Friday, November 02, 2007

Ideas Man on "The Fringe of a Fringe"

When I first went on the philosophy job market, I had an optimistic outlook. Sure, I didn't have the greatest CV on the planet, the kind that young children dream they'll have when they are in middle school and dreaming (as kids are wont to do) of their future in academia --- but for a junior academic it wasn't bad either. But I looked at the Jobs for Philosophers, saw jobs which seemed like a good fit for me and thought, "surely I'll hear from at least some of these." And I did. I heard from some of them that they wanted interviews and from many more that didn't that they didn't. I was surprised that from the vast majority I heard nothing at all (while it strikes me as somewhat impolite, I can understand not sending rejections to people who don't make the first cut, but even places that I had actually interviewed with have not always sent rejection letters, which I find tremendously gauche).

My dissertation adviser wanted me to have a more realistic outlook and so he pointed out to me that what I do, even in the world of philosophy, is "on the fringe of a fringe." At the time, I was somewhat offended (which is why I remember it three years later), but in the intervening three years, I have taken his point to heart.

I think what he meant to say was to suggest that I show my chops by doing research in more mainstream areas. And for a long time I tried to think of projects that were more mainstream, that showed the connection between my "fringe" and the broader world of continental philosophy, if not mainstream philosophy.

When I finally got a second round interview, which disintegrated in a witch-hunt for atheists (are atheists witches?), I got tremendously discouraged. Even if I could successfully present my work in a more mainstream way, the job market was still a crap-shoot, and the sorts of religious bigots (and to be fair, probably other kinds of bigots) also who had made me miserable in my pre-philosophical life were still capable of making me miserable.

But over the summer, I think I've come to terms with both of these discouragements in tandem. At a certain point, I had to realize that the job I lost because I wasn't willing to present myself as something I wasn't wasn't a job that I wanted. Now to anyone outside of the mad world of academia that should sound like a no-brainer. But in academia, where there are way too many intelligent people competing for way too few underfunded jobs, the mantra is that any job is a good job.

Once I realized that I didn't want a job that would require me to be dishonest about my core values I realized that I didn't want a job where I would have to pretend to be more mainstream than I was. In graduate school (and even more as an undergrad), I had realized that I was committing myself to a style of philosophy and a set of questions that were out of the mainstream. And I had abstractly recognized that this might make things difficult for me later. But I had been willing, in the abstract, to stay focused on the questions that I was interested in.

So over the summer I decided that I either had to revisit my earlier decision or else be willing to accept the compromises I thought I had been willing to make.

So I'm trying to take the notion of working on "the fringe of a fringe" to heart (which is not what I think my adviser intended). So be it. Hopefully I'll still manage to land a job. Looking at the experiences of my friends, there seems to be little correlation between the "plumness" of a job and the satisfaction one derives from it. I have friends who have jobs which objectively aren't particularly desirable, but where they are free to do their own work and where they have colleagues that they like. I have other friends who have "research" track jobs but are to busy worrying about politics to enjoy the freedom to research these jobs are supposed to provide.

Of course, none of this explains why I am writing this blog rather than applying for jobs, when the first round of deadlines is fast approaching.

No comments: