Friday, June 29, 2007

trouble with priorities and values
plus: I wake up with an argument in my head

Very late last night I suffered a sadly typical (for me) crisis of self-confidence, particularly, as always, related to what I do with my life. It goes like this: I am muddling through a teaching "career" at Cow State Santa Claus (as I call it, not to insult it but to play with the name of the institution). I am bemused to find that I've been teaching there nine years now. It's what brought me out to California, where I had no intention nor desire to live, especially not in the Central Valley. Since I started here, in my "temporary" position as what my campus alone among CSUs refers to as a "Visiting Lecturer" (it keeps getting ironicer and ironicer, don't it?), I've had the kind of teaching workload that makes any serious attempt at writing scholarly articles and books impossible except during summer. Nevertheless, I've been able for most of that nine years to keep my toe in a couple different academic philosophy circles, and I've had a couple ongoing philosophical/phenomenological research projects. None of that academic activity is sufficient, given the way the tenure-track job market in philosophy works, to put me in a position to challenge for one. In addition, I received my Ph.D. in philosophy in 1996, and the longer one is past the Ph.D. freshness date, the less attractive one is as a starting-level tenure-track professor. At least, that's what I believe, firmly, having been in academia and in the market.

Meanwhile, as has been documented in this weird public online journal, I've been putting a lot of energy into playing guitar, or rather, guitars. I've only picked up the guitar again a few years ago, and it's been unspeakably satisfying, especially learning the 12-string. I've written a handful of tunes, some of which I think are really good. Lauren has been turning them into songs, and it's been awfully damned cool recording our own stuff and giving friends copies of cds we've put together, even packaging them like albums. It's a small-scale way of living out a fantasy of being a musician (or, to use a term I hate for no good reason, a "recording artist").

Obviously, the more time I spend playing the guitar, writing tunes, recording them, futzing with the wacky German software that came with our cheesy USB-port pre-amp, the less time I'm spending on philosophical pursuits, and this summer I've spent only a very little time on those. The crisis of the night was over this. When I'm playing, I have the gnawing feeling I ought to be working on research and writing; when I'm doing research and writing, my mind often drifts back into music and the feeling I ought to be playing more. The result is that I've been feeling like I'm wasting my time, no matter what I'm doing, and that the summer (now already 4 weeks old) is drifting past. I should, I tell myself, stop all this nonsense and do something to pursue a goal.

It could be understood as a dilemma, a disjunct between two increasingly unlikely dream jobs. (This is probably a false dilemma, which should help me feel better, but doesn't.)

To get out of the Valley, away from Cow State Santa Claus, I'd have to ratchet up the academic work by leaps and bounds. Having been both in the philosophy job market and in academia, there are a lot of things I'd rather do, of which I'll provide a brief sample, for context: cut off bits of my fingertips while chopping onions; stab myself in the knee repeatedly with a dull Ticonderoga (Lauren: I've done that! Me: I think most people have); drop my 1928 Underwood No. 5 typewriter (which weighs about 25 punds) on my left foot, then drop my 1935 Royal "H" model typewriter (which weighs about 30 pounds) on my left foot.

And of course, there's simply no way on earth I'd be willing to do what it would take to make a living as a musician. I always suffer doubts I could be good enough (though that's probably silly, since a lot of people who do make a living as musicians aren't as good), but I know myself, my character.

In a way (and here's one very very unhelpful way in which this is a false dilemma), in both cases it's a question of my unwillingness to accept or deal in bullshit. Academia, academic job seeking especially, is absolutely overwhelmed by bullshit, coming from every imaginable direction (I've had the privilege of seeing it all on our fair campus - faculty making bullshit decisions, imposing bullshit criteria, giving bullshit evaluations; administrators making other bullshit decisions, making bullshit rationalizations for policies; higher administration giving bullshit explanations for why there aren't more tenure-track positions in the first place). The world of professional musicianeering I know much less about, but the chances of an obscure, fair guitarist and a very good singer who write folk-rock sorts of songs with often extremely bizarre chord changes making it, whatever that means, or even getting gigs, are absurdly remote. And I don't think I want to play "Stuck in the Middle With You" every night for a half-room-full of semi-sober geezers who sing the wrong words along to the chorus for the rest of my natural life.

We talked about this last night. Lauren assured me, as she always has, that I'm worthwhile as a human being, that I'm a good teacher, that my philosophical projects are valid, that I'm a good guitarist. This serves to remind me that we make a good life together, and that should be the only important consideration. If we can make a good life together when I'm stuck in the tenuous track of academia, when we're living in the Central Valley (motto: A Great Place To Leave; alternate motto: Not A Nice Place To Visit, But You Wouldn't Want To Live There), then what more could we realistically hope for? Ah, there's the rub: unrealistic hope. My false dilemma is predicated on being discontent with life, and feeling that it can't go on like this, that a change is necessary. In fact, I don't have to choose between my so-called career and my so-called guitar playing. So it seems at least on a bright midmorning in late June on a day that won't be too hot and I don't imagine I'll have too much bullshit coming my way.

Prepared as I always am for that eventuality, however, I woke up with an argument in my head. The argument concerns an ongoing discussion of the kind of work "temporary" faculty should have. There is a view, which I consider revolting, that lecturers are hired only to teach, and that therefore the only kind of work for which we should be recognized is teaching. In other words, although we may go out on our own and do research, publish stuff, go to conferences, serve on university committees, and so on, none of that really matters, because we're paid to teach. One of my first conscious thoughts this morning was that this notion is based on a preposterous concept of the division of labor in education. According to this absurdity, there is a tier of specialized "research" universities, where faculty are primarily responsible for developing what is often called "new knowledge," and then there are secondary and tertiary tiers where this knowledge is disseminated. This makes no sense whatsoever. Obviously, if I'm going to "disseminate" knowledge, that is, to teach, I have to develop two "new" knowledges: my own, and my students'. I have to know what I teach, after all, and if I'm teaching it, as a result of my teaching it, my students ought to know it too.

But what I really hit upon is how this view of the situation depends on an unexamined commodity form of knowledge. Knowledge, on this view, is something produced in a particular place by particular people, then sold, in little modular chunks, to be distributed down the line. On this model, I work in knowledge retail (discount). I don't know what "new knowledge" would mean otherwise. It's epistemologically bizarre, to say the least. (Now, I wonder, how can I parlay this kind of insight into an interesting topic of inquiry in the Theory of Knowledge course I'm slated to teach this fall?)

1 comment:

ReA said...

Hey Dr. Chris - don't draw a line between creating music and philosophy. they can be one and the same. the experience of music that you have is in itself a way of being.. (granted it will not increase your ability to move forward in the formal philosophy realm but is that really important?)