New Careers, New Beginnings, Same Blog, Jamming, 01/07/2014

Today, a failed intellectual is a public intellectual. It's
where I'd rather be.
The great and infamous nihilist, Nein Quarterly (or, if you demand to focus on meat-space names, Eric Jarosinski), has officially left the academy and the wider world of university teaching, as he relates in his recent essay in the Chronicle for Higher Education. His students will miss him, but in many ways, he’s right that his theatrical philosophical comedy on Twitter and other parts of the internet has done more to popularize the German philosophy and literature he loves more than any of the teaching work that he was doing. And if the tensions and stresses of life in the academy was causing him that much pain, then he’ll be happier as a public intellectual.

One of the things I admire about Chronicle is their honesty in confronting the demographic nightmare higher education is facing, as academic labourers are produced at a rate and number far too high for the university system to absorb. My posts leading up to the Canadian Philosophical Association indicated my own path for the future, a path that I will pursue in the long run, seeking out noteworthy and worthwhile philosophical texts and helping shepherd them to publication. Perhaps while working in a career that will put some of my research skills and credentials to more direct beneficial use in improving the world, and helping my fellow PhDs find their own paths to do so.

I think the most creative philosophy and wider humanities research and ideas will be developed and published outside the university system over the next few decades. The university system itself has become broken in many ways, such that it discourages the boundary-breaking work that actually progresses our disciplines. 

But I want to post at least some thoughts about one way we’ll likely be perceived in the university community, which still has the institutional power and heft to work as a gatekeeper of knowledge’s respectability. Many of the professors I spoke to at the CPA were enthusiastic about the ideas I was developing for a network of independent philosophers — people who write and publish philosophy while working at jobs outside the university sector. 

This would be philosophy as a pastime for working enthusiasts, but enthusiasts who’ve received the training necessary to do philosophy well. A tradition of professionalized amateurs whose freedom from institutional constraints could grant them the space to produce truly creative and necessary works, which wouldn’t necessarily conform to the priorities of a university’s corporate and elite donors. 

However, some people (not a lot) have given me a cold shoulder as my attempts over the last two years to find work in the university sector came up empty. This is the biting element of Nein’s concept, #failedintellectual. Because to go through the doctoral process, produce and publish a thesis, but go on to a career outside the university sector, is seen as a failure in some of the people most devoted to higher education as an institution. We’re the children of that institution, after all, and in walking away, we would admit that the institution had no use for us. 

But in a system like today’s, where failure has become inevitable, those who would stigmatize us and our contributions to the philosophical tradition are not just wrong, but sadly ignorant, trapped in a paradigm of thinking that no longer applies to our world. The people who hold this attitude, where the only good use for a PhD is in the university system, are not worthy of their own credentials. 

They would produce work that is likely disconnected from the concerns of the material world, soulless historical studies or exercises in conceptual erudition. It is work written with the presumption that the wider public does not and should not care about philosophy; they will be forgotten, hyper-disciplinary works too insular to secure a cultural foothold.

Some might call comments like these, in a publicly accessible forum that goes out under my real name, a suicide note for an academic career. Those would be people I wouldn’t have wanted to work for anyway, even when I was starting my doctoral studies and was more optimistic about the resilience of the university sector. Like Nein, I’m taking a bet that my creative endeavours in philosophy (and fiction as well, in my case) will strike a public nerve with more power than the stagnating work of too much hyper-disciplinary humanities scholarship. 

My chief mentors in philosophy were working people who studied hard and made the university sector a place to engage with public issues and enhance education for the wider population. I didn’t earn my doctorate just to lock myself away with elites. I’m certainly not going to do that now. This blog was not just some unorthodox means of burnishing my CV for an academic position. It was an exercise in public philosophy, it still is, and it always will be. I'm throwing my lot as a writer with the public. I've made the best choice.

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