Monday, January 28, 2013

a portrait of the artist as a young would-be professor

In the texts collected as Ethics, Foucault discusses the significance of writing as a kind of ascetic practice of self-conduct. He draws from Seneca's letters the notion that writing for oneself and to others establishes a discourse that closely monitors and observes oneself, the ultimate aim of which is "bringing into congruence the gaze of the other and that gaze which one aims at oneself when one measures one's everyday actions according to the rules of a technique of living" (Ethics, 221). This is turning out to be significant for understanding the subjection/subjectivization of college faculty.

I did not keep a record of my subjection as a future professor. It didn't occur to me to do so. What I want to do is try to reconstruct from memory what took place, what I did, and what I observed, that led to me becoming that future professor that I was from some point during graduate school through around 2002. Some of the factors are obvious, some are subtle. To give this some focus, I'll limit my scope to a handful of kinds of events, experiences, and actions: what happened in classes, what happened in scholarly confines (libraries, offices, writing labs, etc.), what happened at academic conferences, and what happened on the "job market."

In strongly invite comment from anyone who has gone through similar academic or other forms of subjection/subjectivization (training and apprenticeship, you might say, to eliminate Foucault's jargon).

What happened in classes

Many of our classes were seminars, or involved giving seminar presentations. Obviously, this puts the student in a quasi-teaching role, and many of us took it upon ourselves to do a lot of work, including research, in order to put together creditable presentations. We usually took the lectern to present them. It was rather like teaching a class, and rather like presenting at a conference. The discipline of the seminar presentation is a self-directing, prompt, and to-the-point kind of reading, research, and writing.

All of our classes involved evaluation and judgment by professors. In my own experience, and based on what I recall hearing from others, those judgments sometimes had more than a little to do with the particular biases of the professors themselves. It was not good form to write contrary to a professor's known proclivities, and you had to be extremely good to get away with it. Not so subtly, this is a discipline of adherence to an established mode of thought and writing. One could test the limits of this establishment, and by doing so learn where they were and the consequences for exceeding them.

This is good preparation for the conference circuit and publication biz.

What happened in scholarly confines

I haunted the phenomenology center at Duquesne, and sometimes the big library at University of Pittsburgh. In the phenomenology center it was common to run into another grad student, although it was probably more common to run into me, and the theme of conversation was always what we were researching. Areas of expertise and interest, and particular ways of proceeding and lines of argument, came to define individuals in the program (that and the nicknames we assigned to one another). Having an angle or a pet philosophical approach was a safe way to distinguish oneself, and, it wasn't hard to notice, a way to have something to say, no matter what topic came up in class. At times, this was incredibly annoying, as when an obsessed fellow student brought up Spinoza in every class, in ways that were generally contorted almost beyond recognition, because he was a true believer in Spinoza's philosophy. The primary lessons we learned from each other in these contexts were to be productive and assertive. The more aggressive of us seemed to establish a standard of behavior against which the rest of us measured ourselves.

What happened at conferences

It's hard to know where to begin with this one, there were so many things to learn from going to conferences. A quick list: there is a pecking order and a celebrity system in academic philosophy, and the big shots are to be revered; conference presentations are always potential fights, and not only should you prepare armor against a possible attack (that is, have the research and textual support for your claims at your fingertips, put up ego defenses, and close off possible lines of objection), you should when possible be the aggressor; established truths about philosophers or philosophical ideas can only be safely questioned after you've made your own name; expect no quarter.

The second conference presentation I ever made was at 8:30 in the morning. About one-third of the conference participants showed up. My paper made a firm suggestion regarding a separation between philosophy and political action that the few who attended disagreed with, with every gesture they could muster. (It's an amazing thing to see someone disagree with you by posture.) In questions afterwards, I was lambasted. No one said my paper was badly written, poorly argued, or based on falsehood or inaccurate interpretations. They could not accept my conclusion.

I presented a paper a few years later, to the same society. I was taken to task again, this time for my interpretation, my argument, my textual support, my research, and my conclusion. By then I had learned to parry and counter, and I concluded the session by telling the audience that I understood what they were all arguing contrary to my point, but that they were all wrong.

What happened on the "job market"

Tenure-track jobs are advertised mainly in the fall semester for appointments to begin the following fall, because hiring tenure-track faculty takes forever. The American Philosophical Association holds their big meeting, during which a lot of interviews take place, from December 27-30 every year, in a large hotel in a large Eastern city. This maximizes the inconvenience and expense for everyone involved, and this disproportionately affects the job candidates, most of whom are very poor and can't really afford the trip. It is the main avenue to get access to tenure-track jobs, and job candidates attend the APA meeting whether or not they have a pre-arranged interview, because there is a slim chance of getting one on-site.

When I was attending, there were routinely 1000 job candidates in attendance, for roughly 200 jobs. (Note that this does not take into account how many applicants for those 200 jobs didn't come to the APA meeting.) Every candidate is provided a folder through which to communicate with potential employers. You fill out forms requesting on-site interviews for the handful of new openings that appear at the meeting, or requesting interviews from institutions that haven't yet sent you a rejection letter, and wait for responses. Candidates gather around the rooms containing the folders and discuss prospects, interviews, and so forth. There is a gloom of desperation enveloping the place and covering everyone's cheap suits.

This is a necessary rite of passage -- everyone tells you so. It is miserable, of course, but the constant message is that it is temporary. The brutality of some interviewers, the dehumanization of the application and candidacy process, the boredom waiting for an almost inevitable rejection, and the increasing poverty, are all necessary.

There is, meanwhile, a series of conferences taking place. It is very difficult to concentrate on anything happening at those conferences if you are a job candidate, but it can be distracting.

Friday, January 25, 2013

ethics and ethical subjects

In short, for an action to be “moral,” it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply “self-awareness” but self-formation as an “ethical subject,” a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. (Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, p. 28)

These lines crystallized the paper on faculty ethical responsibilities in the era of precariousness. I took the 4700 words I had yesterday, cut about 600, rearranged everything in the last 7 pages after inserting this quotation and some discussion of Foucault's ethics, wrote an additional 800 words, then cut 400 more. So, after 5 hours of work on this thing today, I've now got 4400 words. Sometimes it feels like I'm writing backwards.

Here's a weird thought: if Foucault were at all committed to Enlightenment notions of Reason, one could take this "ethical subject" stuff to mean something closely approximating Kohlberg's rational stage of moral development -- the one he found so little evidence anybody ever actually achieved. After all, Foucault is suggesting that ethics is a matter of deliberately, and in everyday practice, forming oneself as a certain kind of moral subject, and not rule-following.

(By the way, music cue: Queen, "I Want to Break Free.")

In the paper I argue that tenuous-track faculty can do, and do, exactly this, through the very active groups that form the nucleus of the contingent faculty movement in North America: COCAL and New Faculty Majority being two of the most prominent. I do not argue, but I think I could, that many or most tenure-track faculty typically do not engage in the work of ethics. This makes sense to me, because if your identity is in line with the prevailing regime of power, your identity is not problematic. By this, I think I mean something very insulting like white male professors aren't good candidates to be ethical faculty. And I'm okay with that, especially since I'm not a professor.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

ethics and tenuous-track faculty

One problem I have with writing about the experience of contingent academic labor is that I seem unable to avoid writing about my own experience, and I am concerned that what I write may seem to be special pleading, or worse, a call for pity. From my own experience, I can attest to the general degraded working conditions and forms of humiliation that tenuous faculty face on a daily basis (as compared with most tenure-track faculty, that is). What I need is some way to make a claim to knowledge about this experience, that is not merely subjective.

I also have a problem writing about Foucault's ethics as a way of understanding the situation of tenuous-track faculty. I have what I think is a very strong argument to demonstrate that official statements of faculty ethics like AAUP's Statement on Professional Ethics can't apply to most faculty (it addresses "professors," after all, and not anybody with any other title). That opens the issue of what ethics could mean for tenuous faculty, and that's what leads me to Foucault's notion of ethics as freedom, the conduct of oneself, and one's own subjectivization: tenuous-track faculty have to make shift for themselves, both practically and ethically, because of their bizarre institutional status.

Foucault can't provide any prescription for how tenuous-track faculty (or anybody else, for that matter) ought to conduct oneself, because that would close the door to the very freedom of self-conduct. So, what can I say, in an affirmative voice, about tenuous faculty ethics?

It seems to me a basic step in Foucauldian ethics is to acknowledge that freedom, to acknowledge our subjection and our subjectivization -- to acknowledge that regimes of power make determinations of shapes of life and ways of acting morally, but that we can and do resist these regimes. The prevailing regime of academic work links ethical responsibility to the ideology of the professoriate so eloquently stated by the AAUP, and is very differentially deployed by administration through compliance apparatus. These apparatus affect tenure-track and tenuous-track faculty, as I said, very differently. (I once attended a brief meeting regarding a complaint by a student of sexual harassment against a lecturer. He was offered the choice to resign, and the university would not tell prospective employers why he resigned unless they asked; or fight the charge, and the university would fire him and offer the information to all prospective employers whether they asked or not. During that same semester, a tenured faculty member was similarly accused of sexual harassment, and was required to complete an online sexual harassment training.)

It occurred to me that the first problem is addressed by dealing with the second problem. What I can say about the ethical conduct of self by tenuous-track faculty is that the contingent faculty movement in North America has developed a large counter-discourse about our experience, expertise, roles in our institutions, and the missions of the institutions themselves. This counter-discourse is both the basis upon which I can make not-merely-subjective claims to know the situation of tenuous faculty, and also an initial step of conduct of self. In a way, it is the kind of ascetic writing Foucault calls for, as well.

My new problem is finding a way to write this in less than about 5000 words (right now I'm at 4000, and haven't quite put the argument together like I have here), for a conference presentation that should be around 3000 words.

Warning to Foucauldian friends of mine: I'm going to be bugging you with this.

Oh, and the other thing that came up today is that I could write this entire thing a different way by interrogating the concept of academic freedom.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

where the hell have I been?

I might explain where I've been, one day.

I'm working on a paper on the constitution of faculty subjectivities and faculty ethical responsibilities. It's based on two aspects of the philosophy of Michel Foucault.

From the earlier work on regimes of power and panopticism, particularly from Discipline and Punish, I'm writing about the formation of faculty subjectivities, focusing on how faculty work defines what one is and what one can do. Like a prison, a school, or the military, the institution in which one works deploys technologies of power to constitute members as "docile bodies" that are ultimately predictable, controllable, and interchangeable.

I'm sketching out the different kinds of subjectivities, the different kinds of docile bodies, that higher ed institutions form as "professors" and as that larger group of faculty who have no proper name ("adjuncts," "lecturers," "contingents," etc.), whom I prefer to call tenuous-track faculty. Some of the differences are obvious, but what I'm hoping to get at beyond the obvious is the way that professors, who are presumed to have great privilege, are also docile. (As I've argued in this space before, I often think professors are less free than tenuous-track faculty.)

That's all setting up a brief version of the argument that the official statements of the ethics of faculty, notably the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics, do not meaningfully apply to the majority of faculty -- an argument I've made before. If I'm right (and I am), then what does ethics mean for tenuous faculty?

To respond, I turn to Foucault's work on ethics, which begins from the premise that ethics is about determining who one is, and engaging in continuous self-invention. Ultimately, I'm going to argue that resistance, self-invention, and critique are the key ethical tasks for tenuous faculty, and the only way tenuous faculty can take responsibility for their academic work -- especially given that the institutions where we work systematically deny us other ways of taking responsibility.

More broadly, this addresses a very interesting argument made by ethics bigshot Michael Davis in the last chapter of Engineering Ethics, that overly bureaucratized professional work denies engineers the possibility of taking responsibility for their work. Intriguing claim, and, in as much as ethical responsibility could be defined strictly in terms of the ideology of the profession, precisely correct. But Davis begs the question, and, if I'm right (and I am), Foucault's work on ethics answers it. There are more things in heaven and earth, Mikey.