March 8, 2015

Beyond the City

If we think of academia as a big city, then for many years I lived near the center of the city. During that time I often loved the city. But at other times I also felt stifled in the city. I longed to break free. Then four years ago I decided to do it, and started my journey out of the city. At first I thought just because I was no longer an academic I was out of the city. But this wasn't the case. I was moving away from the center of the city, on my way out of it. But for the past couple of years I have still been within the broader realm of the city, just now on its outskirts, which is the philosophy blogosphere.

And for the past six months I have had this blog, which has been mainly addressed to the philosophy profession. Most of my traffic has probably been academic philosophers who got to my blog through other philosophy blogs. So in these past months I have been like a person who got on a soap-box at the edge of the city talking about some of the problems with the city. I have had some great conversations with some people who, for various reasons, are themselves on, or feel as if they are on, the outskirts of the city. A few times a lot of people came to listen to me, mainly because I was saying what seemed to be personal things about some people at the center of the city. But as I stopped saying such things, the crowd dwindled again as they went back to their busy lives within the city.

As I realize that while writing this blog I am on the outskirts of the city, and so within a space which is still oriented towards the city, I feel again the pull to explore new lands beyond the city. The pull which started my movement out of the city four years ago. Out there is where my future, and this has been a stop along the way.

Why has it been so hard for me to leave the city? Why have I not gotten beyond the outskirts even in these past few years? I realize now it is partly because of my anxiety as an immigrant. I took shelter in the city because I was afraid of the wars happening outside the city: the fighting, the distrust, the anger of race relations, religion and reason, the clash of cultures. The city seemed to be a safe haven from such fighting, and that was its initial and greatest appeal to me. But now the fighting has entered the city itself, and it is no longer a safe haven. The fighting outside the city is starting to happen inside the city, and it will happen until it will be the same fighting inside and outside the city. That was what I have been trying to say from my soap-box on the outskirts of the city: Behold, those within the city, you are no longer immune, the fighting has entered the city gates and no one will be spared; clinging to the illusion of peace will only make it more painful when the illusion breaks, as it will for certain at some point in the coming future. Of course, I don't have to say this, as it is already evident to many within the city. I said it nonetheless for myself, so that I could hear it.

We live at a time when our lands are ravaged by internal war. Even the city which seemed immune is getting more and more caught up in that fighting. Can peace be found in such a time? Where can it be found? Each person has to find the peace within themselves, which can contribute to the peace outside. I venture beyond the city and its outskirts as I follow the voice of peace as it speaks to me.

March 7, 2015

What is a Liberal Arts College?

When I started at Bryn Mawr I was excited to be a professor at a liberal arts college. I loved the ideal of an education which focuses on the overall growth of the student, and I was eager to be part of structures which enabled that for students. As an undergrad at Cornell I got a liberal arts education, as it is commonly called, but the experience of the small, liberal arts college was foreign to me.

At Bryn Mawr I came to know students who chose to come there instead of going to a big university, either public or private. These students came with a contrast in mind between a liberal arts college and a professionalized university. Call this the contrast. As with any school, some students at Bryn Mawr seemed to find themselves there rather than actively haven chosen to be there. But other students seemed to thrive and revel in the fact that they were making a choice by coming to a college like Bryn Mawr, where they hoped that free of any professional training they could explore whatever they wanted and grow as human beings. As a professor, I was like these students. I had a choice to see if I wanted to teach at a university, and I chose the Bryn Mawr experience instead. I too, like the students, was driven by the sense of the contrast. I hoped the contrast was true, and that being at Bryn Mawr would offer me a different way of being an academic than I had seen at Cornell and Harvard.

The contrast was played up by administrators at Bryn Mawr. It was an easy thing to fall back on to sell the college. The reason to choose Bryn Mawr was encapsulated by two messages. First, a liberal arts college might be better for you than a university, and second, as a woman, being at a woman's college might be better for you than a co-ed school. I wasn't sure I believed the latter. Or, at any rate, I wasn't sure what to think about that. I thought it was good that students had the choice to go to a women's college. But naturally for myself it was the first message which moved me: yes, I thought to myself, universities are professionalized spaces, where one is dictated to by the professional norms, whereas at a liberal arts college one can be more free of that. I was in the grip of the contrast, and hoped it was true.

March 5, 2015


What I enjoyed the most being a professor was teaching. Being in the classroom, engaging with the students, pursuing collaboratively ideas and lines of argument, seeing the students discover their voices and doing what I could to help with that.

What I enjoyed the least about being a professor was grading. Even more than the pressure to publish. To not put too fine a point on it, but I hated grading. When I had a stack of papers to grade, I would go to the local Starbucks and some other cafe, fill myself with caffeine and sugar, and plow through the essays. 15-20 minutes per 5 page essay. If I had a stack of 20 essays, that's five to six hours. And more if I tried to not give the same set of hackneyed comments on paper after paper.

I was lucky to be at a small liberal arts colleges, where, compared to big universities, I didn't have that many papers to grade. I taught five courses a year. Two intro courses, with about 25 students in each. A couple of mid-level courses, with anywhere from 10-25 students in them. And a seminar with 6-12 students. So maybe a 100-125 students a year. Not bad. A semester is 13 weeks, and I had roughly 4-5 papers in each class. Since I wanted students to have the opportunity to write a fair bit, they had essays due every three weeks or so. Teaching 2 or 3 classes a semester, that ends up meaning grading every week or every other week. There were no teaching assistants, and so the grading was up to me.

However, what I disliked the most about grading wasn't the time, or reading similar essays over and over again. My current job is a bit repetitive, and I don't mind it. I can handle repetitive work; doing the same thing over and over again. No, what bothered me about the grading was the question which nagged me at the back of my mind every time I picked up an essay to grade: Am I being unfair in the criteria I am using to grade this paper? There are three aspects to this worry. A) What criteria am I using to grade? B) What justifies the criteria? And C) Can that criteria really be applied neutrally to all the students in the class?

March 4, 2015

Job Market

I went on the job market in the academic year 2007-08. If I am honest with myself, I realize I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to continue in academic philosophy. I was already not quite identifying with my dissertation, even though (as I note here) I believed in what I was writing. And I wasn't sure what academic philosophy was exactly, what it could be, and how I fit into it. The idea that for a year I would have to ignore such questions, and boil down my dissertation into bit sized chunks of 5 minute spiels, writing sample, job talk and so on was unappealing. I wasn't against the professionalization of the job process, since it seemed that was the only way to counteract the institutional biases in the discipline. But as someone who was already feeling unsure about my place and future in academic philosophy, I experienced the need to put a professional stamp on my identity as forcing me to identify with practices which I wasn't sure I wanted to identify with. I imagine there can be a way to enjoy the experience more, though at that time I didn't find it. To some extent my very ambivalence about getting a job protected me from the natural insecurity and self-doubt the job market can foster.

The eastern APA was in DC that year. I went down from Cambridge with 7 or 8 interviews. In a way I find bizarre now, back then I used to even resist tucking in my shirt as that seemed to be too professional or being part of the system. So wearing a suit seemed not an option to me. I got my best pant and dress shirt, put on a new sweater on top, dusted off some dress shoes I had bought for my brother's wedding and that was my uniform. I don't say this with pride. To the contrary, at least for myself, I see it as I was so generally confused, and seemed to put stock in irrelevant things so much, treating this minor thing as caving in and that minor thing as standing my ground, that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I was not happy, but it cannot all be put on the job market. My own ambivalence was a part of the cause.

March 1, 2015

Academic Writing

When I was in academia I often didn't identify with what I wrote. I experienced my writings as modes of expression in which I was trapped, and within which I couldn't express my deeper feelings about academia. I see now this was because some of what I wanted to express back then were the kind of things I have been saying on this blog, and the essay writing I was learning to become a professional philosopher was not making possible the kind of sharing which this blog enabled for me. This doesn't mean I didn't really believe what I wrote in those academic essays. Only, until I could express myself about what I felt in academia, I couldn't embrace my own academic writing as speaking for me.

Recently I found the main essays I wrote as an academic. My dissertation and other essays. Things I didn't really try to publish or to present at conferences. This blog seems as good a place as any for to me put them. To remind myself that even with all the other stuff I have been talking about on this blog, I was also a normal academic, or one who was trying to learn and develop his views. These are essays I have written in the past decade, and so naturally I don't agree with everything in them. But they do capture the general framework of my beliefs, and it is helpful to realize that yes, this is roughly what I believe.

A few things I wrote as a graduate student:
* Action Without Inner Representations: An essay I presented at the dissertation workshop at Harvard, though this essay was not part of my thesis. At the time I was reading parts of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, and I tried to connect for myself that reading with my education.
* Toward a Direct Realism of Communication: This was an essay I co-authored with my brother Gautam Vallabha, who was at the time a post-doc in psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He was in psychology and I was in philosophy, and to our mutual surprise it turned out both of us were having similar views oriented towards, broadly speaking, embodied cognition. This essay was an attempt to bring together issues in speech perception, which was the focus of his work, with issues in ordinary language philosophy and phenomenology, which was the focus of my work. Working on this essay was one of the highlights of my time in academia, and one of the few times there was a kind of bridge between my school and my home life. We tried to publish the essay in a few places, but it didn't work out, and we got too busy with other things. Gautam left academia a few years before me and he currently works as a computer scientist, though his experience of the transition might be different from mine. There are of course many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* Dewey's Neutral Monism: This was an essay I co-authored with my then friend, and now wife, Zoe. She was an undergraduate taking Peter Godfrey-Smith's class on Pragmatism, which I was auditing as a graduate student, and we got interested by something Godfrey-Smith said in class about Dewey, and the essay was our attempt to articulate what we found exciting. What we attribute in the essay to Godfrey-Smith might not capture what he believes, and to see what he thinks you should look at his work on Dewey. Zoe and I didn't think of this as something for publication, as much as something to get some of our ideas down on paper. Zoe decided not to pursue academic philosophy, though her experiences as a philosophy student, and her reasons for making this decision, might not be the same as mine. Again, there are many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* On Dreyfus and Kelly on Dennett: This was an email I wrote to Sean Kelly about the essay he co-authored with Hubert Dreyfus on Dennett's view of heterophenomenology. Normally when I tried to engage with philosophers about their views I would become unnerved in some way about the fact of the interaction. I see now this was because unable to express my background concerns about the profession, I felt ungrounded while engaging in the ordinary business of philosophy. This letter is one of the times when I was free of such worries, and was able to engage just with the ideas.
My dissertation:
* Agency and the Mind-Body Problem: The thesis consisted of four essays. The first was on Chalmers' zombie argument for dualism, in which I argue against the conceivability of a zombie world. The second is on David Lewis' argument for functionalism, which I argue misdescribes folk psychology. The third and fourth essays argue against Kantian views of action as defended by John McDowell and Christine Korsgaard.
Some things I wrote while I was at Bryn Mawr:
* The Abilities Theory of Belief: I wrote this in the Fall of 2010, and sent it to a few journals as part of my reapplication process mid-way through my time till tenure review. In it I argue that beliefs are abilities, which are different from behavior or dispositions to behave.
* Reason, Faith and Self-Transformation: A grant proposal I wrote in Fall 2010, again as part of my reapplication process. It is the beginning of my connecting issues in the philosophy of mind to topics in the philosophy of religion, multiculturalism and broader issues of secularism.
* The Unity of Religions: An unfinished essay. In it I try to say what it means to say all religions have a essential unity, and why that is right.
* Truth and Power in Education: An essay for an group online blog and magazine at Bryn Mawr, Serendip, it is also part of The Breaking Project, a collection of essays edited by Alice Lesnick. I wrote the essay as I was trying to make sense of some of what I felt didn't work in my education, and what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.
* Rorty, Non-Foundationalism and Story-telling: A blog exchange I had with biologist Paul Grobstein on Rorty, relativism and academia. Paul, who passed away in 2011, was a great influence on me, and a wonderful inspiration for me, while I was at Bryn Mawr.
* The Work of Being a Person: This is not something I wrote, but it is a student's notes of a  guest discussion I led in Spring 2010 in a literature course on the James Family taught by Anne Dalke. The discussion was based on our reading of William James' essay "The Types of Philosophical Thinking". In part the discussion considers the issue of whether the kind of philosophy James espoused could be professionalized or taught in a classroom.