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,

Cioran on Academic Writing’s ‘Forms of Vulgarity’

In ‘The Addict of Memoirs’ (from Drawn and Quartered, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1983/2012), E. M. Cioran writes:

Is there a better sign of “civilization” than laconism? To stress, to explain, to prove–so many forms of vulgarity.

Bergson is said to have said–somewhere–that time spent in refutation is time wasted¹. There is, evidently, a sympathy between these pronouncements that I make note of. Cioran suggests laconic forms of expression avoid three undignified sins that burden our writing. For in stressing, in explaining, in striving to prove–requirements placed upon us by the need to persuade, to change minds, to engage dialectically–we may go far afield of our original intentions were in writing. We write to communicate but only secondarily to persuade; what matter if we don’t?

Cioran’s assessment of the dialectical aspects of writing are harsh but rare is the academic writer who would not heave a sigh of relief were he or she to be spared their burdens. Consider, for instance, the trappings of academic writings: the elaborate piling on of references in opening sections to indicate–to referees, almost never to readers–that adequate scholarship is on display, the careful invocation of select objections and their refutation to shore up the central thesis presented. the footnoting to account for shades of meaning or to point to subsidiary debates, the careful setting of the stage for the presentation of the thesis, and so on. Such is  the overhead these place on any piece of academic writing that a common complaint made by readers–even if not always verbally articulated–is that a little too much fluff obscured the author’s central points. (I’m not discounting the importance of the references the author-researcher provides to future scholars in the field; merely that these accouterments are, at one level,  entirely peripheral to the points made by the writer and are only present because of the location of the writing within a particular social structure of inquiry. And as my nod to referees above indicates, within the context of a system of peer-review these considerations can quickly fade into insignificance.)

These ‘forms of vulgarity’ may too, force writers into forms of expression they are not competent at. Not everyone can explain or refute or prove as well as they can state a bold or original thesis; to indulge in these can weaken the work presented, which is both the writer’s and the reader’s loss. The provision of a claim or thesis in splendid isolation may be as productive–if not more–of thought as the provision of an elaborate package of arguments, objections, counter-objections, refutations, and so on; if we are to suggest further avenues of inquiry or to cut to the heart of the matter, a concise, powerful, and laconic statement may work best. Perhaps the reader can construct objections and see if the thesis presented stands up to them. Perhaps the writer and the reader–together–may then bring the writer’s work to fruition. Which is how it normally goes, in any case.

Note #1: I would appreciate a reference so I can reassure myself I’ve not made up this line.

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.

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.

A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life

In the past few weeks I have had several conversations–electronic and face-to-face–with folks–friends and acquaintances–that have walked away from academic careers. Though I do not have numbers to back this up, it seems such departures have become increasingly common in the modern academy. The reasons have been varied: bad job markets (some things never change; in my first two years of job hunting, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, received precisely zero interview calls, and almost quit right then and there), a reluctance to live in particular locales or more generally, pursue an endlessly nomadic existence, income, and sometimes, frustration with work environments (i.e., the whole package: troubles with publishing, professional recognition and acceptance etc.)

In each case, my interlocutors have expressed considerable angst about their decision: sometimes they miss the teaching and their extended personal contact with their students, sometimes they wonder about their intellectual self-worth (Does this prove that I really was a poser all long, and if so, should I have gotten out earlier?), and sometimes they worry about their supposed lack of ‘backbone’ (Should have I stayed and ‘toughed it out’?). But in each case too, I sensed a contentment at a difficult decision finally made. This contentment has come about for different reasons: a better salary, a more rewarding work environment, and lowered levels of stress being among the most prominent.

Still, their cognitive dissonance about their decision is not insignificant. Change is difficult; deviation from a life path that required so much investment of energy, time and emotion even more so. Perhaps, for the budding academic, this dissonance is even more intense, because of the intense identification with the identity of the academic.  And worries about intellectual self-worth are endemic among academics; rare is the academic who is able to fully overcome insecurities in this domain (and indeed, it contributes to some of the worst aspects of posturing at fora such as conferences, seminars, meetings, job interviews etc).

But perhaps the most insidious component of the dissonance generated by the decision to leave academia is the worry that this decision shows a lack of resilience. How is one to console oneself that the decision made was the right one, that it did not mean a walking away from a long-held dream, one perhaps too hastily made, that in doing so, one did not betray oneself? Slogans like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ seem to militate against such a decision: the right thing to do is to hang in there, grimly determined. Because if you do ‘cop out,’ then not only do you find out that you didn’t have the bottle, you find out in fact, you didn’t really want it enough, and might as well not have wasted your time in taking so long to find out. So goes the gruesome indictment.

It isn’t a coincidence these worries are almost identical to those entertained by participants in an extended  burial of a long-standing romantic relationship. That shouldn’t be surprising; making the painful decision to leave the academic life, for some, might not just mean changing professions, it can mean a fundamental recasting of one’s self-conceptions. Nothing quite does that like the old-fashioned break-up.