Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Anonymity, teacher-training, and cronyism

In this post I want to bring together a couple of disparate threads that I've come across recently in social media, each of which may individually seem plausible (though regarding the first one I already have my doubts) but which are jointly inconsistent.

The first thread is anonymous hiring practices, in which applicants submit a wholly anonymized CV, an anonymized 5000 word writing sample, and an anonymized 1 page outline of joint projects/papers the applicant envisions conducting with his/her new colleagues, if successful. I don't know the whole story behind it, because I was introduced to the notion via a single tweet:

Now, maybe in some fields this would work. Maybe some fields are big enough. But in my field, at least, I bet it would be awfully hard to wholly anonymize a CV: If the CV contains (a) the primary area of research; (b) the year the applicant received his/her PhD; (c) the institution from which he/she received the degree; and (d) publication info, then the chances that this already identifies the applicant is very high. Even if you didn't provide the full publication details, but only a list of what journals the applicant has published in (perhaps with years), this is still going to narrow things down quite a bit. And once you add in previous employment history (which would be needed to provide evidence of teaching qualifications, etc.), and I just don't see how people can think this really gives any guarantee of anonymity.

From this, I have two thoughts. First: I don't think it's really possible to sufficiently anonymize applications in many fields. But more importantly, second: I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to do so.

On the face of it, anonymization seems like a good thing because it's one way to help counteract implicit biases arising from gender and racial stereotypes. (Note, though, that it doesn't counteract all biases: Prestige bias will still be an issue if the applicant includes his/her university/education information.) The thought, so I assume it goes, is that with these potential triggers for biases removed, hiring committees are better able to make an assessment of who is, objectively, the best qualified purely on the basis of their research/teaching/publication merits.

But this missing the point about what it is hiring committees are looking for. A hiring committee is, in general, not looking for the objectively best philosopher in field X. They are looking for someone who is good at what they do, but also for someone who will be pleasant to work with. Will this person pull their weight in the department? Will they fill a niche that needs to be filled? Are they a right fit for our specific needs? Two departments hiring in field X may judge person Y to be the objectively best philosopher of X, and yet this does not mean that Y is the best person for both of these departments to consider offering the job to: There is so much more to being the right person for the job than simply the objective measures. But even if you disagree, and wish to maintain that anonymity in hiring practices is, on the whole, a good thing, I'd like to show that it conflicts with the pursuit of other, equally admirable, aims.

So, hold those thoughts, as we switch to the next disparate thread, and this is teacher training for philosophy PhD students, particularly in the UK. A colleague of mine at Durham and some co-authors recently wrote a paper on The State of Teacher Training in Philosophy (you can read some discussions of this here.) The results of the paper are basically that philosophy PhD students are given very little explicit training in teaching while PhD students, despite the fact that the vast majority of them who go on to get academic positions will be getting ones that involve teaching, or indeed are teaching focused. There is a disconnected here between the education departments provide their students and the education departments need to provide their students to make them competitive, and it would be good to see it addressed.

Keeping this in mind, pop over here to read about the typical career trajectory of a UK philosophy PhD, where the issue of teaching experience is again brought up. The first comment on that post says:

There seems in the UK to be a gap in the training process from PhD to permanent position. PhD programs here don't provide the kind of professionalization that US programs do. Yes, you can get some seminar teaching, but it is difficult to get the responsibility to design and run your own course. You are just a TA for one of the lecturers.

Let us agree that (a) departments are not giving their PhD students adequate training and (b) this should be remedied. Newly minted PhDs usually gain the necessary teaching experience through fixed-term teaching fellowships, usually lasting between 1 and 3 years. There are not many of these, in the UK, and one commenter on the post linked above commented on the nepotism and cronyism that seems to occur in hiring for these fellowships: "1-2 year teaching gigs often go to friends and colleagues, graduating PhDs".

Now, another reason to be in favor of anonymous hiring practices is that they can help reduce nepotism and cronyism, so one might think that one way to address the concerns of that commenter would be to adopt such anonymous practices (though, if a department at University of X gets an application, name removed, that says "graduated from University of X in 2016 with a dissertation in Y", again, this is unlikely to be anonymous!).

But this assumes that nepotism and cronyism are necessarily bad things, and I'd like to advance an argument that it is not. We've already agreed that UK philosophy departments are not doing enough to train their PhD students in teaching and that this should be addressed. In the US, this is often addressed by giving PhD students the opportunity to design and implement their own courses, an opportunity that UK students don't get. The problem is that it is not that they are not given the opportunity but often they it is not possible to give them this opportunity -- and by "not possible" here I mean "constraints at the university level (or higher) prevent it". University regulations, at least at my university, require that all summative course work (i.e., work that counts towards the student's final grade) be marked by someone who has a PhD, which means that graduate students can only mark 1st year work or formative 2nd and 3rd year work. I don't know what the official policy is regarding letting people without PhDs be module leaders, but I suspect that this is likewise not possible given that the module leader is generally expected to be the first marker of summative work.

So then, what options are left for giving one's own PhD students more experience in teaching? Why, by hiring them on as teaching fellows after they've finished their degrees. One could argue that not only is cronyism not problematic in this situation, it is in fact something to be sought. We, as a department, have a responsibility towards our PhD students to equip them for their future careers (many of which will be in academia). If we cannot do this while they are still students, then we have an obligation to do it when we can, i.e., when they are no longer students. Far from calling out cronyism as a bad thing, I think that in the case of temporary teaching fellowships, UK philosophy departments should be actively supporting and promoting their own students for these positions.


  1. I'm also hesitant to think the push for anonymity is entirely a good thing. Here are some reasons for thinking anonymity in academia doesn't quite do what we think it does.

  2. It may be true that cronyism is built into the UK system of training future philosophers. But I worry that one effect of this particular cronyism is the exacerbation of prestige-based disadvantage.

    Imagine a philosopher who didn't gain her PhD from a university in the golden triangle (Oxbridge, UCL, LSE, KCL) or a similarly prestigious institution but instead from another, less prestigious UK university. Through cronyism, she gets a teaching position (or even a research post-doc) at her alma mater. But when she applies for a permanent/tenure-track/etc. position elsewhere in the UK, the selection committees may suspect that she hasn't been good enough to get a more prestigious teaching/research post-doc, which may count against her. (The same, of course, does not apply if one's alma mater is already among these most prestigious institutions - as it seems reasonable to stay there a little longer if possible.)

    This assumes of course that selection committees for tenure-track/etc. positions prefer applicants with prestigious post-doc appointments (like Oxbridge JRFs) over those without, but this seems, unfortunately, accurate.

    The cronyism built into the UK system of training future philosophers may thus exacerbate the already present alma mater-based prestige bias .....or not?