Tuesday, January 12, 2021

How to Count Public Philosophy in Faculty Evaluation Files: A Proposal to U.C. Riverside

The value of public philosophy is increasingly recognized by the profession. However, it's unclear how contributions to public philosophy should be evaluated in tenure, promotion, raises, and retentions. Current standards in most philosophy departments revolve around research, teaching, and service, traditionally construed. How does public philosophy fit in?

In consultation with a few other faculty at U.C. Riverside, I worked up a draft proposal, which I will present to my colleagues at tomorrow's faculty meeting, in hopes that the department will adopt it, perhaps with revisions.

I thought I'd share it here. Suggestions for revision welcome. I have crafted the proposal specifically for the situation at UCR, and I expect not all features of it will translate well to other departments.  However, please feel free to adapt any portion of it you find useful.

Please note: This proposal is not yet adopted and might never be. Myisha Cherry, John Fischer, Kim Frost, and Howard Wettstein also contributed to this document. As such documents ordinarily must, it represents a compromise among competing views.


Public Philosophy in Merit and Promotion Files

Public philosophy advances the university’s mission and can play an important role in Philosophy Department members’ cases for merit advances and promotions.

No philosophy department member is expected to have public philosophy contributions in their file.  However, department members with substantial contributions to public philosophy should earn appropriate recognition for those contributions.

Characterization of Public Philosophy

Public philosophy can include:

  • philosophical writings, oral presentations, and other communications of philosophical ideas aimed at non-academic audiences (e.g., an op-ed in the New York Times, a public talk at UCR Palm Desert, a blog or podcast with a broad audience, a presentation in a high school classroom or at a public “Night of Philosophy”, or a white paper shared with a regulatory body);
  • study of how the public engages with philosophy (e.g., examination of the role of Twitter in the uptake a philosophical ideas, discussion of how and why certain historical figures are or are not conceived of by the public as great philosophers);
  • application of philosophical ideas or approaches to issues of public interest (e.g., philosophical analysis of near-death experiences, Black Lives Matter, or the regulation of toxic substances).

Public philosophy need not be, and typically will not be, published in academic journals.

We note that historically influential philosophers, from Socrates through Dewey, have often directed much of their work toward a broad public.

Research, Service, and Teaching

Public philosophy can count as research or service, or occasionally as teaching.  Ideally, this should be by agreement between the faculty member and the department.

To count as research, public philosophy must constitute substantial knowledge creation and not just, for example, a summary of the work of others.  However, summaries of the work of others can count as public philosophy under the heading of service or teaching.

Given the nature of U.C. and faculty members’ expected roles in our PhD program, faculty members who contribute to public philosophy must also continue to regularly publish “technical/scholarly” work for academic audiences, advancing specialized knowledge in their subdiscipline.  For this reason, no more than half of the research expectations in a merit or promotion file can be satisfied by public philosophy aimed at non-academic rather than academic audiences.  For example, if the expectation for a two-year cycle is at least two substantial research articles, a faculty member with a strong public philosophy profile would still be expected to publish at least one substantial research article in addition to their public philosophy.

Some work aimed at policy makers or the general public can also constitute a substantial contribution to an academic subfield (for example Carl Cranor’s Legally Poisoned and Kate Manne’s Down Girl).  Such work (including some “trade” books and all “crossover” books) is not subject to the no-more-than-half rule.

If a faculty member’s specialized research for academic audiences already meets research expectations, the addition of a strong profile in public philosophy could potentially justify a claim of exceptional research accomplishment.


Evaluating Public Philosophy

Public philosophy contributions can vary enormously in quality, impact, form, substantial content, and time investment, and they are typically not peer reviewed.  Thus, they cannot be counted up in a simple way.  Department members’ contributions to public philosophy should normally be evaluated as an overall package.

For public philosophy counted as research, the following dimensions of the department member’s public philosophy profile should be considered:

  • quality of work (as evaluated by the department, possibly with reference to evaluations by others),
  • venue quality,
  • contribution to the advancement of knowledge,
  • reach (e.g., views, likes, engagement, citation),
  • impact (e.g., influence on policy, influence on the audience)

For public philosophy counted as service, it is sufficient to establish only that the contribution reflects substantial labor toward valuable service goals, such as communication and outreach.

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  1. This is great Eric, as we have spoken about before, there is a need for this at departmental levels, and a need for this at the professional level. A couple of things I would propose is an additional category for "Evaluating Public Philosophy as Teaching or Service" that mentions something about public philosophy evaluated at the teaching level; for example, there is increased demand for instruction in this from more and more graduate students and undergraduates, and some of the best public philosophy programs involve teaching in high schools, K-8, and prisons, where measures of impact can be evaluated, like how many people reached, how hard it is otherwise to reach these populations with philosophy without the program, so there is explicit merit tied to teaching. Also, one item I think would be important for evaluating public philosophy as research is that it may not always be wise to ask a disciplinary expert who evaluates the candidates research profile to also comment on the quality of their public philosophy, for all kinds of different reasons including that this is very new. I like the idea of people who do public philosophy reviewing it if you're going to request outside letters at all.

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  3. And following up on Barry's suggestion that experience with public philosophy might be different from subject matter expertise, the Public Philosophy Network is building these kinds of professional resources. At present, we have two panels of volunteers. One is a panel of experienced, tenured public philosophers who have expressed a commitment to write T&P letters from the perspective of their public philosophy experience. This panel is listed on our website and may be contacted directly by T&P committee chairs. The other panel is of tenured public philosophers who have offered to mentor faculty members going up for tenure or promotion. Mentoring takes the form of reviewing the packet and offering revision suggestions, though our mentors are also willing to get involved earlier in the process. Mentors are assigned by contacting me or Nancy McHugh. There is no overlap between these two panels in order to preserve independence. More info found here: https://www.publicphilosophynetwork.net/resources

  4. This is a strong starting point. One small comment concerns what seems to be excluded from public philosophy, namely, expert contributions that do not involve knowledge creation but nonetheless facilitate philosophical activity among the public or researchers. Maybe this would count as service to the profession or public, but I am curious to hear your (and others') thoughts.

    Contributions that facilitate or promote public philosophizing, but need not involve scholarly creativity in content. These might presuppose creativity only in editing or format rather than "knowledge creation." A few examples of what I have in mind are:

    (a) Kevin Klement's re-typesetting of Wittgenstein's Tractatus as a side-by-side-by-side edition with the German and translations right next to each other. This public domain edition seems to count as a contribution to public philosophy, or at least to the research community, but largely involves creativity in typesetting and some expertise (or at least facility) with the Tractatus. I reckon that Kevin's edition has made it easier for many to engage with the text, particularly those learning German. Similarly, his typesetting of Russell's public-domain mathematical works involves some expertise--catching and correcting both errors in the original and misprints introduced in various editions--but largely facilitates philosophy.

    (b) Recording public-domain philosophical works for LibriVox. This certainly makes philosophical texts available to a broader audience, particularly those with obligations or disabilities that prevent them from reading as easily as listening. But again, this is not creative, even though it might presuppose expertise (or facility) with a given text (enough to comfortably read aloud many logical formula, say).

    (c) Moderating forums, like r/askphilosophy, or hosting a Reddit AMA. These sort of activities are similar in principle to hosting a podcast, answering questions from the public, or moderating a public discussion. They do not involve creating a piece of philosophy in the usual sense, though.

    (d) Digital tools for formatting, typesetting, or editing a text. This might include scripts or libraries for creating a network map, or the creation of a TeX package for typesetting difficult material. The packages for typesetting Frege's logical works spring to mind here.

    Again, these might count as service rather than public philosophy, particularly (d). But I am curious to hear from others where they think such contributions fall.

  5. Just reading Bloomberg news story about a "Colleen Murphy" at "University of Illinois"...
    ...apparently a very modern scholar using "google like" research in publishing papers with very broad understandings....

    Today shouldn't 'analyses' from research be first a broad object to count as 'public philosophy'...but with any categorical-analyses the subject...

    This may seem strange but is more like the layers of our physical-brain-layers-processing...

  6. "faculty members who contribute to public philosophy must also continue to regularly publish “technical/scholarly” work for academic audiences, advancing specialized knowledge in their subdiscipline." That's a good point. In fact, I think that for hiring, tenure, and promotion purposes, this should be the only thing that counts. Professors have to earn their platforms, not just take advantage of them to write for a public audience that lacks relevant expertise.

  7. Thanks so much for the discussion and suggestions, folks!

    Landon, right, those would count as "service" in the current document. One flaw of that document, I now think, is that it over-emphasizes the "research" side, not because research is more important or because public philosophy is more likely to count as research but rather only because that issue is more complicated and controversial.

    Nicholas: I agree that professors have to earn their platforms, but I disagree that technical/scholarly publications should be the *only* thing that counts. For example, in my view, a philosopher with a great technical research profile and a great public philosophy profile (e.g., Jason Stanley) is a stronger hire, on research/creative activity grounds, and has a stronger case for quick promotion on those grounds, than a philosopher with exactly the same technical research profile and no public philosophy.