Next up in my series on the medieval rankings in the Philosophical Gourmet Report is Gloria Frost (University of St. Thomas [St. Paul]). Gloria was an undergraduate at Catholic University of America, and received her PhD from Notre Dame in 2009. Here is her perspective:
In his initial post, Bob described the methodology of the Philosophical Gourmet Report rankings and he noted some unique challenges to ranking programs in medieval philosophy. He ended by providing some advice to prospective students about how they might go about deciding which professors they’d like to work with and thus, which program they’d like to attend. In my post, I will discuss another factor (besides faculty) which prospective grad students may want to take into account when choosing between programs in medieval philosophy. This factor is the other educational opportunities which a program provides for learning about medieval philosophy. Graduate school is a mix of (1) independent research, writing and one-on-one work with one’s advisor(s); and (2) collective learning experiences in courses, colloquia, readings groups, etc. The programs ranked in the PGR medieval specialty rankings vary quite dramatically in the number and kinds of activities of the second kind which they offer regarding medieval philosophy. So, I thought it would be worthwhile to describe some of these differences for prospective students.
In addition to faculty, here are some differences regarding educational opportunities which prospective medieval students may want to consider when discerning which program is the best fit for him or her:
- Range and frequency of course offerings in medieval philosophy.
The departments listed in the PGR specialty rankings differ dramatically in the number and kinds of courses they offer in medieval philosophy. CUA, for example, is offering six graduate level courses on medieval philosophy this academic year (in addition to further undergraduate course offerings); while other ranked programs have no graduate level courses on offer in medieval this year. Some programs regularly offer very specialized courses in medieval (e.g. ‘Ockham on Mind and Cognition’ is a course recently offered at SLU.), while others only offer a general history of medieval philosophy course. It should be noted that a department’s frequency of course offerings in medieval philosophy does not always correspond to the number of medievalists on the faculty since each program has its own practices about how frequently professors can offer graduate courses, required enrollment numbers, etc. Most departments list current and past courses online, so students can look up specific departments to get an idea of their course offerings in medieval.
- Extra-curricular activities for medieval students.
Some of the ranked programs (and some omitted programs like Marquette and UST-Houston) regularly host colloquia, workshops, and invited lectures on medieval philosophy. These provide opportunities for students to meet and learn from others in the field and to broaden their range of knowledge. Many of the programs mentioned in the specialty rankings do not have such activities pertaining to medieval philosophy. For many of these programs, their strength in medieval philosophy is not their “main attraction.” When organizing colloquia, workshops, etc., they are dividing time and resources between several areas of strength and medieval is typically a lower priority.
- Number of other students in the program studying medieval philosophy.
Students learn much in grad school from other students. This happens through informal discussions, sharing written works in progress and in student-led discussion/reading groups. The programs listed in the PGR specialty rankings vary in the numbers of enrolled students you’ll find at any given time studying medieval philosophy. In some of the ranked programs, one faculty member and his or her lone student may be the only current department members with serious interests in medieval philosophy. There are other programs which admit multiple students each year with interests in medieval; so at any given time there will be a good sized cohort of students in these programs with interests in medieval. For some idea of the numbers of students studying medieval philosophy in various departments, see Bob’s post last year on PhD’s in progress in North America. Many departmental websites also list current students and their areas of interest.
- Opportunities and support required to achieve language proficiency and other non-philosophical skills needed for research in medieval philosophy.
Several programs listed in the PGR medieval specialty rankings do not have stringent language requirements for the PhD since many of their students are specializing in fields where languages are not needed for research. Given that medieval students will likely want to do more language work than what is built into many programs (e.g. Latin, French, German, and perhaps Arabic) students should check on what kind of financial support and flexibility is built into specific programs for language study beyond the official requirement. Regarding finances, some programs offer funding to do intensive language courses abroad and at other universities, while some do not. (I’d imagine that there may even be places where students could face limitations in the number of tuition waivers they can receive to take language courses internally at their own university.) Students who are interested in doing certain kinds of historical work should also consider whether their university offers the chance to study paleography and/or text editing. There are summer programs where one can learn these skills if courses are not available at one’s home university. However, funding and time are needed to take advantage of such external opportunities.
My purpose is not to suggest that these are the only or even the most important factors to consider when choosing between graduate programs in medieval philosophy. I merely want to suggest that these are important differences between the programs mentioned in the PGR medieval specialty rankings. How a student weighs these considerations against other factors will largely depend on the background which he or she brings to graduate studies and his or her goals in undertaking a PhD in medieval philosophy.