently, it will have to wait a while longer, so I can do a good enough job to ensure that the coordinator is removed (and also, setting up the grounds for the legal action against him/her).

As I think about it, I have a recollection that freedom of speech was one of those things that was supposed to be guaranteed in this country. Perhaps I should continue to just shoot from the hip, tell the truth and 'damn the torpedoes'. However, any suggestions on this matter would be welcome.

The CP
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