Those who follow the soap opera that is American academic philosophy will know that Brian Leiter’s ranking of philosophy departments is underway once again. In principle, I think this so-called Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) is a good thing. Brian takes incredible care in how he conducts these rankings, inviting hundreds of scholars to contribute, and the results capture a fairly broad consensus over relative strengths in the field. Without such rankings, departments are left to be evaluated in much worse ways: in terms of outdated reputations and the historical fame and wealth of universities.
For purposes of In medias φ, what is of special interest is the PGR’s specialty rankings in medieval philosophy. I propose here to investigate these rankings, and to do so before the new rankings are released, so as to avoid any whiff of sour grapes. Accordingly, I air some thoughts of my own, below, and I have invited a few other scholars with differing perspectives to share their own thoughts. I’ll post those over the next few weeks. Of course, readers are always welcomed to comment.
It might be helpful to begin by explaining how the PGR works. First, Brian chooses a list of nearly 100 departments across the English-speaking world, and then carefully compiles a list of the faculty from each department. Then he asks hundreds of established scholars to score these lists of faculty, on a scale of 0 to 5. (Last time, over 300 scholars participated.) The results are tabulated, and schools are ranked. That’s essentially all there is to the overall rankings (although for more detail see here).
For the specialized rankings, the survey works differently. There Brian breaks down his hundreds of scholars into different areas of specialization, and asks them to rank departments according to their particular specialization. Last time around, I and eight others so participated (these names are given at the bottom of the PGR’s medieval ranking [see link above]).
In principle, it is hard to see how one might better go about establishing an overall ranking of programs within a sub-field. You simply ask a group of knowledgeable scholars in the field to offer their scores, and you tabulate the result.
In practice, however, the rankings in medieval philosophy are rather strange. Those who know the field well can figure out, for the most part, why they come out as they do, but anyone who took these results at face value might end up going seriously astray. Without engaging in the particular merits of one program versus another, let me mention some idiosyncratic features of the medieval scene that pose special problems for the way the PGR-Medieval rankings are produced:
- Some programs have multiple scholars working in medieval; others have just one. How ought one to weigh this difference? Some of us trained under just a single mentor, and could not have wished for anything better; others had a team of experts available to them, and doubtless benefited from that arrangement. It seems absurd – if one is ranking strength in medieval – to ignore the fact that a school has multiple scholars in medieval, but it seems clear that some of the best places to study medieval philosophy have been single-scholar shops.
- More than most areas, medieval philosophy admits of a wide diversity of approaches, with some scholars focusing more on historical-textual scholarship, and others more on philosophical interpretation. Within the latter camp, further well-known differences persist, even among leading figures in the field.
- There is often a dramatic disconnect between a department’s strength in medieval philosophy and its overall reputation. Should one ignore overall departmental strength in ranking a program’s strength in medieval? Users of the rankings could compensate either way, of course, if it were clear how the ranking is being done. So far as I can see, however, the PGR does not instruct evaluators on how to deal with this issue.
- This last remark leads to a further, special problem in medieval philosophy, because some of the strongest departments in medieval are not even included among the nearly 100 schools that the PGR evaluates. In these cases, there is no mechanism for the group of 9 to render an evaluation, and so here the ranking has been decided by “the Advisory Board.” This happened five times in the last ranking. How exactly this works is opaque, but what it apparently means is that the two medievalists on the Advisory Board (Scott MacDonald and Calvin Normore) advise Brian Leiter on how to rank those schools. At that point, evidently, the results are based on a surprisingly small sample size.
- Still further problems arise when one considers that, obviously, a great many of the best places to study medieval philosophy are not in the “English-speaking world” at all, and so go completely unmentioned in these rankings. Of course, one can hardly fault the PGR for not covering everything, but philosophy is increasingly becoming international, and this seems particularly so for medieval. Moreover, many graduate programs in continental Europe are conducted in English, and so there is really no good substantive reason to exclude those departments from such a ranking.
With these points in mind, one can understand how the 2011 rankings came out as they did, but it has to be said that the rankings seem weirdly inconsistent in how they balanced the competing factors described in (1)-(3). Some programs seem to have been helped by overall departmental strength, whereas in other cases this factor seems not to have mattered. Some programs seem to have benefited from having multiple scholars in medieval, whereas other programs seem not to have benefited at all. Indeed, several American PhD programs with large faculties in medieval – Marquette and St. Thomas (Houston) – were omitted entirely.
It is not clear that there is any way to fix most of these problems. It may be that, at least in medieval philosophy, it is hopeless to try to produce a ranking, given the many incommensurable factors in play.
But what if you are applying to graduate school, and so need to make a choice among programs? My advice is that you begin by making a list of the people whose work in the field you especially admire. (If all you know is that you love Aquinas, Ockham, Avicenna, etc., then spend some time reading more of the secondary literature, to get a sense of just how different the various kinds of scholarship are.) Once you have some possibilities in mind, then look into the programs where they teach. Consider the overall strength of the program. Feel free to email the professors with whom you’re interested in working, though do not expect or demand anything more than the briefest of replies, at this preliminary stage. Apply to a lot of schools. Once you’re admitted, visit those schools. Talk to the professors you might work with. Talk to the graduate students, especially students who work in your area. It is critical – especially if you are considering a program with only one expert in medieval – that you get a good sense of what that person is like to work with. Some scholars supervise lots of students; some hardly any. Some take good care of their students; some ignore them. The PGR rankings do not even attempt to capture this sort of information, but these are the things that ultimately matter most. Use these rankings, then, just as a way to get started.