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.

After the APA, early in the new year, I got phone calls from four places for on campus interviews: 2 state schools (University of Washington, Seattle and University of California, Irvine), and 2 liberal arts colleges (Carleton and Bryn Mawr). Irvine was scheduled as my last on campus interview, and before I went there I got an offer from Bryn Mawr, which I decided to accept. The idea of a liberal arts college was too appealing. I was hopeful that a change of scene from the type of research university within which I was educated would open a new path for me in academia. By the time I accepted the Bryn Mawr job, I didn't get the Carlton position, and was in the running for the U. of Washington position. The then chair of the Washington department asked me to hold off on accepting the Bryn Mawr job while they interviewed their last candidate. But I was eager to be at a liberal arts college and I made my decision.

Later in the day after I took myself out of the running for the Washington job, I got an email from an eminent epistemologist in that department. He didn't know I wasn't interested in the position anymore. He emailed saying that he had written up some thoughts about my job talk, and that he had written it in the form of a journal review, and he was sending to me in case I was interested. My job talk at Washington was based on a chapter of my dissertation, in which I argue that Lewis' argument for functionalism misdescribes folk psychology. In his comments, the epistemologist suggested there was zero value in my work as a philosopher, and that my argument against functionalism needn't be taken seriously because it was clear that I didn't understand functionalism as a view. He went on to say that that the points I made were either trivially true, in which they were not of interest, or insofar as they aimed to be non-trivial, they were patently false or could easily be shown to be confused. Then he processed to lay out all of my confusions, including my inaptness, in four or five pages. Maybe he was a little nicer than I am remembering (though I doubt it), but given the context within which he sent the email, it seemed like his intention was to tear me down.
The unstated message of the email was clear: he thought I didn't deserve the position, even if some of his colleagues might have liked me and might argue to hire me. Something either in my talk or general philosophical stance rubbed him the wrong way, and he was intent on letting me know about it. I would like to say I was surprised when I got the email. But I wasn't. When I gave my job talk this same epistemologist took about a third or more of the question session, pressing the same points over and over, unwilling to yield his time to others because he was certain that no one else would make points more interesting than his. Then in the reception after the talk he stood amongst the grad students surrounding him and glared at me, as if to make clear that in his eyes, this territory belonged to him, that he was the head honcho, and the most well known member of this department, and that he wasn't going to let some up and comer be critical of the tradition and work he believed in, that no doubt as he saw it, he had helped to construct. The sense of criticalness was so palpable, bordering on intellectual hate, that at the dinner, at which he was not present, some of his colleagues apologized to me and asked to not take him as indicative of the department. That was something I had seen myself, as the rest of the department were professional and cordial with me.
A natural thing for me to have done when I got the email would be to forward it to the placement director in my graduate department, and to talk about it. But as I had already made the decision to accept the Bryn Mawr position, I almost didn't care. I did forward it to the Washington department chair, just to let him know. As I felt it at the time, it was not this person in particular that was the problem; it was the whole atmosphere of research departments which fostered and enabled people to become like that. I now think that is not true, since even research departments can be better and can change. But even just seven years ago changing departmental cultures wasn't as open as it now is. I emailed back the epistemologist thanking him for his comments (did I really thank him? Yes; habits die hard) and told him I was not in the running for the position. If that were me now, I might have added, screw you, asshole. Or maybe I wouldn't. Since I don't know if this person is an asshole. To the contrary, he actually seemed from certain angles as a nice person. Only someone who seemed to think that when it came to certain topics or certain institutional structures, a certain extreme aggressiveness is actually called for, and that somehow he ought to be applauded for his actions, even though, as he seemed to see it, most of his colleagues were becoming too lax and wishy-washy to recognize the merits of his courage and steadfastness.
A year or two later, when I was at Bryn Mawr, one of my advisors emailed to say that he was talking to some people from Washington who had heard of their colleagues' email, and they wished to send their apologies through my advisor. I appreciated the gesture. I emailed back my advisor to say thanks and that I was beyond it. If it were me now, what I would write is that given all the other ways I felt affronted and misperceived in academic philosophy, all the ways in which I felt silenced by the general institutional structures, this one instance felt to me like just another drop in the bucket.


  1. I studied philosophy from 1972 to 1981 in Australia and I taught as a part-time TA during the last 5 years of that period. All along, I felt constantly "affronted and misperceived" and "silenced", but I kept on because I loved philosophy and wanted an academic job to let me continue doing it. Then I took up the chance to go to Paris to study on a scholarship, and I was even more misperceived and silenced, as I was an anonymous foreigner with a horrible accent who spoke the language badly. Despite all this I was happy to stay on in France, and I dropped out of University after 4 years, when the scholarship ran out. I began teaching English, at first part-time, but after quite a long time I took on French nationality and joined the French National Education system. I was wildly lonely, especially intellectually, but I was exposed to living philosophers, going to classes by Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, Michel Serres, seeing them on TV, hearing them on the radio, reading their books and their articles in the newspaper. Despite leaving academia I was thinking about philosophy most of the time. I considered that I was a "philosopher" even if I wasn't enrolled in a philosophy degree or teaching it anymore. But after about 12 years of that, without having any academic philosophy contacts I began to consider myself to be an "ex-philosopher", with considerable sadness at first, and then resignation. After nearly 10 years like that I "came back" to philosophy first by means of listening to podcasted courses and reading philosophical blogs, then by starting a blog myself.(roughly 5 years ago). I began to think of myself as a philosopher-just-not-a-philosophy-teacher again, but I realised that this was a way to protect my feelings and to affirm myself despite a lack of "legitimacy". Here I was silenced by just about everyone, not just the academy, as I was in the wrong category ("English teacher") to be a philosopher, and people would just tune out or actively silence me if I talked outside my category. Yet at the same time I sympathised with my favorite philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, who taught philosophy all his life and was famous as a philosopher of science; He often reiterated for the last decade of his life that he was not a "philosopher", and one of his lasts texts is entitled NOT A PHILOSOPHER. He did not want to be perceived in terms of a category, that further he felt to be basically a socio-economic designation, and so refused the very title that I claimed, but for the same reasons. So one some days I feel that I am not a philosopher, and probably never really was, and on other days I feel that all my life has been permeated by philosophy and that I would not be living where I am (in Nice, on the French Riviera) nor would I have met my wonderful wife and had my amazing and loveable children without my love for philosophy. Amor fati: sometimes it is the sense of fatum that is predominant, sometimes the sense of amor. This is how far being silenced over something I love has driven me, and these are some of the resulting self-transformations that I have gone through.

  2. This article should read more people.