Tag Archives: Academia

Quote of the Day – John Dewey on the Bad Effects of Academic Specialization

The gullibility of specialized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects, are extreme examples of the bad effects of severing studies completely from their ordinary connections in life.”

~John Dewey, How We Think

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Quote for the Day – Academia: Grinding Out Little Peppercorns of Truth

If we reflect upon the various ideals of education that are prevalent in the different countries, we see that what they all aim at is to organize capacities for conduct. This is most immediately obvious in Germany, where the explicitly avowed aim of the higher education is to turn the student into an instrument for advancing scientific discovery. The German universities are proud of the number of young whom they out every year, –not necessarily men of any original force of intellect,  but men so trained to research that when their professor gives them an historical or philological thesis to prepare, or a bit of laboratory work to do, with a general indication as to the best method, they can go off by themselves and use apparatus and consult sources in such a way as to grind out the requisite number of months some little pepper-corn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on that subject. Little else is recognized in Germany as a man’s title to academic advancement than his ability to show himself an efficient instrument of research.

~ William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals 

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A Reassuring Note on the Lack of Actual Content Around Here Lately

You might be wondering why this blog has recently downgraded to a series of quotes from random books I’m reading, but I want to assure you: it is not for lack of writing! Rather, as is typical during the summer, I am throwing almost of my writing energies into my Qualifying Paper, with a smidgen left over for emails, tweets, and fluffy blog posts (like this one!). To give you a flavor of the project monopolizing my scholarly willpower, the current but highly tentative title for the paper is “A Genealogical Defense of Normative Nihilism”. And if you can’t tell by the dreary and pompous title, yes, it is highly ambitious paper, perhaps too ambitious, a perennial problem for my philosophical projects. I can’t help it though. I loathe the idea of writing a paper that only moves a nanometer forward in conceptual space. I want to leap, not crawl. 

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Academics on social media: Twitter or Blogging? Is there even a difference?

It is a personal belief of mine (i.e. I have no evidence) that success in today’s academic market can be influenced by self-promotion and not just department or advisor-promotion. Having a well-known advisor, or coming from a prestigious PhD program, will help you get through the first stages of a search committee, but I think having an “online presence” that is readily apparent from a quick google search will go a long way towards making you “stand out” from people with otherwise similar CVs and qualifications. Obviously, this belief of mine is massively self-serving because I actively try to promote my “online presence”! Which brings me to the topic of this post: using twitter or blogging platforms for academic self-promotion.

Whereas I used to blog more than I tweet, I am now finding myself using twitter more and more as a kind of “micro-blogging” platform. This might just be  summer laziness and absorption in more important research projects (like my next Qualifying Paper for Wash U), but it’s also an opportunity to hone the art of succinct expression. Trying to make a real (or interesting) philosophical point in a single tweet is an interesting exercise because, if you want to do so, you have no choice but to compress your thoughts. Along with such “micro-blogging”, twitter offers the potential for rapid-fire link-sharing and instant communication between thousands of people. Blogging is “slower”, but also suitable for deeper, more insightful writing.

However, I am quickly becoming convinced that the distinction between “blogging” and “micro-blogging” is growing fuzzier everyday. People might not think of tweeting as “really” blogging i.e. logging your thoughts on the web, but that’s exactly what it is, only 142 characters at a time, published in “real-time”.

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Quote for the Day – The “Light” Workload of Academics

“September came. The air thinned, the undergraduates returned, and classes began. Noam and his colleagues reluctantly resumed the yoke of teaching and grumbled over the numerous distractions from research that the students presented. It’s amusing how outsiders thinking teaching is the job of professors and ignorantly exclaim over how few hours academics have to work. Just last week Noam’s gastroenterologist (we’ve discovered an ulcer) asked him how many hours a week he has to teach and then laughed smugly.
“Three hours? That’s all you guys have to work a week?” (Noam’s teaching load is much light than the average-one of the lures Princeton had used to attract him.) ” And with summers off? Boy, you people are really overworked.” And he was the man treating Noam for an ulcer. Noam didn’t – never does – bother to correct the man’s faulty inference from three hours of teaching to three hours of work. What does he care what such people think?

~Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-body Problem

p.s. Although the quote implies otherwise, ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress.

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Getting the Motivation to Write Philosophy Papers Is Hard

I find that the hardest thing about writing a philosophy paper is the difficulty of staying motivated to continue tapping the keyboard knowing that in all likelihood what I am typing sucks and will need to be completely revised later. The only thing that keeps me going is that I learned I am pretty good at polishing turds.

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The Perils of Reading “Too much” in Grad School?

As a grad student in philosophy, I often run across a curious piece of advice: too much reading is a bad thing! As someone who has learned almost everything I know through reading, this notion surprised me when I first heard it. I had always thought philosophers should strive to read as much as possible to expand the breadth of their knowledge. When was the last time you walked into a full professors office and saw a tiny little bookshelf? Often, books are spilling out of their offices! But given I keep hearing this advice about reading “too much”, is there something to it?

There are at least three types of warnings I’ve heard about the “dangers” of reading too much. The first worry is that by reading too much you will never have the chance to write and publish. The worry I guess is that if you spend your whole graduate career trying to read everything under the sun but never write anything, then inevitably you will not complete the dissertation. Call this the “neverending lit review” problem.

The second warning about reading too much is that it’s better to engage in face-to-face philosophical discussions, what some philosophers like to think as where “real” philosophy happens. I am in agreement, to a point. I love discussing philosophy, and will go all night. But reading a book is equivalent to having a one-sided conversation. And if the author is a genius, then reading their books is equivalent to having a conversation with a genius. How is that not valuable? The written words allows for the transmission of thought, and thoughts are meaningful whether they are spoken or not. Besides, how else are we going to learn from history? Dead people still have insightful things to tell us.

The third warning concerns the drying up of creative juices by letting others do your thinking for you. The worry is that by reading too much you become a kind of philosophical puppet. Here philosophers like to quote authorities to support their contention:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. ~ Albert Einstein

Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. ~Schopenhauer

I take it this last concern is that by reading too much, you dilute your mind with other people’s opinions instead of coming up with “your own” view. However, grad students who say these things in practice end up in a worse predicament than adopting the views of people they read: adopting the view of just one person: their adviser! Realistically, what are the chances that a single person at a single institution has all the answers? Slim to none. Better to seek the opinion of many experts, not just one, otherwise you risk philosophical myopia.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I would fall into the “reading too much” category. I devour books and never get full.  But I daresay that my drive to read everything under the sun has not hampered my writing productivity, prevented me from publishing, or hampered my philosophical creativity. Quite the contrary as readers of this blog might guess. As for the point about letting others do my thinking, how could this be true if I often find myself silently shouting “No!” when I read something I disagree with? Reading can be a way to figure out where people stand on issues, and thus, a way to orient yourself in the conceptual landscape. It is possible to critically engage with a book, to highlight points of both alignment and contention.

I take all this advice about reading too much to be a point about tradeoffs. You shouldn’t read all the time and never write your thoughts down and vice versa. You will fail as an academic (esp. a philosopher) if you never write anything down, but you will also fail if you never read anything. The flipside of “reading too much” is of course “reading too little”. The worry here is that if you don’t read extensively you take the very likely risk of reinventing the wheel, a great way to get banished to the sidelines of philosophical discourse.

In conclusion, my advice would be to maximize reading, writing, and thinking. Ceteris paribus, you should read as much as humanly possible without sacrificing writing and thinking. The ceteris clause is in there because there is a hint of truth in the advice about reading too much. If all you do is read, that is probably bad. But if you can also write and think while you read excessively, then wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it a compliment for academics to say of someone else that “They are well read”? I would never take that as an insult.

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