Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Remember when we...

My favorite philosophers worked in times of chaos and struggle.  Confucius and his students once had to run for their lives, and almost starved in the wilderness while riding out the threat.  Seneca notably came into his own best voice upon retiring from his position as advisor to Nero, a job that can only make precious complaints I might have about mine.  Even then, Nero came for him anyway and Seneca ended up dying in a farcically elaborate forced suicide.  Xunzi says little about his own life, yet we know it can’t have been easy.  The indications, if some are needed, starkly show in his two students, the one who conspired to get the other executed and then was killed himself, severed in half at the waist.  With students like these, it’s little wonder Xunzi sometimes sounds like a melancholic misanthrope.  

I think of these philosophers often lately.  To be clear, I don’t read them.  I only think of them, mostly to marvel and sometimes to seek inspiration they have never yet delivered.  These are philosophers who presumably stayed the course in the storm, doing what they did in spite of the fact that life was all awry and wrong.  In a contemporary idiom, they were surely “stressed,” yet still, they made philosophy.  I think about their mysterious motive power for philosophy because I myself have none. 

Here could commence a long litany of plain facts about my life, facts that stand as obstacles to philosophy:  the elderly parents my husband and I are helping, the teenager abruptly home from abroad, the novel rigors of securing basic necessities while minimizing exposure to others and to the virus they might just carry.  Still more prosaically, I’m living on my farm and did not have the foresight to carry here the books that doing philosophy would require.  Even if I wanted to read Seneca, my Loebs are locked in an office 400 miles away.  I could use the internet of course, but speeds out here are slow.  I can’t even access any of the articles I store on this laptop.  My Adobe program crashed two weeks ago and the internet speeds out here are insufficient to download any of the fixes that just might liberate some reading I could still do.  In short, if I wanted to do some philosophy, I’d have to get creative and determined – it would at least entail a trip to the WalMart parking lot to steal some better wifi – but I don’t really want to do philosophy.  This, too, is a plain fact and the most substantial of them all.

Some of my trouble is my projects, the things that I had set myself to do and write.  Most of these were projects of a season that has, I find, now passed.  There were talks I was to give about civility, a thing I expect will need revision only time can make as we find in slow revelation just what shape interactions will come to take when we can again have more of them.  There was also a set of strange essays I was building, things written in a Montaigne kind of mood, episodic reflections of the kind that come from living on an old family farm.  I have some dozen of these but no will to carry on with them.  They were written in relation to a family and life past, but that past too has passed, I find.  Or, at least, they told of a world I was trying to keep but have already somehow lost.  And then there was the bigger academic project, the bit of work to which I had only just set myself to do in earnest.  Here is the first paragraph:    

When my grandfather died and I packed away his better suitcoat for donation, the pockets were full of memorials, those little paper booklets funeral homes produce and give in summary of the life for every person they bury.  My grandfather, who had reached his nineties, had attended so many funerals of peers and friends that his pockets bulged with lives, or at least with their last tokens.  And then he too died.  This is of course the way of things:  If you will live long, you will have many deaths to endure before your own at last will come.  A life that lasts is one that leaves your pockets stuffed with sorrows.  This book is just about such sorrows, about the deaths that are not mine, and most of all, about the trials and confusions that the deaths of others bring.  It is about the incoherences of loss and written in a bid to give them sense.

I read this paragraph as a missive from another world, or perhaps another person.  Someone really should, I think, sort all this out, make the losses make some sense, but the losses now are too many, at once too particular and too diffuse. They aren’t just the deaths but all the threats of it, the ever-pressing menace now upon us all and tallied daily on the news.  Death sometimes might just be a kind of mood, and I think that I am in it.  The “incoherences of loss” increase so rapidly that I cannot keep up. 

I am not distracted, not a bit.  In fact, I am all concentration.  I think often of philosophy but as one thinks of someone lost.  I want to turn to her and say, “Remember when we…” But as with all such statements made in some forgetfulness, when you reach for one now gone, the elision is an ache.  The aim of such a statement is to spur the one who could complete it, the one who, too, will well remember.  Without that, though, the words drift empty, uncompleted.  I think I’m living somewhere in those dots, extended out across the hours and days.  I start to wonder if philosophy can now only abide in silence, about whether philosophy that does not happen, cannot happen, is itself a philosophical position I could take.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

To the Lighthouse

For the next few weeks, I will be teaching a course on death from a remote location in the Missouri Ozarks.  My campus cancelled classes for the two weeks following our spring break and I have retreated to my family’s farm, a few hundred acres of rocky hills, where the nearest town, with a population below 200, is 10 miles off.  Our nearest neighbors at the farm are my parents, a few hundred yards to the south.  About the same distance to the north live my uncle and aunt.  We are well arranged for social distancing. 

My first “online teaching” will be to prepare a recorded lecture on To the Lighthouse, a book more fitted to the moment than I can like.  It is an elegy, written after World War I and in melancholy remark on the world that was and would no longer be.  It begins before the war, on an ordinary day in which a boy, James, hopes his family can make an excursion across the water to visit the lighthouse.  Told through the internal sporadic thoughts and reflections of multiple characters, the first movement of the story, if such it is, records the prosaic anxieties, worries, hopes, and moods that people will have when they do not know what ambitiously dark fate has in store for them.  Ignorance of what is coming next and fast allows the mind to wander over small discontents, modest delights, or even, as Mr. Ramsey does, whether one will ever be as successful as one aspires to be.  It is an ordinary world with ordinary cares, a world that ends.  It reminds me of last month.

The second part of the novel is of a house gone empty, the lively souls that populated it dispersed, scattered, and too many of them dead – in war, in childbirth, or abruptly in the night.  I worry it describes what awaits all sorts of material structures.  My university is depopulated now, the broad greens mown but empty.  The kids who hang hammocks between the trees by the library have all gone home.  I am nostalgic even for the irritations and would welcome a chance to tell that guy in the back to stop texting during class.  He is not there, nor am I.  The chalkboard is washed clean of any idea, for whatever we did have in mind has changed and, at any rate, we have taken all ideas elsewhere.  Mine will have to come in recordings I make alone.  I will speak of death – for this is, alas, a class on death – and do it all alone.  I will talk of To the Lighthouse while living in its second movement.  The final section of the elegy is the part that draws me up short.  I know just how the book goes, but not how our collective share in something like it will.

I have already selected a spot in a grove of stout, tall walnut trees where I will record a lecture on these things.  It is too early yet for the trees to provide the covering shade that spring will soon bring, but still, they do seem steady and reliable, a satisfying audience for mortal thoughts.  I will tell them of Virginia Woolf, of Mrs. Ramsey, and how getting to the lighthouse at long last is not really the measure of things.  What one believes one wants can instead bow and bend, and even steady things, lighthouses and walnut trees, achieve their aspect under roiling fate and what it does to us.  

Friday, August 30, 2019

20 Theses Regarding Civility

If I could just find the door to the discourse, I’d nail these on it.

1.  Dissent does not require incivility.  
I would have thought this obvious but have now too often heard people voice the assumption that if you’re civil, you’re not dissenting. Civility does not, under any theoretical construction or system of practical application, require that one not dissent.  Dissent can be accomplished civilly or uncivilly.

2.  Dissent is not inevitably or automatically more powerful, more decisive, or more effective when delivered uncivilly.  
This is especially so in contexts where incivilities are frequent and commonplace because the emotive force of incivility becomes diluted.  Incivility in dissent works in part when it functions to communicate distress, moral alarm, righteous outrage, etc.  If it is broadly overused, it loses efficacy in these functions as hearers’ ability to give uptake is dulled through repetition and overexposure. 

3.  Civility is not about what individual people deserve and it’s somewhat dangerous to treat it this way.  
It is morally hazardous for each to act as moral judge in daily life, using our prosaic interactions (civil and uncivil) to levy judgments about people’s moral standing or character.  We will rarely know enough to do this accurately or responsibly.  So too, a world where signals of respect and consideration are doled out like seals of approval by individuals is a world that promises radically worsening ideological clustering, homogenized “bubbles,” etc.

4.  Thinking civility is about what people deserve risks exacerbating social hierarchies.  
Our quick judgments about desert are unlikely to be morally clean – that is, they’re unlikely to be responsive only to the moral measure we take of someone.  Instead, they’re likely to (mostly unconsciously) fuse in systems of measure that are pernicious and involve other sorts of status. The risk here is that using civility as an implicit judgment on others’ moral standing will unconsciously slide right into implicit judgments about their social standing. Call this the “you’ll be civil to your boss, but rude to the janitor” worry.

5.  Talking about civility need not, and probably should not, take other people’s conduct as its focus.  
Too many (most?) conversations about civility begin because someone did something perceived to be uncivil.  Making civility all about what other people do is in fact part of the problem, as civility is then degraded into a cudgel and its proponents into cops. Conversation about civility would be improved if sorting oneself out was the focus.  

6.  Civility constrains but this does not mean that it bars expression of certain (any?) emotions.  
Anger, for example, is not inherently uncivil.  It is possible to express anger in civil ways.  This is not to say that the angry ought always be civil.  It is just to note that civility has sufficient flex to express emotions that demand expression.

7.  Civility does not equal niceness, bless your heart.  
There are myriad forms of civil practice that work to (civilly) signal disapproval, discontent, irritation, etc. Civil rebuke often works in part by employing indirection, irony, or even ambiguity to signal pointed messages while also allowing their target to “save face” and correct course, all without explicitly holding her up to public shame.  Allowing people to save face can often be a kindness that doesn’t reduce people to merely the worst thing they happen to do or say.  It also makes people less likely to defensively dig in.

8.  Civility requires restraint but part of how it can dissent is by performing restraint.  
Where you behave civilly but inflect your speech or conduct to convey that it occurs under exercise of great restraint, you can powerfully communicate dissent or rebuke.  Civility is not about stuffing down what you think – it is about calibrating how what you think is delivered to others. And sometimes what we need to communicate is that we are having to restrain darker impulses. 

9.  Civility is not prima facie oppressive.  
Incivility can also be, and too often is, a way oppression finds expression and gets enacted.  E.g., many of what we consider microinequities are forms of incivility or rudeness.  More generally, people are freer with their incivilities with those in socially subordinate positions.

10.  Taking a wrecking ball to civility to help the downtrodden or oppressed is not always or automatically helpful.  
The oppressed already suffer much more from incivility than you do.  Wielding incivility on behalf of the oppressed risks more widely normalizing incivility as a general mode of interaction.  And, let’s face it, a world in which people uncivilly say exactly what they think will be a world that may well (and almost certainly will) go harder for the oppressed. 

11.  The uniformity of civility can be a handmaiden to fairness.  
Because civility does involve adherence to rules, where those rules reflect good, sound practice, they can favor fair interaction. E.g., adhering to a policy of not interrupting people entails that you won’t fall into the pernicious pattern of interrupting women more than men, low status people more than high status people, etc.

12.  Calls for greater civility can be manipulative and disingenuous ways to get people to shut up – i.e., it can be a social dominance strategy.  But demonstrations of incivility can also be a manipulative and disingenuous way to get people to shut up – i.e., incivility can also be a social dominance strategy.  
Where social dominance and shutting people up is concerned, neither calls for civility nor demonstrations of incivility are a uniquely special evil. Both can be used as ways to cow others into submission.

13.  A commitment to civility does not entail mindless and unvarying following of every etiquette practice.  
No one committed to civility thinks the commitment total.  Acting like a commitment to civility means never being uncivil is a handy way to license not committing to civility, but it’s also ridiculous.  Civility does not suspend or eradicate one’s independent faculties and judgment.  It might even improve one’s judgment about when and whether to be uncivil.

14.  A commitment to civility does not entail mindless approval of every etiquette practice or rule associated with civility.  
Some conventional practices are surely bad and wrong.  Evaluation of our conventional practices is one of the wins we might achieve if we could get past the fiction that people either have to be “all in,” endorsing every practice, or “all out,” calling bullshit on civility entirely.

15. Incivility is not categorically braver than civility. 
Popular rhetoric likes to identify civility with spineless acquiescence and incivility with courageous truth-telling. These associations are farcical. Context matters.  Sometimes, civility is the far harder, and braver, approach to interaction in disagreement.  There simply is no way to draw a decontextualized straight association between incivility and bravery, between civility and cowardice.  (Also:  implicitly associating incivility with bravery explains why seemingly everyone being rude nowadays hurls utterly tedious charges of snowflakery at any who don’t like it.)

16.  Incivility can swamp meaning.  
If you have a high moral purpose when telling someone to fuck off, that purpose will be utterly lost on some people.  Their attention to any purpose you have will be utterly derailed by your bare-knuckled style.  Whether people should be so derailed is a separate issue.  Since they in fact can be so derailed, if your aim is to communicate your higher moral purpose, incivility risks distracting and losing some of the hearers you might want.  Considerations of prudence and efficacy might entail caring about this.

17.  Incivility can foster epistemic vice and hubris.  
If you are uncivil, some people who disagree with you and have views it would well serve you to hear will never engage with you because it is so unpleasant to do so.  In consequence, your views will be less tested and refined by dialogue than others’.  You might thereby achieve higher confidence in your views, but it is not at all clear that you will actually have better views.

18.  Civility can favor epistemic humility.  
Because civility keeps channels of interaction open, you stand learn more about those with whom you interact – and almost everyone is far more complicated than you think.  By keeping interaction open, civil practice can slow down and inhibit hasty, incomplete, and potentially biased judgments you might develop on quick impression. You might think that woman with a redneck twang wearing seedy overalls and shitkickers isn’t your sort, but it turns out she’s a professor of Confucian ethics – who knew?!?  You did, because of instead leading with ill-disposed quick assumptions about her identity, politics, or personality, you engaged civilly and had a real conversation.  

19.  Civility and incivility are not just, or even mostly, choices that you make.  
Social interaction is too ubiquitous, complex, fast, and unrelenting for us to navigate it with conscious choices – the cognitive load would be crushing and impossible to shoulder.  Most of our morally salient civil or uncivil conduct emerges instead from habituation. And our habits are in turn influenced by the social atmospheres we inhabit.  This is why easy acceptance of scorn for civility and uncivil atmospheres is perilous.  If you’re not cultivating civil habits, your incivility will not be confined to those moments you self-consciously chose it.  You risk habituating to patterns of hurtful conduct that will hit a lot more targets than the ones you intend.  

20.  You are ruder than you think or know.  
So am I. It’s hard.

Monday, September 3, 2018


I have been a blogger at Feminist Philosophers for about 5 years.  I resigned from the blog over the summer but now want to do so publicly.  I may still occasionally post here, where things are quiet, but I have stepped away from engagement with the more high-traffic online philosophy culture.  

My primary area of research and interest concerns early Chinese ethics and its focus on civility and manners.  That’s largely the idiom from which I blogged at FP, my posts most often focusing on intersections in feminism and civility or spurred by my own commitments to civility.  Perhaps that was always an awkward fit, given that calls for civility have historically seated uneasily with progressive politics, at least for some.  But whatever the case, I left the blog out of a sense that the fit just isn’t right and want to say at least a little about the wider atmosphere in online discourse among philosophers.

Until I began blogging, I avoided online conversations, not eager to enter the fray when conversations could so often be heated, inhumane, and unpleasant.  So too, online discussions often favor the quick and agile, the aggressive and insistent, people who like (or at least can ably engage) the rough and tumble of agonistic back and forth – and most of all those who are confidently certain. Honestly, the rough and tumble mostly makes me sad and I often have a shortage of certainty.

Reading both social media and blog conversations among philosophers, I often feel demoralized.  The people who speak most and most insistently seem not only to be absolutely clear about what they think, but think there is no other legitimate, respectable, or even moral way to think.  My trouble is usually not that I think otherwise, but that I don’t entirely know what I think.  And not knowing what to think is itself sometimes cast as shameful.  In too many contexts, to confess confusion or uncertainty is to confess deficiency – sometimes in philosophical acumen, sometimes in “smarts,” sometimes in moral clarity, sometimes even in basic humanity. 

Most broadly, I despair of the quick condemnation, scorn, and contempt that so often animates the commentary offered by the certain, whatever the direction of their certainty.  I worry that we incentivize both certainty and hiding confusion.  Or, more accurately, that we encourage people to *perform* their engagement in online conversations as if their views are confidently, firmly settled – worse, as if all alternatives are justly derided and scorned.  We also thereby suppress contributions by those who can’t or won’t do this. 

I do understand that calls for civility can be weaponized to stifle opposing views and expressions of righteous anger.  I understand that calls for civility can work as but “tone policing.”  But I don’t know what to do with that, assuming we want more than “dialogue” in the unrestrained fashion of cage-matches that leave all bloodied.  And assuming we want to interact with more than those whose certainties mirror our own and offer no complicating confusions.  I likewise worry that we grow so cynical about civility that we assume its *only* motivation can be to stifle and police.  Human motivations are a nasty mess so maybe it is right to doubt desires for civility.  But where cynicism is concerned, if I’m in for a penny, I’ll go in for a pound and also doubt that few of us are as righteous as we think when we eagerly and aggressively assail.  Maybe it’s sometimes good to punch for justice, but maybe doing it too much and too often just cultivates an appetite to punch.  That, at least, is one of my reservations.

In my experience blogging, I’ve inevitably been unsteady in my own practice of civility.  In truth, I’m losing the thread, finding it ever harder to want engagement of any sort online. Recognizing this is what initially tempted me to quit the discursive field, to just recede into handling my confusions elsewhere, off the FP blog, with others or in solitude.

Then this past summer, just as I was trying to decide once and for all about resigning from FP, I came upon a wreck near our farm moments after it happened.  We are miles from town, so it took about 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.  While we waited, a neighbor and I did our best to help and comfort the driver, an elderly man with a severe head wound.  I also set to work tracking down his people.  When I reached his kin, I was told that the man was freshly bereaved – his wife had died two days before.  I would find out that evening that he died too, that her funeral would now be joined with his. 

But stopped there on the side of the road, with my shirt against his bleeding head and helpless to do naught but wait, I abruptly found a clarity I rarely enjoy and just stopped caring in some fundamental way about public online involvement in philosophy.  The meanness, the derision and shaming, the inhumanity of our interactions online are too difficult to absorb into the life I really want.  It wasn’t that I suddenly contemplated the waste of my finite mortal hours on a blog.  It is that I want to use whatever I have in labors that encourage me to attend to life’s big confusions gently, with trepidation, and away from the hastening, importunate ire of agonistic contests between those already wholly certain.  I don’t see that impulse enjoying much place in our online conversations.  So I am done.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Luck and Precursive Belief

For a host of reasons, I’ve been giving much thought lately to succeeding in academia, about how it happens and about how the pathways to success in place operate.  My thinking about all of this has been inspired in part by the work of others (most especially by this beautiful reflection by Alan White), in part by my working in an unranked PhD-granting program where we seek to place students who will be competing in a job market in which pedigree exercises an outsized role, and in part by having a child soon to embark on college applications. 

In my own career, I know I made out better than anything in my trajectory would have predicted.  Let me just lay bare all the ways I shouldn’t be where I am. 

My early schooling was not strong, to understate the matter considerably.  I dropped out of high school following my junior year.  My mother, panicked about what this boded for my future, discovered a provision in Louisiana law that would give me a probationary year at any public Louisiana college where I could be admitted.  To fulfill my probationary terms, I would need a B average for my first year at college and a 26 on the ACT.  So off to Louisiana Tech University I went.  By the end of the year, I had a B average and I took the ACT, scoring a 26, just barely clearing the bar.  And having done this, I then promptly dropped out of college.  I was intellectually enlivened by having beautiful, brilliant friends, but in that time and place, most of the beautiful, brilliant people were also, not to put too fine a point on it, disaffected academic fuck ups.  I had also serendipitously discovered the word “autodidact” and decided to be one.

After a year or so of working and scraping by, my mother again stepped in to suggest I try a different college.  She persuaded me to apply to Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Arkansas.  This I did and they (rather astoundingly) admitted me.  I immediately took to it – it was a place where feeling intellectually enlivened and going to class actually intersected.

After receiving a BA, I worked as a maid, as a substitute teacher, and in a public library.  I dabbled in graduate courses along the way and eventually applied to University of Hawai’i.  I was admitted, but without funding.  I went anyway since trying my chances there seemed as good a bet as any – there are houses to clean everywhere and being enrolled in graduate school would, not insignificantly, keep my student loans at bay.

At Hawai’i, I again found an enlivening intellectual environment and thrived.  Even so, I left Hawai’i as soon as I was ABD.  I had met my spouse in the Hawai’i program but he left the program precisely because we had married: We knew enough to understand that people who want to pursue careers together cannot both be in Chinese philosophy.  So he redirected into another field and was admitted to University of Chicago in Sinology, and I moved there with him.  While in Chicago, I got a job, first adjuncting and then full-time, at a community college.  I wrote my dissertation while teaching 10 courses a year.  At long last, as my husband neared being ABD, we thought I should go on the job market in the more usual manner, casting a wide net.  This was when it felt like my initiation into something like the current profession really began.

I never did know all that much about the mechanics and strategies of applying for things.  After all, when I applied to colleges, I applied to one at a time; when I applied to graduate school, I applied to one at a time.  Moreover, because of its isolation, both geographically and in philosophical focus, at Hawai’i, I never realized how hard it is to get employed in philosophy and how pedigree, rank, traditional canon, and analytical methodology circumscribed the chances for people like me.  (This was before the internet told us all sorts of things we’d rather not know.)  It was only in being around the U of C culture that I really began to understand the challenges and difficulties of being on the job market in philosophy.

Aware I needed help navigating the market, I smuggled myself into a career services session given for U of C graduate students entering the academic job market.  (It’s not like they check student IDs for those things.)  The guys sitting in front of me were smugly discussing all the places they would never condescend to work.  Louisiana was one.  I didn’t much like those guys, but that session did teach me how to present myself for the market and I was hired at University of Oklahoma, making what now seems like a leap - from teaching at a community college to an R-1 in one go.  And now, here I am, some many years hence, working at OU.

I raise all of this personal history as a way to illuminate something made more eloquently plain in Alan White’s essay:  I was lucky.  There were multiple joints in this path where things could well have gone sideways.  Indeed, sideways was my more natural trajectory and temperament.  But my luck, I hasten to say, was not just dumb luck.  Instead, much of my luck was given me by others, people who were more generous with me than my “on paper” specs would have recommended.  And it is this that sticks with me most about my own trajectory.  I stumbled upon people who believed:  my professors at Hendrix and Hawai’i, my colleagues at OU.  At every crucial joint, I found people who believed I could do things and their belief set me into circumstances where I could indeed do things – finish college, get a PhD, get a job, do research at an R-1 level.  I could very easily have not done any of these things.  Not doing these things was, again, my more probable course.  And I suppose this is what most troubles me now that I have gotten to know far more about higher education and academic philosophy in particular.

I got my PhD in 2001, my job at OU in 2004.  I expect that a trajectory like mine, however improbable it was back then, is dramatically more improbable now.  Many of the graduate students I am involved in training are so much smarter, so much better prepared, and so much more together than I ever was, but they do not, in general, enjoy anything like the luck I had.  I was never really faced with any gatekeepers.  At first, I didn’t even know there were gates:  I mostly just happened upon windows and tunnels under the wall.  Sometimes this was because someone beckoned me to them – e.g., at Hendrix and then at Hawai’i – and later I did some of my own tunneling – e.g., sneaking my way into using U of C resources on more than that one occasion.  My despair with the present profession is that getting through gatekeepers in the more orthodox way, straightforwardly meeting them and convincing them to open up, seems far more essential.  There just aren’t that many windows or earth soft enough to tunnel through.  And the gatekeepers are ill-disposed to believe, to take chances on the “sideways” types, those who are approaching the gates from odd directions.

On my worst days, I worry that the profession has become so abducted by gate-keeping that (not to sound ancient) the scrappy sideways kids these days have little chance.  It can seem that the profession is just all Matthew Effect, all the way down.  To get a job, one needs to attend a “top” graduate program; to attend a “top” graduate program, one often needs to attend a “top” BA-granting institution or at least get “top” advising; to attend a “top” BA-granting institution or get “top” advising, one needs to have already enjoyed a great deal of good fortune early on.  One best not be a high school dropout or, at any rate, have found your BA institution by your own wits in a high school with little good college counseling.  Likewise, if one is to get a job, one may also need to publish in “top” venues, which, given most “top” journals’ practices, will mean one needs to study a “top” area that such journals are far more likely to publish.  And one will need to court the attentions of “top” scholars who can write “top-notch” recommendations, and attend “top” conferences where you might stand a chance of meeting all those “top” folks.  Each of these “tops” represent different gates to enter, different gate-keepers to convince, and different challenges.  It’s just all “tops,” all the way down.

The profession talks sometimes as if it wants to render some of these processes more egalitarian.  The PGR ranking system, e.g., purports to publicize just what counts as “top” so that otherwise uninformed students know where to aim when they aim for the “top.”  But of course there is a recursive loop here, as one must first identify the most “top” sorts so that they can rank for us all exactly what counts, in their “top” judgment, as “top.”  I suppose this does represent a prudential value of sorts – if you want a job in philosophy, this is the way the profession is set up and best get to know that early so you can know what the gates look like.  And to know that there are indeed gates.

But I at least regret that the profession is so preoccupied by what is “top.”  Let me draw this back to those two guys in the career session at U of C I smuggled myself in to.  At the time, I heard them snidely dismissing all the places they would never work and thought they seemed like hot-house orchids, like people who had bloomed into these fantastically impressive flowers but did so in conditions meticulously designed to nourish them.  In contrast, I thought of myself as kin to a lesser, less fantastical wildflower springing up out of some manure pile on the roadside.  I had a bit of color in me by then, a bit of bloom brought on by good mentors, but except where I could smuggle myself in, had never been in the hothouse, never lived with the sense of high expectations and assumed success.  We were like utterly different sorts of plants, yet trying for the same role in the world, seeking to be selected for the bouquet of academic life.  Whether for admissions committees or for hiring committees, we inhabit a world in which wildflowers sit alongside hothouse orchids and, regrettably, it’s clear which the field prefers

There are many who would defend our professional systems as evidence of meritocracy in operation.  People who are “top” earned their way there; “top” programs earned their collective way there; and so on.  That is, one can just deny that any of this is a problem by saying that the gates and gate-keepers do let pass any who can earn their way in.  To tangle up my analogies: you can bloom your way out of a shit pile and take your place in the bouquet of hothouse orchids.  Here is my own great, gnawing reservation about that line of thinking:  For that to work, somewhere, somehow, someone still must pull you from the manure.  And at least for myself, that had to happen multiple times.

It isn’t just that I had to get into a college that nurtured me, get into a graduate program that did the same, and then into a job that did the same.  It’s that all along these ways, I could have been otherwise.  That is, there is nothing about me that I would count as representing an “earned” way into the trajectories of professional work I have enjoyed.  Instead, there were lots of people who helped me swerve off the trajectories my circumstances would have predicted.  And with those swerves came arrangements from which I profited.  To take but my most recent chance, my job carries a 2/2 load and support for research.  Much of the work I have produced is a function of just that, of my having the time, the institutional support, and, put plainly, the kind of job that enables me to do whatever it is I have done.  Had I a different job, I would have a different professional profile.  The circumstances are set up to favor my being what I am; different circumstances would have yielded a different me, a different professional profile (or no profile at all).  So I just can’t get very exercised by assumptions that I have, as an individual, done this thing, that I somehow earned my way to my places in the long stream of life opportunities I’ve had.  In each case, I got extraordinarily lucky to get a helpful place, and then the place made me.  Hendrix made me viable for graduate school; Hawai’i made me viable for jobs; my job made me viable for greater research.

My concerns with the profession, put plainly, is that it presently inclines strongly against pulling wildflowers into the bouquet, inviting swerves away from predictable trajectories.  It inclines to see people’s value by way of too fixed trajectories, top to top to top.  Those not already on such a trajectory will find few invitations to swerve away from whatever non-top trajectory they presently have.  Indeed, I worry that career trajectories like mine can obscure how rarely swerves happen and can indirectly contribute to myths about the meritocracy or, worse, to Horatio Alger stories.  Someone like me makes her way into the profession and it can seem I somehow did that.  I write all this just to say I didn’t.  And the importance of that, as I see it, is that there are other people in the profession, people like me but younger, who can’t do it either.  So long as the profession goes on blithely believing in its meritocratic and egalitarian myths, expecting that any “qualified” sideways types can earn their way to the “top,” we will fail to offer the sorts of chances the sideways types really need.  As a sideways type myself, I needed people believe, and to believe ahead of any clear proof.  I got lucky to find people who could do that but they’re thinner on the ground now, I fear. 

Since I am both engaged in training some sideways types and raising one I birthed, I feel all too acutely the vagaries of luck and, more importantly, how some are just far more vulnerable to luck than others.  I long for them to have the luck I’ve enjoyed, but I can’t make luck.  Instead, all I can do is this:  Own my own luck in the hopes of stimulating those who do stand at the gates to keep a sympathetic, kind eye out for people approaching from the less commonly travelled directions.

Monday, March 12, 2018

DoD-Ag Campus Starts New Professional Association!

We here in the DoD are pleased to announce the creation of a new professional association (taking “association” and “professional” and indeed all words loosely of course). 

Operating out of the DoD’s satellite Ag campus, the new group was founded after discovery* that academia is full of seedy sorts who don’t fit easily in The Club and could use a club of their own.  After long deliberations about what words might combine to make a cool acronym and yet could still be used in polite company, we named the new group the Society for Countrified Academics in Town – i.e., SCAT.  Here, then, are all the heady details.

SCAT Membership Requirements 
None really.  We don’t care who you are, town or country, but are pretty convinced that whoever you are it’s probably a lot more interesting than a regulation-issue academic persona permits you to freely express.

SCAT Mission
None really.  Except perhaps to affirm that most missions are best lightly held.  Otherwise you’ll get really frustrated when you head off on a mission and the truck won’t start again. 

SCAT Governance
We don’t really have any governance to speak of.  But we do bestow special honors for those who can pass the following quiz.

If I told you that Coca-cola can work both to get crud off your engine batteries and remove staining from toilet bowls, what would you say?

a)    That’s exactly why we shouldn’t drink Coke.  Just imagine what it does to your innards and teeth!

b)    Well, that sounds promising, but if it didn’t work, what a shameful waste of a good Coke.

SCAT Don’t-Call-Them-Meetings
All club “meetings” (but lord, don’t actually call them that!) shall be held in any of the following locations:
-Setting on a porch, any will do

-Anyplace two trucks pass in the lane and the drivers roll down their windows to share a few words

-At any parts counter, hardware store, machine shop, or any diner where the coffee costs less than two dollars and refills are free

-Over home-cooked food lovingly prepared out of highly processed or at least biblically justified delicious ingredients

-Anywhere and everywhere disaster strikes a member and a good casserole or some extra muscle would prove useful

To be absolutely clear, don’t-call-them-meetings do not require any actual conversation, much less (god forbid) an agenda.  They can also be held in silence, particularly if it’s an especially fine day that needs our full attention to appreciate. 

Things We Incline Against
Talk of pedigrees.  This is a professional association, not a puppy mill.

Rankings of persons, places, and things.  Though we do encourage a heated competitive atmosphere for tall tales about Darwin Award worthy doings involving heavy machinery and power tools.  And getting struck by lightning and living through it. 

Loving Walden, though this isn’t a hill we’d die on or anything.

Things We Could Almost Have But Don’t
If we did have a founding father (which we don’t) and we weren’t afraid of him (which we are, even though he’s dead), we’d pick Johnny Pentecost since he exemplifies the art of giving fewer damns.

We were tempted to have a logo and considered a coat of arms featuring a crossed pen and spade, but then asked ourselves:  What the hell would we put that on?  It’s not like we’re commissioning stationary or anything.

We’ve always been mildly attracted by the classy “elite” effect of gargoyles, but have settled instead for some inbred farm dogs.  They don’t move much and are impressively ugly, so we figure they’ll easily pass as nigh gothic architectural flourishes.  We’re all about things nigh around here. 

Things We Do Have and Plan to Keep
This goat skull mascot with baton stopper eyes.  Because even though we don’t need a mascot, we sure do like this goat skull and think it deserves a formal role in SCAT, however arbitrary.

This collection of truck mirrors for when SCAT members need to make sure their dirt necklaces are hanging straight

 A Bad-Day-in-Academia SCAT Dirge we sing off key when times get tough. 

Attitude.  In fact, multiple attitudes, often conflicting and yet still held all at once.

*After this published, I’ve received a lot feedback from others who wear chicken scat in academia.  Several elements of the above are inspired by things people sent me.