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In praise of ordinary academics and their goodness

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Averageness is a statistical concept, but often it becomes a normative one. Once you establish a bell curve, you can start looking for the exceptional and unusual, as for example Galton's quest for "nature's preeminently nobles" in eugenics, and this becomes the new norm. In academia, averageness is bad.  We all need to be exceptional: exceptionally productive researchers who publish in the right venues, gifted teachers.  The drive for exceptionalism is toxic. People who go to graduate schools and write doctoral dissertations are already exceptional and gifted in academic talent, but if you find yourself in a pool of such people, it's hard to stand out. Eric Schliesser estimated in 2014 there are 44,000 philosophers alive worldwide. Yet just a few names keep on popping up.  We rely on heuristics and shortcuts to recognize brilliance, because it would be unfeasible to read everyone's work in detail. So we use prestige (as I've argued earlier, see also here) as a shortcut, or gender (although, I do have to say that situation has markedly improved over the years.) Still, even if somehow we had total gender parity and prestige bias could be mitigated the drive for exceptionalism remains. There are exceptional people deserving of recognition, of mention on blogs, of prizes, of symposia at the APA devoted to their books. And then there's all the rest. Whatever shortcuts we will use to gauge exceptionalism, as long as the drive for it persists (and given the job structure of academia, I do not see this change any time soon), that belief will remain.  I recently was talking to someone about their writing habits, and found these fascinating. I asked this person if they wanted to contribute a piece to the Cocoon for our How Philosophers Write series. They asked, "But am I good enough? Is my writing good enough for me to talk about it?" And similarly, I asked someone to contribute to the Cocoon for our. . .

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News source: The Philosophers' Cocoon

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