(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)
I’ve spent most of my philosophical life hanging out in philosophy departments up and down California, partly by luck but also by disposition. This year, however, I’ve been living on the East Coast and I’ve been struck by the difference geography makes to the profession. (Caveat: In what follows, I frame things mostly in terms of differences across coasts, but I expect that many of these factors are at play to lesser and greater degrees in the interior of the U.S., and these issues will certainly be salient to philosophers coming into the US from abroad. But I write in terms of coastal examples since that is what I know firsthand. Also, I'm going to focus on West Coast disadvantages, ignoring some of its clear advantages in non-professional ways.)
Consider the dense network of terrific departments in the Boston and New York areas. This proximity is conducive to a range of interactions and a degree of inter-departmental familiarity that is much harder to reproduce nearly anywhere else where geographic clustering of departments is not so tight. MIT, Harvard, BU, BC, and Tufts are all closer to each other than are two schools that are frequently thought of as relatively close, geographically speaking: Berkeley and Stanford. The latter are more than 10 times as far apart from each other as those Boston area schools! Although I didn’t bust out Google Maps to check, I’m pretty sure the same is true of the L.A. area schools vs. those Boston schools, too— the distances on the left coast are much larger. So, in places like NYC and Boston, you’ve got a density of philosophers and departments that can’t be matched elsewhere. And, indeed, something like this is true on the North Atlantic coast as a whole, at least in comparison to the West Coast.
This isn’t to say that there is as much interaction in the greater Boston and (I imagine) New York areas as an outsider might expect—professors everywhere are over-extended and can’t participate in everything. Still, there are lots of effects, many indirect and apart from philosophical feedback and interaction. Here are some:
First: financial effects. It is cheap to go to local talks and conferences in at least the North Atlantic states, because the distances are not huge and the transportation options are good and comparatively inexpensive. So, if you’ve got a fixed research account, you can afford to go to comparatively more conferences than your West Coast brethren on the same budget. Similar economies of distance come into play on the interpersonal axis as well. If you have a family, and a partner who is willing to put up with you going away for professional travel without family, it is surely easier to do so when you can be gone for shorter periods of time, which closer geographic proximity permits.
Second: effects of professional esteem. In a previous post, Eric wondered about the curious stability of UCR’s rankings. I had some things to say about it in the comments, but one of the things I floated was the hypothesis that departments will fare less well in reputational rankings if they are not part of a densely networked collection of departments. Since, if I’m right, this is partly driven by geographic proximity, geography ends up having an impact on things like the Gourmet Report, the perceived quality of degrees for a given graduate program, and so on. That is, philosophers will more highly rate departments they are familiar with, but if familiarity is partly a function of geographic relationships, than geographically isolated departments will suffer from a geographic bias among evaluators, and this propagates through the profession in complicated ways.
Third: early careers. A big problem here is the Eastern APA, where everyone goes to look for a job. Pretty much everything about the Eastern is bad, but for West Coasters it is invariably more so. It is more expensive to get to, more time-consuming to go, and one is less likely to have faculty advisors and supporters present when you get there. It would be interesting to compare how East and West Coast job candidates fared over several iterations of the market if all the East Coast candidates and none of the West Coast candidates had to suffer the effects of jet lag and time zone changes, of having diminished numbers of advisors, committee members, and departmental mentors present during the hiring bloodbath, and so on. My bet is that putting the meeting in San Diego for a few years would help the performance of West Coast folks and hurt the performance of East Coast folks. Anyone want to try?
Friday, April 03, 2009
(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)