The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

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.

Combating Envy with the Quotidian

Last week, I suffered a crippling, sickening, attack of envy. For one day, soon after I had awoken and fixed myself my morning cuppa, a missive arrived, confirming for me not just someone else’s spectacular success, but also the darkest assessments I often entertain about my professional and intellectual worth. I tried to put these thoughts aside, immersing myself in the logistical routines that occupy the early part of the day: fixing breakfast, dropping off my daughter at daycare, riding the subway to the library, reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. But my mind was only partially diverted.

I could, if I wanted, wallow further in the envy that had afflicted me; I could go back, again and again, to confirm for myself, the details of my diminution in the face of another’s overwhelming achievements. I hectored myself to not do so, but self-flagellation can sometimes be a hard impulse to resist. So, on arrival at the library, I sat down, logged in, stared at the screens that enabled all manners of unfavorable comparison, and completed the flogging.

Eventually, well aware I was spinning into a spiral of self-loathing, I turned to work. I wrote for most of the morning, slowly sipping on a rapidly cooling cup of coffee; later in the day, I bought myself lunch and ate it at my workstation as I continued a long editing task–whittling down a large body of text into a more manageable chunk that I could then start to rewrite into more readable form. I agonized over which chunks to excise, which sections to toss into the trash, which to retain. Because I was looking at an older piece of writing, I was occasionally brought up short by a passage that seemed particularly clunky; how had that ever gotten past me?

Later in the day, made distracted and anxious by my writing, and assailed again by the same emotions that had got my day off to such a bad start, I allowed myself yet another moment of wallow-in-the-Mire-of-Envy. But that was it. From that point onward, I grew increasingly engrossed in my word-reduction endeavors: I became increasingly ruthless, pruning with ever bolder abandon. Murdering darlings became easier as time went by and what’s more, I was quite starting to enjoy it.

And then, the close of the work day was at hand; I had written a few words; I had deleted many more. I packed up, headed for the subways, and was rewarded by its resident deities with a seat during rush hour. I returned to Divisadero. Then, once at the gym, barbells banished any remnant distractions from my mind; acute muscular exertion tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Finally, at home, I bade goodnight to my daughter, ate dinner, finished watching The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, and went to bed.

Nothing had changed in my resume; but somehow, as usual, an absorption in the here and now, in my daily particulars, in the things I enjoy, had managed to divert me from the emotions that had, earlier in the day, figuratively brought me to my knees.

An old lesson learned again, and no doubt, to be learned again in the future.

Copyright Protection for Academic Works: A Bad Idea, But Who’ll Bell The Cat?

Richard Posner has written yet another interesting critique of patent and copyright law; it includes a remark of particular interest to me:

At the other extreme is academic books and articles (apart from textbooks), which are produced as a byproduct of academic research that the author must conduct in order to preserve his professional reputation and that would continue to be produced even if not copyrightable at all. It is doubtful that there is any social benefit to the copyrighting of academic work other than textbooks, which require a lot of work and generally do not enhance the author’s academic reputation and may undermine it.

Posner is exactly right. When it comes to academic works like research monographs and journal articles copyright law is a severe handicap for the creator(s). Restrictions on copying, distribution, and the making of derivative works all work against the author(s) because every one of these restrictions ensures that the most valuable outcome to be derived from an academic work is inhibited: readership is limited as is the central ‘income’ forthcoming from a reputation economy. In most academic works, copyright passes to the publisher; as every aspiring academic comes to realize quickly, one of the essential steps in getting an article or a book published is the signing of the copyright release (or transfer) form; the ‘work’ is no longer yours; step back and observe another entity control access to material that only benefits you if access to is unrestricted and indeed, positively facilitated.

Unfortunately, reform in this domain appears unlikely because the academic world is run by the terrible trio of Promotion & Tenure Committees, ‘Prestigious’ Academic Presses & Journals, and Pompous Seniors Who Refuse To Take the Lead. And animated by the Matthew Principle.  Till P&T committees start to recognize work published in non-traditional venues, and concomitantly, the ‘prestige’ associated with traditional academic presses and journal publishing groups comes to be associated with them, not much will change in the current situation. Much good would be done if senior academics, those with tenured full professorships at  Famous Universities[tm] start publishing their work in non-traditional venues like open access journals and new presses committed to open access books. They have plenty of wealth to spare in this reputation economy; junior academics would benefit a great deal from their largesse in this domain. Their hoarding and accumulation does little to change matters, and ensures the perpetuation of an archaic and ultimately counterproductive model of academic publishing. .

Note: While Posner is not critical about copyright protection for textbooks, some textbooks in my field, philosophy, are anthologies of material available in the public domain, with little value added by the editors (perhaps some discussion questions). These are then marketed at exorbitant prices. I remain hopeful that as more public domain philosophy is digitized and placed online, these textbooks will be phased out in the near future.  And of course, more importantly, many anthologies bear the price they do because they include copyrighted material for which fees have to be paid: excerpts from journal articles or books, which should never have been copyrighted in the first place.

Why Write and All That – I: Bargains Struck

Two recent articles about writing, writers, and writing as a job–Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books blog and Seth Godin’s interview at Digital Book World–prompt me to take on the insufferably self-indulgent business of being self-referential. The issues covered in the pieces linked above should be familiar: Why write? Is writing a career? Should you get paid for it? Do you have a right to get paid for the work you make available to your readers? And of course, the modern favorite: In today’s ‘digital economy’ where readers supposedly ‘expect content for free’ how is a writer to be paid?

This set of issues, despite its familiarity, is extraordinarily rich, and I can only make some preliminary remarks here. (I expect to write follow-up posts.) In so doing, I hope I can offer some insight into why it is people write, and why, I think, writing will persist as an ‘occupation’ understood broadly, even if no one is getting ‘paid’ for it.

I write from a curious position in this discussion. I’m an academic and I don’t expect to make money from my writing. Or rather, I do not write for the direct income of royalties, but–initially at least–for the financial security of tenure and promotion, and now, to secure my academic reputation and to circulate my ideas. My two academic books thus far have secured for me a quasi-permanent job in the academy and I am now free to write for the rest of my career on those topics that interest me. As I do so, perhaps I will learn a bit myself and engage in the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ in a way that is of use to others.

My first book was non-academic, and while it neither secured my reputation in the academy nor helped me circulate any particularly significant intellectual ‘ideas,’ it did do a great deal for me. First, I performed an act of personal archaeology by writing about a war in which my father had fought; in so doing, I learned a great deal about him, the times he lived in, and the men who worked with him. Second, I did justice to an older self of mine, one that was obsessed about aircraft and the men who flew them. Third, I learned a bit of history. Thus, I was edified in the emotional, intellectual, and personal dimensions. Fourth, I also made several friends; many of the veterans I interviewed for one, and my co-author. (We did not meet in the flesh until after the book had been published!) Lastly, my writing improved: I learned how to organize chapters, construct a narrative, edit, revise, ruthlessly delete redundancy and irrelevance, all skills that would help me later in writing my academic books.

I made very little money from the sales of the book, but it seemed not to matter, for I hadn’t set out to. When I started work on the book, I was a post-doctoral fellow; when I completed it, I was in a tenure-track position. The two checks I have received thus far have paid for an airfare–for one person–to India, and some books.

So I wrote a book, and got in exchange: Learning, the making of friendships, the honing of a useful skill, the engagement with self-discovery, an airfare, some books. All this seems to add up to a very good bargain.

Surfaces scratched. More later.