Fearing Tenure: The Loss Of Community

In ‘The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement‘, Harlan L. Dalton wrote:

I take it that everyone drawn to CLS is interested in specifying in concrete terms the dichotomy between autonomy and community. If so, talk to us. Talk TO us. Listen to us. We have lots to say, out of the depths of our own experiences. For many of us, our sense of community is a strength, a resource, something we struggle to hang onto, sometimes in the most peculiar ways, especially when the pull of autonomy is strongest. The day that I am awarded tenure, should that happy event occur, any pleasure that I experience will be more than offset by the extreme panic that I’m sure will set in; I will worry that I have been propelled (or more  honestly that I have wittingly, selfishly and self-destructively propelled myself) two steps further away from so much that has nurtured me for so long. Even for those of us who have revelled in the sense of connectedness that, paradoxically, racial oppression has conferred upon us, there is a kicker: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can’t choose to be a part of the community; we can’t choose not to be a part of the community.

When I first read these lines, I was reminded of a conversation that used to recur in some of my therapeutic sessions: Why would you shrink from that which you most–supposedly–desire?

Some insight may be found in Dalton’s confession. Tenure would mean not being part of a ‘community’, membership in which, while a reminder of exclusion from another, was also a belonging in a very particular way. It meant the enjoyment of a very distinctive camaraderie, the dwelling in a state of being that had its own rewards.

I will not attempt to speak for Dalton’s experiences so let me just briefly address my own. Gaining tenure meant the end of a ‘struggle’; it meant the end of a state in which I had a very ‘clear and distinct’ goal, a terminus of achievement, one that had established yardsticks and baselines for me, calibrating my ‘progress’ and reminding me of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. I saw myself as member of a group marked by its presence in the margins, by its distance from the center, by a vaguely heroic air of struggle against economic, intellectual, and even political barriers. We were the untenured, the ‘assistant professors’; we had secured the prize of a tenure-track position, but we were still ‘battlers.’ I had trajectories to follow, and I had fellow-travelers. My lot was sympathized with; many were solicitous of the state of my journey, my distance from its destination. I was assured of celebrations and revelries were I to cross the finish line. I could look ahead and see the goal; I could feel my cohort around me, propping me up.

In the midst of all this, even as I desired that onward and upward movement, I knew what I would leave behind: a time and a place in which I was in possession of that dearest of things, a clear and unstinting purpose.

I am well-aware that a reflection like this, in the context of today’s job market, is an extremely self-indulgent one. I write it only to highlight the ironic and puzzling nature of the situations that Dalton and those in therapy might find themselves in, and of the artfully hidden blessings of even those portions of our lives that we might find oppressive and worth delivering ourselves from.

Meritocracies, Rankings, Curricula: A Personal Take On Academic Philosophy

Some six years ago, shortly after I had been appointed to its faculty, the philosophy department at the CUNY Graduate Center began revising its long-standing curriculum; part of its expressed motivation for doing so was to bring its curriculum into line with those of “leading” and “top-ranked” programs. As part of this process, it invited feedback from its faculty members. As a former graduate of the Graduate Center’s Ph.D program, I thought I was well-placed to offer some hopefully useful feedback on its curriculum, and so, I wrote to the faculty mailing list, doing just that. Some of the issues raised in my email are, I think, still relevant to academic philosophy. Not everybody agreed with its contents; some of my cohort didn’t, but in any case, perhaps this might provoke some discussion.

Here, reproduced almost verbatim, is that email:

Perhaps I can throw my tuppence in the pile, by offering some remarks based on my experiences as a graduate of this Ph.D program, and by commenting on whether changing the curriculum to bring it into line with “leading” or “top-ranked” programs is a worthwhile motivation or not.

Firstly, I question the need to bring our curriculum into line with that of “leading” programs. I remain unconvinced that rankings of philosophy programs are a serious indicator of the education they provide. In the bad old days, rankings of philosophy programs seemed to be a set of indices that reflected the star power of the faculty. When NYU’s Ph.D program went “live”, its ranking magically jumped to 2 or 3, without that department having produced a single Ph.D, or having given any indicator whatsoever that their graduates were “better philosophers” than the ones produced by ours.

While the Leiters of this world have made their Reports more comprehensive, it is still not clear to me that the rankings are saying anything worthwhile about how well they *prepare* their students. If we had some solid data for saying that a particular curriculum is a significant causal factor in the philosophical acumen of its graduates, then I’m all for major change. Without that I’m a little reluctant to tinker so extensively.

A significant set of reasons why graduates of XYZ University (please replace with your favorite top-ranked department) are able to get good jobs is because they have had:

a) better financial support and are able to concentrate more on coursework and writing projects;

b) more institutional support for research activities like visiting conferences and building up a solid professional network;

c) more ‘star faculty’ at their disposal who are then able to tap into their rich network of professional contacts, write the important letters, make the important phone calls after the APA and ensure things like invited chapters in edited collections and the like.

The academy, like most other institutions in this world of ours, follows the Matthew Principle: those that have, get more.

I attended classes at NYU and Columbia, and interacted with graduate students from many of the programs in this region. My cohort was second to none in their philosophical chops. I never thought, “If only our curriculum was structured differently, then we’d be the ones with eight interviews at the APA’s Eastern Division Meeting.”

What we lacked the most perhaps was some sense of professionalization in our discipline. We spent most of our time wondering how we would graduate given our financial situation, how we would clean up those incompletes that had accumulated, and so on. Many of us were not bold enough to send papers to professional conferences or journals. We started to think about publications a little late in the game. This is what needs to change the most in my opinion.

I have a feeling some of this already has. I see more students from this program publishing in professional journals and conferences, learning the vagaries of the reviewing process, and most fundamentally, starting to see themselves as professors in training. May this process continue.

We can most help our graduates by making sure they produce scholarly output by the time they graduate. A publication in a top-ranked journal or two, possibly as a result of a semester long mentored study with a faculty member. Done right, this could be of considerable value to the faculty member as well. It seems this idea (or some variant thereof) is on the table, and I’m all for it.

My experience with the Grad Center‘s curriculum was largely positive. I enjoyed the Core courses and the broad grounding they provided in the central issues of the discipline. If I had a complaint–and this was echoed by many of my cohort–it was that the classes were often quite ahistorical. Some or most of the reading lists/syllabi were almost exclusively 20th century in content. I would be in favor of standardizing core reading lists so as to make them more comprehensive and rigorous, but I’m not overly optimistic that any sort of consensus would be reached.

My exam experiences were mixed. I enjoyed studying for the written and oral exams because again, I felt I gained a synoptic perspective on the discipline. Of the exams the oral exam was the most useful. I felt one of the written exams had become a little silly because its questions had become predictable. And the other exam was so out in left-field, I felt blindsided by the lack of a definitive reading list. But this problem has been taken care of–I believe–thanks to structured reading lists. I’m not against getting rid of the comprehensives because the education they aim to impart can be provided by other requirements.

I did my 60 credits for coursework as follows: six cores (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Ethics, Logic, Social and Political Philosophy); one independent study in Mathematical Methods for Physicists at NYU; one class on Space and Time at Columbia; one class on Film and the City at the GC; and eleven other classes from our Departmental offerings. I felt my education was well-rounded, and that I had numerous opportunities to specialize in many different fields. At no stage in my Ph.D or during the job hunt, did I feel the curriculum had been a problem.

I wished more professors had urged me to convert my term papers into conference presentations, or to take the germ of an idea in there and explore it further, possibly for a conference presentation or a journal article.  That’s what I felt was missing.

As always, I would be very interested in comments.

Changing Philosophical Career Paths

I began my academic philosophy career as a ‘logician.’ I wrote a dissertation on belief revision, and was advised by a brilliant logician, Rohit Parikh, someone equally comfortable in the departments of computer science, philosophy and mathematics. Belief revision (or ‘theory change’ if you prefer) is a topic of interest to mathematicians, logicians, and computer scientists. Because of the last-named demographic, I was able to apply for, and be awarded, a post-doctoral fellowship with a logics for artificial intelligence group in Sydney, Australia. (In my two years on the philosophy job market, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, and scored precisely zero interviews. My visits to the APA General Meeting in 1999 and 2001 were among the most dispiriting experiences of my life; I have never attended that forum again. The scars run too deep.)

During my post-doctoral fellowship, I continued to write on belief revision but I also co-authored papers on belief merging (which has the same formal structure as social choice theory), non-monotonic logic, and dynamic logic (in the area known as ‘reasoning about actions.’) Some papers went into the Journal of Philosophical Logic and related journals; yet others went into the refereed proceedings of the most important artificial intelligence conferences. Because of my publication record and because of my stellar job hunt numbers in the philosophy job market, I decided to apply for a computer science job at Brooklyn College. I interviewed, and got the job; I was assured I could teach in the philosophy department as well. (So, in philosophy, my numbers were 0-114; in computer science 1-1.)

A few years later, around 2005 or so, I stopped working in logic. I declined invitations to conferences, I dropped out of co-authored projects; I put away, on the back-burner, many unfinished projects. (Some of them still strike me as very interesting, and if a promising graduate student would ever want to work on them, I would consider advising him/her.) This was not a very smart move professionally; I had finally, after five years of work, acquired a cohort of like-minded researchers (and friends); I had become a member of academic and professional networks; some of my work had become known to people in the field; I had managed to secure funding for release time, conference visits, and academic visitors; my work was generating problems, like the ones mentioned above, which could be worked on by graduate students; and so on. This was especially not a clever move given my impending tenure and promotion review in 2007; I would have to begin anew in a new field and make headway there.

But I just couldn’t work as a logician any more. I wasn’t an incompetent logician but I wasn’t as good a logician as the folks I regularly interacted with in the course of my work. Working in logic didn’t come easily to me; I had to work harder than most to get anything done in it. I had also realized that while I enjoyed puzzling out the philosophical and conceptual implications of the various models for belief change, belief merging, and reasoning about actions that I worked on, I did not so much enjoy working on producing rigorous proofs of the various propositions these models entailed. I did not feel, as it were, a ‘flow‘ in my work. (I continued to enjoy teaching related material; I taught discrete mathematics, artificial intelligence, and the theory of computation for the computer science department, and loved every minute of it. Well, I exaggerate, but you catch my drift.)

So I turned my mind to something else. I have no regrets about my decision. And I have no regrets about having spent six years working in the areas I did work in prior to my ‘departure.’ I learned a great deal of logic; I grew to appreciate the work of mathematicians and logicians and theoretical computer scientists; straddling disciplines was a deeply edifying experience; I am happy I did not spend all my time talking to philosophers. But I couldn’t stay there.

I continued to teach in both departments, and then finally, in 2010, I transferred from the computer science department to the philosophy department. I was finally ‘home.’

I wonder if readers of this blog have changed their career paths for reasons similar or dissimilar to mine. Perhaps you found yourself no longer engaged by the central problems in your area of interest; or perhaps something else altogether. I am curious, and interested.

American Workers to Bosses: You’re Always Right

Rebecca Schuman recently noted the case of an academic job applicant who lost out on a job offer because she dared negotiate:

[A] job candidate identified as “W” recently received an offer for a tenure-track position at Nazareth College… W viewed the original bid as the opening move in a series of negotiations, and thus submitted… [a] counteroffer, after informing the department—with whom she says she had been in friendly contact—that she was about to switch into “negotiation mode”…..However, instead of coming back with a severely tempered counter-counter (“$57k, maternity, and LOL”), or even a “Take it or leave it, bub,” Nazareth allegedly rescinded the entire offer.

So far, so strange. But it gets worse:

[A]s the story spread over the academic Web faster than a case of resurgent measles, it became increasingly clear that not everybody was flabbergasted. According to many outspoken residents of the ivory tower, W’s mildly aggressive email committed so many unforgivable faux pas that she’s lucky she’s not in jail….How dare this “women” think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: “Should I bring my own snorkel?” Any beginning academic who tries to stand up for herself is lunch for the hordes of traumatized ivory-tower zombies, themselves now irreversibly infected with the obsequious self-devaluation and totalizing cowardice that go by the monikers “collegiality” and “a good fit.”….

[I]n a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.

Schuman is right, of course. But W‘s case is not just about academics and their craven kowtowing to bosses. Rather, the reaction to W, the anger at her temerity in speaking up for herself, for daring to suggest to those that sought to employ her that she might want to say something about her working conditions, is a symptom of a broader American worker response: the wholesale adoption of the attitude that the Boss is Always Right.

As I’ve noted in my posts on labor unions (here; here;  here; here; here), there is a curious rejection underway–in the strangest of places, workers’ communities–of the notion of that employees and workers should attempt to change their workplace conditions, demand better wages and hours, or just push back in any way at managerial control. The workplace is where good old American enterprise and self-determination is to be denied to the worker; any evidence that the worker seeks to exercise his agency in demand better working conditions can only be interpreted as indications of bad faith on the worker’s part.

The academic workplace is no different: its workers are subjected to the same relentlessly myopic administrative procedures, the same ideological assaults, as other workplaces.   And they have taken on and internalized, rather effortlessly, managerial perspectives and attitudes. Foremost among them: resentment and anger directed at those workers who seek to assert their right to a better life.