We are starting a new series called New jobs in philosophy. The aim of this series is to give graduate students a sense of the wide diversity of philosophy jobs out there. We give a sense of the nuts and bolts of teaching, across a large range of institutions (from community colleges, SLACs to research-intensive), different levels of seniority (we have assistant, associate and full professors lined up, as well as non-tenure track faculty members such as visiting assistant professors), and we also aim for large geographical diversity. Our first contributor is Mark Alfano, who is an associate professor at TU Delft in The Netherlands. If you are interested in being part, please contact us at either helenldecruz at gmail dot com or marvan at ut dot edu.
------- By Mark Alfano
I have worked in a variety of settings: various CUNY colleges (large, urban, public university), Notre Dame (large, private, religious university), Princeton (small Ivy League university with immense resources), University of Oregon (large university in a small town that is pathologically obsessed with sportsball), and now Delft University of Technology (large technical university in a foreign country). I'd like to think this has given me some perspective on working conditions.
While I was a Ph.D. student at CUNY, I sometimes referred to the collection of CUNY colleges as an educational gulag archipelago. Most of the grad students who were working there at the time taught between 4 and 12 courses per year. Many also had second and third jobs to help make ends meet. My understanding is that things are now quite a bit better for CUNY folks, thanks in large part to recommendations made by Steve Stich and Brian Leiter when they performed an external review a few years ago. The contrast between CUNY and Notre Dame was pretty stark. At CUNY, I shared a windowless office that had 1 desk with 8 other people. At Notre Dame, I was in the Institute for Advanced Study, where I had my own beautiful office on the 12th floor. Notre Dame also has a crucifix in pretty much every room. While Notre Dame is well-staffed, Princeton was something else entirely. It's hard to comprehend the level of support one receives there, even as a postdoc. I got a lot of writing and interdisciplinary cross-training done during the postdocs at Notre Dame and Princeton, both of which allowed me to devote 100% of my time to research.
But I guess you are more interested in what it's like to have a faculty position. At UO, I was assistant professor for two years. I did some small service tasks, but my time was pretty well protected from the drudgery of committee work. I was the instructor for four different courses each year. Nominally, my teaching load was 5 courses per year, but I was able to get research-related releases both years. To my mind, this was a perfectly reasonable teaching load. Each course ran for only 10 weeks, and for the big ones, I received grading support from Ph.D. students. I spent the rest of my work time on research and grant-writing. No one was expected to write grants in my department, but because much of my work is empirical and interdisciplinary, I teamed up with various people to do so. However, I had problems with how the university and department worked, so I left in 2015.
And I landed in a terrific job at Delft University of Technology. The move was, naturally, a bit stressful. Waiting a month for all one's stuff to pass through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic Ocean can be nerve-wracking. And I can tell you there are certain outfits that, having worn them for 4 straight weeks, I would rather not put on again.
Here at Delft, I do a mix of research, grant-writing, teaching, and service. The philosophy program here is the only humanities unit in the whole university, so that has been a big change. However, my colleagues in other departments, such as human-machine interaction, systems engineering, data science, and industrial design (to name a few), are very open-minded about philosophy. They are especially keen to have ethicists involved in their projects, which is pretty exciting for me, as it means that I get to contribute to the design of products and systems with an eye to the ethical implications of their implementation and use.
Grant-writing is a bigger part of my job here. This is in part because, unlike the NEH in the United States, both the Dutch and the European grant agencies actually support humanities research with significant funds. This academic year, I've spent about 20-30% of my work time writing grant proposals. It can be frustrating because, just like journal submissions, grant proposals are mostly rejected. One produces a lot of text that never sees the light of day. But it is fun to dream big and think about collaborations in philosophy, which is still conceived of by many contemporary practitioners as the work of the lone (usually white male) genius thinking hard in his study.
The teaching load here is fairly light, compared to the American context. This academic year, I've taught 3 small tutorials, given multiple rounds of feedback to 10 groups of masters students writing their first essay on the ethics of climate change, and provided feedback to several Ph.D. students on their dissertation projects. It's been a stretch for me to teach some of these applied topics (e.g., ethics for aerospace engineers who are working on, among other things, spy satellites and drones and autonomous cars). It's also interesting to learn about the cutting-edge technologies being developed here.
I am developing applied ethics curricula for the departments of Architecture, Industrial Design, and Applied Mathematics (basically, people heading into the finance industry, which can certainly use some ethical guidance). On the service side, I've done more at Delft than in any of my previous jobs. This year, I started a program to integrate more diverse materials into our teaching, such as ethical perspectives from the Islamic world, China, India, and Africa. That's meant a lot of research on stuff I don't know very well, as well as listening attentively to Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast series -- which I can highly recommend.
I also serve on the management team of the 3TU-Ethics Centre (a consortium of Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente -- the three technical universities in the Netherlands). And I've been involved with various administrative tasks.
One thing I can say now with certainty: Dutchies love meetings, which sometimes go on for hours and hours. The goal of a meeting is typically to reach consensus (not just a majority), which means even a single holdout can gum up the works. From an American perspective, this can seem strange and a bit boring. But I have also come to appreciate it because it's a very respectful way to treat one's colleagues. There were certainly plenty of cases back in Oregon where a high-handed department head or dean or provost would have been stopped in their tracks if they had respected a consensus norm.
One historical just-so story I've heard about the meeting culture here is that it's related to the Dutch practice of reclaiming swampland. Basically, this involves building dikes around the area to be reclaimed, then pumping out the water into canals. The resulting land is called a polder, and the process is called poldering. The thing about poldering is that you can only do it successfully if all of the dikes are built correctly, which means you need every neighbor of the polder to do their part. Failure to achieve consensus = no polder. Allegedly, this perspective on consensus inflects Dutch meeting culture more broadly. Whatever its historical explanation, the meeting culture and emphasis on consensus are marked differences from what one sees in the States.