Monday, June 21, 2010

"Against Rank"

A puzzling piece titled "Against Rank" by one Jeffrey R. Di Leo has just been posted to Inside Higher Ed. The thesis, it seems, is that it is a sign of "good health" that the humanities disciplines have not "caught rank and brand fever like many of the other disciplines in the American academy." I'm not sure exactly what the case for that thesis is supposed to be, because the rest of the article simply notes that the specific specializations and sub-fields within humanities disciplines have their own journals; and this makes overall rankings across sub-fields difficult (or is the claim that it's impossible?). Di Leo then goes further to say that rankings within the sub-fields is "not very useful," because each person working in the sub-field will have "their own highly idiosyncratic" ranking of the journals in the sub-field. I'm not sure why this is a sign of health. By the end of the article, Di Leo has changed the thesis to the claim that journal rankings in the humanities are "not a worthwhile endeavor," and humanities professors should be "proud" that their disciplines have avoided "rank and brand fever."

I find this piece utterly confused. Anyone care to explain it to me?

7 comments:

English Jerk said...

I think his point is that not only are humanities fields, so to speak, vertically subdivided by topic, but they are also horizontally subdivided by approach. (This makes much more sense in English than in Philosophy, and, given that he's in English, I have no idea why Philosophy is his example.) A ranking along the vertical axis would presuppose that there are differences only in degree and not in kind along that axis, which is not true if the approaches are different in kind. I guess he thinks this isn't also the case in the natural sciences or in vocational fields like business because all the researchers in those fields share the same approach? That's the best I can do with it.

I'm sympathetic to his thesis, but he definitely doesn't provide much of an argument for it. The humanities probably do benefit from having a high tolerance for heterodoxy, but he hasn't given any explanation at all of why this might be true and how a lack of journal rankings is connected to it.

Spiros said...

Thanks EJ, that's about the best I think anyone could do with it.

I'm not sure about the thesis. I supposed that it would be futile to try for a rank like "JP is better than Phil Rev, Phil Rev is better than Nous, Nous is better than Mind..." But a tier system (JP, Phil Rev, Nous... are A+, Phil Studies is an A, and so on...) rough as it would be, seems to me unobjectionable.

The worry with the author's approach is that it makes it too easy for one to accurately describe himself as the leader in his field ("My field is Hegel as read by a an American with blonde hair who was born in Wyoming in 1963."), and makes it too easy for a backwater journal to describe itself as the top in its field ("We're the top place for publishing articles that have been rejected everywhere else.").

It seems odd, to say the least, to hold that the Humanities are in "good health" because they do not have the conceptual instruments to resist these absurd implications of Di Leo's view.

Anonymous said...

We're the top place for publishing articles that have been rejected everywhere else."

Can you tell me the name of this journal?

Mike said...

So you summarize an article, make it sound pretty worthless and then want me to read it? You've already convinced me not to read it. Shortness of life and all that.

Anonymous said...

Heavens me, I wonder to what degree his 'argument', such as it is, applies to the Leiter rankings.

Anonymous said...

Spiros wrote:

"I supposed that it would be futile to try for a rank like "JP is better than Phil Rev, Phil Rev is better than Nous, Nous is better than Mind..."

In fact, the extent to which philosophers agree about the ranking of journals - as measured by two polls, Weatherson and Leiter - is striking. I think almost everyone agrees that Phil Rev > JP, for instance.

prufrock765 said...

I knew Jeff when he was in grad school. He has a PhD in philosophy.