Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

The Philosophical Gourmet Report 2009 Chinese Philosophy Rankings

I have some comments about Brian Leiter’s Gourmet Report rankings of programs by specialties, in particular the newly added ranking of Chinese philosophy Ph.D. programs. I invite your responses and comments as well. The ranking is posted here; I have copied and pasted it here:

****************************************************************
Group 1 (1) (rounded mean of 4.5) (median, mode)

University of Utah (4.5, 4.75)

Group 2 (2-5) (rounded mean of 4.0) (median, mode)

Duke University (4, 4)
University of California, Riverside (3.75, 3.75)
University of Connecticut, Storrs (4, 4)
*University of Hawaii, Manoa

Group 3 (6-7) (rounded mean of 3.5) (median, mode)

*National University of Singapore
University at Buffalo, State University of New York (3.25, 3.25)

Group 4 (8-10) (rounded mean of 3.0) (median, mode)

University of Oklahoma, Norman (3, 3)
*University of Oregon
University of Toronto (3, 3)

* inserted by Board
# based on 2004 results, in some cases with modest adjustments by the Advisory Board to reflect changes in staff in the interim

Evaluators: P.J. Ivanhoe, Bryan van Norden, David Wong.

Remember: evaluators were not permitted to evaluate either their own department or the department from which they received their highest degree (PhD, DPhil, sometimes the BPhil).

****************************************************************

My own thoughts: There are a variety of reasons for which professional philosophers have dissented from participating in or giving credence to the Gourmet Report. I myself have been a supporter of the Report; by and large, I think it provides a real service to prospective professional philosophers. The most useful things that it provides, in my opinion, are (1) a good sense of how a large and relatively widespread group of people at Ph.D. granting degree programs view each other and (2) centralized updates on movements of scholars to and from programs. These are really quite important kinds of information for program applicants, being directly relevant, respectively, to issues such as hopes for successful job placement and expectations of program-applicant fit.

That said, I have a rather grave concern with this year’s specialty ranking of programs in Chinese philosophy (for the first time, if I am not mistaken) because it gives the clearly false impression that the program at Utah is a noticeable step above those at Connecticut, Duke, and Hawaii (not to mention some of the other programs ranked even lower, programs that seem in many respects equivalent in quality to Utah’s). There are other reasons why the impression is clearly false but, minimally, the placement success at the three latter institutions, specifically for Chinese philosophy candidates, has far exceeded Utah’s. It seems to me that the problem with this ranking is the result of two procedural, or formal, aspects of this ranking that are ill-suited for ranking programs in Chinese philosophy in the current state of the field.

First, this ranking is in the format of the Gourmet’s other specialty rankings and the overall ranking which, with some exceptions (e.g. M.A. programs), tends to give a sort of crowning boost by listing “the top” program or group of programs in a separate heading from those directly below it. This sort of “quantum” separation into discrete groupings lends itself to the sort of illusory perception of some programs being “steps” above others rather than being more contiguous in perceived quality with those ranked lower — especially with those ranked immediately lower on the Gourmet’s numerical scale. That seems particularly misleading in the case of Chinese philosophy programs because there is little evidence, of which I am aware, that in the current state of the field some places are routinely, widely, or generally perceived by those in the field to be much better than others in training good scholars of Chinese philosophy. Some of this lack of evidence right now is attributable to the relative youth of the scholars who are in some of the current Ph.D. granting programs. Much more of it, I think, has to do with the diversity of interests and interpretive programs that is expressed in successful publication in the top journals — which diversity is also expressed throughout the current Ph.D. programs. Because of this, I can’t agree that the ranking reflects a very coherent or uncontroversial evaluation of quality. My suggestion would be not to have a ranking at all, but to have an informative list of viable programs with links to the respective departments.

The second reason, it seems to me, that the ranking turned out as it did is because of both the small size and coincidental, substantive intellectual interests of the consultant pool. The pool is composed in such a way that someone knowledgeable about its members might have reasonably predicted the skew of the results. Shared intellectual lineage and its associated camaraderie of two of the three consultants, with the primary researcher at Utah, cannot be discounted as distorting factors in the ranking. Hutton, at Utah, is a former student of Ivanhoe; Van Norden is also a former student of Ivanhoe. The three share, broadly speaking, an interpretive paradigm of reading the ancient Confucian texts through the lens of Virtue Ethical concerns. There’s nothing morally wrong with that, but this kind of affinity among their research programs certainly suggests that the consultant pool should either have been bigger or more diversely composed than it was, in order to reflect a broader consensus–supposing for the sake of argument that it existed–of perceived quality among current programs. I take the latter to be a desideratum of the Gourmet Report rankings.

I don’t actually think a consensus exists, currently, of relative Ph.D. program quality among well-published, well-known scholars in the field. So, for the time being, I would be in favor of a non-ranked list. In the future it may be possible for a pool of specialists to be polled and produce a ranking result that reflects something close to a broad consensus.

There are other thoughts I had about the ranking, but I’ll let others bring them up for now. Comments are welcome. I would like civility and professionalism to guide your contributions. Don’t make me have to moderate; I haven’t had to yet. (One special request for this post, given the particular sensitivity of the topic: please identify yourself with your real first and last names; non-compliant comments may be deleted or temporarily held until you identify yourself to me.) Thanks!

9 Comments »

  1. Brian Leiter, who was notified from the beginning of my work on this post, reminds us not to neglect the details of the introduction to the Gourmet’s specialty rankings. Here is the relevant part, copied and pasted:

    The rankings of programs in the specialty areas are based on surveys by experts in those specialties. Because, in many cases, the ratings reflect the presence of only one or two faculty in a department, the Advisory Board decided that we would not publish the precise scores. Programs are placed in “groupings” based on the rounded mean (rounded to the nearest .5). Next to each grouping, you will find the rounded mean for that group; next to the name of each program within that group you will find the median score for that faculty in parentheses, and then the mode score: where the mode and median are higher or lower than the mean, it is probably safe to assume that there was some notable divergence of opinion among evaluators. (Where there was more than one mode, only the average of the two is listed, to simplify the presentation.) Within a grouping, programs are listed alphabetically. Only programs with a rounded mean of “3” (meaning “Good”) or higher are so grouped. (In order to increase the pool of faculties a student should consider, any school with a mean of 2.5 or higher and either a median or mode of 3 was also rounded up to “3” and listed.)

    The Advisory Board has added to the specialty rankings two categories of programs. Faculties ranked in 2004 or 2006, but not included in the 2008 survey, are marked with an #. Faculties not rated in 2004 or 2006, but deemed by the Board strong in an area, are marked with an *.

    The purpose of the specialty rankings is to identify programs in particular fields that a student should investigate for himself or herself. Because of the relatively small number of raters in each specialization, students are urged not to assign much weight at all to small differences (e.g., being in Group 2 versus Group 3). More evaluators in the pool might well have resulted in changes of .5 in rounded mean in either direction; this is especially likely where the median score is either above or below the norm for the grouping. Also bear in mind that (1) programs with more faculty specializing in an area tended to be rated more highly than those with just one philosopher in the field; and (2) programs with specialists on the regular full-time faculty rather than “cognates” or part-time faculty tend to be rated more highly in the field.

    The most relevant part of this to my own comments is this: “Because of the relatively small number of raters in each specialization, students are urged not to assign much weight at all to small differences (e.g., being in Group 2 versus Group 3).” I suppose I have, in effect, seconded and emphasized that warning. Nonetheless, I want to add that the ranking’s suggested difference in quality between the Group 1 program (Utah) and the Group 3 and 4 programs, in terms of faculty quality considered alone, does not seem clearly warranted. That does not at all imply, obviously, that Hutton’s quality of scholarship is sub par.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 25, 2009 | Reply

  2. I have a number of problems with the PGR’s Chinese Philosophy rankings. Most of what I could say echoes what Manyul has already said, but I thought I would add some thoughts about Leiter’s disclaimer.

    First, Leiter says:

    “Because of the relatively small number of raters in each specialization, students are urged not to assign much weight at all to small differences (e.g., being in Group 2 versus Group 3).”

    Clearly, though, students are going to see a big difference between a group 1 and a group 2, 3, or 4 (if no such difference is meant, then why break them into such groups at all?), and in the case of the Chinese Philosophy rankings in this PGR, it seems to me just wrong to say that Utah stands far ahead of ANY of the schools in group 2,3, or 4. Not to say it’s not strong or that Eric Hutton’s work isn’t top notch, but there just doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of vast gulf between Utah and, say, Oklahoma, that these rankings suggest (the latter being three groups down!)

    Second, he says: “Also bear in mind that (1) programs with more faculty specializing in an area tended to be rated more highly than those with just one philosopher in the field…”
    But as far as I know, almost all of these schools, with the exception of Hawaii and NUS, have only one philosopher in the field, and the exceptions are ranked in groups 2 and 3 respectively!

    All in all, this ranking seems to me to inflate the differences between the strengths of the programs in Chinese Philosophy, because 1) using the tiered method as the PGR area rankings does gives us no way to distinguish between a list in which there are wide gaps in quality between departments, and 2) applying a number ranking has the same problem. This kind of ranking tends to lead students to take the top programs as far better than those on the bottom, and organize their search and application to schools accordingly (I’ll admit it, that’s the way I did it when applying to schools also, and this is way more prevalent than some supporters of the PGR want to admit).

    Although I support the PGR in general, it seems to me that when the quality of certain departments in particular areas is as close as that of the departments in the Chinese Philosophy list, it is not very helpful (and can actually have a negative effect) to rank them in this way.

    Also–it does seem like it would be helpful to have a few more philosophers representing different “strains” in the field on the evaluators list. If the study of Chinese Philosophy in contemporary philosophy departments isn’t enormously pluralistic, I don’t know what is.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 25, 2009 | Reply

  3. I appreciate the articulation of these concerns. I was delighted to have input in the survey from three very accomplished scholars in the area of Chinese philosophy–Professors Ivanhoe, Van Norden, and Wong–but it is clearly not ideal to have only three evaluators in the field. I do think a student who attended to the caveats about the ratings would not be misled. That being said, a similar issue was raised in 2006 about the ratings in philosophy of social science, and we did increase the pool and diversity of the evaluators for 2009. Something similar needs to be done for Chinese philosophy.

    Comment by Brian Leiter | February 25, 2009 | Reply

  4. For reasons articulated very well by Manyul and Alexus, I was quite surprised by the 2009 PGR rankings and wrote to Professor Leiter with my concerns about the methodology of the survey — particularly the size and composition of the sample of evaluators — as well the possibility that prospective graduate students will be misled into thinking that, as Alexus puts it, Utah stands far ahead of, say, Oklahoma or Singapore in Chinese philosophy. In fact, each of these ten departments has contrasting strengths and weaknesses, and it is very hard to justify any clear ordinal ranking, even a loose one that merely divides them into four “groups.”

    Let me clarify a couple of points that Brian explained in his reply email to me. I pointed out that readers might wonder why Hawaii, Singapore, and Oregon were not ranked by the evaluators, but by the PGR Advisory Board. The reason is that departments unlikely to make the overall top fifty are simply not presented to the evaluators for scoring. So the evaluators did not have an opportunity to rate these programs.

    Another point is that the specialty rankings, and indeed the PGR as a whole, do not purport to evaluate the overall strength of a program in a sense that includes, e.g., its placement record. Prospective students are expected to look into such factors themselves and arrive at their own overall evaluation. The PGR explicitly aims to evaluate only faculty quality.

    Given this stated purpose, however, I think most in the field will concur that a ranking of faculty quality in Chinese philosophy that places Utah alone at a rank above (e.g.) Duke, Hawaii, and Connecticut and two ranks above (e.g.) Singapore is preposterous. This is no criticism of Eric Hutton, whose work I admire. But the suggestion that Utah, with one well-regarded younger scholar, is in a different league from (e.g.) Singapore, which currently has six faculty in Chinese philosophy, some very well established, is surreal.

    I hope prospective students will heed the PGR’s explanation that the point of the rankings is simply to identify programs that students should investigate for themselves and that little or no weight should be attached to the differences between groups. This particular set of rankings is best regarded simply as a list of departments to look into, rather than a meaningful measure of differences in faculty quality.

    I’m pleased that Brian agrees that the size and diversity of the pool of evaluators needs to be expanded next time out. I am hopeful that the skewed rankings are a one-time problem.

    However, since some of the strongest programs in Chinese philosophy are likely to remain outside of the top fifty programs overall, I wonder whether, for the time being, this subfield might be better served by going without rankings. The PGR could instead simply include a list of ranked programs that offer supervision in Chinese philosophy (this year, Toronto, Duke, Riverside, Connecticut, and Utah), along with another list of “programs of note” in the field (Hawaii and others).

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 26, 2009 | Reply

  5. As one of the evaluators for Chinese philosophy on the Philosophical Gourmet Report, I thought I would make a brief comment (reflecting merely my personal opinion) about the basis for my evaluations.

    My admiration for the work of the scholars at Duke, Connecticut and Riverside is, I hope, beyond question. There is only one reason I personally ranked them below Utah: none of the philosophers at these institutions reads Classical Chinese at a graduate level. (Two of them do not read it at all, and one reads it to some extent, but not at the level one would expect doctoral students to have achieved.)

    This is not the “fault” of any of them. Indeed, one of the admirable things about these scholars is that they have stretched far beyond their original areas of training and research to move into Chinese philosophy, and made remarkable contributions. But, unsurprisingly, they never had the opportunity to receive the linguistic training that someone who obtained their doctorate in Chinese philosophy would normally have. I regard this as a significant factor in considering where to go to do graduate work.

    In the case of Hawaii, my evaluation was based not only on my own assessment of the work done there, but also on my sense of how other philosophers (and not only those in Chinese philosophy) have reacted to that work. There is always a possibility for bias, but (like any human) I just have to make the best judgment I can.

    I think that the National University of Singapore has an up-and-coming program in Chinese philosophy that may within a few years come to dominate the field. I was their guest at a conference a few years, and have come to know and admire the work of several people there, including Loy Hui Chieh, for whom I wrote an extremely strong letter of recommendation for graduate school. I look forward to seeing how the program develops. (Of course, the simple number of people working on Chinese philosophy at an institution shows nothing by itself.)

    I don’t know whether anyone has spoken up on behalf of the University of Buffalo, but they have a first-rate specialist in Chinese philosophy, even though he is forced by the nature of his position to work primarily in ancient Western philosophy.

    More details about the perspective I brought to the Report may be found in an article I published in the APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies 8:1 (Fall 2008): http://76.12.57.18/publications/newsletters/v08n1_Asian_04.aspx .

    I hope my comments prove useful to the discussion. Unfortunately, since I am currently up to my neck in the responsibilities of chairing a department and teaching classes, I will not have the opportunity to follow this debate as it develops.

    Comment by Bryan Van Norden | February 26, 2009 | Reply

  6. 1) I share similar concerns with some of the posters above regarding the tiered ranking system and the number (and composition) of the evaluators. In particular, I found this comment of Alexus’s to be on the mark:

    “it does seem like it would be helpful to have a few more philosophers representing different “strains” in the field on the evaluators list. If the study of Chinese Philosophy in contemporary philosophy departments isn’t enormously pluralistic, I don’t know what is.”

    There is no question that all three of the current evaluators merit inclusion, yet it is regrettable that no one representing the Hawaii or Hansen strains, for example, was included.

    2) Regarding Bryan’s point about the language training of advisors: I think students ought to consider gaining facility with the classical language before embarking in full-time PhD study, if at all possible. The demands of PhD training are high enough without including classical language training. I am sure others have taken my route and gained facility prior to beginning a PhD (perhaps by completing an MA first in an Asian Studies program). This would mitigate concerns about one’s advisor not having formal training in classical Chinese.

    3) While I agree with Stephen that poking around on the internet will lead the prospective student to much good info, I would add that much of that info is a direct result of a) discussions of the PGR rankings and b) discussions of the state of the field that were either posted or cross-posted on the Leiter blog. For example, Leiter started a discussion on his blog a couple of years ago (prompted by a letter from Manyul, I think) that contains much useful info for prospective students which, in turn, served to prompt other discussions (such as the ‘summer project’ many of us contributed to on this blog last year).

    Moreover, many undergraduates may be looking forward to doing graduate work with a number of scholars who, unfortunately, are either not in philosophy programs (e.g. Puett, Roth, Goldin, Slingerland, Eno, Tu, etc.) or are not at PhD granting institutions (Van Norden, Angle, Im, etc.) or are at institutions whose primary language of instruction is not English (Ivanhoe, Fraser, Shun, Liu, etc.) The Gourmet rankings are, to my mind, very valuable as a quick stop to let students know “IF you want to complete a PhD in Chinese philosophy in a philosophy department in the English speaking world, these are pretty much your options right now.” So even if, as Stephen suggests, they are looking at ‘people’ vs. ‘programs’ (he’s probably right about this–that’s what I did), it would be helpful to know what ‘people’ are in ‘philosophy programs’ to begin with.

    Comment by Hagop Sarkissian | February 27, 2009 | Reply

  7. Naturally I agree with Hagop’s final paragraph; in fact, the last time there was a round of rankings and evaluations of Chinese philosophy programs, I raised essentially the same point.

    For that matter, it strikes me (as an outsider to philosophy departments) that there are too many rankings, and I’m not sure I see their purpose or value. Who teaches Chinese philosophy at the University of Utah besides Eric Hutton? If the field is so marginalized and unstable that a single untenured faculty member can cause a program to rocket all the way to the top, isn’t that an indication that there’s little point in ranking programs?

    If the purpose of the rankings is to give prospective Ph.D. students a sense of where they’re most likely to get a degree that will carry weight on the job market, then I have to say they just don’t sound right. To return to Hagop’s final paragraph–as an example, take someone who did a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard and worked with Puett (in EALC) while he or she was there. Do you all really believe that someone with a profile like that would be outranked on the job market by a newly minted Ph.D. from UC Riverside?

    All I get from these rankings is that a graduate student who writes an innovative and well-argued dissertation will be able to impact the field profoundly. And that was true twenty years ago.

    Comment by Paul R. Goldin | March 2, 2009 | Reply

  8. A couple of observations

    1. As an interested participant-observer from Duke, there just is no way that Duke is better than Hawaii, Singapore, HK for Chinese philosophy. None, zero, end of dicussion.
    2. However, largely because of David Wong’s presence and my own interests in comparative moral psychology, we have had a few excellent students come to our program with backgrounds in Chinese philosophy. But so far none of them have written a dissertation in Chinese philosophy.
    3. But, most importantly, my own impression is that whereas excellent liberal arts colleges and non-elite universities — witness Vasser, Wesleyan, Fairfield — have good comparative programs, elite universities don’t. Conservatism reigns.
    4. Exactly the same situation obtains in Buddhist philosophy in America. Jay Garfield of Smith and Mark Siderits recently retired from Northern Illinois are incredible scholars. But they have spent their careers outside of PhD producing programs. Charles Goodman is an up & coming Buddhist scholar at Binghamton. It is a sad testimony to the state of Buddhist philosophy that I am one of the better scholars doing it at a major research University. Its the same situation I think in Chinese philosophy in the US.

    Comment by owen flanagan | July 5, 2009 | Reply

  9. For prospective graduate students following this string: University of Oregon’s inserted position in the listed programs is irrelevant for the time being, since it has no specialist in the Philosophy Department there, as of Fall 2009 (see previous announcement and update on this blog).

    Comment by Manyul Im | July 14, 2009 | Reply


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