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William Peden

Colleagues come and go (even when they are in permanent positions) but a departmental ethos develops over decades, and it's fed by hiring people with good approaches to academic life.

For example, at the University of Stirling in Scotland, those at faculty meetings etc. still sometimes ask "What would Alan Millar do?", when faced with some vexing problem:


By contrast, a colleague who personalises arguments or habitually is absent (the latter is often caused by them having ambitions in "higher" places) can create an atmosphere of sniping or excessive individualism for decades. This is partly because PhD students, postdocs, Teaching Fellows etc. learn much of what is proper academic behaviour by looking at how permanent staff in their institutions behave.

I agree with your conclusion: we should see compassion, kindness, empathy, supportiveness etc. not as "feminine" traits, but as just POSITIVE traits in hires. (I've known people to infer e.g. that a supportive referee report was probably written by a woman, even in an area where there are relatively few female philosophers, just because the referee was so encouraging. But you don't need to have no dick in order to not be a dick!) Their impact on research and teaching is hard to quantify, but indisputably beneficial.

Peter Furlong

Hi Helen,

Thanks for the interesting post. At first I thought that wasn't quite right--that people do want caring and compassionate people, but that people advise against noting this in letters or recommendation and cover letters because everyone makes false claims about character (whether our own or that of others) with impunity.

Your last claim, that hiring committees hire people known to be problematic, got me thinking that I was wrong. Still, I wonder whether our institutional norms involve some mix of the following:

1) not valuing caring colleagues at all
2) not considering whether candidates are caring, because we don't think this should count in hiring
3) not considering whether candidates are caring, because we don't think we can accurately tell from a few letters and an interview
4) considering whether candidates are caring, but these considerations nearly always get trumped by other things (like research) that we value more highly (at least in this stage)

I do agree that we have problems in what we value as a discipline, but I wonder whether they are as uniform as it might seem.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Helen: Great post!

I have a sneaking suspicion the phenomena you allude to here are more prominent at research institutions.

Having worked at and hired at a 'teaching' institution for a while now, my experience has been very different. My sense is that people at my school *really* want to hire passionate teachers and kind colleagues. This is one of the reasons I like working at my university. Sure, there are some jerks. However, by and large people I work with really are passionate about teaching, and really are pretty kind. This makes it nice to come to work--to, you know, work with people you actually like!


"I've known people to infer e.g. that a supportive referee report was probably written by a woman, even in an area where there are relatively few female philosophers, just because the referee was so encouraging. **But you don't need to have no dick in order to not be a dick!**"

I just want the record to show that this is a fantastic quote. Perhaps it should accompany all referee requests sent out by journals to men?


Some of the advice to not say things like you are a "passionate teacher" has nothing to do with not wanting passionate teachers, but the fact that such cliche self-testimony is not informative. On the hand, there is something odd about the fact that personality traits are considered irrelevant, at least at research schools. The unsaid assumption at research schools does seem to be that caring about teaching is either, (1) utterly irrelevant, or (2) a negative because it takes away from research.

William Peden


I have been phenomenally lucky with all my referee reports over the past ~2 years in which I've been sending articles to journals, but I would send it out to ALL referees. There's a lot of sincere hard work out there that doesn't get appreciated in the normal order of things; one should be encouraging even when rejecting an article - even if you think that it's fundamentally and incurably wrong. ("You have clearly invested an admirable amount of time and creativity into this article, but...")

As I said, I think we should put more emphasis on these qualities as good academic virtues. But not the ONLY academic virtues! A cold but respectful critic, who isn't caring in their criticisms but focuses their critical eye on your work rather than your person, can be a good colleague, even if they're not the Platonic ideal of an academic.

I would add a self-interested reason to hire people: you don't want to be known as "one of those X-people", where X is an institution with a philosophy department that's developed a reputation for unpleasant faculty, even if you're a great colleague within the university and more widely.

SLAC tenured professor & chair

I know I'll likely get slack for this, but I really want a colleague that engages with things outside of philosophy as well. A good colleague is one who can do all the things outlined above, but who can also turn off philosophy-mode and engage with others concerning other interests.


SLAC, I completely agree with you. I really don't want to talk only about philosophy whenever we have drinks or an event. And its much more likely that we'll be friends outside the office if you have other interests. And in my office we are fortunate in that many of us are good friends and I think this is beneficial for everyone. We work better together as a result.

But I think that this goes back to Helen's point: R1 schools want someone who singlemindedly focused on academic research, who works 12+ hour days and pumps out research like a machine. And in that case, who cares if they are kind? Wouldn't kindness be a detriment to ultimate productivity?

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