Mr. Mennella’s Guide: Advisers and Adviser Selecting Apparatuses

I believe that our guest-blogger today truly believes that I have never once said anything positive about anything–ever.  Perhaps it was the way that we first met, when I shared the lofty qualifications of friends of mine who had secured Ph.D. candidacies–and failed to secure candidacies despite their impressive and singular talents. Perhaps it is because he holds me up as a paragon of ivory tower academic snobbery–one of those who would not be expected to deign to discuss the affairs of the homeless after a screening of The Interrupters and who have no love in their souls.  Perhaps, it is merely because I do not drink beer, and as such, how could I possibly hope to be happy or satisfied with anything in life sans the libation that is the root of happiness?  For whatever reason Vincent Mennella has decided that I spend most of my life complaining–and perhaps he is right.  However, I hope that just this once he will not believe that I am complaining when I say that this post could not have been more timely or more appreciated.

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At the request of the mighty MAPHman, I am offering my unique account of selecting a thesis adviser. The title I have selected denotes two distinctive themes—however, neither of them is in homage to Louis Althusser and French social thought. Advisers are people and, therefore, possess a number of distinctive qualities that may or may not be beneficial in constructing an impressive thesis. Adviser selecting apparatuses are unique systems imposed by the UChicago philosophy department to guide, coerce, and complete the adviser selection process for students working with a member of the philosophy faculty.

I’m someone who really thought twice about attending UChicago’s MAPH program. If you are a philosophy student who has recently asked about graduate study in philosophy, then you have probably been asked the question: “is there anything other than philosophy that will make you happy?” and “if so, why not do that instead?” I have never managed to make it to the second-half of the question, because I’ve always answered the first “no.” In fact, after logging ever more hours at OfficeMax last summer, I returned to that perennial gut-check only to discover that my response had matured from “no” to “NO!” Do I have interests other than philosophy that make me happy? Sure I do. I love playing with my metal band, drinking fine, dry, and aggressively hopped or strong Belgian-style ales with my droogs, and trekking across the golf course. I had to think twice about attending Uchicago, because I knew that pursuing the work here would require doing all those other things I love differently than I had back home. Further, I knew that the friends and fellow musicians I’d be leaving are some of the best people the world has to offer and accepting Uchicago’s offer would be—hopefully—the first step in a long process that would end in having uprooted myself to pursue philosophy. So I had to put the question to myself again: did my love of philosophy really trump all other consideration, did I think anything else could make me happy? I’m in the program so you can guess my answer, but my words of wisdom for any potential MAPH philosophy students is that your answer to that infamous question needs to be a resounding “NO!” before you take the plunge.

I finished my undergraduate studies at University of Denver. You won’t find it on the Leiter Report (Philosophical Gourmet), because they don’t offer graduate studies in philosophy. What they do is educate undergraduates, and if you ask me, they do it very well. Jere Surber, Naomi Reshotko, and Bill Anderson might publish some good work, but their legacy has little to do with the publishing recorded in their Cvs. Their real legacies are the students they’ve had such an impact on. Part of that impact was to impress upon me the importance of having any future adviser take an active role in my thesis project. I know that my MAPH thesis has to be my best work to date, and I also know that my best work in the past has always come about through connections with faculty members. This cooperative process of discovering my argument is a distinctive method—quite different from the method employed by individuals who create their arguments hermetically.

Some of you may want to ask me “if you were educated by such great people at such a great school, then why aren’t you working on that doctorate now?” and that is a fair question. For clarity’s stake, I did only finish my degree at DU, after I had spent my first years at a State College in Colorado. The impact of that composite transcript and my abysmal GRE scores have helped lead me here to UChicago, or rather, I’m here despite those issues. That is to say, I’m convinced the reason why I was denied doctoral positions wasn’t because my writing sample didn’t make it far enough down the stairs in the admissions building, but because my philosophical skills do still need sharpening. My hope is that a year at this place will provide all I need to secure one of those coveted funded Ph.D. positions.

After explaining the nature of my project I’ll explain my adviser selection process. I’m a Kantinental philosopher. That’s right I’m not an analytic philosopher clad in a sport coat and wingtips, and I’m not an artist from the continent trying to paint reason with words. I’m a Kantinental philosopher, so my philosophical interests attempt to solve problems by “bringing reason to its full satisfaction” and are firmly entrenched in the history of philosophy. My thesis project concerns Kant, Davidson, McDowell, and responses to skepticism. Given my background and given my project, I was able to form of list of what I needed in a thesis adviser.

1) I need someone who will give me the time I need to help me discover how to say what I want to say about a body of literature.

2) I need someone who has expertise in Kant and exegetical issues related to using Kant’s work in ways that might be contentious.

3) I need someone who has a firm grip on contemporary philosophy.

4) I need a significant, or preeminent, philosopher who will attract the attention of admissions committees so I can keep doing philosophy.

The fourth need is not really a need. It’s what you would call a need surd. It can’t be properly expressed as a need. What matters in selecting a thesis adviser is that you find someone who will help you develop the best product, because if you don’t have a good project, then admissions committees won’t let you keep doing philosophy in the ivory tower. My belief is that while a student with a great project who lacks a preeminent adviser can get into doctoral program and a student with a great project and a great adviser can get into a program, a student with a snoozer of a project and a great adviser won’t find a program. Do these propositions differ in respect of their sense or in respect of their form? Was Russell right or was Frege right? Having said that, doctoral admissions are a crap-shoot, and if it puts a smile on your face to tell your friends back home “I worked with professor big shot such-and-such”, then by all means: do it.

So who did I select to be my adviser? I selected Professor S. He’s a good friend of the MAPH program co-director Ben Callard, and Ben is part of the Adviser Selection Apparatuses that guides, coerces, and completes the process of selecting a thesis adviser. When I met with Ben we went through an exhaustive list of faculty members who could have interests that intersect with my own.

Professor P possesses a work ethic and a personality I could really enjoy working with. He can offer me the time I need to do my best work, but his interests are in a different direction. (Bad choice)

Professor Q is teaching course material I’m interested in right now, and can offer me the time I need to do my best work, but his expertise is truly in other areas. (Bad choice)

Professor R and I have a great number of intersecting interests, but after taking a course with him in the Fall I know there is no way he could find the time I need to help me do my best work. (Bad choice)

Professor S and I have some intersecting interests. He really cares about his students. He is an experienced, but not overworked, emeritus professor. (Good choice)

Ben and I settled on Professor S. He lacked some expertise in a particular area that is really important to my project, but Ben told me “You know, there are a lot of people who have jobs in this department, and one of those jobs is talking to you, during office hours, about this project, so if you would like to see them, don’t be afraid to do so” then he added “and that includes me”. I doubt dropping that line will supplant “can we discuss my term paper” the next time I approach Professor R, but Ben’s a good guy and I’ll certainly be going to see him. He’s someone worth learning from. After my meeting with Ben, I spoke with my preceptor, another figure in the adviser selection apparatuses. I told him that Ben and I were convinced we should pursue Professor S” and my preceptor agreed—as Professor S is the only person who meets all four of my criteria.

So at this point, given the careful consideration that I’d given the question, the meetings with Ben, the liason between the MAPH program and the Philosophy department, and my preceptor, you’re probably thinking that my adviser is Professor S, right? Nope, you’re wrong. I met Professor S, and while it is true that he agreed to be my adviser, using the power-vested-in-him by the adviser selection apparatuses, Professor S claimed he had overextended himself, and could not meet my needs.

The adviser I have selected is Michael Kremer. He is an emeritus professor, has expertise in Kant and McDowell, and has deeply entrenched interests in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophical problems. He even received his doctorate from a clique I wouldn’t mind joining in the near future. Given what I’ve said about my need for a cooperative advisory experience, I’m sure you can understand the reluctance I felt when considering working with an emeritus professor, but Michael is different. After talking to other students I heard things like: “He’ll do whatever he agrees to do, just out of obligation, but the cost of his time is doing lots of hard work in order to make productive use of that time” and “he’s great, he cares about your development as a student unlike other big shot faculty members who just don’t care”. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t other emeritus faculty members who care about their students, but I’m certainly pleased to have found one.

I have had my first meeting with Michael and it went very well. We are planning to meet every two to three weeks, and given what I have learned about Michael, there is no reason why I can’t expect that plan to work. Have you noticed that I’ve been calling Professor Kremer: “Michael?” Well, that’s another refreshing thing. I was surprised and pleased when a professor, especially one the quality of Michael Kremer, says “I’m Michael.” What do you go by?” While this move might not seem very important, if your outlook is as egalitarian as mine, and you’re in an environment like UChicago where you know people refer to Professor So-and-So as Professor So-and-So, even when Professor so-and-so isn’t around, and there is a certain lack of respect for students, it feels quite satisfying to learn that not everyone buys into the elitist attitude of the environment just because they have the right to do so. We’re all equally people, so why don’t we just drop the use of titles?

Walking out of the meeting I’ve got a solid signed proposal, with some lines of thought that have been referred to as “interesting”, and a positive outlook that didn’t exist after the fall-quarter. I expect my important, but perhaps short, relationship with Michael Kremer will be a rewarding one. However, I’m left with a real question: “Why didn’t the adviser selecting apparatuses match Michael and I up in the beginning?” This is where someone who knows more about the faculty, like the program’s co-director and my preceptor, could have made a valuable contribution. However, in the end, it all turned out the right way, and the adviser selecting apparatuses did give me the next few months to study with Michael.

What I hope future students will take away from my chronicle of advisers and adviser selecting apparatuses is 1) don’t accept the first adviser you meet with because you feel like you have to and 2) when you meet with your adviser for the first time I hope your fortunate enough to feel like myself or Alissa and Bill who also seems quite pleased with their selections. If you don’t feel optimistic, hopeful, or satisfied, then you’re probably feeling indifferent or disappointed, and I doubt that kind of relationship will help meet the daunting challenges posed by UChicago.

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