I'm a 40 year old philosophy instructor without tenure (I'm working as an adjunct this year in a very fine department, but this may be the last year I can afford to continue in the discipline). The odd thing about my story is that I actually gave up a secure teaching position last year and, despite the fact that I was unsuccessful in all 85 of the TT and VAP competitions I sought last year, I find I cannot regret my decision to leave my former job.
For reasons of discretion, I haven't had the ability to discuss my choice with very many people at all. I'd be interested to hear what the rest of you smokers think of it, and how many other people have found themselves in similar circumstances.
Here's a summary of what happened. Many years ago, a local community college was transformed into a four-year college. More recently, it became a university. However, owing to a strange series of events and a couple of loopholes, it managed to do this without introducing a system of tenure or even of faculty titles. Instructors spend their first two years on a sort of probation, at the end of which they become 'regularized' rather than tenured. Once one is regulated, one's work is never reviewed again. Some smokers may recognize this as standard in the community college system. The faculty at this university strongly support the view that a lack of tenure, etc. makes the school more "collegial."
A few years ago, this institution's philosophy chair initiated a process to start a philosophy major. As part of this process, nearby schools were invited to give input. The response of at least one nearby research university was that the proposed major would seriously disadvantage its graduates. Among other things, nobody in the department was current or even competent in mainstream analytical philosophy. Hence, a position was created by the department to rebut this criticism. This position was advertised, in classic two-year college style, only internally and for a very brief period. For various reasons, I learned of this fact and won the 'competition'. A week after my hire, I helped the department make their final case for the major, assuring the skeptics that we would all keep current and bring students to a high standard. The major was granted and I began work.
One thing I didn't realize until a little later was that many of my new colleagues had felt rather put out by the suggestion that the work they had previously been doing was inadequate for a major. Another thing I took for granted was that my colleagues were being sincere with me in saying that they were excited to have such a dedicated teacher join their ranks. That error led to my undoing.
In the years that followed, I devoted myself entirely to the department. I ran a club; I held extended office hours; I ran extracurricular reading groups; I initiated a colloquium series that brought 10-12 visiting philosophers to the campus each year; and I worked with my students on papers that they might later present at nearby undergraduate conferences. Whenever one of our students had a paper accepted, I would organize a student carpool to the conference. When students wanted to study areas of analytic philosophy beyond our meagre offerings, I would run a directed study section. All this left me no time for publications, but I imagined that my place at the school would be assured due to my strong enrollments and reviews.
However, my former colleagues blamed me for the fact that their enrollments were sometimes very poor. Just to be clear: that isn't my interpretation of their view, but exactly what they said to me at meetings (even in front of student representatives). They literally told me that, since none of them had any wish to take part in extracurricular activities, attend conferences, or keep current with the literature, my openly doing so was making them "look bad" and creating an imbalance in the way we and our courses were valued by students. I was asked to cease and desist. I took this up with the dean, but unfortunately the dean turned out to be a strong advocate of the mediocracy and a close personal friend of many of my colleauges.
When my colleagues cancelled the directed studies sections I had planned to offer, there was a student outcry. How were they to have a chance at following their older peers in presenting at conferences, getting into grad school, and generally getting the sort of education others had been receiving? And why shouldn't other measures be taken to increase enrollments, such as making the senior member of my department actually attend all his classes (he often admitted with a smile to frequently cancelling classes or exams or showing up an hour or more late)? These questions made my colleagues feel more sure that I was the spawn of Satan. As a result, they took several measures.
First, they told the phil. majors that it was sheer lunacy to think that one needed any special guidance to be great at philosophy. They claimed that one of their graduates had recently been accepted into a top 20 PhD program (what actually happened was that a student had merely audited a course at the top department in question in order to qualify for admission elsewhere). They also claimed, falsely, that no doubts of any kind had been raised about the major during the qualification process.
Then, they had a rather confrontational meeting with me, apparently styled after an AA intervention. They warned me that, by presenting students in class with the central metaphor of climbing a mountain through taking more and more advanced courses, I was damaging the harmony of the department. Iinstead, I was to begin to present philosophy courses as a collection of 'foothills', none higher than any other. Second, I was blamed for bringing students to a particular undergraduate conference from which some returned complaining that they had been unable to join any discussions on advanced topics despite having taken upper-level courses in the relevant subdiscipline (the instructor of the core course in question seems to have used the course as a platform for his own religious views, and not to have introduced any of the technical details or even the terminology of the field). These complaints reached the chair via the student representative, and I was asked to give them a list of all the 'suspects' -- that is, all the students who had attended the conference -- so that they could ferret out the malcontents. I refused to play ball.
It was made clear to me that I had to choose between conforming to the wishes of my colleagues (which would have included curtailing all extracurricular activities, being complicit in whatever claims those colleagues wished to make about the successes of former graduates, etc.) or else being branded as a troublemaker and ultimately running into institutional trouble. I saw this as a choice between egoism and principle, and went with principle.
I think I had had some fantasies about my leaving making more of a difference than it did. After I left, some of the core students switched majors or migrated to other schools. But many of them are still there, and the department is presumably recruiting new students as before. These new students will have little, if any, exposure to contemporary philosophy (nearly all the upper-level courses currently on offer focus on the reading of novels!), so I suspect the major will continue for years to come, just as it would have had I not left. To some extent, that makes me wonder whether sacrificing my career was worth it. At the same time, though, I feel glad I took a stand.
Anyway, that's the story. I wonder what other people think of it, whether others have had similar experiences, and what they did. Thanks.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Once Upon a Time in Academia
In comments here, "40yearsold, noTT" promised a story. Here it is: