In STEM fields, collaboration is the norm. Go visit the biology or engineering building on campus, and you’ll notice undergraduates consenting participants for an experiment, graduate students crunching statistics in the hallways, post-docs writing articles in their offices, and faculty guiding the process.
The experience provides a pedagogically-rich experience for those being apprenticed into their fields. It also produces a wealth of research. Take a look at the CV of a mid-career chemist or neuroscientist, and the list of publications far outpaces that of a mid-career philosopher. The lesson? Collaborative research not only provides a path for training those new to a discipline; it can also foster the efficient production of high-impact research.
Philosophers don’t typically take advantage of this model. Sure, philosophers sometimes co-author articles or book chapters. This process, however, often consists in little more than the formal documentation of a series of happy-hour conversations. There’s nothing wrong with this -- we all do our fair share of co-authoring of this kind. But genuine collaborative research in philosophy--the pursuit of long-term projects between scholars at various stages in their careers--is rare.
Need things be this way? We think not, and propose one model for conducting philosophical research in collaborative contexts: the philosophy lab. The philosophy lab is modeled on the STEM lab, and uses collaboration to pursue professional-level funding, presentations, and publications. Pedagogically, philosophy labs take their cues from group learning models such as Positive Interdependence Theory (PIT).
In a new article, we argue that PIT, when deployed in the context of a philosophy lab, provides four central guidelines:
- the careful selection of small, heterogeneous groups of collaborators
- facilitators who foster individual autonomy among all participants
- an emphasis on open-ended taskwork
- a careful balancing of individual and group rewards.
These tenets are broad, and applying them will be an art, not a science. After all, institutional contexts differ, and what works in one won’t work in another. Launching and maintaining a philosophy lab must therefore take on-the-ground conditions into account. The academic interests of faculty leaders; the presence of a graduate program; funding for undergraduate research: all of these should influence the precise form a philosophy lab takes. Just like a STEM lab, we believe there is no one form philosophy labs should take.
But the proof is in the pudding. Do philosophy labs get results? In our experience, the answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ on whatever metric you’d like to measure success: consistent professional publications and presentations; funding for lab activities and individual students; placement of undergraduate students into choice graduate programs. Philosophy labs not only provide a rich learning experience for collaborators. They also further the careers of those involved in them.
Do we want the hallways of philosophy departments to one day resemble those of a STEM building? No. Philosophy is not a STEM field, and we are confident that lonely-armchair-style philosophy will and should continue. There has always been a place for that kind of philosophy, and we see no reason to abandon it.
But at the same time, we’d like to challenge our discipline to reflect carefully on new, more collaborative ways to engage in philosophical research. Collaboration is good for ourselves, for our students, and for the work we produce. There will, no doubt, be a plurality of methodologies that can serve these ends. We believe philosophy labs are one of them.