John David Mabbott And Two Influential Paragraphs

In the summer of 1992, I had begun to consider the possibility of returning to graduate school–this time for a new program in study in an unfamiliar field: philosophy. I had no previous academic exposure to philosophy so I would have to begin at the ‘bottom’: by taking classes as a non-matriculate student, and then on the basis of the grades secured in those, seeking admission in a graduate program. I was not entirely decided on this course of action; much uncertainty, a reduced income, and possible unemployment lay ahead.

That same summer I traveled home to India, met my mother, told her of my plans and was gratified to find out she approved. While in India, I went rummaging through my father’s book collection and brought back a few tomes to adorn my shelves. Among them was J. D. Mabbott‘s The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. An inscription on the book’s frontispiece–in my father’s distinctive handwriting–informed me my father had bought the book in 1962 at a bookstore in Bombay. In the first section ‘From Hobbes to Hegel,’ in the first chapter ‘The Use of Authorities,’ on page 9 I came across the following passage:

The philosopher does not discover new facts. His concern is our everyday view with its common landmarks, duty, obedience, law, desire. He does not set out, as the scientist does, grasping his compass, towards lands no man has trod, nor return thence bearing strange treasures and stranger tales. He is rather to be pictured ascending the tower of some great cathedral such as was St. Stephen’s, Vienna. As he goes up the spiral stairway, the common and particular details of life, the men and tramcars, shrink to invisibility and the big landmarks shake themselves clear. Little windows open at his elbow with widening views. There is conscience; over there is duty; there is conscience again looking quite different from this new level; now he is high enough to see law and liberty from one window. And ever there haunts the vision of the summit, where there is a little room with windows all round, where he may recover his breath and see the view as a whole, and the Schottenkirche and the Palace of Justice in their true relative proportions, and where that gargoyle (determinism, was it?) which loomed in on him so menacingly at one stage in his ascent shall have shrunk to the speck that it is.

We shall be told that no one reaches the top. A philosopher who ceases to climb does so only because he gets tired; and he remains crouched against some staircase window, commanding but a dusty and one-sided view at best, obstinately proclaiming to the crowds below who do not listen, that he is at the summit and can see the whole city. That may be so. Yet the climb itself is not without merit for those whose heads can stand the height and the circling of the rising spiral; and, even at the lowest windows, one is above the smoke and can see proportions more clearly so that men and tramcars can never look quite the same again.

Once I was done reading that passage, I knew my decision to study philosophy was the correct one. I was exhilarated; I felt new adventures, new journeys, novel sights and experiences lay ahead. I had felt, just by Mabbott’s description of the philosopher’s elevation, elevated myself. No description of any academic field I had ever read before had ever captivated me so. I wanted more; I couldn’t wait to start studying philosophy seriously.

John David Mabbott remains an obscure philosopher to this day. I’ve never read anything else by him, or seen a citation to him anywhere in any philosophical text I’ve read. But without exaggeration, these two paragraphs of his rank among the most influential pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  And of course, my father, by buying his book, had made it possible for me to encounter them. Many thanks to the both of them.

Note: Needless to say, I still own The State and the Citizen–it’s falling apart but I won’t let go.

The Acknowledgments Section As Venue For Disgruntlement

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre  (University of Chicago Press, 1985) David P. Jordan writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section:

With the exception of the Humanities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose fellowship gave me the leisure to rethink and rewrite, no fund or foundation, agency or institution, whether public or private local or national, thought a book on Robespierre worthy of support. [pp xi-xii; citation added]

Shortly after I had defended my doctoral dissertation, I got down to the pleasant–even if at times irritatingly bureaucratic–process of depositing a copy with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. The official deposited copy of the dissertation required the usual accouterments: a title page, a page for the signatures of the dissertation committee, an abstract page, an optional page for a dedication, and lastly, the acknowledgements. The first four of these were easily composed–I dedicated my dissertation to my parents–but the fifth one, the acknowledgements, took a little work.

In part, this was because I did not want to be ungracious and not make note of those who had tendered me considerable assistance in my long and tortuous journey through the dissertation. I thanked the usual suspects–my dissertation adviser, various members of the faculty, many friends, and of course, family. I restricted myself to a page–I continue to think multi-page acknowledgments are a tad self-indulgent–and did not try to hard to be witty or too effusive in the thanks I expressed.

And then, I thought of sneaking in a snarky line that went as follows:

Many thanks to the City University of New York which taught me how to make do with very little.

I was still disgruntled by the lack of adequate financial support through my graduate studies: fellowships and assistantships had been hard to come by; occasional tuition remissions had somewhat sweetened the deal, but I had often had to pay full resident tuition for a semester; and like many other CUNY graduate students, I had found myself teaching too many classes as an underpaid adjunct over the years. I was disgruntled too, by the poor infrastructure that my cohort contended with: inadequate library and computing resources were foremost among these. (During the last two years of my dissertation, I taught at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and so had access to the Bobst Library and NYU’s computing facilities; these made my life much easier.)

In the end, I decided against it; my dissertation was over and done with, and I wanted to move on. A parting shot like the one above would have made felt like I still harbored resentments, unresolved business of a kind. More to the point, the Graduate Center, by generously allowing to me enroll as a non-matriculate student eight years previously, had taken a chance on me, and kickstarted my academic career. For that, I was still grateful.

I deleted the line, and deposited the dissertation.

Note #1: An academic colleague who finished his dissertation around the time I did dedicated his dissertation to his three-year old son as follows:

Dedicated to ‘T’ without whom this dissertation would have been finished much earlier.

Fair enough.

Serendipity In The Library Stacks

I like libraries. Always have. My most favored writing space these days is a library, that of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrive by subway at the 34th Street station, exit at 35th Street, enter the B. Altman Building through the lobby, buy myself a coffee, and then head upstairs to the second floor. If my favored by-the-window spot is not available I seek out others and get to work. The ceilings are high; the light is good; and scholars around me remind me I should not spend too much time dilly-dallying on social media.

But the real reason to like working in a library is that I’m surrounded by books. CUNY folks are used to griping, endlessly, about the relatively small size of our collections, but be that as it may, there are still many, many stacks of tomes here. And it’s not just the books that are immediately relevant to my writing projects that make a library a favored zone of work; it’s all of them, arranged according to a scheme whose workings I do not fully understand (and don’t want to.)

For between these stacks are passageways that must be traversed to move around within the library–those much-needed short walks to pick up a printout, a sharpened pencil for underlining and note-making, a trip to the restroom or water fountain for relief and refreshment, a short nap in the big armchairs by the windows. And as I walk among these stacks, among rows and columns of books, I encounter the serendipity of the stacks.

Here may be found entire domains of scholarship and literary and cultural accomplishment that I have not encountered and would never have had I not ventured into Stackland (and sometimes also into Returned For Reshelving Island.) Nineteenth century woman poets; obscure, marginalized ‘moments’ in art history; avant-garde novelists; dazzlingly incomprehensible mathematical monographs; presidential speeches; philosophers who never make it to graduate reading lists; Brazilian musicology; the list goes on. And on. (This exceedingly short list does no justice whatsoever to the richness of the offerings on display.)

I move quickly and briskly between the stacks, purposefully striding on toward my eventual destination. But the corners of my eyes are drawn towards the titles whizzing by. They pull me back toward them; they slow my steps. They bid me pick them up and inspect the spine, the cover, the table of contents. I am intrigued; I am awed by the labor of love so clearly visible. I am humbled; I am overwhelmed. I will never be able to produce scholarship this acute, this sustained. I am reminded, relentlessly, of how little I know. And how the vast edifice of human knowledge is built up by these constituents, arrayed here in their marvelous variety.

These walks are little expeditions of a kind; sorties and forays into uncharted territory. Who knows what I may find on the next one? I will never read all the books I glimpse here, but they do serve as reminders to keep reading. And writing.

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.

Springing Back To Teaching

I return to teaching tomorrow.

The 2015 spring semester kicks off at 9:30 AM with the first meeting of my ’20th Century Philosophy’ class. The class’ description reads:

This course will serve as an introduction to some central themes in the twentieth-century’s analytic, post-analytic (or neo-pragmatic), and continental traditions. Time permitting, the philosophers we will read and discuss include: Dewey, Du Bois, Russell, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Gadamer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Austin, Davidson, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Rawls, and MacIntyre.

Yes, this is a little ambitious, and I’m sure some of my readings will drop off the end of the queue as the end of the semester approaches. Besides, teaching some of the folks on that list makes me a little apprehensive; I have my expository work cut out for me.

Then at 11AM, almost immediately after I finish that class, I will hold the first meeting of my ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class. (The fifteen minute break between classes, to put it bluntly, blows chunks; I barely have time to walk back down to my office, drop off my books, grab a sip of water, pick up the next set of books and then head out again.)

On Monday, my graduate class–‘The Nature of Law’–will begin at the CUNY Graduate Center. This  class’ description is as follows:

This course will serve as an introduction to theories of natural law, legal positivism, legal realism, critical legal studies, legal pragmatism, critical race theory, and feminist legal theory.  Some of the topics to be covered will include: the varieties of natural law, the Hart-Fuller debate, the relationship between legal realism and legal positivism, the political critique  of law mounted by critical legal studies and feminist legal theory, the legal construction of race (and science), law as ideology, the nature of pragmatic jurisprudence.  There will be, hopefully, an interdisciplinary flavor to our readings and class discussions.

The first half of the class has a conventional feel to it with the usual definitional debates taking center stage; the second half takes a critical look at the law.

Three classes; two new preps. The repeat prep is the ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class, which I taught last semester. I had considered changing the reading list dramatically, but instead, dropped two novels–‘Canticle for Leibowitz‘ and ‘Dog Stars‘–from my original list and retained the remaining five. I did this for two reasons. One, I’d like to take a second crack at teaching these novels; even as I taught them last semester, I was aware my understanding of them had changed, and I was not able to cover all the issues they raise in their many different ways. Second, more prosaically, my two new classes threatened to swamp me with their reading lists; three new preps would have spread me out a little too thin.

The winter break–some of which I used to try to complete a book manuscript long overdue with its publisher–is over. There was some hopeful chatter about a snow day tomorrow, but truth be told, I’d rather get this ball rolling and get on with the business of making headway on the business of teaching. A winter break spent at home always makes me a little stir crazy. I’d much rather be walking to campus, getting in front of my classes and talking philosophy.

Famous last words: bring it on.

Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.

On Virtuous Acts: Paying Library Late Fees

A week or so ago, an old friend of my wife’s said to me, in the midst of a conversation about how much she enjoyed using her public library’s resources, that her busy schedule–work and taking care of two sub-five-year old toddlers–sometimes made her return her borrowings late, bringing a host of late fees in its wake. But, she went on, she didn’t mind: paying those monies to the public library almost felt virtuous. I nodded, and chimed in, “Yeah, I never mind paying late fees to a public library either.”

Talk about making a necessity into a virtue. I’m forgetful and disorganized and distracted (and perhaps absent-minded too.) I often return books late–to the libraries at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (And before that, to the libraries at every academic institution I have attended.) Till recently, Brooklyn College would not levy late fees on faculty members so I got away scot-free there. Not so much at the CUNY Graduate Center, which shows no mercy to its professorial staff and has cleaned up a pretty packet from me over the years. (We’ve been ‘together’ some twenty years now; the smallest fine I’ve paid was no more than a quarter; the biggest, about five dollars.)

But I don’t mind paying late fees, that is true: every time a librarian looks up at from her terminal and announces the latest monetary sanction, I fork out the lucre without protest. And it is true too, that I feel oddly virtuous after this act; I suspect I regard these payments as a donation of sorts, a charitable contribution to a perennially cash-strapped institution. As my friend said, “the public library can use all the money it gets.”

Late fees, of course, are not supposed to be regarded so. They are penalties for the inconvenience we have subjected other patrons of the library to; we have made unavailable the books and materials they need and perhaps forced recall notices to be sent (which might consume precious temporal and financial resources). They might, indeed, as they probably are by librarians, be viewed as sanctions for the selfish. The most appropriate response to the levying of a late fee would appear to be one of suitable penitence: perhaps a muttered, shame-faced apology, perhaps a grim resolve never to bother librarians and fellow patrons again, perhaps a head-bowed incognito slinking away from the circulation desk.

Yet, still: I like paying late fees to libraries/I cannot lie/you other patrons cannot deny. The libraries I use always appear cash and resource hungry: the stacks could always use more titles, the journal stores could do with more subscriptions. I doubt the tiny amounts I pay enable any satisfaction of these needs but perhaps the grand cumulative total paid by all of us delinquents will. Perhaps it could just help pay for a slightly swankier holiday party–some classy wine, food not ordered from the lowest bidder, a taxi fund for those who wish to get really, really sloshed?–for the librarians (especially the ones at the reference desk, who keep answering my amateurish questions.)

I assure you: I aspire to return books on time. But the late fee isn’t an adequate deterrent for bad behavior in this dimension.