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.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Funding Opportunities and Award Competitions

It's that time of year again, that time when competition season heats up for various prizes, awards, and fellowship opportunities.  As always, we provide here a list of the possible riches that could be yours. So sharpen your pencils, crack your knuckles, and go out there and WIN, Deviants! 

Using an Ox Cleaver to Kill a Chicken Prize [1]. Deadline: Sept 15.
This award is granted annually to the book review that shows the least mercy and most unreserved glee in shredding the modest philosophical work of others.  So if you have a book review that engages in wild overkill and, better yet, conveys your superior intelligence in brutal blood-letting fashion, send your submission now!

Four in the Morning and Three at Night Fellowship [2].  Deadline:  Oct 2 (or Nov 8 or Dec 12 – whatever makes you happy since it’s all arbitrary anyway)
This one-year fellowship is granted to support work that cheers and impresses other scholars while cleverly declining to offer anything substantively new or different.  Successful proposals should leave everything intellectually just as it is, yet create the happy impression that they have offered novel innovation.

Questions which Tend not Toward Edification Fellowship [3].  Deadline:  Nov 10.
This fellowship is awarded to that work which most successfully dodges all real human struggle and problems by taking the least urgent, most abstract, and utterly obtuse speculative endeavor as a totalizing, life-governing obsession.  Scholars submitting proposals for this fellowship, be warned:  Unless you have devoted years of so-far-fruitless labor to compiling extensive notes that will almost certainly never yield any identifiable human good, this is not the fellowship for you.  I.e., competition for this fellowship is especially fierce.

Climbing Trees in Search of Fish Fellowship [4].  Deadline:  Dec 1.
This fellowship is granted annually to that “mainstream” and “western” philosophical work that fulfills two key desiderata:  1) The work must avidly and energetically seeks to address a question historically neglected by the “mainstream,” and 2) the work must ignore vast – nay, mountainous! – heaps of work on the question pursued in “non-mainstream” and “non-western” literatures.  Successful projects will heroically ignore whole territories of human inquiry in favor of retrieving the tiniest scraps of possibility from recognized and thus reputable “western” and “mainstream” sources.

Uncarved Block Prize [5].  Deadline:  Dec 1.
In the interest of promoting “diversity,” this award is granted annually to work that engages the “non-mainstream” and “non-western” while simultaneously bundling everything that might be so described into one amorphous blob.  Successful proposals should mistake Buddhists for Daoists, India for Japan, and make free reference to fortune cookies while discussing Confucianism.  NB for the unaware:  All past successful proposals have utilized the phrase “The One” wantonly, so if you apply, make sure to go there.

Notes for the curious:
[1] Phrasing from Analects 17.4, in which Confucius snobbishly insults an overeager, too ambitious musical performance heard in the provinces.
[2] Zhuangzi, Chapter 2:  “When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ The monkeys were all angry.  ‘All right,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’  The monkeys were all pleased.  With no loss in name or substance, he made use of their joy and anger because he went along with them.” (Trans. A.C. Graham)
[3] Phrasing from the Buddhist text, “The Lesser Mâlunkyâputta Sutta.”
[4] Phrasing from Mengzi’s critique of rulers who insist on moral posturing and punitive measures while the common people labor in poverty and deprivation (Mengzi 1A17).
[5] Phrasing employed in “Daoist” sources, Laozi (Daodejing) and Zhuangzi. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Department of Lost Things: Moral Disappointment

We here in the DoD continue our efforts to pick up the shards of our curiosity following the unhappy discovery that indeed we did not, and do not, want to know all the things.  Worried that this discovery could prompt others equally unhappy, we decided instead to focus on something we would like to know:  How to get good at moral disappointment.  This seems to us an understudied area in need of urgent attention.

See, what strikes us here in the DoD is that the world is presently full of provocations to rage.  Well, to be fair, moral outrage.  There is much to inspire anger and a lot of it would be righteous moral outrage.  But the problems with this are several.  Rage, and its better-groomed cousin, moral outrage, can get pretty indiscriminate.  It’s hard sometimes to attach them to the right targets and we note in ourselves a vulnerability to making one target the symbolic stand-in for many.  Which is to say pity the poor hapless creature that encounters us in that moment long accumulated outrage must at long last erupt.  Rage and outrage resist our efforts at measure, though we fancifully sometimes imagine how delightful it would be to host a dinner party of rage, one in which we invite all our enemies and serve each just his allotted portion.  Alas, we do know ourselves well enough to realize it could never be so.  We might start decorously, allotting a teaspoon here and a ladle there, but in the end, ‘twould be but a food fight.    

Not only are we bad at keeping things in measure with our targets, we also note about ourselves a certain inconstancy with rage.  What sets us off can be unpredictable and a little arbitrary.  This is nothing so simple as getting mad at the wrong things for the wrong reasons, but about how fractious and unreliable our attention is.  We’re never sure we’re noticing all the things we ought, and so have to grant that we might well be raging at one while legions pass by without note.  We’re a little worried that we’re sounding like Seneca, that endearing old hypocrite, but he did know how to turn a phrase so let’s go ahead and imitate him to say plainly:  Why get angry at parts of life when all of it calls for your rage?  That may be a bit too far – surely we can summon enough optimism not to write off all of life – but the point is that rage arrives when it does, not always when it ought.  And if it did arrive when it ought, it would have to set up house with us.

Noticing all of this, we decided that the better course than raging would be to address ourselves to resisting it.  So we engaged in one of our more reliable strategies for building equanimity.  To wit, the Buddhist injunction to greet rage with the mental recitation:  “We here are struggling.”  Alas, times are tough and we are weak, and our efforts to quell enmity this way produced but pain. For it turns out that, at least for us unenlightened sorts in the DoD, a good thing can go bad if overused.  Like an overtaxed racehorse, we pulled up lame with the massive effort at answering so much of life this way:  “We here are struggling.   We here are struggling.  We here are struggling!  We here are GODDAMN FUCKING STRUGGLING! AUGH!  That’s a more entertaining way of saying something radically disappointing about ourselves:  We find that peaceful strategies for containing rage sometimes just piss us right off.

In light of this, we have had to resort to more elaborate strategies of managing ourselves.  If the Buddha could not help, perhaps a little judicious navel-gazing could.  What, we asked ourselves, is it about us that so tempts us to rage?  Not wanting to get derailed by the easy misanthropic thought that it is the awfulness of other people that so provokes us, we looked elsewhere.  What we found is that, at root, it comes out of a rather optimistic longing: We really want to think well of other people.  We like liking other people.  This is not to say that liking them is easy, but to say that it is nice.  Nicer still is when they make it easy to like them – like by not fucking up, doing awful shit, and being mean.  One way to think about our rage, then, is to see it as hooked in to disappointed hope, a way of saying:  You are making it really hard for me to like you.  And maybe in the worst cases, making it hard not to hate all of humanity.  But if that’s the case at least some of the time, then what we need most is a way to register all of this without resorting to rage.  Enter moral disappointment.

Compared to moral disappointment, rage seems easy.  We’re not entirely sure what all a philosophy of moral disappointment would need to include, but it would have a heady dose of longing:  longing to want to think well of others, longing to have relationships with them stay fruitful and meaningful, longing to take both moral challenges and the people who stumble through them seriously.  It would avidly partition and parcel rather than totalize, seeking to hold out for hard thoughts, that good people can still be good even when they let us down.  It would avidly resist contempt and humiliation in favor of cultivating a capacity to tarry in the knotty mess of human complexity and incompleteness.

We thus find ourselves wishing that somewhere along the way philosophy had swerved into close study of this, into the phenomenology of moral disappointment.  All of the usual stuff that moral philosophers natter on about – moral evaluation, judgment, accountability, responsibility – can obscure this far less abstract human side of it all.  Assuming all those things are in the right place and you did morally mess up, the more experientially salient thing might just be this:  I wanted you to be better than that precisely because I want to like you and want powerfully not to despair of you or of humanity as a whole.  (Not to mention that when we ourselves mess up, it would be nice to have others feel this way about us.) Because of that, what we need is not some way to justify outrage and attach it to you, but instead a rich emotional language of moral disappointment, a way to feel our way through the contradictions and complexities of human relational hopes.  That would be nice.