Calling all Philosophers and Historians, or the people who love them
February 27, 2019 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Please generalize for me about the academics in these fields. Shed some light for me about the people who choose to study these areas. I’m looking for trends and idiosyncrasies, telling details, character traits, motivations, you name it.

I’m writing a novel. My two characters are, in the early going, grad students pursuing their PhDs. My main character is a female sociology student, and I’ve talked to some sociologists (one of them a very kind MeFite) who have been extraordinarily helpful as I try to imagine these characters. My sociology student is involved with a guy who (I think) is either getting his PhD in philosophy or history. If you know these fields (which I really don’t — all of my friends are writers and therapists), tell me what you know about people who pursue these fields. I welcome wild generalizations as well as particular observations, motivations as to why people choose to study what they do, predilections, backgrounds, temperaments, personality styles, specific anecdotes, anything and everything would be helpful.
posted by swheatie to Education (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The few Philosophy students whom I knew in university all knew all the words to The Philosopher's Song, and drank a lot.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:04 AM on February 27, 2019

Philosophers have a reputation for being confrontational. Also, the field as a whole has a serious under-representation of women. See also here. Not sure if it's relevant to your question, but there was also a recent scandal in which a prominent female philosopher was accused of sexually harassing a graduate student.
posted by alex1965 at 11:35 AM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

My partner has a PhD in history, so I can generalize about their grad school cohort and current colleagues. I found these folks to be warm and funny - great senses of humor. They were largely liberal, though not all of them. They were/are much more aware than other people I know of politics and the deeper implications of what is going on today, probably because of their studies. You wouldn’t want debate with them, because they could bring up things you never knew (i.e., the United States is declared not to be a Christian nation in the Treaty of Tripoli). They also tend to spend school breaks traveling to national archives that hold documents they need for their research. That’s when the bulk of their data collection gets done. So it would be unrealistic for a grad student in history to go on vacation for Spring Break (to the dismay of their partner) but much more likely for them to go on a research trip.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:56 AM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Wild generalisations, based on a sample size of less than 10—

philosophy PhD students I’ve met tend to (sometimes) be

-anxious, especially about moral questions to do with their own behaviour and choices (Chidi from The Good Place isn’t completely off-base)

- accidentally or deliberately condescending on occasion, in a let-me-explain-[thing]-to-you way. More likely than other PhD students, in my experience, to turn conversation into an exercise in teaching / lecturing / Socratic challenging. This takes place on a spectrum that ranges from the endearing / oblivious to the unpleasant / arrogant. Depends how sympathetic you want your character to be.

- intensely (sometimes performatively) into some super-simple pop culture pleasure, like a particularly dumb sitcom or music or movie or book series. They talk at length about how dumb it is and how simultaneously fascinating it is and are secretly not at all ironic in how into it they actually are.

- uncomfortable with straightforwardly espousing any belief or making any claim [in ordinary life, not in their professional field of interest where they may have very strong opinions]. Lots of hedging and “if you thought x, you might think y” and so on.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:12 PM on February 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

Aravis's observations are spot on, imo. Chidi is a painfully accurate characterization. Watch the episode where he talks with Michael about discarding his dissertation manuscript and starting over.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:18 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm a librarian who works with History faculty and students a lot. I've also worked and socialized with Philosophy faculty, though not as much.

Until I read alex1965's comment above, I didn't realize my experience with Philosophy faculty was more universal. Individually these men were fine. But I once went to a dinner with three or four Philosophy faculty members in attendance. They were diverse ages and one guy was kinda punk. As a group, though: think of white men arguing with great import and confidence; they came across as a bit arrogant and unwelcoming and boastful. It wasn't super pleasant. Unless you want to play up unpleasant stereotypes about academics, I'd go with History.

Because historians, on the other hand, are lovely! They are big users and supporters of libraries and archives and they spend a lot of time reading. I was an English major, and I'm thinking History students read as much or more than I did, and wrote as many or more papers than I did. They tend to be thoughtful and not quick to rush to judgment. They do often need to travel to various archives and special collections for their research. You'd want to figure out if your historian was focused on US or non-US history, especially because historians who focus on countries that they don't live in probably know additional languages and may spend quite a bit of time in that place. (I'm assuming you're in the US; all bets are off if we are talking about non-US stereotypes.)

That doesn't mean none of them are obstreperous, and I might work with a particularly pleasant group of folks. I suspect your sociologist would be more likely to date a History grad student, though.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:18 PM on February 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

One of the thing modeled and socialized in philosophy grad school -- and I think the humanities generally but I'm not sure -- is tunnel vision, about your field and academia in general.

The best model I can offer is that it's like joining a monastery or other religious order. It's a vocation, there's a sense that we give up a lot - certainly money, which is true - to do this important work, and people outside just can't really understand, we observe certain rituals and pieties and hierarchies that aren't necessarily well-explained/independently justified but we just do them, and learning those unspoken mysteries is part of joining the field and seeming savvy or like a good fit... and so on. And if one leaves, it's because one couldn't handle it or wasn't chosen, and it's a pitiable kind of thing to be spoken about in somber tones, rather than just choosing a different job.

The other thing is that promotion - getting to pass your exams/dissertation, getting to publish, getting a job, getting tenure - is very highly dependent on the subjective good opinion of individuals higher up in the hierarchy, like your grad advisor. So you really need to maintain a subjective reputation for being smart, a good philosopher, knowledgable, etc -- this is what leads to the anxious hedging that Aravis describes. Seeming unsavvy could cost you the good opinion of a faculty member, who might not give you a good reference, which could cost you a more prestigious job, or even lead to you being cast out of the monastery - which is of course the only place that matters - entirely.

Obviously the opinions of higher-ups are based on the quality of your work, but there's always an unknowable admixture of their subjective sense of whether you're "brilliant" or how much potential you have, and a lot of interactions feed into that. So you need to be cautious, and hedge hedge hedge.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm an undergrad in history and here are some observations about the professors and grad students I interact with: passionate but non-confrontational, will get pretty sarcastic about academic ideas they disagree with, are a lot more creative than you'd guess from style of dress or affectation (which is generally pretty mellow if not conservative), the men have all inevitably read Dune (at least in the medieval and ancient history circles I run in) whether or not they like scifi, the older the history the more languages they seem to know or complain about how they should. History really is an interdisciplinary field!
posted by wellifyouinsist at 1:09 PM on February 27, 2019

History seems to have a preponderance of people who leave their university at the ABD ("all but dissertation") stage--all classes and duties required for a Ph.D. complete except actually writing up all the notes they have into a cohesive narrative-- and then submit their dissertation and get the official Ph.D. like 5-20 years later (for people who stay put it's more like a one year process). Some of them continue to describe themselves as grad students. It's not all of them, but I happen to know a bunch of people who went to grad school in history and maybe 1/4 of them did this. (In my field in the sciences, I knew a number of people who really left and never looked back, and one who left to finish in an industry lab and came back 6 months later. Leaving for a while wasn't a thing at all.) If the history grad student isn't a go-getter/independently wealthy, being a history ABD working an office job at some point in the relationship and not ever really working on his dissertation in spite of talking about it plenty is a totally plausible thing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:18 PM on February 27, 2019

Also in philosophy, there are few different schools-of-thought, and typically a grad program will align itself with just one. So your imaginary grad student will be different if he's in -- broad generalizations here --
-an "analytic" philosophy program -- the most common type in the anglophone world, focused on logic and precise analysis of words and ideas, no metaphors allowed, be very literal and pick everything apart with tweezers, read mostly UK and US philosophers, sees itself as being like math not very tied to any particular place/time and not concerned with power relations in the real world.... or
- a "continental" one -- read more French and German philosophers like Derrida and Heidegger, metaphors and allusions are great, precision isn't something to strive for, ideologically close to "Theory" which is big in literature studies, very concerned with power relations in the real world, etc. This is what people commonly think of a philosophy grad student being like, but it's rarer in the US.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:20 PM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm a historian, and the characterizations given above ring mostly true. The people I know who are historians tend to come to history out of a deep and abiding interest in other people—what makes them tick, how they configure their internal worlds, how they view the world around them. This is one of the things that distinguished them from mere history buffs. History buffs are the kind of people who drone on and on about troop movements in the Battle of Antietam. That is, they are fascinated by the minutiae of the past, by the what, not so much the why. If you go to grad school in history, you need to be interested in the why. Some other things: Most of us are boring dressers. It's easy to be a peacock when you're surrounded by pigeons. Those of us who do non-US history secretly sneer at those who do US history (their monolingualism, their unwillingness to engage with a scholarly literature that goes beyond North America, etc.). Medievalists are always more fun than anyone else (I went to the annual wing-ding at Kalamazoo, and you haven't seen anything till you've seen a bunch of Anglo Saxonists boogie down). We don't go on vacations -- we go on research trips, but if you've made good decisions, that often means trips to awesome places where you get to go into parts of the building that are off limits to the tourists. But it also means that you travel to exotic places in order to spend 12 hours a day in a windowless room under flickering lights reading incomprehensible handwritten documents. Fun!
posted by pleasant_confusion at 1:23 PM on February 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

They both spent their undergraduate years being asked if they were planning to go to law school.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:40 PM on February 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't mean to be glib but straight male historians have their pick of all the women in their program. The few single guys in my MA program either got together right away with someone or dated most of the other single women. If your character is an even moderately socially adept man who bemoans the fact that women don't want to date him, it will ring false.

The stereotype of historians being ivory tower types are also a bit misplaced. My classmates are very politically active (all liberal) and most who have jobs do something that connects their field of study to contemporary policy. Absolutely no one went on to teach undergrads about the French Revolution.
posted by pierogi24 at 3:15 PM on February 27, 2019

The stereotype of historians being ivory tower types are also a bit misplaced. My classmates are very politically active (all liberal) and most who have jobs do something that connects their field of study to contemporary policy. Absolutely no one went on to teach undergrads about the French Revolution.

This is not surprising in an M.A. program. If you are in a terminal M.A. program, you are already off-track to be an academic historian. The Ph.D. is the required professional credential, and the good schools award the M.A. as an afterthought.
posted by praemunire at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2019

That is not accurate in the UK or Canada, where I'm from. You need to get an MA on the way to a PhD. But the main point is that there are almost no jobs now for people who specialize in older European history, and the people who got PhDs in history but now teach in indigenous governance, political science, environmental policy, etc. departments is a lot higher and the people I know like it that way because they want to be relevant. The stereotype of historians as people who want to live in the past and love old leather books is just cliched.
posted by pierogi24 at 3:25 PM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Philosophers either have excellent social skills or very poor social skills, with little middle ground. Either way, they're probably also arrogant. They're usually interested in argument for the sake of argument, because it is good training for mapping the conceptual space on a given topic. They're not interested in winning or losing, per se; so debate tactics where you flood the opponent with arguments or perhaps take on rhetorical arguments of opportunity to win some kind of narrow social or contextual point, are less appealing than finding a strong, elegant, flexible argument for whatever position, large or small. To a lot of philosophers, skill at the preceding mode of shadow combat is what it *means* to be smart and to find it boring or to not display facility with it means that you are not smart, whatever your other talents.
posted by Kwine at 3:57 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

That is not accurate in the UK or Canada, where I'm from.

I don't know about Canada, but the Oxford/Cambridge terminal master's programs are basically cash cows, designed to relieve recent graduates with money but no career plans of a little of their excess. In the U.S., everyone gets a master's, but if you are in a program that ends with a master's, you are not being prepared to be an academic historian.
posted by praemunire at 4:15 PM on February 27, 2019

(I mean, a friend and I got ours a year "late" because we didn't care so we didn't get the paperwork done on time.)
posted by praemunire at 4:16 PM on February 27, 2019

I have been told by historians about a powerful split between those historians who believe that historians can achieve more or less direct access to past events and those who believe that historians’ accounts are invariably colored by the circumstances swirling around them as they work.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 5:29 PM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Historians tend to wear the same clothes constantly. I live and die in a green hand knitted Jumper. I’m a historian of religion. No one notices.
posted by Middlemarch at 10:15 PM on February 27, 2019

In my experience, philosophers sometimes come across as arrogant even when they're not because they've been trained to discuss issues in a particular way, and they're very good at separating issue and person. They're not very good at separating Serious Philosophical Discussion and relaxed dinner table conversation, so you feel like you're being attacked.
posted by hannala at 11:20 PM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I lived with a philosopher. The worse thing you can say to a philosopher is that his/her statements are not interesting.
posted by SyraCarol at 11:20 PM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

There is a very special sort of cynicism that comes from serious study of the past. It’s like you are never, ever surprised when that event or person or big systemic change ends up being more terrible and poorly thought out than you originally thought. Everyone I went to history grad school with has a pretty dark sense of humor.
posted by heurtebise at 6:29 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Based on the comments here, I've decided my guy is history. I was leaning that way anyway, and a few posters helped me solidify. I still welcome any comments about historians, especially anecdotes about how they ended up pursuing what they did.
posted by swheatie at 9:54 AM on February 28, 2019

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