Saturday, May 2, 2015

Academic Saints

Jason Brennan's (Georgetown) continued punching down of adjuncts, including a post in which he and others fisk the CV of the subject of a Huffington Post piece about adjuncts (see her response here), has me thinking about the ideal of the "Academic Saint." This is in part because Susan Wolf's "Moral Saints" is one of my favorite philosophy articles, and also because Brennan invokes Peter Singer's Greater Moral Evil Principle in a blog post in which he combs over the career decisions of someone he doesn't know and with whom he doesn't share a field.

I guess this is what speaking truth to power looks like these days.

Anyway. Back to the idea of the academic saint. I've adapted the first paragraph of Wolf (1982) for my purposes here:
I don't know whether there are any [academic saints]. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them. By [academic saint] I mean a person whose every action is as [academically inclined] as possible, that is, who is as [tenure-track or tenure worthy] as can be. Though I shall in a moment acknowledge the variety of types of person that might be thought to satisfy this description, it seems to me that none of these types serve as unequivocally compelling personal ideals. In other words, I believe that [academic perfection], in the sense of [academic saintliness], does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.
Admittedly, my borrowing from Wolf is a bit out of place. She's concerned with the ways in which a life dominated by particularly moral ideals is a life that fails to recognize non-moral sources of value and non-moral sources of reasons for acting. This ideal leaves out non-moral motivations--and in her later work, non-self-interested motivations--that are part of a life with meaning. We find something troublesome, she argues, with the person who, in contemplating any possible action, always applies for permission from morality before undertaking that action. Moral reasons for action are not just seen as one set of reasons among many, but as a higher set of reasons to which all non-moral reasons are subordinate.

So, for example, given that social justice issues other than those related to adjuncts/contingents appear more pressing from the point of view of the moral saint, we are, in the words of the bleeding-heart Brennan:
quite literally yanking resources away from deeper concerns of social justice when they didn’t have to. They may talk the hard leftist talk, but their actions indicate they care more about themselves than they care about social justice.
A moral saint committed to such unsubtle comparison, such dispassionate ranking of their projects, and such submission to morality, can be seen as "missing a piece of perceptual machinery" or as committed to "an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with…ability to enjoy life."

Wolf, though, has less of a problem with the ways in which commitments other than those to morality may come to dominate a life. A commitment, say, to developing a nasty crossover, is less problematic than organizing one's life around a moral ideal if that commitment is seen as winning out in a fair competition among other possible commitments, rather than being considered a type of ur-commitment to which all other reasons for acting must submit.

Is the academic saint more like the moral saint, or more like the person who has devoted themselves to lighting up the NBA?

I guess it's pretty obvious what I think. I see a problematic commitment to academic saintliness implicit in Brennan's posts--and the philosophy-blogosphere's own predilection for CV fisking. Here's what I have in mind (n.b.: I won't raise questions about another problem I see with this activity, namely, The Underdetermination of One's Academic Pursuits and Commitments by the CV; though such concerns are in the background too).

Brennan sees a (possible) lack of research or a (possible) commitment to teaching over research or a (possible) commitment to obscure or hard-to-market research or a (possible) commitment to a certain geographic region as academic mistakes. To see these commitments or actions as academic mistakes is to assume that one's field of research or commitment to teaching or preferences about where to live must be approved by the tribunal of reasons in favor of being as tenure-track or tenure worthy as possible. So long as we act for reasons other than those suggested by a commitment to getting a tenure-track job, we are making academic mistakes (or, in one of Brennan's colorful analogies: willfully eating poopburgers).

More strongly, it seems to me that the only reasons for action in academia that Brennan and others are able to make sense of issue from the reasons provided by getting a tenure-track job or getting tenure. They are, it seems to me, "missing some piece of perceptual machinery."

Apparently, in Brennan's view, the only person who deserves a secure, well-paying academic job with benefits is a person that strives to satisfy the ideal of academic saintliness. It is the academic saint, who doesn't just see their desire for a tenure-track job or tenure as one desire among many, but who sees that desire as the only possible source of reasons, who shall inherit the promised land. (And, insofar as they fail to do this, yet continue to stay in academia, so Brennan's reasoning implies, they are simply irrational. Note that another important ideal that Brennan would have us strive to is provided by a different, but no less problematic type of saint: Homo-Economicus.)

This is why the complaints of adjuncts/contingents are so baffling to people like Brennan. They don't understand that adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because they have failed to win the academic lottery.

Adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because many people think the only reason they don't have tenure-track jobs are because of their "academic mistakes."

Adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because their commitment to teaching is seen, not as something positive, but as a sign that they are unable or unwilling or too stupid to do research.

Adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because they are subsidizing the research of tenure-track and tenured faculty.

Adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because they teach twice as many students or twice as many classes with less support and for less money than the anointed academic saints.

And, adjuncts/contingents aren't pissed off just because they are seen as unworthy of permanent positions according to the standards decided upon, in retrospect, by the people who won the academic lottery and are now looking to rationalize their own luck.

I mean, adjuncts/contingents are pissed off about all of these things, of course.

But, speaking for myself, I'm pissed off because all of these things are signs that an ideal of academic saintliness that reduces all reasons for acting in academia to getting another line on the CV is at the center of a system that (I think) once made room for acting for other types of reasons (like curiosity, or, if you're old-fashioned, truth, or, even more old-fashioned, wisdom).

I'm pissed off because this ideal is uncritically accepted. And the people in positions to push back against it (i.e., hiring committees and people like Brennan) lack the moral imagination to come up with new ideals that will accommodate different ways of being in the academic world.

I'm pissed off that there are people like Brennan who think that because adjuncts/contingents failed to win the academic lottery (because of their academic mistakes, natch), their small part of the academic world should be without offices, benefits, and other forms of institutional support.

Brennan's wrong. I'm not pissed off because I don't have a tenure-track job, and that's not what we're asking for. I'm pissed off because people shouldn't have to be academic saints in order to get just a little more moral consideration than what they've been given in the past.

-- Jaded, Ph.D.