Our books

Become a Fan

« We Built This City on Student Loans: What "How Higher Education Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps" Leaves Out | Main | 2nd CFP & Date Change: The 3rd Annual Philosophers' Cocoon Philosophy Conference »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Wesley Buckwalter

I think these points strongly support the idea that we need more training for graduate students in philosophical writing by programs. Idealy that training would be sensitive to the concerns you mention regarding stylistic voice, broad thinking, among other more mundane things such as basic sentence structure and readability. Publishable work can have those admirable features when they are executed well. Those skills really are difficult to develop and really need training to provide. Perhaps this "all in the same way" phenomenon you mention is actually the result of lack of training, in lieu of which, you just kind of end up grasping at straws as a philosophical writer perpetuating suboptimal practices. Now I am wondering: do many graduate programs explicitly train their students in writing techniques really at all?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Wesley: Thanks for your comment!

I think one critical part of your comment is your point that, "Idealy [sic] that training would be sensitive to the concerns you mention..."

My concern--and impression--is that to the extent that graduate programs do teach writing, it is tilted heavily toward professionalization (conforming to conventional standards for the sake of satisfying journal reviewers) and basic readability rather than uniqueness, etc.

In response to your final question, although I graduated over 7 years ago, when I was in grad school my program (Arizona) had just instituted several "professionalization seminars" which I and others found very, very helpful. However, in line with my concerns in the above post, the focus (to the extent that I remember correctly) was on making one's writing "professional" and "publishable" (viz. direct, catchy introductions; having a "professional" writing voice; and so on).

Like you, I too would be curious whether there are any programs that explicitly teach or prioritize the development of *not* trying to "fit in" to dominant professional norms of writing, argumentation, etc. Maybe there are, maybe not. Who knows!

Stacey Goguen

I hear your concern that we don't want a profession with a single voice. However, I would suspect that's a problem of bad professionalization more so than too much professionalization.

Furthermore, even if it is linked to too much professionalization, I don't think it's fair to try to fix this problem via graduate students. That is, if we are worried that grad. students write in all the same voice in order to be published, then we should change our publishing standards, not refuse to teach graduate students the things that will actually help them get published.

I have great bitterness towards the profession for wanting me to embody all these amazing ideals of beauty, uniqueness, thoughtful writing, intense philosophical conversation, and the like, while knowing full well that my focusing on these things in graduate school may come with opportunity costs that hurt my chances at getting a job and succeeding in this field.

Cause screw what I want out of my graduate training, right?

I don't mean to pick on your post in particular; I've heard this sort of sentiment from many others in the profession. I mostly want to caution us against the potential paternalism in that line of thought and putting the burden of a cultural shift onto some of the least secure members of our discipline.

So I'm all for your recommendation (C), but that should be the responsibility of journals and conferences and the like, not graduate students.


completely off-topic but was hoping Marcus or someone else could assist: I'm a new PhD who is looking to increase my research profile. I'm actually at this point *wanting* to write book reviews. How do I do this? Must I pitch a proposal for a particular book to review? Or is it ok to indicate to journals (perhaps esp. Notre Dame) that I'm available and willing to review books in my AOS?



I am the editor of a journal, Metascience, a Springer journal that publishes reviews of books in the Sociology, History and Philosophy of Science. Journal editors welcome contact from interested reviewers.
In a recent editorial in Metascience, I invited young (and not young) scholars to contact me if they are interested in writing a review. It is useful to send along a 2 page (Maximum) c.v. Obviously there must be some evidence that you have some expertise in the area before you would be asked to write a review.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Stacey: Thanks for your comment!

I appreciate your concern. Graduate students have it hard enough as-is (I was one not too long ago!). At the same time, graduate school is one extended act of socialization/professionalization. So, if graduate students are taught the same problematic practices as their forebearers, the most likely thing to happen (in my view) is that they--the grad students--will perpetuate the very same approach to writing and philosophy in their professional careers.

Indeed, there is a general saying applicable to most areas of life, "You have to get through to them while they're young." As time goes on, habits turn into settled dispositions. This is why I think the way to change our discipline is to develop *both* in young philosophers: professionalization and uniqueness. Although they are in tension with one another (a main point of my post), I think it is a mistake to privilege one (professionalization) over the other (uniqueness) "for the sake of our grad students." I don't think it does any of us any favors. Indeed, *I* was a grad student who found the prioritization of the former absolutely stifling. Feeling like I had to do philosophy exactly the same way as everyone else made me not feel like doing philosophy anymore--it sapped all the joy out of philosophy--and, although I was continually warned against doing things out of the ordinary (just about everyone I showed my 79-page paper "A New Theory of Free Will" to told me I "had" to break it up into multiple paper), it was only once I actually gave doing things my own way that my love of philosophy returned and I started publishing work I was (and am) proud of.

In short, I would say, don't be so quick to equate professionalizing with "doing our grad students a favor" and fostering uniqueness as "trying to fix our problems on the backs of grad students." For it may just turn out that it is precisely by getting our grad students to write and think more uniquely that we put them in a better position to succeed.

Marcus Arvan

Hi anon: The way I understand it (thanks to Thom Brooks' helpful publishing advice for grad students http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1085245 ), it's pretty easy to become a book reviewer. According to Brooks, most journals are always on the lookout for more reviewers, and all you need to do is shoot their book-review editor an email expressing interest (along with your AOS).

That being said, I would caution against writing too many reviews or thinking that they do much to raise your research profile. First, book reviews take a lot of time (you have to read an entire book and put together a thoughtful commentary!)--all of which is time not spent doing your own research program. Second, I've personally known more than a few people who got too into doing book reviews that they never really started publishing their own work. Third, book reviews don't really do much for your "research profile." They're not peer-reviewed in the way that normal articles are, and won't be given much (if any) weight my search committees. Finally, in my experience, they do not do much in the way of developing one's ability to write publishable research articles. Mostly, book reviews are exposition (of the book) along with a bit of critique--which is more or less the opposite of original research (which typically involves less exposition and critique of others and more of developing and defending arguments of your own).

I do not mean to suggest that you shouldn't do any book reviews. Far from it. I've done a few myself, think we have an obligation to do it as service to the profession, and have found it a great opportunity to read and think about new work. I would just advise not getting carried away with it--for again, I've known people who published a bunch of book reviews but who, because that is how they spent much of their research time, never got around to publishing their own work.

Wesley Buckwalter

Hey Marcus,

It sounds like we largely agree, if the issue is a matter of revisiting and potentially enriching training programs to include a broader array of writing techniques. I just wanted to note that I would definitely disagree with someone who inferred from this discussion that the right answer to question of whether philosophy has become too professional with respect to writing style involved training students less.

Stacey makes a great point above perhaps certain norms have become one indicator of “bad professionalization more so than too much professionalization”. I think philosophers widely recognize being “unique thinkers with their own styles” is in fact very important to professional development, is challenging to develop in one's writing, and should be at the forefront of graduate education as a result. I also think Stacey makes a great point that whether certain literary styles fly at different journals today is probably dissociable from structuring current graduate training, though it might eventually indirectly affect that.

Lastly I had another question for you. So far we have been speaking pretty vaguely about which norms of writing today might be optimal ('creativity') or suboptimal ('mass-production'). But I would be really interested to hear your view about the specifics of the norms you find objectionable, and which concrete things in your view should be encouraged among my students to mitigate them in their writing.



I have a different attitude and experience with book reviews. I think they can be very useful. If you are reading a book anyway, and you really ought to, given your area of research, it is worth publishing a review of the book. It is an opportunity to clarify your thoughts on recent work in the area. Indeed, some established scholars contact me (and my fellow co-editor) for just that reason. They note that they are reading or plan to read a particular book and ask if we have a reviewer for it yet.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Brad: That's a very fair point. I just think it's important to be aware of potential pitfalls and drawbacks to--as again, I've known at least a few people who got way too distracted by book reviews, and have heard other faculty warn students about them for this reason.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Wesley: I think we're entirely on the same page. I think it's critical to train grad students more, not less--but that it's also important to do so in a way that doesn't incentivize is to all think and write the same way (i.e. according to the same templates templates for structuring articles, etc).

In terms of getting more precise on norms I find objectionable and which alternatives I think might be better, one of the biggest norms I think we are strongly socialized to--and which journal-reviewers hold people to--is that "a good paper makes one small point really rigorously." I was not only inculcated with this in graduate school and beyond (for instance, by mentors who were always pressing me to "be less ambitious");; by and large my experience is that this is a dormant standard for publication. "This paper tries to do too much" is a very common refrain.

While I think papers *can* try to do too much--and that in some (even many) cases cutting down a paper to make a smaller, more rigorous argumentative step can be a good thing--I think insisting upon it as a *rule* or dominant norm is stultifying. Rawls' paper "Justice as Fairness" did not make a rigorous careful step. It was a really "big picture" article which kind of just said, "Here's an interesting new way we might think about Justice", and then left rigorous development for later work. Or, to give an example still closer to my heart (note: by no means do I mean to compare myself to Rawls), when I wrote "A New Theory of Free Will" (which was 79 double spaced pagea), one reviewer basically eviscerated me for having th *gall* to submit something that long--and when I sent it to a few really well-know people, they all told me "it would be better if you split this into multiple papers." With all due respect to them, I believed then--and still believe now--that this was terrible advice with no good philosophical justification. The very philosophical point of the paper *is* its broadness of scope, systematization, and how many physical and philosophical phenomena it explains. To break it up into many small papers would have fundamentally undermined its entire philosophical point--which is that it is the totality of the theory that lends it epistemic strength. So, I think I was given the advice I was given...just cuz...that is, *just* because it's a dominant norm to publish "small papers making small, very careful steps" rather than wide ranging, super-intricate *systems.* To me, this is epistemically and philosophically mistaken. Both kinds of work--small, careful arguments and large-scale systematizing--have value; yet dominant norms vastly incentivize the former over the latter.

Another, related problem I have--suggested by Rawls' piece and much of Nozick's work--is that a work or *part* of a work "must be rigorously developed and defended" to be worth publishing. In my view, a lot of really good philosophy is *exploratory*, saying (again), "here's a new way of thinking about things and some reasons to think it may be illuminating or fruitful." Consider Kant's Groundwork.i realize I may be in the wilderness on this, but I have studied Kant for a living for almost two decades...and I *still* think there is nary a good argument to be found in the Groundwork. A lot of Kant's arguments are opaque (people still argue over what they are several years later), some of them (all of Groundwork section III) are complete failures...and yet we still study Kant today because he had a fascinating new *perspective* on things: categorical imperatives, autonomy, etc.

Now, of course, there are few Kant's out there--but that is not the point. Before Kant was *Kant*, he was just an ordinary philosopher: and if people had refused to publish, read, or comment on his work because it was unclear, mistaken, etc.,
We would have missed out on a ton of fascinating debates. So, I think, in addition to being tolerant of (indeed encouraging of) systematic philosophy that does not move by "small steps", I also think the discipline could be much more tolerant and open to exploratory work: work that is *interesting* even if problematic or somewhat poorly developed.

Indeed, part of what inspires me here is the thought--and personal experience--that many of us are good at very different things. Some of us are really good at making small distinctions, others of us are good at systematizing, others good at exploring new ideas, etc. As I've said on this blog before, because of how I was inculcated (to write narrow papers on narrow ideas), I fell a bit out of love with philosophy for a while. I felt pressured into trying to fit into a mold of a philosopher that is not *me*. It is only when I cast those expectations to the wind--and began doing systematic, exploratory philosophy--that I found my love of philosophy again and began to find some success. (Which is to admit, by the way, that there are *some* journals, reviewers, and editors who are willing to countenance that kind of work--but still, my overall experience is that most don't).

Anyway, these are just a few norms I find objectionable and how I think we should challenge them. Are they sort of what you were looking for?

Marcus Arvan

Wesley: Just thought of another norm I object to: "always vigorously stay on message."

We're taught in grad school--and in learning how to publish--not to go off (even briefly) on tangents, even if it is an interesting one. One is expected to stay on message, excising anything and everything that does not directly advance the argument. And we're *definitely* not permitted to go off on half-baked tangents.

Yet sometimes tangents--even half-baked ones--are interesting. Oftentimes I find myself with what I take to be a really interesting idea in the course of an article or chapter, but I'm not entirely sure how to develop it. Robert Nozick was actually famous for actually putting these kinds of things *in* his work, making interesting offhand comments but never doing very much with them.

How do I *wish* professional and publishing norms allowed us to do a bit more of this. For who knows? That passing idea--even a half-baked one--might well be an interesting one that people pick up on and run with. (Consider Kant's offhand remark at the outset of the Groundwork that the only thing that could possibly be good without qualification is a good will. Yes, he *sort* of gives a systematic theory that entails this one way or another...but let's face it, Kant just initially tosses the idea out there--and setting *aside* the rest of Kant's theory, a lot of people have found the idea fascinating and compelling in its own right (though of course others find it dubious!).

My suggested alternative: we might all be a bit more forgiving of people going "off message" a bit, even a few half-baked tangents here or there, provided they are interesting.


i'm the anon who asked about book reviews. Thanks for the info and advice (pro and con, from both Brad & Marcus) about whether to review and how much. I'll keep both the perils of over-reviewing and the possible boons of (some) reviewing in mind.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Cocoon Job-Market Mentoring Program