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F. Contesi

Thank you, Marcus. This is very useful (as your posts usually are). I do not have any inside selection committee information to share, unfortunately. However, I was hoping to make two small points on which I would value some feedback from you and/or anyone else.

First, it reassures me to read that you look at CVs first. I always assumed this to be the case in general of selection committee members. However, I was recently told that some might instead look and decide on applications on the basis of cover letters and/or first page of a CV. This would make my current application materials unfit for purpose, and might more generally constitute a momentous difference between committee members in the way they evaluate applications.

The second point is a worry about your judgements of beautiful writing in writing samples. This of course depends importantly on what one takes philosophy to be, but is not uncontroversial. There are conceptions of philosophy on which what matters is the quality of arguments, rather than the elegance of writing. There are also people, like myself, who are non-native speakers of the language in which they write, and hence (plausibly) have a harder time (than their native-speaker rival applicants) to write beautifully for a native-speaker ear.


I suspect Marcus thinks good arguments are part, probably a big part, of beautifully written papers. Both prose and arguments matter, but the latter matters more. However the former is important, because humans are not purely rational robots; pretty writing helps us follow an argument. If an individual's prose aren't the best, they can make up for this (imho) by being especially creative or clever, or some other special point of merit which improves their research. But in the end search committees are hiring for what best fits their department, not giving out merit awards based on fairness.


Like Marcus, I tend to look with great care at the c.v. It is there that you find out if the person has published, if they are deceptive about publishing (listing under reviewed pieces as pubs), what they have taught, if they have presented at selective conferences (like the APA or PSA). Also, you can glean a lot if they pad their c.v. But I also found it useful to read cover letters. It was a chance for the candidate to use her/his voice to highlight what s/he is most proud of. Here is where you see how unprofessionalized people can be. If they present themselves as students it is not reassuring.

Marcus Arvan

Hmm writes: “Here is where you see how unprofessionalized people can be. If they present themselves as students it is not reassuring.”

Yep, exactly right.

F. Contesi

Amanda: Thanks for your feedback. As the conversations of the last years around race, gender, disability etc. show, fit in a department can be interpreted in many different ways, some healthy for the department and discipline, some less so. If one does not put in the effort required to understand less pretty language, then one may risk getting a worse and less diverse department and discipline. It is plausible, as you suggest, that those with a less elegant prose will need to be n times better at creativity, logic and argument than those fortunate enough to have a better prose. My worry, besides fairness, is whether that is good for philosophy departments and philosophy generally.

Marcus Arvan

F.: my sense is that search committee members can form a pretty good idea of whether someone is a native speaker, and then take this into account in a way that doesn’t hold it against the candidate. And I think Amanda had it right: what I meant when I said that is simply the issue of clarity. Far too many papers in my view—not to mention research statements, teaching statements, and cover letters—are needlessly verbose and full of jargon. It doesn’t take a native speaker to cut to use clear language to express philosophical ideas and arguments!


I agree with Marcus that actually non-native speakers are the best at clarity, being direct etc. It takes a native speaker some time to know how to BS. But I think clarity is important for philosophy. I do not think people should have to take time to understand an argument. If a reasonably smart person (with a PhD in philosophy) is reading a paper, it should be easy to understand. I see no benefit in fostering a discipline that requires going though papers with a fine-tooth comb just to see what someone is trying to tell you. It is also is not good considering that I think philosophical engagement with the public is important, and if you can't write clearly the public cannot understand you. To stress again, I think this has little to do with being a native speaker. If anything I think native speakers are more likely to write with too much jargon. And if a department has a candidate who is not a good writer, they might still get hired. The department might need that canidadte for all sorts of reasons, and clear writing is just one consideration.

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