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” in the title to ever be accepted to the main program at the APA. That’s pretty sweet to think about. (I also am please that some of that money just went toward a new winter coat Thanks, APA!)
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 for 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 am not a professional blogger (or maybe just not yet), 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 patience 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!
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.