One More Reason Why I Left, A History Boy, 20/06/2015

There are a lot of reasons why I left the university system. Most of that has to do with the fact that I was never able to secure even entry-level, low-paying work as an adjunct-sessional lecturer. As I spent longer building an already-impressive research and publication record, I fell farther behind on collecting teaching experience until I realized that there was no way I’d be taken credibly by a hiring committee.

It didn’t help that my first visit to Versatile PhD, a web community for networking among former academics looking for new careers outside universities, discovered a forum of people proudly throwing away all the books they had bought for their research, setting fire to copies of articles, purging their hard drives of any pdfs or ebooks related to the field to which they had devoted years of their life.

I still care about philosophy – I love reading it, I still write and publish philosophy, and I take part in communities of researchers – and it disgusted me to see so many people throwing that part of their lives away. It made me feel like I had wasted my entire 20s professionally. It’s taken a long time for my mental health to recover from that experience of constantly feeling hopeless and worthless.

I do feel some healthy contempt for some aspects of my previous career, but I still love philosophy, and think it’s a valuable tradition that should survive its marginalization in an increasingly corporate university sector. I came across an article this week that made me think of one particular reason why I don’t think progressive thought and research (at least in the humanities) can happen in the university sector anymore.

Peter Ludlow has been politely asked to leave Northwestern
University in the wake of his misconduct trial and barrage
of lawsuits. He's resettling in Mexico.
The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long feature on the saga of the deservedly disgraced Peter Ludlow. The short version is that Ludlow was in a very sticky and emotionally weird relationship with a graduate student in his department when he was a research chair at Northwestern University in Chicago. There was fallout.

A level of fallout so huge in American academia that it’s spread beyond the scandal itself. Laura Kipnis’ essay in Chronicle applied “lessons” about Ludlow’s case to the wider student movement on campuses around North America: if students have the right to accuse their professors of sexual misconduct, it would “have a chilling effect” on academic free speech. 

Those thinkpieces which disparage campus left-wingers as destroying education with trigger warnings, and which turn underemployed teachers against over-indebted students? They began with Kipnis’ conservative reaction to the Ludlow case

But I’m not here to add to this general discussion. I don’t really have much to add, other than reminding people that the truly destructive force in modern education is the management model of raising institutional debt levels and promoting prestige projects at the expense of accessibility and any sense of public service. It’s not students who demand respectful education at less life-crushing debt levels or the burning out precarious professors whose chronic underemployment has turned idealistic teachers and writers into embittered defenders of their poverty-level contracts. 

I want to add my own story. It's minor compared to the disaster in Chicago, but it illustrates an important part of what I think is incurably sick about the modern university system. Because I met Peter Ludlow once, when he was a prestigious invited speaker of McMaster University and its philosophy department in November 2013. 

This was just a few months before the lawsuits that destroyed his credibility and career. He gave three talks over a week, all of which I attended and found fascinating. But he did something that, before I discovered the full extent of his sexual misconduct, tainted him already in my eyes.

Earlier that year, I had been turned down for the only university position I managed to score an interview for in the entire three years I spent on the faculty labour market. Despite living in a region with ten large university campuses within inter-city bus range of my Hamilton home, I was locked out of eligibility for adjunct teaching positions through union rules prioritizing seniority. I was just about to start work at an editing company as a contractual telecommuter.

I was speaking with Ludlow after his Monday talk, and we were having a very deep conversation, the kind of talk with an experienced, knowledgeable, and intelligent older philosopher that has always animated me. But then he asked me how far along I was in my PhD. I told him honestly that I had finished, but had not found a teaching position for that academic year.

This was my old philosophy department at McMaster
University. I had some wonderful times there, but that's
all over now.
He immediately turned away from me, and ignored me for the rest of the gathering.

At the time, I was upset. Here was someone who had achieved incredible success in the field that I had just finished my training to enter, but who presumed me to be not worth talking to because of bad luck in a hiring cycle. 

I’ve met public relations and communications professionals who earn a couple of times Ludlow’s Northwestern salary, which itself was extravagant by most faculty standards. When I tell them about my difficulties in the labour market, these people respond with collegiality and sympathy. They’re impressed by what I’d achieved in my university career, and what I continue to achieve in my artistic career, even though it isn’t really that much yet. 

University researchers are supposed to be public servants speaking truth to power in the name of lifting up the downtrodden through education and public critique. Indeed, Ludlow’s talks at McMaster included harsh words for the surveillance state and the new liberal attitude to intellectual property that drove the American prosecutors who hounded Aaron Swartz to suicide.

But the man who came to McMaster in 2013 to speak those truths also regularly abused his position at Northwestern to take sexual advantage of younger female students. He betrayed his egalitarian politics by discounting the contributions of people to philosophy because they hadn’t gained a foothold in the university institution. 

Perhaps I wouldn’t be as upset as I am with the university system if it hadn’t become clear to me that opinions like Ludlow’s are widespread throughout it. When I was last at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in 2014 at Brock University, the professors from McMaster, Memorial, and others who knew me well would stop and chat with me as a colleague. I'm happy to know all those people, especially those I've spoken with since starting my new career who are glad that, even though I won't make my career in the university sector, I'm not giving up on writing philosophy.

But there was also a professor from my old department who refused even to look at me, continually blanking me in the corridors as if I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t have a teaching post. This hypocritical attitude – standing up for egalitarianism and the rights of the disadvantaged in all labour markets but their own – is so widespread that it contributed to my conclusion that progressive philosophy can no longer be written in the university system.

Not a bad role model for a writing career if you ask me.
I have more faith in online communities of philosophers from many disciplines (not just the ones that took their degrees or work in philosophy departments) like SERRC as sites to keep the vibrant character of philosophy alive. These are publicly open venues to hold debates over philosophical issues, develop and promote ideas. It's a truly friendly place for thought.

I'm thankful for their support as well for my future work. I'll make my career in the communications and business sector, but like Harvey Pekar, I'll continue my writing work as well. And I'll publish essays and articles, fiction, philosophy, theatre and film scripts. I think I'll probably write a book on communications theory and practice once I have a few years of experience in the industry. I think it'd be really interesting.

Because I'm not bitter, like too many other people who gave years to a university discipline and couldn't find a place there for themselves. I've felt hopeless before, but I know I'd be even more hopeless if I just gave up on something I loved. I don't think there's much room left in the university system for love of philosophy and writing anymore. There'll be less and less as time goes on.

Ludlow isn’t being punished because it was wrong to have taken advantage of his position of institutional power to control and manipulate those around him. He’s being punished because he overreached and couldn’t control the mess whose conditions he lay himself. He’s being punished because he got caught.

Unfortunately for university philosophy, hypocrisy and classism isn’t a rare thing. It’s only rare that anyone faces real consequences for it. That’s one reason why I left.

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