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03/25/2019

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Slow to Judge

Ruth Millikan is a model philosopher in many ways.

The opening quote offers a character-trait analysis (lacking motivation or grit) to explain certain behavior ("not cutting it"). I think part of why (as Marcus points out) faculty can be bad at figuring out who "has what it takes" is because it's difficult to disentangle intrinsic and extrinsic causes of behavior. Someone may struggle in the first year or two of graduate school because they lack the personality and character traits to do philosophy, or because of unfavorable contingent circumstances.

Judging character traits (laziness, stupidity, determination, etc) on the basis of a few interactions in fairly stilted social contexts is not reliable. But it is something we tend to do without thinking.

Amanda

There is so many reasons to help struggling students, like all the ones just mentioned, and also simply because, that is the job of faculty of grad programs! After all, the admissions process is competitive, the grad school accepted them, faculty should try to do what they can to make their students into the best philosopher they can be. If they can't cut it, that will work itself out...it is not the job of the faculty to close the door.

On another note, I just got a really discouraging review on one of my favorite papers today. It helps to remember just how often philosophers get things wrong.

Sam Duncan

The comments that Surprenant makes and, to a lesser extent, some comments Brennan makes in that thread strike me as both an improvement over the usual way academic philosophers think about what it takes to succeed but also really simplistic. It's very good that they emphasize concrete things like motivation and time management rather than the vague idea of "talent". I'm not sure that there is such a thing as "philosophical talent" without some sort of qualification and even if there is my own experience is that it ain't what sorts out the successful from the unsuccessful. (I was thinking this morning about how out of the three people who struck me as the most brilliant in my own program only one actually made it as an academic philosopher.) Time management skills, work ethic, and resilience were a lot more important, though probably none of them were as important as plain old dumb luck. What's simplistic about Brennan and Surprenant's take is that they seem to think these things are fixed and that students either have them or they don't. All these things strike me as skills that can be learned and one of the keys to better graduate instruction is to do more to teach them. Also, faculty can do a lot on this score especially on motivation. I don't of course think that faculty can make a lazy person into a hard worker, but the thing is very few flat out lazy people get into grad school! What faculty can definitely do though is to kill the motivation that students begin graduate school with and all too often that's exactly what graduate school seems designed to do. They can also I think foster more motivation in students who might be struggling or who might only have a moderate level of motivation.

William Peden

I agree with the emphasis on motivation, but I think that it can be misleading, because 'motivation' is ambiguous. If it just means 'recognising a reason to do X', then I agree. However, just having a reason won't make you 'feel motivated' in the sense of 'wanting to do X'!

Indeed, waiting to 'feel motivated' is a reliable route to procrastination, as far as I can tell from the psychological literature I've read. In my experience, 'motivation' in the 'feeling motivated' sense normally follows from action, rather than preceding it.

That's also partly why perfectionism is so unproductive: if you're willing to make a bad start at X and do a bad job at the first few bits, then you'll probably be more willing to work hard at X, and do a better job later. I recommend to my students to write a bad first draft as fast as they can after getting their essay questions, and to try to avoid writing a good first draft, because if you write a good first draft now, then you probably could have written a bad first draft earlier and polished into an even better nth draft by now.

I grasped this approach to motivation/action thanks to a particular term with one of my supervisors, Nancy Cartwright, who insisted on weekly written work. I had previously been a perfectionist about my work in every context except exams and presentations. Since I knew I couldn't write ~1,000 words that I wanted anyone else to see every week, I sent ~1,000 words that I DIDN'T want anyone else to see every week. By the end of that term, I found I rather liked writing that way; by the end of my PhD studies, I was eagerly chasing down people to get them to read more of my work!

I'm no expert on student support, but I think that helping people to keep engaged is very useful. Regular action tends to lead to regular motivation. At Durham (UK), where I did my PhD, there were annual reviews and lots of opportunities to present my work to other graduate students/staff; that meant that I had lots of relatively little actions to do, which kept my motivation up through most of my PhD studies. If a student is struggling, then some help with paddling is a great way to help them get motivated for swimming in the deep end.

Julia

There are several lines of thinking in this post that strike me as unhelpful. First, pointing to individual cases of academics that went on to be successful, although they struggled early in their career, is really not evidence of anything. Even if a struggling student might be the next Rae Langton, it is overwhelmingly likely that they are not. Depending on how we think of allocating our resources, we need to make decisions about whether it's worth betting on whether the student will beat the odds.
Also, many of these stories are about people who were very capable and hard working. It's not news that even for those people, it takes some luck to be successful. Struggling due to external factors and due to factors that hinder one's capacity to do one's job are very different beasts. I am not saying that we are always very good at telling them apart, but that doesn't mean that the solution is to just invest heaps of time and effort into just anyone, regardless of what their situation seems to be. Lastly, this post seems to suggest that there is something very valuable we are taking from students if we don't let them finish their PhD because they are struggling. Sure, having a PhD in philosophy is not a bad thing. But I am unsure how bad it is in fact for students if they have to, say, leave a program with an M.A. because they failed to make adequate progress on their dissertation.
Again, I am not saying we shouldn't give students the support they need to be successful. But that doesn't mean to just support everyone for however long, just because they MIGHT turn things around.

jdkbrown

"Even if a struggling student might be the next Rae Langton, it is overwhelmingly likely that they are not."

Of course. But even students who *aren't* struggling are overwhelmingly unlikely to be the next Rae Langton.

Amanda

Julia: It is my job to "invest" time in grad students. That is enough reason for why philosophers should do this. I'm not sure what you mean by "heaps of time and effort" but one should invest some time, and some effort, and not just give up on a student - at least not without trying pretty hard. This of course, is for those who teach in programs with grad students. For others it does go beyond the call of duty, but might still be a nice thing to do.

You say that for any given struggling student, it is "overwhelmingly likely" that they won't be one of the successful ones. Do you have data to back this up? There are not just a few examples of people who struggled and went on to succeed, there are lots of them. If you say that the evidence that students won't succeed is simply the evidence we have about the long odds of success in general, well that is true. But if that is the reasoning, then it is a reason not to invest in *any* grad student, as *any* grad student is unlikely to succeed, not just the ones who appear to struggle. If you want to single out struggling students, then I would like to see some data that shows these students in particular are less likely to succeed.

If you think there are important distinctions between why students, struggle...well, that might be true. I guess some people might just be not so talented, and others might be going through hard times. But it can be impossible to tell which is which (and you do seem to acknowledge this somewhat). Lots of students with personal issues keep that private. So if professors can't tell which is which, it just seems one should act on the assumption that the student improving and overcoming the odds is at least within the realm of possibilities.

Lastly, I do not think investing time in grad students assumes a PhD is valuable. I want to help my students get a PhD because (in most cases) I am aware that this is *their* goal. It is not up to me to decide what goals they should and should not pursue. If a student is not " cut out" to make it as a professional philosopher, they won't. Unless it is completely obvious that they lack the relevant skills, it is not my place to push them out the door. The door is almost closed already, given the state of the market.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Julia: I appreciate and respect your points of disagreement. I certainly understand why faculty might think it is important to make calculated choices like the ones you mention. Nevertheless, I'm still inclined to respectfully disagree, and want to second a few points Amanda just made in reply.

You wrote, "Depending on how we think of allocating our resources, we need to make decisions about whether it's worth betting on whether the student will beat the odds."

I disagree. Like Amanda (I take), I've seen far too many false positives (students faculty expected to succeed not succeeding) and false negatives (students succeeding who faculty thought wouldn't succeed) to think these are good bets to make. As Amanda writes: "There are not just a few examples of people who struggled and went on to succeed, there are lots of them." I don't think we should make bets on others' lives--especially when the bets in question are so fallible. Instead, I think we should show some *faith* in our students--given how many times this whole pattern (a student screwing up only to get their act together) recurs.

This is partly why I wrote this post: because I thinkt he experience of a lot of grad students is that faculty think of them this way (viz. "Ah, they're a screw-up not worth betting on") when what the student really needs is someone to show faith in them. It's this kind of faith that quite frankly saved my career. And yeah, I know, that whole starfish story is trite, but *I* was the 'starfish' some understanding faculty saved, and it meant all the world to me, my life, and my career.

Which is why I also agree with Amanda when she writes: "If you think there are important distinctions between why students, struggle...well, that might be true. I guess some people might just be not so talented, and others might be going through hard times. But it can be impossible to tell which is which (and you do seem to acknowledge this somewhat). Lots of students with personal issues keep that private. So...it just seems one should act on the assumption that the student improving and overcoming the odds is at least within the realm of possibilities."

I understand and respect these are things that reasonable people can disagree about. But that's part of why I wrote this post--to get people to ask themselves questions like, "When push comes to shove, what kind of faculty member do I want to be - one who makes calculated bets about my students and how much time and effort they are worth, or one who shows faith in them even when they might not appear to deserve it...because sometimes that's what students really need?"

I definitely see why someone might choose the former (viz. rationality and all that). But I'd nevertheless want to advocate for and be the latter.

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