The Philosophy of Snow

December 28, 2010

The blizzard that has devastated transportation in the Northeast has created a natural disaster for the Eastern division of the American Philosophical Association, which started its annual meeting Monday in Boston. The philosophy association has no national meeting, and the Eastern meeting is its largest gathering and the one at which departments from all over the country interview job candidates.

Many sessions on Monday evening were canceled, and many scheduled interviews did not take place. In some cases, candidates made it to Boston, but not hiring committees. In other cases, it was the opposite. Given that the job market in academic philosophy can hardly be called booming, and job interviews are stressful in any case, the additional uncertainty has many graduate students in a state of extreme anxiety.

The blog Leiter Reports has created several discussion threads for people to post information on sessions being canceled and on the status of job interviews. This thread identifies several universities that have called off plans to interview and contact information for some search committees that are trying to reach their candidates.

Brian Leiter, who teaches law and philosophy at the University of Chicago and who maintains the blog, posted there that he has been "hearing a couple of horror stories about some departments perhaps not making accommodations for stranded job seekers (e.g., rescheduling the interviews, proposing Sykpe interviews, phone interviews, or some alternative way to 'meet' with job seekers who simply can not make it to Boston under the circumstances)." He strongly advised departments to be flexible amid the "hugely unfortunate and stressful situation for all (and especially job seekers)."

David Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, said he believed most departments would try to be helpful to job candidates whose interviews are called off. "Departments aren't scheduling interviews with people they don't think are very good," he said, and they will want to talk to those candidates, even if their flights have been grounded. He suggested that online discussion about the situation may suggest a more dire situation for job candidates than really is the case. "Candidates tend to be in a bit of panic mode, so I wonder if those people who say they have lost their opportunity really have," he said. "I'm sure there may be some cases of that, but I think it may be less severe than the blog world may suggest."

As to the meeting's sessions in general, he said he didn't know how severe the impact would be. He said that many sessions were called off last night, but that he had no idea how many would go on as scheduled today or for the rest of the week. When people encounter travel problems, he said, the first thing they do "is not to call the APA," so the association doesn't know what will happen. More than 2,000 people were expected at the meeting. The association has committed to fill certain blocks of rooms at hotels to qualify for convention rates, and Schrader said he didn't know whether the hotel would count rooms that were booked but were canceled when people couldn't make it to Boston.

The APA has placed a sign in the meeting area alerting attendees that sessions may be called off, but the association (to the frustration of some) has not created any centralized listing of session cancellations. Philosophy blogs seem to agree that the best such compilation is the one at Leiter Reports.

Richard Bett, secretary-treasurer of Eastern division of the APA and a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, said he believed the situation would improve today. He said that "a number of people have made new plans" to get flights today, but he said he has also heard from many who have tried to do so, but can't get on any flight until after the meeting is over.

"It's a nightmare basically," he said. "But there is no way we can change the date for the meeting now. All we can do is have as much as possible with the people who have arrived."

While some philosophers have noted that leaders of disciplinary associations can't be blamed for weather, others are blasting the association for not posting detailed information about the situation anywhere. One graduate student posted a comment on Leiter Reports, in response to the APA sign that it couldn't figure out who was coming to Boston and who wasn't, saying: "It's also utterly disingenuous. Coordinating the changes would take effort, but it's not impossible; I've seen worse snafus negotiated on a larger scale by other organizations, academic and private sector. Of course, that would take some effort from the shiftless poltroons at the head of our professional organization."

For those unable to get to Boston and who want to read some of the papers, the APA created (before the blizzard) a web page with some of the papers to be presented there.

With the move of the Modern Language Association's annual meeting (this year in sunny Los Angeles) away from the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, the Eastern division of the APA is the last major academic conference of the year. Schrader said that the association has been having discussions about moving the timing of the meeting for years and is planning a new survey of members on moving the meeting. The problem, he said, "is that people can agree that they don't particularly like this time, but they don't agree on a time that is preferable."

He also noted that some of the possible calendar changes (such as early January) would still pose risks of winter weather.

Schrader stressed that the association's staff was well aware of how difficult it was to reach Boston. The association's staff (based in Delaware) was supposed to fly to Boston Sunday, had two flights canceled, then switched to train, had a train end its run in New York City, and only managed at the last minute to get on the last train leaving for Boston, arriving at 2:30 Monday morning, with only a few hours for sleep before setting up the meeting.

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