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.

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