“Do you want to teach?”
In fact, before I even knew what philosophy was I wanted to teach, at least in some capacity. I didn’t know what I wanted to teach, but I knew that I have always felt comfortable in the role of an educator, leader, and mentor.
“So do you want to become a professor?”
Well, I don’t know.
I only ended up here–in academia, in graduate school pursuing a dual PhD in Philosophy and Women’s Studies–thanks to a unexpected and, yes, lucky turn of events. The tale of my path includes the moment when I decided to not drop out of college after my second year and then when I declared a major in philosophy, not because I loved it so much, but because it was pretty much the only thing I could do and still graduate in four years. There was one justifiable benefit of becoming a philosophy major though. As one of my not-so-warm-and-fuzzy professors at the time told me, at least it would teach me how to read, write, and think, which are helpful skills no matter what you end up doing. So, I stayed in school and studied philosophy.
I could not have anticipated how my life would change so quickly after that.
In the fall of my junior year I took an amazing, mind-opening, totally inspiring class with a brilliant and enthusiastic young professor who has since retained his position as easily one of the most influential people in my life (Shout out goes to David Deane!). And with that class, as I heard about new ideas that I had never even considered before and was introduced to concepts that seemed already familiar because they made sense of my experience but that I couldn’t have articulated on my own, I knew that something big was happening.
I felt the metaphorical path beneath my feet twisting in new directions, leading me, a naive, but excited twenty-year-old, to board planes to Syracuse, NY on my own and attend a conference for no other reason than to just go and listen to some of the people whose work I had started to read, such as Judith Butler and Helene Cixous. Given that this was my first conference and I was so new to everything in the world of philosophy, I didn’t really care enough to heed the advice of my professor to make connections and make myself known (to people who, for example, are now vice-presidents of the American Philosophical Association..and my facebook friends! Ha!). Motivations for networking were out of the question, but I was so moved by Cixous’s keynote paper, “Promised Belief,” and again, so unaware of professional etiquette, that I did follow her around and pester her until I was able to tell her about the amazing experience I had during her reading of her paper and ask about feminine writing. The funny thing was that I was actually disappointed when she responded to my question. She stated, “I am a philosophical poet. Derrida is poetic philosopher. But I never intend to “demonstrate” anything with my writing. I just write to write.” At the time, I didn’t really even know who Derrida was, let alone appreciate how awesome it was that she followed this deflating comment by saying, “That is not my project. But it could be yours!” Despite how incredible it is to me now that one of the most significant figures in feminist theorizing and writing passed a torch on to me (a torch that I guess was never really her’s but perhaps was already my own), at the time I was more intimidated by my young professor’s comment during one of our coffee-fueled conversations when he said, “Of course you will go on to graduate school, and you will write a book, and you will become a professor. And you will be superb.” A BOOK?!? Now that was unfathomable.
But he was right and my path was obviously heading in that direction. I got more involved in philosophy, went to Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) – a week-long summer nerd camp for aspiring young but underrepresented philosophers at Penn State before my senior year. I returned to Colorado with even more passion and energy for doing philosophy in new ways, and I used that newly found perspective and confidence to become more outspoken in the many philosophy classes and graduate seminars that I took during my senior year to complete my bachelor’s degree. And in the course of those two years between nearly dropping out and being admitted to graduate school, I totally fell in love with philosophy. More importantly, though, I developed my own voice.
The unpleasant truth about graduate school, though, is that no matter how much you love what you do–the research, the learning, the intellectual stimulation–and no matter how passionately your pursue it for noble causes like greater justice, equality, and positive social changes, it doesn’t take long for doubt and disillusion to set in. Even (or perhaps especially) those who are most passionately motivated for all the right reasons come to the conclusion that academia is just not for them, that they can’t actually bring about the changes that are most important to them, that theory and practice don’t really intersect in sufficient ways. So people burn out. And a lot of people leave. And at some point, many of those who remain do so only because they’ve already gotten so deep and dedicated so much time that there don’t really seem to be any other viable options.
For the first two years of my graduate career I was constantly tempted by the thought of quitting, especially when the end of the semester rolled in and paper-writing season consumed every hope for sanity and a healthy, balanced life. I would have emotional break downs and cry. I would be in physical pain from typing for so long and cry. I would think about a lifetime ahead of me of doing this all the time for my career–reading things that other people wrote that nobody else ever read or cared about except for a few people like me, who were trapped in the depths of hell forcing themselves to write papers that nobody else would ever read or care about. And then I would sometimes cry some more. Much like when other people find themselves in an unhappy marriage and have a mid-life crisis, for graduate students it is during those times when papers have to be produced and turned in that everything else seems to lose its meaning and you really question your life choices. However, even when my now best friend (whom I met when we both started the philosophy PhD program together) left before Thanksgiving break of our first semester, I decided to wait it out at least a year before making any drastic decisions.
With time my perspective shifted, but only a little. During my second year, most of the graduate students I knew in my own program and in other disciplines had gotten quite comfortably blunt about their dissatisfaction of being in graduate school. My own discomfort manifested itself in explicit questions that I directed to my advisors, professors, academic superiors, and even “philosophical role models.” I asked many of them, “Do you have any regrets?,” meaning, would they have gone a different route in life if they could do it over again. Some actually had the nerve to forsake any kind of consolation for why I would ask such a question and said “Yes.” Others gave a very qualified “No.” Only one person could say, “Absolutely not. I love what I do.” (This person was Ladelle McWhorter, another of the most influential philosophers in my life, and definitely one of the handful of people who have encouraged me in ways that have actually kept me in philosophy. I am hugely grateful for her, and my style and approach to philosophy are significantly indebted to her example.)
Despite the lack of overly-encouraging hindsight from my superiors, it was at the end of my second year when I was finally able to come to my own decision about whether or not I would stay in graduate school and finish my doctorate degree. And the decision was made because during my fourth semester I was able to teach my very own classes for the first time. I was able to craft my own syllabus, and I taught it to two classes of about 65 students. And I loved it. It wasn’t easy, especially since I was taking four graduate classes of my own, but I did it. As part of all of the experiences that we had in those rooms together, I learned an awful lot. I learned about philosophy. I learned about my students. I learned about myself, as a person and as an educator. By the end of it, I was very aware of how cool it was to be able to say that at the age of 23 I was actually able to do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. I was getting to teach material that I wanted to teach, how I wanted to teach it, and we were all learning as a result of that. Given that finishing my degree would mean that I would continue teaching for at least three more years, I had come to better appreciate that I was in a pretty decent situation. Not only do I get to do what I have wanted to do for so long even before I finish my twenties, but at the end of it, I will also have a couple of degrees. Sweet deal. So I stayed in it.
That justification worked out well throughout my third year of graduate school. I was able to put the pressure and anxiety aside about “what I would do” with a PhD in philosophy, not worry so much about working hard to look super impressive for my impending run on the job-market gauntlet, and focus more on simply doing what I love to do. It’s worked out well. So far I’m one of only two people in my cohort to actually be on track in terms of our program’s timeline. I even heard through the grapevine that when a somewhat skeptical, and very befuddled, professor in the department questioned how it was possible for me to be getting through the program as I am, he surmised for others that it was because I said, “Screw the expectations of everyone else! I’m doing it my way! Why? Because I want to.” In a sense, he’s right. But moreover, it’s not that I am doing my work as I am just to be a rebel, but rather because I actually enjoy and love the work more when I do it in my own way. In fact, I think it is the only way for me to be able to produce or teach anything at all.
But now, as I prepare to enter my fourth year (and yeah…..I am still working on putting together my dissertation prospectus), I have entered a new stage in my graduate career, one that makes evident that I am steadily approaching the end of this journey. I still have a couple more years to go, but there’s really only one more thing to do. Write the dissertation. And then what? Well, I guess go on the job market and try to get a one of those very rare, tenure-track jobs.
But for all the same reasons that I worried during those first two years about what it means to live a life in academia, I have some reservations about my future and to where this current path is leading. Is that all that is available for someone who has reached the end of formal training in reading, writing, and thinking? I realize that all of the people around me who have doctorate degrees in philosophy are professors, but aren’t there people who have also earned their degrees and gone on to do other things? What do they do? What other options are out there? Without a very clear or bountiful set of answers to these questions, I have spent a good amount of time imagining what other things I could do with my life after graduate school. This morning (though there was nothing particularly unique about this morning, it just came up in conversation over breakfast) I allowed myself to say a couple of things that I have always tried hard to recognize and appreciate:
I love to teach and I want to keep teaching. But I don’t know if that has to happen in a university, or if I really want to deal with all of the other (less pleasant stuff) that comes with that kind of job. If I could do absolutely anything, I think I would really love to teach philosophy in a more community-based setting and within a greater demographic range. Sure, I like college students. And it would be fun to go with a older-than-college-kids crowd and do philosophy with grown adults, but my real passion for philosophy compels me to go the other direction–to work with younger kids. Like kid kids, middle schoolers, and high school kids. Those years are some of the most formative times that I can remember, when your peers are more influential than your parents, and they can also be some of the most difficult of times. Especially for those who are going through a lot at those ages, who have to deal with a lot of “grown up” issues and face “real life” experiences but probably lack sufficient tools to help them make sense of their experiences, I think that philosophy can be a very rich resource for those tools.
The greatest value for me in practicing philosophy has been found in the confidence, strength, and empowerment that it has cultivated within me. As I have gained new insights on how to understand myself, others, and the world around me, I have also developed a voice that has enabled me to articulate my thoughts and describe my experiences. So I would love to teach philosophy in a way that encourages the development of minds, bodies, and voices of those who need to know, and embody, their own sense of strength, value, and significance. I want to help cultivate the skills that have so drastically shaped me in those whose voices need to be heard.
In short, practicing philosophy has literally changed my life. And I have changed as a result of that. Thanks to the texts written by innumerable others before me, and the guidance, conversations, and examples from my professors and peers around me, I have become who I am today, and I continue to grow and change. Philosophy has the capacity to make significant changes and powerful transformations. In those moments when I begin to question the importance of doing philosophy, I only have to remember that I am a testament to the powerful effect that philosophical practice can have on our lives and how we live them.
So when I finish my degree, yeah, I want to use it to teach.
On a side note about how people accidentally get into philosophy and what it’s about for some contemporary intellectuals, here’s the title sequence to a film by Phillip McReynolds (Penn State).
AND. I really like this part of the film. If you’re into it, go watch other clips from his film.