Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Gettin' philosophical

One of my favorite college instructors, philosophy professor Eric Schliesser, posted the following dilemma:

Let's imagine a "friend," a professor in a PhD granting department, who has to write letters of recommendation for her talented PhD students on the market. (No, it's not autobiography. My own students are a few years removed from the market.) Unlike most of her peers she really likes writing detailed letters; she enjoys helping her students and has come to believe that detailed letters are helpful to hiring departments. Now my friends happens to know that two of "her" students are in a serious relationship. Her initial strategy is to keep such personal matters quiet. (Unlike me she dislikes gossiping.) But it occurs to her that hiring departments might find such information useful; the information might, of course, be used to disqualify her students from short-lists, but she reasons that mentioning the (existence and academic virtues of the) other partner also might make her students more interesting as a package to some departments; these might, say, be able to use one search to fill a lot of needs at once (an argument that worked nicely with their ambitious, but cost-sensitive Dean in discussions of her own department's most recent search). Recruitment is expensive, of course, and couples do tend to stay around.

But my friend is also sensitive to the fact that one of her coupled students is really the philosophically weaker of the couple {let's call this mate, "the upwardly mobile mater"}; so mention of the relationship might help the upwardly mobile mater, but maybe hurt the upwardly mobile mater's mate. (To complicate matters the couple has just submitted their joint paper to a journal.) Even leaving aside privacy considerations, would it be ethical to help the career of the upwardly moble mater, and hinder the career of the mate of the upwardly mobile mater? Should any of this information be revealed in a letter of recommendation? Ethics aside, would it be legal to do so in all jurisdictions?
Well. As background, I’m a grad student married to a postdoc at a different institution, in a very different field. Neither of us are in philosophy. While I’m not entirely new to recommendation-letter-writing, I can’t exactly claim to have been there. But I’m left wondering the following:

1) Does the recommender know how serious or stable this relationship is? Whether this couple would maybe be fine with long-distance? (That there even is a romantic relationship?) Not every grad-student couple (or any couple, period) is committed enough to a future together to want to both get tenure at the same place. I quote the great Dan Savage: "Every relationship fails until one doesn't." It can be easy, if you are yourself settled down, to assume "couple" means that person, when in fact people these days - esp the sort who end up in grad school - tend to have relationships with people who are not that person. Plenty of serious couples would not be thrilled if, on shaky terms already, they’re then forced to live out the rest of their professional lives in not only the same locale or even institution, but department. It would be a bit different if either this was a married/engaged couple or an otherwise generally-publicly-recognized one. But from the phrasing, it sounds like speculation, or at the very least some potential rounding-up, on the recommender's part. 

2) Basically, it would seem that the burden is on the couple to make their plans for the future known. Which can be difficult – grad students (and I’ll get to the gender dimension in a moment) are often reluctant to make reference to having a personal life of any kind. So I suppose it's nice that this professor is acknowledging that her students are multidimensional human beings. But the recommender here is making, it seems, too many assumptions. Couldn’t she just somehow demonstrate her receptiveness to hearing what it is her students want for the future, personally (broad outlines) and professionally?

3) What’s the gender breakdown here? Is this a gay or straight couple? If gay, two men or two women? If straight, is the man or the woman the weaker candidate who’d be coming with? I understand that academic philosophy has some… issues when it comes to the atmosphere for and representation of women. As in, is there some part of this that's about bringing more women into the field? If it's a man and a woman and the woman is the stronger of the two, a perk that might make her take a job would be that her dude could come with, although it would seem more the feminist approach (if the recommender has one - my theory changes if it's the reverse) to get that woman the most prestigious job she can land. If she's the weaker, she, you know, comes with. If it's two women, that's... two more women in the field. Two men, and then there's no real gender angle.

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