Agree or disagree with the ‘concerns’ listed? Share your thoughts.
I’m pleased to announce that my guest for episode 11 of the Unemployed Philosopher’s Podcast is Jennifer Polk. She blogs at From PhD to Life, an excellent post-academic/transition blog, that offers a refreshingly positive perspective on life after grad school. Highlights of the site include Transition Q & A’s with successful post-academics and Jennifer’s succinct and insightful posts on re-framing the PhD and grad school experience.
Jennifer graduated with a PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. In her own words:
After more than a decade in higher education, it’s clear that I am good at school; what is less clear is what should come next. I’m now reflecting on my varied experiences within and without the academy, zooming in on what my skills are and where my interests truly lie, and pondering what I want to contribute to the world. I’m getting ever closer to solving the mystery of my unfolding career path. In the meantime, life’s pretty ok!
I hope you’ll join us next time on the Unemployed Philosopher’s Podcast as Jen and I both try to figure out the mystery of our respective post-academic career paths together. Look for the episode early in June.
This weekend, I’m going to see the latest adventure of the crew of the USS Apple Store, er, Enterprise. I don’t want to prejudge the movie, even though I wasn’t a big fan of the first one. I have a few predictions about this installment. There will be lens flare. There will be a lot of digital effects. There will be plenty of cliched dialogue (as evidenced by the trailer). However, I hold out some hope for the villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I guess we don’t know for sure whether or not he’s Khan, but I have my suspicions. I predict he’ll be portrayed as a ‘terrorist’ and that the film will try, but not necessarily succeed, to be relevant to our contemporary world (the way the original series told Cold War parables in its day with mixed results). I hope the villain isn’t captured on purpose as part of a master plan in the vein of the Joker, Loki, and Silva. That trope has been played out.
However, I think there’s some potential to subvert the Roddenberry optimism that characterized the original series and TNG. For better or worse, modern audiences are a bit too cynical for that, and the idea that the future will necessarily be better, although a common theme in science fiction, can be turned on its head to good effect (one of my favorite, albeit comedic, examples of this is Futurama). Since the subtitle of the movie is ‘Into Darkness‘, I predict that they will undermine some of the optimistic futurism of Roddenberry and co. Although I consider myself an orthodox Star Trek fan, that direction is okay with me, provided it’s handled well. However, I’m going into the theater expecting a fun, summer popcorn flick rather than an attempt at serious sci-fi. I suppose in some ways, that trend is inevitable to make the films in the new Star Trek franchise commercially successful. It seems that slow-paced, cerebral science fiction has been relegated to print. Nevertheless, two movies I saw recently challenge that perception somewhat.
The first is Oblivion. I quite like that one. Yes, it’s Tom Cruise as the bland leading man character he always plays and Morgan Freeman playing, well, Morgan Freeman (the female leads are much better, in my opinion). And, yes, it’s sprinkled with the obligatory big action scenes. Despite these features, the film takes time to develop in a very deliberate way and its tone and pacing are a throwback to an older, Rod Serling-esque, approach to science fiction film-making. There are some plot twists that viewers familiar with science fiction will see coming, but I give the movie credit for its ambition. The best way I can describe it without getting into spoiler territory is Moon meets Minority Report. It’s worth checking out.
The second movie I saw only recently, though it’s been out awhile, is Prometheus. Personally, I don’t think this movie deserves the scorn the internet has heaped upon it. Granted, it’s a flawed film, but I would rather see a Ridley Scott ‘failure’ than a J.J. Abrams ‘success.’ There’s actually a lot going on in Prometheus philosophically, so I’ll have a bit more to say about it than I did about Oblivion. Also, since the former has been out almost a year, I’ll be less sensitive about spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Prometheus is supposed to be a prequel of sorts to Alien. This is where it gets tricky. If Prometheus is judged as part of the Alien franchise, I’m not sure it succeeds. Of course, Scott only directed the first Alien, so the extent to which he intended it to function as a prequel to the franchise as a whole is debatable. For that matter, what counts as part of the franchise? It seems that many, Scott included, want to exclude the Alien v Predator movies. How about the four movies starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley? Again, some fans would like to forget about Alien 3 (cubed?) and Alien Resurrection. I have to say, that I only liked the first two. I actually think that the Dark Horse comic books were a more worthy sequel to Aliens than the film versions. (The comic book carried on from Aliens with an adult Newt and an older, more bitter Hicks, but I digress.) So perhaps it’s too much to expect Prometheus to work as a sequel to a franchise with which Scott had no involvement beyond Alien. If we judge Prometheus as a science fiction film in its own right, however, I think we can be more charitable.
Science fiction, as a genre, is adept at handling philosophical concepts. Prometheus attempts to tackle questions like: what would it mean for humans to discover that we were created and actually meet our creator(s)? Prometheus isn’t unique in addressing this question. Other science fiction films to broach the subject of humans meeting their god include 2001 and even Star Trek V. Nevertheless, Scott’s take on this theme is still worth considering. The film raises issues of a theological nature, heightened by the fact that Shaw is portrayed as a woman of faith (though the content of that faith is left rather vague). One might think that the discovery that humans have been engineered by an advanced alien race (this film employs a variation of the ‘ancient astronaut’ trope) would throw a wrench into her religious belief. However, Shaw demurs in the following exchange between her and Holloway:
Shaw: Why would I want to do that?
Holloway: Because they made us.
Shaw: And who made them?
Although it’s true that such a discovery wouldn’t falsify theism per se, it would, I suspect, falsify Christian theism of the sort Shaw is portrayed as having. Nevertheless, one of the interesting aspects of the film is that it broaches the subject of ‘intelligent design’ while leaving behind the political and religious agendas that often surround that debate. After all, the question ‘what would happen if we found out that we were engineered by a higher intelligence?’ is not necessarily a religious one. If we did stand in that kind of relationship to a higher intelligence, what would be the implications of that discovery for our understanding of ourselves as human?
The film also raises this question through parallels between the Engineers’ relation to humans and humans’ relation to sentient machines. The presence of an intriguing ‘synthetic’, in this case Michael Fassbender’s David, is one of the links between Prometheus and the other Alien films. There’s one scene in which David asks Holloway why humans created him. Holloway answers “Because we can.” David replies, “Can you imagine how disappointed you would be if your creators gave you the same answer?”
There are also other connections between Prometheus and the rest of the franchise. The atmosphere is rather bleak. The themes of government and corporate corruption loom large. Weyland, played by Guy Pierce in bad old-man makeup, is convinced that the Engineers hold the secret to immortality. The question of our origins is linked, as it often is, with questions about our destiny, despite the slight non-sequitor there. And, of course, Weyland is willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve immortality for himself (and probably profit from it too, although that’s more implicit). The other theme that’s a holdover is that of women and forced pregnancy. Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter on Alien, said that he wanted a monster that would extend the threat of rape and unwanted pregnancy to male characters. Ripley, of course, as a strong female character who survives, subverts the stereotypical female role in such films. Shaw, in Prometheus, is no Ripley but there are parallels between the two, especially Ripley in Alien 3 when she’s impregnated with a xenomorph queen. She wants to destroy it, despite the corporate interests who want to exploit her for their own gain. Something similar happens to Shaw in Prometheus. Indeed, the DIY abortion scene is one of the most disturbing and probably does more to set Prometheus in the Alien universe than any other scene in the movie.
Again, Prometheus is an imperfect film, but I have to give it credit for being more ambitious than the run-of-the-mill action sci-fi schlock coming to a theater near you during the summer blockbuster season. I wish more movies like Prometheus get made, but in this day and age, I suspect they will be few and far between.
Since it’s Friday, here’s a smattering of videos for your viewing pleasure. (If you haven’t been introduced to Jon and Al Kaplan’s musicals, you’re welcome.)
So I’ve gotten to the point where I’m thinking about adjuncting again. On the one hand, I feel a little dirty about it, because I’m hyper-aware of the injustices inherent in the system, having railed against it on this very blog. On the other hand, I miss teaching and could use the money (as measly as the amount is). But let me back up and explain how I got to this point.
This past weekend was convocation for me. It was a good day, an emotional ‘high’ that was followed by the inevitable emotional ‘crash.’ My family was very proud and supportive, and several relatives traveled great distances to be there, but it was emotionally exhausting to repeatedly answer the question: “So now what are you going to do with that?” It’s very difficult to explain the intricacies of the academic job market to non-academics who think that I should just be able to walk into the local university and start working. It’s equally difficult to articulate my other career aspirations to people who have no philosophical background and can’t imagine what philosophy would be good for in other contexts.
But it’s not just outsiders who suffer from a failure of imagination. I also talked to academic insiders, well-meaning and thoughtful people, who presented me with the usual choices that post-grads have: apply for grant money, a post-doc, or a sessional or short-term teaching position. These pretty much exhaust the range of conventional thinking as to what a non-tenure track PhD can do. I’ve been trying very hard to think outside of that box, to make a case that PhD’s have other options. I shared my philosophical counseling aspirations with a few people, but I didn’t fully disclose the extent to which I’m trying to ‘hack the system.’ However, now that ‘the system’ is pulling me back in, my rallying cries against it ring a bit hollow.
So back to adjuncting. I’m under no illusions that this is a long-term solution to my employment situation; it isn’t. But, realistically, it might be part of an interim strategy while I lay the foundation for my business. Through conversations with others and personal reflection, I’ve come to think in terms of a career ‘portfolio’ rather than a singular job. There are many different solutions to the problem of how to earn a living and, at this stage, perhaps adjuncting is a piece of that puzzle. At least I’m not going into it with unrealistic expectations this time. But still, it feels like failure. I’ve failed to find a fulfilling non-academic job and my plans to create one are still a ways off, so I’ve fallen back into a familiar pattern.
Perhaps I internalized the ‘post-ac’ identity more than I realized. I feel a bit like I’m abandoning the cause and my comrades in arms. I don’t think this is true; I still identify with the movement strongly and still champion its ideals. However, I also have to be pragmatic and do what I can in the meantime to improve my financial situation. Again, this is part of a comprehensive strategy. At the very least, it gives me an opportunity to polish my public speaking and presentation skills — which are probably a little rusty by now — in preparation for launching seminars, workshops, and online courses that will allow me to cut out the middleman and work for myself. Of course, this is all academic at this point (no pun intended). I don’t have an adjunct position yet, but I’m looking for opportunities for the fall semester. Despite my personal feelings about it, I’ve decided I can’t afford to foreclose on any possibilities.
In retrospect, I also think the experience of struggling to articulate my vision, both to academics and non-academics, is a good rehearsal for the future. I’m going to have to be able to succinctly and effectively explain what I do and what I can offer if my long-term plans are to be successful. Although answering the ‘what are you going to do with that?’ question was frustrating at times, it gave me some much needed practice in parsing out exactly what I can do for non-academic clients in future. So I may look back on those conversations as laying crucial groundwork. In a similar way, teaching has also given me a foundation on which I can build. Although we adjuncts are not well-compensated for our contributions to the academy, maybe we can take the skills we learn in that context and apply them to other, more lucrative venues. At least, that’s still my dream. I haven’t given up on that.
But what do you think? Is this a good move or bad? Is it all just spin? Do you think I’m ‘selling out’ or ‘buying back in’ depending on your perspective? Do I deserve to have my ‘post-ac’ card rescinded? Let’s have a conversation.
Since I began my non-academic job search in January, I’ve applied unsuccessfully for several jobs in different sectors, including academic publishing, online education, and consulting. These rejections are discouraging, but I haven’t given up. I’m currently working with a professional to improve my application package and translate my skill set into business-friendly language.
However, I’ve also been thinking about self-employment. If nobody is willing to hire me, maybe I could hire myself. If my ideal job doesn’t exist, I may have to create it. That’s the gist of Thomas Friedman’s op-ed piece, Need a Job? Invent It. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education also alluded to it. I’ve also been encouraged by the entrepreneurial spirit of my recent podcast guest, Dan Fincke, to imagine non-traditional ways to make a living doing philosophy. As I’ve said many times, I still love philosophy; I’m just not a fan of its current institutionalization in the modern university. So what are some ways to make philosophy practical, and marketable, to people outside the academy? I have a few ideas.
First, there’s ethics consulting. If there’s a silver lining to the fiscal crisis, it’s that companies are more conscious about social responsibility. I think there’s a niche here for philosophers. The trick is to convince companies that they need your services. In the United States, I understand there are some tax incentives for companies to hire consultants or have their own in-house ethics and compliance departments. In Canada, this is not the case, however there are some consulting companies that specialize in this area, and I haven’t ruled out working for one of them. But as an independent contractor, as it were, I would probably not be able to consult full-time. I contacted a Canadian business ethics professor who does some consulting on the side and he said it’s basically supplemental income. I also corresponded with a lady with a PhD in philosophy who combines ethics consulting with mediation and conflict resolution. They both advised me that it’s prudent to combine ethics consulting with something else in order to make a living.
As many of you know, I’ve also been interested in philosophical counseling. I’ve signed up for the American Philosophical Practitioners Association’s annual certification program in philosophical counseling. It’s training in applied philosophy and will allow me to take on clients. I know a few people who have done this, though again as supplemental income. In addition to individuals, I would like to take applied philosophy to groups — do seminars aimed at audiences in business, government, and non-profits — that incorporate some of the material I’ve taught over the years in problem solving, critical thinking, knowledge management, decision theory, and resolving ethical dilemmas and market these workshops as team-building exercises. Again, the trick would be to translate the material from its academic context to a more business-friendly language. My plan is to combine philosophical counseling with seminars and workshops and maybe motivational-type speaking. My friend and podcast guest, David Peck, has been doing public speaking now for a while. Again, it’s supplemental income, and he says you have to start small, but his profile is growing. Another idea, inspired by Dan Fincke, is to do these seminars online. Instead of offering philosophy courses for philosophers, however, I would tailor them to those in other sectors. A good example of someone who does this is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile. These books are very philosophically informed, but the material is presented in such a way that its practical lessons are evident.
Of course, then there’s the problem of marketing and convincing others that they need what you’re selling. This whole world is new to me and I’m not sure how to go about it yet, but I’m learning. In more sober moments of reflection, I’m skeptical that anyone will pay me to do what I’m proposing. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by the efforts of others; they prove that it can be done. I just need to come up with an actionable plan to implement in the near future. Who knows, maybe in the next year or two, I’ll be the Self-Employed Philosopher.
In my recent interview with Dan Fincke, we got into the topic of atheism since it’s the raison d’etre of his blog. In passing, I said that I’m an agnostic, but that probably warrants further elaboration. Although Dan and I share a similar background insofar as we were both introduced to philosophy via religion, and we both subsequently ‘deconverted’, I’m not much of an activist on the issue. In short, it’s probably because I live in Canada where religion has much less influence on public discourse than it does in the United States. Also, unlike many atheists, I don’t have a dramatic deconversion story. I’m conscious of leaving religion, the way I’m conscious of leaving academia, but I don’t feel the former is a story that needs to be told. The closest I’ve come to talking about it publicly is when I compared losing one’s faith to disillusionment with the academy. So I understand the similarities between both exodus narratives and the loss of identity that goes along with each. However, unlike many others, I’m not in a big hurry to put a label on my new identity, whether ‘atheist’ or ‘post-academic.’ These labels are perhaps convenient placeholders, but I can’t help but feel that they don’t entirely suit me. In what follows, I’ll try to explain why I find the labels ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ problematic in my case, what ‘romantic polytheism’ means, and why I think it fits me better.
The typical deconversion narrative usually begins with one having doubts about the existence of God, looking at the arguments pro and con, and finally losing one’s faith. Although that’s the rough trajectory of my own story too, I think rational arguments were secondary. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not indifferent to these arguments. I got into philosophy precisely due to issues raised by religion. I’ve studied all the arguments, theistic and atheistic, at a very sophisticated level. But arguments for and against the existence of God are like all other philosophical arguments: they ultimately fail to establish their conclusion. The evidence is ambiguous. Some philosophers, like J.L. Schellenberg, would say that this point alone counts in favor of atheism. Nevertheless, the default position is probably agnosticism. However, agnosticism on this matter is difficult to maintain in practice. This is not necessarily the case for other philosophical questions. I can remain agnostic, for example, as to whether to be a Platonist or nominalist with respect to universals. But when it comes to the existence of God, we either live as though God exists or live as though God doesn’t exist. We determine the indeterminable in practice. Moreover, most people do not believe or disbelieve on the basis of reason. As Hume said, “Reason is, and must always be, a slave to the passions.” I’m also with Pascal and James in thinking that pragmatic reasons determine this issue far more decisively than philosophical reasons. This isn’t to say that philosophical arguments are unimportant, but I think that they are far less effectual than they’re given credit for by philosophers.
As for me, depending on the day, I might describe myself as an agnostic or an atheist. I’m an agnostic in the narrow epistemological sense. I don’t know whether or not there is a deistic creator God. However, I doubt there’s a providential God of the kind described by the Abrahamic religions. Therefore, I don’t believe in a God such that it would make any difference in practice. I’m a practical atheist in the sense that I don’t live as though there is a God. Naturally, this choice has something to do with evidence, or better, experience. I don’t see the hand of providence at work in the world and thus don’t see any pragmatic value in prayer, for example. But, of course, other people do and I’m not convinced that the difference between us is that I value ‘objective’ evidence and they don’t. I think we’re both acting as pragmatists rather than evidentialists. I don’t find that religious practices give me any additional resources for living life that aren’t available to me from the great philosophical traditions – which include a number of loosely ‘spiritual’ disciplines – but I understand that religious practices do function in this way for others.
For this reason, I can’t get on the bandwagon of contemporary atheism which has the ancillary hypotheses – not intrinsic to atheism simpliciter – that religion is essentially bad and that religious people are irrational and don’t care about reason and evidence. I’ve studied and talked with too many intelligent religious believers to accept such unqualified claims. To be fair, other high-profile contemporary atheists reject these claims as well. I see atheism on a cultural level as having a right-wing and a left-wing, as it were. The former consists of the more vociferous New Atheists, the so-called Four Horsemen, now three (RIP Hitch). However, there is also a left-wing, if you will, which consists of people like Terry Eagleton and Alain de Botton who are themselves atheists, but nonetheless believe that religion may have something of value to offer. I would also include the subject of my dissertation, Jürgen Habermas, on that list. I have more sympathy for this wing of contemporary atheism than the other.
Perhaps my sympathy for this brand of non-religion has to do with particular biographical details about me. Maybe I can’t get too angry with religious people because I used to be one and still know and love many of them. Like many former theists, then, there’s a particular God in which I don’t believe. I’m reminded of the old joke about the man in Northern Ireland who was asked at knife-point “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” Not knowing the religion of his assailant, the man decided to play it safe and said “I’m an atheist.” The assailant replied, “A Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” I think there’s a serious point here. I actually think I could narrow it down further: I’m a Calvinist atheist. The God in which I don’t believe is the Calvinist one. Some theists might say, “No problem. I don’t believe in that God either.” But the problem is that I find the logic of Calvinism difficult to resist. That is to say, if there were a God, I think something like Calvinism follows. Given the traditional definition of God, it’s difficult to see how everything wouldn’t be determined by his will. Although the logic is irresistible, I’m profoundly uncomfortable with such a notion. There seem to be real moral problems with this view that I won’t expound upon here, but I trust you can work out. Perhaps I reject it more on moral, emotional, and pragmatic grounds than purely rational grounds but, of course, that fits neatly into what I’ve already said.
In thinking about this issue, I would like to find a better term than ‘atheist’ to describe myself. Atheism is, after all, a negation. It tells us nothing about one’s positive beliefs and I think that what one affirms is more important in this context than what one denies. For example, I can affirm many things I think are true and good and many theists may very well affirm them too. I’m wary, however, when theism becomes more of an exercise in negation than the atheism it opposes. After all, atheism only negates God, whereas theism can, at its worst, negate a plethora of other values. Monotheism tends to subsume everything under a unifying concept – God – and any values that don’t fit, are rejected. Perhaps, instead of atheist, I would prefer to describe myself, following Richard Rorty, as a “romantic polytheist.” This doesn’t mean I literally believe in many gods; it means that I believe in affirming and pursuing a number of goods that can’t necessarily be subsumed under a single monolithic, monotheistic telos.
In affirming and pursuing these goods, I often find myself having what feel like ‘religious’ attitudes. I feel a profound sense of gratitude, although it’s not directed at anyone or anything in particular. Although I don’t worship in a formalized way, I often experience worshipful attitudes. I feel awe, wonder, and an appropriate sense of my own finitude. These experiences border on the transcendental or numinous. However, I don’t think we need a certain sort of metaphysics to appreciate them. It’s just part of the mystery of the universe and the grandeur of being human. Before I wax any more poetic, let’s just say that the range of experience that’s sometimes labelled ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ is available to those without religious belief. Nevertheless, some people encounter these moments in the context of a particular faith, and I don’t have a problem with that. Again, I think we tend to believe or disbelieve in God or gods on the basis of whether or not it provides the resources we need to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. We believe, because it works. I suspect that all of us – even philosophers – are as practical as that.
Episode 10 of the Unemployed Philosopher’s Podcast is available now!
My guest this month is Dan Fincke. Dan has a PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and is an adjunct assistant philosophy professor at both Hofstra University and Hunter College (CUNY). He also is an adjunct professor at Fairfield University and William Paterson University. Dan blogs at Camels with Hammers, which promotes reason, philosophy, atheism, Nietzsche, and secular approaches to ethics.
Faced with a difficult job market, he found other ways to make a living doing what he loves. Dan has come up with several innovative ways to generate income as a philosopher. We’ll discuss three of these ways, including his success as a paid blogger, his philosophical counseling business, and his unique online philosophy courses. When it comes to using the power of the internet to promote philosophical ideas and find a market for them, Dan is definitely the guy to talk to. I hope you enjoy it!