PGR-Medieval 4

The final post in this series on the medieval rankings in the Philosophical Gourmet Report comes from John Marenbon of Cambridge University:

Brian Leiter’s ‘Gourmet Report’ is not highly regarded in Britain; indeed, it is hardly regarded at all. Some years ago I entered into a correspondence with Professor Leiter in the effort to persuade him that it was misleading to rank Cambridge by looking only at people in the Philosophy Faculty (i.e. Department), since half of the philosophers are in other faculties. When I reported my efforts to my colleagues, I was told not to bother, and that no one could care less what ranking we received. This attitude might be short-sighted: some prospective graduate students, from the US if not the UK, might pay attention to the Report. But it reflects a deeper, underlying wisdom, at least if the Leiter rankings are regarded as mainly to guide graduate students looking for where to take their doctorates. The difference between doing a PhD at a British university and at a North American one are so great that it would be utterly foolish to use these rankings to determine, or even influence, the choice.

In America, one can speak of a PhD course. It is taken in a particular department, and it trains students to be professional academics – teachers and researchers – in that department. And so it matters a great deal which department you take it in: for instance, if you want to be a philosopher, you take it in a philosophy department; if you want to be an historian, you go to a history department for it. In Britain, there are no PhD courses: taking a PhD means writing a doctoral thesis. You are not trained to do anything, except by accident: simply, you write a thesis, and that’s that. What department you happen to be in hardly matters, and PhDs on medieval philosophy might be done in theology, history, languages, classics, history of science, law or even, occasionally, philosophy departments.

In America, a PhD is usually a long drawn out affair. American doctoral students, especially those near to submitting, almost invariably strike me as very grown up: men and women of sober and considered judgement, with recognized positions and offices in their departments, with houses and gardens, spouses and children, dogs, cats and the family car. Although they cannot these days face the future with complete equanimity, they can at least feel confident that there is a system aimed at helping them find a post; their department feels a responsibility for their placement, although it cannot guarantee success.

British PhDs are usually fresh-faced. True, a little less so now than previously, since they are unfortunately required to do a year’s ‘taught’ MA course before they start doctoral work, and theses are more and more inclined to stretch into a fourth year. But doctoral work remains essentially a prolongation of undergraduate life and, at least in Oxford and Cambridge (the most obvious places in Britain for medieval philosophy), there is a strict division between ‘senior members’ – those who have, or have retired from, a job in the university or one of the colleges – and the rest, undergraduates and graduates, PhD students included. Doctoral students may do some teaching, perhaps even a lot of it; but it will be free-lance, usually one to one and very badly paid. And, in every branch of the humanities, but all the more so in medieval philosophy, realistically-minded doctoral students recognize that, in taking a PhD, they have set out on a wild adventure, which may well lead them nowhere in terms of a career but should at least provide a certain intellectual fulfilment. That is not to say that their supervisors and others will not try their hardest to find them a post when they are finished, nor to deny that there are still opportunities in Britain for post-doctoral positions. But there is no system for finding academic employment and, when it comes to teaching jobs, a very limited, sporadic market on this side of the Atlantic.

For doctoral students everywhere a lot depends on their supervisor. In the American system, though, there is a whole ‘thesis committee’ for each PhD candidate. There are taught courses at the start of the programme, examinations and a regulated system of supervision; and the student is likely to interact with various members of the department. In Britain, there is usually just a single doctoral supervisor, and the degree of his or her involvement with a student’s work is a matter of inclination and temperament, on both sides. In my own case, I had just two or three one-hour meetings with my supervisor in the course of my PhD. This might sound like a complaint, but, on the contrary, I think the way I was supervised was almost perfect for me. The first supervision showed me that I had become bogged down in detail, and I was not even accurate about it. The next meeting encouraged me in my progress. My supervisor supported me to the utmost, personally and professionally, from the beginning and right through my career. He put me in touch with the best experts in my area and, after I had taken my PhD and he no longer had any official responsibility for me, he gave his time unstintingly to look at my work and discuss it with me. Of course, this example is not typical – but then no example is typical of the British system. Some supervisors will give some PhD students hours of individual attention every week – and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Graduate supervision is indeed now regulated a little more closely by faculties than in the past, but the system remains essentially amateur, based on taste, inclination and good will. The important thing is for there to be the right fit between the PhD student and the supervisor.

So far as PhDs in medieval philosophy are concerned, the biggest difference of all between the American and British systems concerns the ancillary linguistic and philological skills which research in this area requires. The student will need either Latin or Greek or Hebrew or Arabic (if not two or more of these languages), French, Italian and German (for the secondary literature) and, in some cases, a knowledge of palaeography and codicology. In America, the general assumption, I believe, is that students beginning a PhD are unlikely to have these skills and that, if they are to be required, the university needs to provide instruction in them. Some universities there at least – I am familiar with the excellent system at Toronto – provide elaborate tuition and testing for medievalists (including philosophers) in these areas. In Britain, the assumption (it is a strange assumption, since everyone knows that it does not line up with the reality) is that those beginning a PhD in the area have these skills already, or can acquire them with little difficulty and with a minimum of tuition. Among my doctoral students, those who came with an excellent grasp of one or more of the medieval source languages, and were good linguists, have all flourished; those who lacked such skills found it hard to do outstanding work and would probably have done better in America.

These remarks are not intended as criticisms of the British system. On the contrary, it is the system I know well and, without blindness to its drawbacks, love. It seems to me that, in this small area, Britain strikes a balance between the excesses of the Continental European system in one direction, and those of the Unites States in the other, just as, arguably, it does in wider matters of economic organization and social policy – except that the poles are reversed. With regard to doctorates, Continental Europe, France especially, is the land of laissez faire: a nod of agreement from a professor is just about all it needs to become a doctoral student, but you will then often be left almost entirely to your own devices and it may be only as a member of the jury judging your work that the supervisor will first read your thesis. By contrast, universities in the US (Canada too) are, in this respect, like the Nanny State, intervening at every stage, encouraging you, cajoling you, protecting you from your own weaknesses and, at least to some extent, guiding you along a path which others have determined.

The Gourmet Report is not, then, a useful guide for graduates trying to decide on whether to study medieval philosophy in Britain. It also seems to me very questionable whether is particularly helpful even for those in more mainstream areas of philosophy choosing between different American doctoral programmes. What it does well is exactly what it claims to do. It rates departments according to the esteem in which their members are held by a group of Anglophone, and predominantly American, philosophers, and applies the same methodology to specialized areas within departments. In the central areas of analytic philosophy, the ranking should give a clear public expression to how departments, and specialities within them, are regarded by some of those best qualified to judge. A favourable result might justifiably be a matter for university or departmental pride; a poor one a challenge to its self-esteem. In medieval philosophy, however, where many of the best specialists are not in philosophy departments at all, and where the most, and a good deal of the best, work is done in Continental European universities (excluded from the survey) – and where the majority of leading specialists are not Anglophone – I doubt whether the Philosophical Gourmet rankings show anything significant at all.

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One comment on “PGR-Medieval 4

  1. Lodi Nauta says:

    Just one remark about John’s elegant and wise comment on the differences between the US and UK system. When he says that the UK is the golden mean (my words, we remain Aristotelians after all) between the ‘excesses’ of the US and the Continental Europe system, I’d like to point out that there is no Continental European system (though I forgive John because British people usually carve up Europe into UK and Europe: I have plenty of books on my shelves with titles like “The Birds of Britain and Europe”). The French laissez faire system as described by John is certainly not one Dutch people will recognize (nor the Germans), where we are, I think, positioned between the American PhD-programme and the UK laissez faire system (what John describes of the UK system sounds to me a bit like laissez faire, and I can see why he loves it because of its idiosyncrasies and unwritten laws and customs; but the French will certainly beat the English when it comes to the laissez faire). In the Dutch system we nowadays draw up a Teaching and Supervision Plan at the start of the 4 (or 3) years PhD trajectory, and supervision is generally somewhat stricter than it used to be, because universities financially benefit from finished PhDs, and supervisors are encouraged to get their PhDs finish on time. Some course work has to be done by the PhD student, who still has the status of an employee rather than a student, though things are changing as the student-type of PhD is much cheaper than what we call an AIO (Assistent-in-Opleiding, i.e. a PhD).
    I’m not aware that the Leiter gourmet is an issue here, certainly not among medievalists, and if so we will hide the results from our students: we want to keep the excellent students ourselves, and we believe we offer a programme and supervision that can easily compete with the best American universities (Dutch frankness and modesty)

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