Friday, December 30, 2011

Multiple Models of Marketability: My Encouraging Realization from the Eastern APA

I just returned from what a friend and faculty member referred to as "the death-march known as the Eastern APA." Very much like last year, and quite unlike what most people report about their experiences there, I had a really great time. I'm not kidding, exaggerating, or indulging in some weird kind of masochism--I really enjoyed myself, the people around me, and the philosophical content that was being discussed. Okay, perhaps it has to do with the sessions that I attended--I go to pretty cool and inspiring ones (more on this in a bit)--and it probably helps that I am still not on the job market (that's coming up later as well). So maybe this time next year, when I actually will be on the market, I'll be writing a completely different post. Maybe the stress, anxiety, terror, and misery that is usually associated with interviews at the Eastern will finally be felt deep within my bones. But maybe not. And I don't think that it's simply because I've had two years of exposure to this beast-of-a-conference either (more on this later, too).

Some of the delights of this year's E-APA for me were found in the connections that were had there. I met some really wonderful people for the very first time. I saw people again whom I see only about once this time every year. And I finally met a number of people face-to-face for the first time. These are people with whom I've had email exchanges, facebook friendships, Google+ connections, and other sorts of "virtual" relationships for quite a long time...even years. Among my peers, professors, mentors, new acquaintances, and friends, we talked about lots of important things like relationships, planning for the job market, the surprisingly common horror stories from prospectus defenses gone bad, to teaching kids baby-sign language. I know that the Eastern can exacerbate social alienation and awkwardness in many people, but if you are lucky enough to have the social skills and comfort to use them, the whole affair can actually be quite an enjoyable social hub.

All of that aside, the real reason why I went was to present a paper. It was the second time I presented my paper, "Irigaray, (Trans)sexual Difference, and the Future of Feminism." It's funny when people ask me about what I'm going to do with it since I'm not an Irigaray-scholar and I'm not trying to set myself up as one, and although I am serious about the questions that I ask in the paper, it's not part of my current work or even related to the research in my dissertation. Nevertheless, some good things came out of presenting the paper. Just as it was at SPEP in October, I was very pleased with how the audience engaged one another in a discussion afterward rather than simply firing questions at me. I prefer when papers lead to philosophical exchanges among the people in the room who know more and different things than I do, and I've always (even if especially very recently) been skeptical of the productivity of "defense" like attacks from interlocutors. I also got a cash prize for it being accepted to the main program. As one professor said to me that evening, mine was very likely the first grad student paper with "(trans)sexual difference" in the title to ever be accepted to the main program at the APA. That's pretty sweet to think about, but I also like that I just used some of that money to buy a new, cute winter coat. 

I attended some really great sessions while I was there, and while I didn't get to make it to many of the ones that I wanted to, I did go to a session entitled "From Philosophical Training to Professional Blogging." Among the three panelists, two had a PhD in philosophy (the other a BA in Philosophy from Harvard).  Andrew Sullivan, one of the most widely read bloggers at present, had a number of really great things to say that resonated very deeply with me. Whenever he spoke, Sullivan emphasized the importance of philosophical dialogue. Being influenced by Plato's dialogues, he noted how the blogosphere presents greater opportunity for philosophical exchanges in the way of Plato. Dialogues that go back and forth. Invitations to take a step in one direction and see what follows from there. In addition to stressing his conviction that there is a real hunger in people to engage in meaningful, important philosophical questions, he also repeated a few of my favorite key words: "honesty" and "humility."

Without dogging the Academy, which he claimed to revere, Sullivan simply stated that after his time within academia it became clear to him that it didn't fit his style. As he continued to speak, I identified more and more with what he said, and I thought about the blog post that I had written just a week or so before. Academic philosophical writing comes with an air of authority. The arguments have to be well-crafted, exact, and fully-formulated. Essays are written as presenting mostly completed, self-contained ideas. Even if they lead to more questions or rely on previously established notions, academic writing often assumes that it has to come off as "right." But as Sullivan explained, this sense of authority, and the compulsion to write as if one is right, knows the answer, and has it all figured out, stems from a deep insecurity in the Academy about itself. This leads to a defensive sort of writing that asserts itself without really being willing to listen to others, especially those who are outside the walls of the ivory tower. Moreover, this kind of posturing is not conducive for allowing oneself to change one's mind.

In contrast, blogging about philosophical questions, especially when undergone as a philosophical activity in itself, only needs to offer the beginnings of an idea or the start of an argument. Because the writing is more "loose" it's very likely that one will say something stupid, or even wrong. But that's okay, because it can be acknowledged as part of the process...and it doesn't mark a failure unless one assumes authority in the first place. The process is necessarily open-ended, and the one who writes has a more explicit responsibility to respond to readers' comments and reactions. In this way, Sullivan explained that he has often changed his mind on issues in light of what his readers sent him. And if nothing else, he cannot dodge engaging with big issues that columnists and certainly academics can avoid. Sure, being a blogger is different from being a journalist, and both are quite different from being an academic philosopher, but that does not mean that the virtues of honesty and humility are less valuable, if not fundamental, qualities upon which each profession should be pursued.

And importantly, this is all still very much philosophy. Reasons, thoughtful explanations, and logical connections are part of the writing. There is definitely a space to hold a position, one that seems to hold some relation to truth even if that is not a stable truth. AND there is even room from wanting to persuade others through one's writing. But rather than being a political propagandist who seeks to persuade others merely for the sake of promoting an ideology, one is more of a philosopher who engages others through the genuine activity of thought. The entire practice, it seems to me, is housed in making the process the intended result, rather than already having an end point, a position, and a "certain truth" that one only works to preserve.

While I don't have aspirations to become a professional blogger, it was nice to recognize my own thoughts, words, and feelings in Sullivan's words as he continued to speak on the panel (read more of his thoughts here). I saw my own style for writing, which is also often reflected in the way that I teach, present, lecture, and read--one that doesn't formulate water-tight arguments but rather finds connections that lead to asking different questions that in turn spur new ways of thinking. And it's a style that depends on the input from others, whom Sullivan eventually called "friends." I've noted before that I learn most from teaching, and that is because I engage with my students in ways that provoke all of our thinking together. Of course, I start out as the one presenting the material, but I do so in order to provide a launching pad from where we can take-off and not as an authority on the matter at hand (this is a strategy for any grad student who suffers from an "imposter-complex" while teaching: change your attitude and goals for teaching, and realize that you don't have to pretend like you know everything if you don't assume that your students want to know everything that you think you know. My guess is that they are pretty disinterested in acquiring a carbon-copy of your brain anyway).

All in the all, I really enjoyed the session, but I was left with one unfulfilled wish: I wish that there could have been more discussion on movement in the other direction. In addition to noting that maybe there is something significant about the fact that some of the top professional bloggers have philosophical training, I wanted the discussion to at least touch on the other side of the coin, namely, how "professional blogging" could influence "philosophical training." What could professional academics in philosophy learn from those who write in philosophical ways on philosophical questions to public audiences as a philosophical endeavor? I think that could be a really rich and fruitful exchange....Unfortunately, there were a couple of times when it was stated, even by Sullivan himself, "Don't do this unless you want to lose your job. Wait until you have tenure, then you can write in this way and blog about these sorts of things."

This rather disappointing acquiescence to the "standard way of things" is what people usually say about going against the grain. Just wait. Don't do it yet. Despite my efforts to grow into a more patient person, I'm better at this in some areas than I am at others..and after four years of graduate school professional philosophy doesn't get a whole lot of it from me anymore. I don't like to tolerate the status quo without putting in at least some effort in the hope of making deeply desired changes. In that way, I guess I'm at base a pretty idealistic optimist. And ironically, this eventually led to one encouraging realization.

Sadly, I took very few pictures at the conference itself. This is from lunch. At least there's a name tag.

I left the eastern APA with a realization that was actually made from a number of conversations and not just from this particular session. Here's the short of it: I constantly hear concerns about the job market. Aside from the fact that the market itself sucks--there are few jobs, competition is outrageous, and if you are good enough and lucky enough to get a job it will take you to who-knows-where and will overburden you with who-knows-what kind of or how many other unwanted obligations and responsibilities--I hear lots of concerns about doing things differently and how that poorly sets one up for the market. In my own experience, this comes off in comments like "How in the world do you expect to get a job with this?!" Or I've heard it more politely as, "I'm just concerned about how you will get the job that I know you deserve." But what comments like this fail to acknowledge is that there are other ways to be "marketable." If I cultivate my deepest sense of compassionate and open-minded understanding, I can actually see how apparently antagonistic words and actions from my superiors really are coming from a place of looking out for my best interest. Sort of like when parents say,"I'm only enforcing these rules on you because I care about your safety and well-being."

But from my experience of also always being the kind of child who questioned and challenged my parents attitudes about what was "acceptable," "appropriate," and "right," (even when it turns out that at times they were sharing bits of valuable wisdom), I think that parents operate best as parents if they adjust to their kids' specific needs and desires and interests. They can care best if they actually know how their kids need to be cared for (this is a standard line in the ethics of care and maternal thinking..yes, I also went to the APA session in honor of Sara Ruddick's life and work). The same goes for teaching: we are better teachers if we teach to the individual interests, strengths, weaknesses, etc of the student. And the same goes for medicine....and so on and so on.

So in this situation there are a couple of things that I think should be understood and communicated between graduate students like myself and the professors who advise them. First, it was only recently mentioned to me that there are number of types of jobs out there, even among the academic jobs. And there are programs that value research, teaching, outreach, and other things in a diversity of ways that put greater weight on different kinds of philosophical work. So the goal shouldn't be to get a student just any job, and not even "the best" job if that is understood simply in terms of reputation and prestige, but rather the best job for that particular person.

Second, and this is related to the first point, it has to be understood that there are different pictures of "marketability." I can see why some very successful and well-respected philosophers are panicking about how I am going to fare on the job market since I don't conform to their image of marketability. Even though I have plenty of presentations on my CV now and thank goodness I got that prize (not just for the new coat)!, if I wanted to be how they want me to be, I would be freaking out, too. But the good news is that I have a handful of strengths and lots of ambition and passion to fuel me in my philosophical work, and I have other  qualities that I think make me very marketable.  Maybe that means I'm attractive to a different market all together, but I don't think that necessarily has to be the case. I think that there are more ways than one to be marketable even on the professional, academic job market that gives the eastern APA a bad, anxiety-provoking reputation. After all, this session on professional blogging was at the eastern APA and the award for excellence and innovation in philosophical programs this year was awarded to Thomas Wartenberg for his development of the Philosophy for Children.

Maybe doing things differently, being honest, and at the same time humble, in one's work, could actually serve one quite well. I guess only time will tell. Check back this time next year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Faith in and Frustration with Philosophy

**This week I've been following the conversation on a feminist philosophy listserv about an article that appeared this week in The Chronicle. With each message that gets posted I've wanted to add something from my prospective as a grad student who passionately teaches philosophy to non-majors, but as I started to write, my response got too long. I didn't feel comfortable posting the whole thing on the listserv and thought that maybe people could just follow the link to my blog if they really wanted to read. But that second-guessing is part of the process I've been dealing with for the past few days and even now as I write. I have been self-censoring so that I don't come off as arrogant, but then I swing back and forth, compelled to say something because I am especially frustrated with the lack of internal and institutional support that I have been facing regarding my own research and methods. But I need to write. About philosophy. About life. About my practice of philifesophy. After all, that is precisely why I have this blog. So, I'll write the message that I wish I had the confidence to post on the listserv here.**

I want to thank all of you for engaging with this topic. As a graduate student, I have been following the thread of emails with a sense of optimism thanks to the generally shared sentiments that seem to be coming through in each message. But I've also been concerned about how we seem to be at a loss for what to do about the concerns at hand. I hear the worries about potentially negative student evaluations if one were to bring up relevant, everyday, and very political examples in class, the fears about losing jobs (or in my case, not getting one), the frustrations around philosophy being treated like a mere commodity that could be distributed to bring in more majors, etc. Even though I've only been teaching my own classes now for three years, I've had to face similar worries about how I run a classroom. But I've also had the good fortune of putting together my own course syllabi and use my own pedagogical techniques from the very beginning. While teaching classes like Love and Sex, Race and Diversity, and Philosophy and Feminism lend themselves to difficult yet highly personal and relevant conversations, I've employed the same methods in my Basic Problems and Asian Philosophies classes. I have decided to make sure that every course and every class period takes the issues head on with honesty, integrity, and courage. My students are often surprised by how ethically and politically charged our discussions can become, and I don't even hesitate to show my own cards, but so far, I have had very few students openly state their disapproval of my style in evaluations or on Perhaps my students respond more favorably to me because I am relatively young for an instructor and close to them in age. Maybe this allows me to get away with more polemical and often surprisingly outrageous things. But I have to think it is something more than that.

Could it be that they appreciate my style precisely because I'm not afraid to bring up polemical issues and say and do pretty outrageous things?

An overwhelming majority of my students have loved my classes, precisely because it helps them be not only better thinkers but better people (by the way, these are their words--I have them write final reflection papers on their thought processes at the end of every semester). My classes are never easy-A's; I run intro courses more like 300 level classes. They require young 18 to 21-year-olds to actually think, read, speak, and write in ways that they often haven't ever been expected to do before. In fact, at the start of the semester many don't  really know how to think, read, speak, and write well at all. And it's true that in my class on race, some students even admitted in their final papers to being so filled with anger at me and the material we were covering that they said they hated the class. I already knew, of course. I could feel it during the semester from the line up of four white male students against the back wall. But those same students came around with gratitude and eventually wrote about how and why they responded that way for the majority of the semester. The material is personally challenging, but also personally rewarding. For being non-majors seeking a simple gen-ed credit, I've had students re-enroll to take my other classes and decide to become majors (all good things as far as the college is concerned, right?). But more than that, they see value in philosophy and appreciate the work that we do over the semester because it means something to them in the end. And you know what? It means something to me, too. There have been numerous times where conversations with my students have made me think harder and learn more than any of the graduate level seminars that I have taken since my senior year in college. I suspect that they see how I am also learning with and from them.

Related to Marilyn's email, the real shame here, though, is that no one taught me how to teach. I was just one of those undergraduate students who was always frustrated when my own professors didn't seem to care enough to go out of the box in terms of their own teaching. With the exception of two classes as an undergrad, I found the majority of my philosophy classes to be painfully boring and useless, and so I used the experience to note what didn't work. (By the way, I didn't even want to major in philosophy. I only declared a major because I already had some credits from my religious studies classes and a professor convinced me to not drop out as a sophomore. I used those credits so that I could still graduate in four years. During the fall of my junior year I took a crucial class that introduced me to a different approach to philosophy. Then I attended PIKSI at Penn State before my senior year. It was there, not in my department, where I saw what I could do with philosophy and what philosophy could do...I write more about this journey to academic philosophy and what to do with it now, here).  And I'm one of those people whose passion for philosophy is so strong--how it can change us, empower us, help shed new light on our lives and experiences--that I can't even imagine "talking about" philosophy in the usual way. So, with teaching, I've just had to wing it. Ironically, winging it has worked best. Maybe that's because I start from a place that avoids conventional assumptions about teaching...

Whereas some professors above me have said (quite unfavorably) that I am bull-headed about how I do philosophy, I have wished all along that I didn't have to force my way against such resistance, but that there were more mentors and examples around me who supported and demonstrated how to talk with people and students without excluding them or shooting them down, how to ask questions that invite critical thinking rather than dismissive or defensive apathy. But since I see these unhelpful tendencies around me all the time in many professional philosophy settings, I have started to think that many academic philosophers simply don't know how to relate to others on philosophical issues without it turning into a very narrow, unproductive event. I hesitate to even call them genuine dialogues of philosophical exchange.

If philosophers really want to start teaching in new ways and engaging the public in new ways, then we should probably put more effort into making sure that we are the sort of people with whom others (students included) want to and feel like they can have meaningful, enriching conversations. In other words, I agree with Marilyn that professional philosophers should give more attention to teaching graduate students how to teach. But it has to start with cultivating a sensibility for how to communicate, how to listen, how to openly engage with others, and how to encourage people who aren't familiar with philosophy to think philosophically. These are skills that you simply can't learn from reading the work of your favorite thinker in the history of philosophy or from mulling over one specific philosophical problem for years on end. Being the sort of people who can actually do the kind of philosophy that we are all hoping for and talking about through listservs and higher-ed articles requires a different kind of work. A different kind of cultivation of character that, frankly, most philosophers lack.

And here's the real kicker. The "crisis in philosophy" isn't just about being poor teachers who can't engage students. It's also about the very work that we do. Part of how I keep my classes interesting and relevant is by teaching interesting and relevant material (so, thanks, to you who publish such material). And part of how I keep myself motivated to do philosophy and finish my degree is by working on questions that are professionally and personally important and relevant to me. Trust me, I know that there are risks for how I am doing things. People might say that I am too unprofessional in how I teach because we talk about things very openly and casually, but they could not deny that we are also very philosophical. And thanks to the push back that I get from professors above me who don't seem to like or get what I do (I don't know which is worse), I am constantly reminded that I have to do what is "standard" and "conventional" in philosophy so that I can eventually get a job. Put simply, I probably won't get a job after writing my dissertation, which uses contemporary feminist work on affect and Nietzsche's views on physiology and philosophy to reframe how we can think of philosophical practice (in the old school sense of reading and writing theory) in ways that embrace its potential for therapeutically transforming those who do it as a mode of resistance to oppression.

So let's talk about risks. If people in tenured positions are worried about the crisis in philosophy, the budget cuts in the humanities, or what it means for their livelihoods, what are they doing to respect, support, encourage, and defend young scholars, un-tenured faculty, and graduate students who lack any kind of job security (or jobs at all), but are committed to doing philosophical work that stays true to the notion that philosophy is an intrinsically valuable practice, a way of life? I see how the work that I do is especially risky, but I am unwilling to jump through the hoops of conventional standards of philosophy in order to get a tenured position with the supposed promise that I will eventually be able to do what I want to do. (By the way, so far many of the comments from even the top feminist philosophers are making me question the tenability of such a promise.) Yes, I'm bull-headed on this. But let's face it. There aren't a whole lot of jobs out there to begin with. And if I had compromised on how I do philosophy at any point leading up to now, I know that I wouldn't have lasted this long in the discipline or in my program. I would have burned out, thrown up my hands, and said, "Fuck this, it's not worth it"  (which I almost did, multiple times, much like most people I know who've gone through this whole process).

But that's a real shame, because I know lots of people like me who are passionate and dedicated to philosophical practice, but who just get tired of having to fight the uphill battle against philosophical conventions and hierarchical bullying from unsympathetic professors. However, I know that sticking to it is worth it because philosophy is worth it....when it's done in certain ways. At the very least I know what philosophy has done for me and I see how my students react at the end of every semester.

So rather than wringing our hands and worrying about the backlash that we might face if we actually try to do what we feel like we should do and want to do in philosophy, I think it's most important to actually support each other in doing precisely those things. Be bold with our teaching. Be ambitious with our philosophizing. Be humble with our profession. And be open to doing things differently.  We need to learn how to communicate, how to improvise, how to listen, how to really ask genuine questions (with our students but also with one another) without needing to know the answers ahead of time. Perhaps we could also accept the possibility that we won't get to a stable answers, and that's a good thing. We can make these changes much more easily if we know that we are not alone and that we have support from others in the field, even if they aren't in our departments. If we can trust that others are going to be constructive, helpful, and cooperative, rather than just trying to tear us down or prove us wrong, then we can let our guards down, be less defensive, and actually work with a kind of honest curiosity, interest, passion, and sincerity that seems to be so hard to find and maintain.

After writing all of this, I want to thank you again for having these conversations. When I was faced with a challenging question at my prospectus defense this week that basically asked, "So you mean to suggest that you will go into a room of people who are interviewing you for a job and tell them that what they do is boring and irrelevant?" I responded, "In a sense, yes, because it's a pretty safe bet that what I am doing is not what they are doing. Philosophy can do more than it has typically been given credit. And I know that it's a risky position to hold if one's on the job market, but I also know that I am not alone. There was an article in the Chronicle this week that raises this precise issue, and some of the top names in feminist philosophy have been discussing it on the FEAST listserv for the past couple of days."

Your support and encouragement on these issues are appreciated, even by those (like myself) who you may not know are reading along and following your leadership.