Academia As Pie-Eating Contest

Some wag once said that academia was a pie-eating contest in which the prize was more pie. The reason this evokes rueful chuckles from academics is that, like all good jokes, there is truth in this hyperbolic description. (The more gloomily inclined among us will recognize a deeper existential truth in here: life can all too easily feel like a treadmill.) You read, you write, you teach, you ‘conference’; if you are lucky, you get a job. Then you read and write and teach and ‘conference’ some more. If all goes well, you secure tenure and promotions. You’ve ‘made it.’ Then you continue reading and writing and teaching and conferencing–this last part can be especially pleasant if it involves travel to salubrious destinations. Some folks are considered ‘lucky’ if they can stop teaching and concentrate on reading and writing. (I’m leaving out, for the time being, all the gruesome administrative tasks that most academics find themselves saddled with.) This, I think, is where the bit about ‘more pie’ comes in.

If the reading and writing is going well–that is, if you are getting published in the ‘right’ places–you can count on more publishing opportunities: invitations to contribute to edited collections; proposals are read with more alacrity; journal acceptances magically become easier. Moreover, if there is one feeling an academic is extremely familiar with, it is the horrifying sensation of realizing that the moment a written work is ‘done’ another ‘must’ be commenced. Even those who have moved on beyond the supposed ‘publish or perish’ phase of tenure and promotion acquisition sense the ‘what have you done for us lately’ question directed at them. If you have ‘produced,’ you must keep ‘producing.’ Or run the risk of being condemned as ‘useless’ or sinking into a slough of self-loathing. Small wonder that most academics continue to feel unaccomplished even as they rack up impressive publication and research records.

Writing is hard, good quality research is hard. So whatever relief one might feel on having ‘turned in’ some substantial piece of written work, it is all too easily replaced by the sinking feeling that this whole grinding, excruciating, process must be repeated if one has a ‘rep to protect.’ A good piece of writing is a very tough act to follow and the academic might be excused for feeling some resentment at being expected to ‘perform’ all over again. (The suspicion arises that it might have been better to not have ‘performed’ in the first place.) The unfinished creative task is always a terrifying space; anxiety and self-doubt lurk among its environs and must be confronted time and again as we traverse it. Weariness is experienced all too often, all too easily. Why not just lay down the pen and call it a day? What if you have no more to say? Whence the expectation that a ‘seeker of knowledge’ must continue to seek his entire life?

Note: Similar considerations apply, I’m sure, in some variant or the other , to all other professions,

Academics And Their Secretaries

In the preface to The Age of Revolution 1789-1848  (Signet Classic, New York, 1962, p. xvi) Eric Hobsbawm writes:

Miss P. Ralph helped considerably as secretary and research assistant Miss E. Mason compiled the index.

In the preface to the new edition (1969) of Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. xi, 2002) Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer write:

No one who was not involved in the writing could easily understand to what extent we feel responsible for every sentence. We dictated long stretches together; the Dialectic derives its vital energy from the tension between the two intellectual temperaments which came together in writing it. [emphasis added]

In the preface to The Morality of Law (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1964, p. vi), Lon Fuller writes:

In closing I want to express an appreciation for the contribution made to this book (and to my peace of mind) by Martha Anne Ellis, my secretary….[her] dedication and perception have largely lifted from my concern the time-consuming and anxiety-producing details that always accompany the conversion of a manuscript into final printed form.

If you’ve looked long enough at the prefaces and acknowledgements of academic books written in the past century you will often find notes thanking secretaries for typing up the manuscript of the book. Presumably the secretaries in question took a pile of handwritten pages and painstakingly converted them into typed form before sending them off to the publisher for reviewing, typesetting, and then finally printing. (My guess is that the secretaries of Messrs Hobsbawm and Fuller typed their ‘bosses’ manuscripts as part of the ‘help’ and ‘contributions’ they provided.) Matters might be thought considerably different these days when sophisticated desktop publishing software sits on everyone’s desk, and publishers demand camera-ready copies of manuscripts and articles. But you would not lose too much money on betting that where academics can afford it–mostly at private universities–they will draw upon the assistance of their department secretaries in preparing their manuscripts. Most of whom, if not all, will still be women.

Intellectual work is always facilitated by the work of others. Back in the good old days, when most academics were men, they could count on the faithful support of their wives at home who would cook, clean, and bring up their children, and of their secretaries at work, who would type up manuscripts, prepare indices, make coffee and copies, and perhaps place calls to publishers in addition to typing up letters to them. Those with grace acknowledge such assistance in their prefaces and acknowledgments; others carry on blithely, secure in the comfort of knowing they live in a world which traffics in the myth of the ‘solitary genius,’ the ‘lone artist,’ the ‘brilliant individual.’ They imagine their reputation is constructed by their mental labors alone; they do not notice that it is propped up by the labors of others too. Theirs was the glamorous bit; the unglamorous bit is easily forgotten.

It takes a village to raise a child; it took an entire departmental office to write a book.

Mary McCarthy On Henry Mulcahy’s Selfishness

In Mary McCarthy‘s The Groves of Academe, John Bentkoop, a faculty member at Jocelyn College, offers his take on his beleaguered colleague, Henry Mulcahy, who has set in motion schemes of varying deviousness in his bid to hang on to his precious position after receiving a dismissal notice from the college president:

Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He’s capable of commanding great loyalty because he’s unswervingly loyal to himself….Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause. In the world today, there’s a great deal of free-floating, circumambient loyalty that fixes itself on such people, who seem to offer, by their own example, the possibility of a separation from the self that will lead to a higher union with the self objectified in an idea. It’s Hen’s fortune or his fate to have achieved this union within his own personality; he’s foregone his subjectivity and hypostatized himself as an object.

There is no doubt Mulcahy’s ‘gift’ speaks to what could be a great and valuable skill: it enables the kind of fidelity and commitment to a greater purpose that is so often conducive to desirable forms of self-disciplining and to a channeling of personal energies towards a sought-after goal. (This goal will be, in all probability, one only of interest to Mulcahy.) Indeed, it is Mulcahy’s greatest strength–such as it is–that he is so utterly dedicated to himself and his life’s projects. He knows, with little self-doubt, who is number one. Bentkoop does not invoke narcissism here but there is no doubt the loyalty he refers to flirts with such notions.

Bentkoop’s suggestion that Mulcahy’s self-loyalty would be of most use in politics and religion is thus, entirely appropriate: a determined politician or preacher needs to sound–most of all, to himself or herself–entirely sure about his or her political or moral rectitude. Only someone with utter loyalty to themselves could be so convinced.

Mulcahy thus seems to have achieved what many others seek so desperately: some cause, some leader, some channeling of our otherwise all-too disparate energies toward a coherent objective. Fidelity and commitment to something–if only we knew what it was! Mulcahy has the answer: first, engage in a psychological maneuver–unspecified by Bentkoop–to transcend one’s own subjectivity, and then, regard oneself–and our goals–as a distant other to be approached with loyalty and desire. Thus, perhaps, who knows, we might even find the desirable balance between narcissism and self-abnegation.

As The Groves of Academe shows, the problem with Mulcahy’s loyalty to himself is that he does not find this balance: he is all too quick to sacrifice others to his cause. His colleagues, his family, his students, are all merely pawns, incidentals in a larger enterprise. McCarthy’s view of Mulcahy’s moral failings–forced upon by him by the news of his possible firing–is acutely unsparing.

The readers of her novel are not the first, and neither the last, to discover that self-loyalty is sometimes just an exalted name for selfishness.

On Safe and Unsafe Academic Workplaces: An Email to a Colleague

Here, on this blog, I have often written posts about the academic life. Some of those posts have concerned themselves with the state of affairs in my discipline, philosophy, and yet others have been more generally directed–perhaps about academic publishing, for instance. A recurring concern in my posts on academia might be termed ‘workplace issues’–matters that make our professional spaces for working hostile or friendly, supportive or inhibiting. Unsurprisingly, some of these have centered on how women and other minorities might fare.

In today’s post, I want to reproduce an email I wrote to an academic colleague–otherwise very friendly and great company–with whom I had several uncomfortable interactions over a period of time. I was finding myself increasingly resentful of the interjections and interventions that were made in our conversations and suspected I was heading toward what might be an irate, loud, and potentially friendship-destroying response. To head that off, I wrote my email.

Here it is, edited to protect identities. (NOTE: I’ve realized since I wrote this post that my use of “colleague” implies a member of the philosophy department; this email, however, was not written to one.)

Dear X:

I don’t think I would be representing myself fairly if I didn’t say that I’m finding your style of referencing India and all things Indian quite off-putting. I don’t know how serious your feigned ignorance of the subcontinent, its culture and history is, but I think you should be aware that when you do so you don’t come across as remotely funny, and only serve to marginalize me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. These comments of yours, which relentlessly push India to the dusty margins of history, culture, and material accomplishment, do no justice to your intellect and wit, of which there is abundant supply. They are especially peculiar because they are made to a person who never, ever, tries to be a triumphalist about anything Indian, in which case you could at least say that you were trying to bring me down a peg or two. These remarks of yours, which depict you as Euro-chauvinist, simply do you no justice, and are unfair when directed at someone who fights an almost constant battle to have himself taken seriously somehow, to get people to look past his accent, his brown skin, and his association with a country that despite its rich historical and cultural accomplishments is almost only ever associated with the kinds of images you seek to conjure up again and again.

I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ve lost my ‘home’ and will never find one here, no matter how hard I try, no matter how ‘American’ I become, no matter how knowledgeable I become about this land, its history and its peoples. But I find it hard to accept that even in a space that I normally find so intellectually and emotionally invigorating, I have come to feel that I have to tread warily, making sure that I don’t ever mention India or anything Indian, thus continuing a process of effacement forced upon me in many other contexts.

I write this to you because I consider you a friend, because I respect your intellect, and because I consider my conversations with you to have been some of the most intellectually simulating that I have had in a long while. And it distresses me to think that there are times that in those spaces I feel tense, uncomfortable, and carry resentment out with me.

I might have come across as stereotypically too-sensitive, bristling with a chip on my shoulder. Perhaps I have run the risk, in writing this email, of having you consign me to the trash heap of all those folks who complain too much, who lack a sense of humor, who can’t roll with the punches. But I thought it better that I take the risk and express myself, perhaps not clearly enough, rather than simply pretending that I don’t feel a particular way.

When I wrote this email I was, as I am now, a tenured full professor. I do not know how many untenured juniors simply hold their tongues.

Unsung Heroines and Premature Glory

News Scientist  is currently featuring a story titled “Unsung Heroines: Five Women Denied Scientific Glory.” The woman scientists featured are: Hertha Ayrton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Gerty Cori (an odd choice given she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize), Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner.

For my money, of the stories told here, those of Burnell, Franklin, and Meitner are especially poignant. The little bio provided for Burnell includes a pair of interesting remarks made by her:

In 1967, as a postdoctoral physicist at the University of Cambridge, she discovered the first pulsar using a radio telescope she had built with her supervisor Antony Hewish, astronomer Martin Ryle and others….Bell Burnell was the second author named on the paper that announced the discovery (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/217709a0), but it was Hewish and Ryle who received a Nobel prize for it in 1974. She has made light of this, saying that “students don’t win Nobel prizes” and “an award to me would have debased the prize”.

I take Burnell to be making the point that Nobel Prizes–descriptively 0r normatively–recognize not isolated achievements, but a sustained record of scientific excellence. Of course, Burnell was not ‘only’ a “student” – she was a post-doctoral fellow, and thus already a practicing academic. Her concern about the prize being “debased” seems misplaced in two respects: 1) she had not made an accidental, flukish discovery 2) the Nobel Prize is awarded for both lifetime achievement and singular inventions or discoveries.  I suspect that besides her suggestion that the Nobel only recognize careers worth of scientific work, Burnell had also internalized some cultural prejudices about excessively early recognition serving as a disincentive for future effort. It is, if I may say so, an old-fashioned attitude.

Burnell’s remarks remind me of an incident in my own career. Shortly after I finished my doctorate and began work as a post-doctoral fellow, I was asked by a colleague, then working on a highly technical book on computational learning theory, whether I’d be interested in co-authoring a chapter that would explain the philosophical significance of the new formalisms being developed.  I would not be a co-author of the book, but would be listed as a co-author for that chapter alone. I agreed; my friend’s work was fascinating, and I looked forward to fleshing out its conceptual foundations. And the co-authorship line on the CV wouldn’t hurt one bit.

There was one small problem though: my colleague was working with two other logicians on his book. They needed to approve of my writing that chapter. One of them, a senior academic, refused. His stated reason was straightforward: I would be spoiled by such ‘early success’; I should not expect co-authored chapters in books to come my way so easily; I needed to build a ‘track record’ before I could earn such distinction.

As a reminder: I was a Ph.D, not a fledgling graduate student; I was not going to be made co-author of the book but only of one chapter.

I’ve had many head-shaking moments in my academic career; this was one of them.

On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’, Contd.

In my previous post on being a professional philosopher, I had emphasized the scholarly world: publishing, writing, theoretical orientation etc. Today, I want to take note of another very important duty of the modern professional philosopher: teaching.

Most philosophers in the modern university teach a mixture of classes: the introductory ‘service’ courses, which in many curricula form part of some sort of ‘Core’; required ‘bread-n-butter’ courses that fulfill the requirements for a major; and lastly, some advanced electives, either on specialized topics or particular philosophers. The requirements for a major tend to be organized around the chunkiest, most conventional, divisions of philosophical subject matter: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, logic, ethics, and perhaps aesthetics. (And of course, ‘period’ courses like ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy and modern philosophy.) Anything else generally goes into the ‘elective’ category: American philosophy, Asian philosophy, philosophy of physics, advanced logic, pragmatism, etc. That is, philosophy curricula bear the imprint of a very particular understanding of their division into ‘areas’; later, in graduate school, these will become ‘areas of specialization’ or ‘areas of expertise’ for job market CVs.

The syllabi for these courses also show a conventional understanding of their content, which is why published anthologies for both introductory service courses (taught to non-philosophy majors) and required courses for majors are so widely available. The reading lists of these anthologies show a great deal of commonality and given the onerous teaching loads of most philosophy professors–unless they happen to have a low teaching load at a rich private university–almost always ensures the adoption of the path of least resistance: the selection of a generic anthology for teaching.  Among required courses too, metaphysics, epistemology, social and political philosophy are very often taught using anthologies with fairly conventional reading lists; there is also sometimes a broad understanding of which topics are to be given emphasis even in a period class (for instance classes on modern philosophy invariably concentrate on metaphysics and epistemology via Descartes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Spinoza and Kant; there is little note of the social and political philosophy, ethics or aesthetics of the same period.) There is often more creativity visible as you move up the curricular food chain: electives and special topics seminars generally are blessed with more creative syllabi.

The readings for philosophy classes are almost always drawn from ‘philosophy’ texts written by men. Despite the increasing presence of women in the modern philosophy world, they do not figure prominently in reading lists. And neither does material from other sources: novels, political pamphlets, public commentary, poems, movies, artworks (unless in specialized contexts like aesthetics courses).  The corpus of ‘philosophy’ thus acquires a distinct definition for the student and the professor alike.

Without actively changing syllabi, teaching assignments or curricular reform on an ongoing basis, most philosophy professors will teach the same material organized in the same way quite frequently, if not all the time. Many philosophy professors prefer teaching in their own ‘areas’, thus minimizing the time spent transitioning from their scholarship to the teaching; most will not like to teach a new or unfamiliar subject area (indeed, they will often not be so assigned); very often, the inclination on both fronts–the administrative and the professorial–is to get a ‘lock-on’ and stay there. Administrative requirements for minimum enrollment for classes ensures anyway, that most electives will not be offered and when they are, will not run because of lack of enrollment. (Departments guard their course offerings zealously; if another department wants to offer a ‘related’ course, it must seek approval from philosophy. For instance, a History of Hellenic Political Thought offered by say, history or classics, will need clearance from philosophy.)

Teaching as a professional philosopher requires generally, the provision of a list of readings and some written assignments to students; these are often accompanied by exhortations that students concentrate on the primary sources and disdain secondary ones (at least until the primary has been adequately tackled). Students are asked to ‘write like philosophers’ and often given handouts that tell them how a ‘philosophy paper’ is to be constructed, how arguments are to be analyzed and so on. The conduct of a class is also supposed to follow a generalized template: read the material before class, discuss arguments with professor in class. (Thanks to the volatility of insufficiently disciplined, conformist or trained student bodies, this template is very rarely followed.)

This definition of the subject matter of philosophy via its preparatory reading lists into particular subject areas,  emphases and valorizations is part of the education of a professional philosopher; it is where the community comes to realize the discipline’s boundaries, those that will be preserved and fought for in the broader world by departments, professional societies, and publication fora.

On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’

A recent post in The Philosopher’s Magazine blog set me thinking about some of the strictures on being a professional or academic philosopher, which today amount to pretty much the same thing. (I realize this might leave out bioethicists, some of whom do not have the typical duties or work profiles of philosophers that are faculty members, but in many important regards, especially writing, they are bound in the manner I describe below.)

To be a professional philosopher today, in the political economy of the modern university, requires that you have a particular theoretical orientation: whether you conceive of yourself in a particular way or not, it is quite likely that in the Anglo-American or European world, you will be classified as either an ‘analytical’ or a ‘continental’ philosopher. Matters might be different in say, Latin America or Asia, but even there, many departments of philosophy aspire to such a classification. (When I visited Taiwan in 2009, many of its recent faculty hires were graduates of Anglo-American or European universities and as such, had imported their own classifications into their department. My guess is that their influence on future hiring would further entrench whatever ‘orientation’ the department had taken on.) Obviously, those who work in say, Eastern philosophy–still considered ‘exoteric’, ‘less rigorous’ or straightforwardly ‘marginal’ in most Anglo-American departments–do not fall into these categories, but that merely serves to confirm their outlier nature. If your work does not fall straightforwardly into these categories–because of style or content–there is a decent to middling chance that you will not be considered a philosopher, but rather, a member of some other discipline. Maybe you are a political scientist, an environmentalist, a literary theorist, or a scientist who is fond of speculation, but you aren’t a philosopher.

To write as a professional philosopher means that you must write in particular venues, in particular fora. The chunks of writing are quite well-defined: five-thousand to fifteen thousand word articles in journals published by corporate publishing houses. Or books: seventy-five thousand to one hundred twenty-five thousand word monographs published by half-a-dozen publishers, some corporate and some university. (There are another twenty or so publishing houses that also have decent catalogs but in terms of professional influence on peers, if you aren’t publishing in that first group, you might as well be invisible. This second group is mainly useful for CVs, for promotion or tenure boards.) Many philosophers blog, and perhaps these venues will someday be established as accepted venues for writing and publication but that day is not here yet. And even then, the style–see below–remains the same.

The content of these publications is quite rigorously controlled: professional philosophers write on a well-defined set of topics. These are typically those of interest to well-established luminaries–mostly male–who have already written on them recently, thus setting off a flurry of responses, counter-responses and embellishments. A smart PhD student should check the back issues of journals for the past two years to figure out what topic to write his dissertation on. Every once in a while, in a field, like say, metaphysics or philosophy of  language, a topic rises to the surface, enjoys its day in the sun, and then sinks. Some fifteen or so years ago, deflationary theories of truth were the rage; now, you’d be an idiot if you wrote on them. (Or perhaps the vogue is back; I haven’t checked in a while.)  Needless to say, the broader subject areas of these topics are also clearly articulated: in the Anglo-American analytical world, these are metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind as the big three (or perhaps, if you count philosophy of language, the big four). Then, closely following on their heels: philosophy of science, political philosophy, logic and ethics (including applied ethics). Aesthetics trails just a bit. If your topic does not fall neatly into these categories, you stand a good chance of being reckoned as not doing philosophy.

Lastly, style. To write like a professional philosopher, you must employ certain locutions, phrases, and sentence constructs profusely; your journal articles should also follow a well-established structural template. (For instance, identify the target of your critique, state and articulate the target argument, and then present your ‘solution’ and its advantages. I write ‘solution’ because it is ‘understood’ that ‘problems’ are being ‘solved’ when philosophers write.) By reading recent journal articles the current style can be figured out quite accurately and then followed for one’s own journal or monograph submissions. Deviance from this style is very likely to prompt the judgment that–you guessed it–you aren’t a philosopher at all.

None of what I’ve said above is new or too startling. It is not new because many before me–professional philosophers, I think–have said as much, and it is not startling because members of the discipline understand these constraints as defining it in the modern university. If the discipline–that word, so redolent of permission and boundaries!–was not demarcated thus, it would–the implicit fear goes–simply ebb away, its edges worn down, transformed into an inchoate mess, absorbed into other disciplines and departments or perhaps utterly marginalized and finally made invisible.

I will address teaching as a professional philosopher–including the business of departmental course offerings–in another post in the near future.