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Essay on the four ages of a professor

Shakespeare penned All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players for Jaques, that greatest of cynics among all the characters in all his plays. Touchstone may be the Clown in As You Like It, but Jaques is the fool. He opines that every man enacts seven roles throughout a lifetime: infant, student, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childishness, followed by oblivion. I risk playing the greater fool here by attempting to extrapolate from his analogy: All the world’s a classroom / And all the emeriti and emeritae merely players.

Most college teachers enact four roles throughout a professional lifetime.  I don’t refer to the four ranks of career advancement — up the formal ranks to full professor/ I refer to a progression of relationships between professor and student. Ranks and relationships measure different kinds of development. Ranks are professional; relationships are personal. Ranks are institutional; relationships are organic. Ranks are rewarded; relationships are rewarding, at least potentially so. The Four Ages of a Professor — I’m in the fourth now -- are older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent. (I first heard these categories in conversation with John M. Phelan, professor emeritus in media studies at Fordham University, and I use them here with his permission.)

To play the role of Older Sibling one needs to have begun teaching at a comparatively young age, not much older than the students themselves. Older sister and older brother are conventional characters in a familiar societal script, even for a person who has never played either one biologically. A young professor’s first relationship with students, especially if that experience is while still a graduate student, is that of older sibling, deriving from their proximate ages, but not solely from that.  It derives, too, from there being so few other roles on offer.  Bigger, more prestigious, parts may open up later (e.g., senior mentor, disciplinary historian, methodological expert, or recognized authority within a particular field), but these are rarely available to the novice.

Young professors and their students share a generational familiarity, possessing common knowledge and similar experience. They are likely to speak the same vernacular, listen to the same music, and view the same videos. As well, they probably use the same technologies and participate in the same social media. They share a familial shorthand that is both inclusionary and exclusionary. Their code is inbred naturally, while it must be learned fitfully, if at all, by others.

The role of older sibling presents many opportunities for teaching and learning that will never return again, no matter how long a career may extend. Older brother and sister are uniquely suited to initiate younger siblings into family ways and mores, values and traditions, taboos and penalties. The cultural norms of higher education are a young professor’s hand-me-downs, becoming the student’s dress-for-success. A conspiracy of kinship can reveal the secrets of preparation and research, practice and repetition, rubrics and metrics. Sibling intimacy teaches rites of initiation much more effectively than can parental authority. 

There are dangers, too, in the First Age of a Professor. The power associated with birth order may degenerate into authoritarianism. Younger siblings recognize abusive overreach immediately and are likely to respond by banding together in defiant self-defense. Domination by an older sibling incites resentment. Supportiveness, on the other hand, inspires gratitude, even admiration.

The First Age of a Professor accords educational possibilities that ought not to be missed. Unlike the sibling relationships in biology, which last a lifetime, those in pedagogy are short-lived. Soon enough, a young college teacher will have to leave them behind.

The Second Age of a Professor begins when identification morphs into friendship. Being a friend is the most complex connection a professor can make with a student. It’s also the most fraught. Delights abound; so do temptations. Authority blurs; so may boundaries. Mentorship emerges; so can intimacy. In the extreme, this last can cross professional, legal and ethical lines. Friendships with students develop during the most stressful years of a young teacher’s life, namely, the probationary period leading up to tenure.

The professor as friend, as with older sibling, presents unique opportunities for teaching and learning. Hallway exchanges democratize classroom hierarchies. Cups of coffee encourage free-flowing conversations. Critical vocabulary pops up in co-curricular discussions. Intellectual themes blend with departmental gossip. A professor may befriend undergraduate and graduate students alike, the latter group multiplying contexts for interaction. Evening seminars spill over into social settings. Personal conversation inflates into critical dialogue. Squeezing the extra chair into an office allows for group interaction, as well as one-to-one consultation.

The interests of professor and student are not identical, of course, but they are analogous. The student wishes to produce a video that will go viral on YouTube. The professor wishes to produce a scholarly article that will generate a wide readership in print. Students wish to accumulate likes on Facebook. Professors wish to accumulate kudos in peer review.

Most friendships, whether inside or outside the academy, involve a measure of self-disclosure. Students need a sympathetic listener. Professors, too, benefit from a student sounding board, especially when conversation with colleagues becomes awkward during the year of tenure review.

After receiving tenure, oddly and abruptly, friendship itself gets promoted into parenthood, the Third Age of a Professor. Friendships needn’t end, to be sure. Many survive for years, even decades, after a student’s graduation and a professor’s retirement.  Still, tenure changes things in unforeseen ways.

With tenure, one begins to feel like a full-fledged faculty member, assuming, along with departmental colleagues, a co-parenting authority. This does not apply solely to relations with students. It translates, also, into proprietorship over course curricula, degree requirements, and governance procedures. The newly tenured professor is expected to take on a more public persona within the discipline, stand for elected office within a professional association, perhaps, or become the editor of an academic journal.

Like all parents, tenured professors set the rules, control the resources, distribute the rewards, and dole out the punishments.  Most consequentially, they become narrators of the family’s story — casting its roles, orchestrating its plots, underscoring its themes, and targeting its audiences. They enjoy access to influential committees, central administrators, and disciplinary gatekeepers. In departmental governance, they have a vote like everybody else, but they also expect a say.

Tenured faculty members shoulder a parental responsibility for a department’s success or failure (i.e., its internal and external reputations). They influence departmental hiring, faculty assignments and, ultimately, the awarding (or not) of tenure and promotion. In other words, parent is the most powerful role accorded to a faculty member throughout an academic career. It’s the longest in duration, too. The obvious downside to this age is its nearly unavoidable presumption of entitlement that can undermine collegiality, especially with junior colleagues. 

The Fourth Age of a Professor is that of grandparent. The divide between parent and grandparent is generational, naturally, but its transition cannot be marked by a specific date. It is felt more as an emotional realignment resulting from the upward push of an oncoming generation of faculty members. One isn’t being pushed out necessarily, but one is certainly being pushed up. This is a good and necessary thing in order to accommodate change.

Grandparents teach differently than parents do. The professor-as-grandfather or professor-as-grandmother feels a warm enthusiasm for the intellectual growth of students. One is less judgmental, less harried, and less hurried. This more relaxed attitude may manifest in various ways, not least being higher grades.

Think of a youngster learning to ride a bike. An older sibling instructs. A friend criticizes. A parent pushes from behind and then, at some unexpected moment, lets go. Grandparents, on the other hand, approach the problem from another perspective, closer to that of a cheerleader. “You can do it. You can do it. I know you can.” Verbal enthusiasm may be just the thing to inspire confidence and boost achievement.

Non-judgmental encouragement aids in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. A pat on the back assists in the mastery of difficult vocabulary associated with unfamiliar theory. A few students may take advantage of what they perceive to be a professor’s laissez faire vulnerability, but their number is surprisingly small. Most will be grateful for the increased self-confidence. This will be helpful as they proceed through their education.

The smart grandparent, regardless of family, stays out of a parent’s way. In a university setting, this may mean giving up a favorite seminar, stepping aside from a powerful committee, or saying "no" to another term as department chair. Such opportunities belong to the next generation and are no longer one’s responsibility.

My analogy to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man is inexact, of course. I have passed over, for instance, Jaques’ final pronouncement about oblivion. The Four Ages of a Professor — older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent — come replete with their own rewards that go far beyond the satisfactions of emeritus or emerita status. The fulfilling relationships of a long career, especially those with students, will provide whatever succor a professor can find against oblivion.


 

James VanOosting is a professor and writer-in-residence at Fordham University. He has published 10 books and many articles.

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Essay on the need for academics to establish close ties to program officers

Russ Olwell writes that academics working on grants -- proposed or awarded -- need to remember what they tell students about how there are no dumb questions.

 

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AFT Think Tank Hosts Panel Discussion on Adjuncts

WASHINGTON -- Several advocates for adjunct faculty members spoke Wednesday during a panel called “The Emergence of the ‘Precariat:' What Does the Loss of Stable, Well-Compensated Employment Mean for Education?” at the Albert Shanker Institute here. The education think tank is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, compared the contingent faculty dynamic to an “iceberg,” in which only the less than one-third of faculty members who are tenure-line are visible to parents and others who still believe in an antiquated professor "myth." If the majority teaching force is vastly under-supported and under-recognized, she asked, “Is higher education the Titanic?” Barbara Ehrenreich, co-editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, said the adjunct faculty trend challenged another myth – that of the university as a meritocracy – and said she believed now is a “turning point” in awareness inside and outside academe about poor adjunct faculty working conditions.

Jennie Shanker, an adjunct faculty instructor of art at Temple University, spoke first-hand about the financial, professional and personal hardships of working as an adjunct faculty member, and also spoke about the initial successes of the AFT-affiliated metro-wide organizing campaign in the Philadelphia area. Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis and interim director of American studies at New York University, linked the adjunct discussion to concerns about student debt, which he said is turning education – what was once a “vital public good” – into the “cruelest of debt traps.” 

 

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Pacific Lutheran Adjuncts Withdraw Union Petition

Adjuncts instructors at Pacific Lutheran University who wanted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union have pulled their petition from the National Labor Relations Board. Effectively, the current election is over and the one-third of ballots that were challenged by the university – including votes that were submitted late in October due to the federal government shutdown – will not be counted. In a statement issued late Wednesday, organizers said that adjunct faculty members “could actually get to a new election faster and with less legal expense if faculty proceed to a second vote with those currently teaching” at the university. It’s unclear how, if at all, the decision will impact the NLRB’s recent decision in favor of the adjunct union, over claims from the university that any adjunct union would violate several long-standing legal precedents precluding faculty unions at private and religious institutions. A university spokeswoman said via email: "We appreciate the support of our faculty for [the university's] unique system of shared governance and we look forward to working collaboratively with our faculty to continue the work of addressing the concerns of our contingent members."

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Saint Mary's College of Calif. students 'Disconnect, Power Off and Unplug' in interim term course

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Saint Mary's College of California challenges students to a technology fast during an interim term course on the benefits of disconnecting from social media.

Essay on how academics can keep their productivity-related resolutions

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It's all about writing every day, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

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review of Jessica L. Beyer, "Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization"

In 2012, Jessica L. Beyer received the Association of Internet Researchers award for her dissertation, “Youth and the Generation of Political Consciousness Online,” now been published as Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford University Press).

The author, now a research scientist at the Information School at the University of Washington, spent several years monitoring and in some cases participating in a number of online communities which, though non-political, sometimes engaged in political discussion. Her analysis focuses on four sites. In two cases, the political concern led to offline activity, including the creation of parties that have won elections. At the other two sites, the conversation never made the leap to mobilization. Beyer’s study is series of ethnographies of the miniature social orders emerging at the sites, in search of the factors that generated or inhibited activism.  

“Once I had chosen to study social sites,” Beyer explains in a long postscript on research methodology, “I had also chosen to study young people.” There’s an implicit “of course!” hovering over the remark – and fair enough, given that she did her digital fieldwork in the late ‘00s. But social sites have greyed somewhat in the meantime. Beyer’s perspective on “the generation of political consciousness online” may well apply to a broader demographic by now.

One of the sites in question enabled file-sharing, primarily of music and video, while two others were devoted to online gaming. The driving interest of a fourth cohort, the group known as Anonymous, seems harder to identify, though Beyer pins it down as well as seems possible by calling it “the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment, referred to as ‘lulz.’” Major sources of lulz (an idiom derived from an acronym: it’s the plural of LOL) include trolling, hoaxing, hacking, and “breaking s[tuff]."

The readerly appeal of ethnography usually comes from its attention to the details of everyday behavior and interaction taken for granted within a subculture. And that’s certainly true in the case of Anonymous, which -- like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange -- has its own tightly self-encapsulating argot and code of conduct. The file-sharing and online-gaming communities also have specialized lingos and accepted norms, just as a stamp-collecting club might develop. But with Anonymous the markers of in-group status are much more sharply defined. Beyer understands this peculiarity to be a function, in part, of the design of the discussion forums that gave rise to Anonymous. Participants are never identified, even by a pseudonym, and venues do not have archives.

Because distinct identity is obliterated, “users assert their membership status in different ways,” writes Beyer. “To signal they are community members, users must use an extremely dense lexicon; show familiarity with community jokes and stories (signaling knowledge in a very particular way); articulate community values both directly and in the ways in which they frame conversations; and adhere to community norms of anonymity in all interactions, even when telling personal stories (e.g. ‘my math teacher is so stupid….’). Because of these norms of behavior, although the space is technically ‘anonymous,’ outsiders are easily spotted.”

While providing optimal conditions for digital hooliganism, these conditions would also seem to make political mobilization impossible – or, for that matter, completely irrelevant. (Misanthropic individualism tends to preclude any idea of the common good.)

But in 2008, the Church of Scientology forced a number of websites to take down the leaked video of a giddy Tom Cruise discussing his super-powers, and Anonymous responded with a campaign of attacks on its sites, accompanied by a memorable video of its own declaring war on Scientology. Faced with an angry swarm of unidentified and unidentifiable hackers, Scientology’s longtime strategy of litigation against its opponents was of no use. Members of Anonymous then joined forces with longtime critics of Scientology, many  of them ex-members, to launch a worldwide series of protests outside its buildings which have continued, on and off, ever since.

Likewise, Pirate Bay, the file-sharing entity originally based in Sweden, took on the motion-picture and recording industries through street protests as well as its online activity. In 2006, it spawned a Pirate Party calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents and respect for privacy. By the end of the decade it was the fourth largest party in Sweden (with, Beyer notes, “the largest youth membership as well as the largest youth organization in Sweden”) and held two seats in the European Parliament. There are now Pirate Parties in at least 40 countries, with candidates elected to hundreds of offices at various levels of government, riding waves of discontent with intellectual property laws and surveillance.

Pirate Bay and the Pirate Parties share an ethos while remaining distinct. File-sharers can be anonymous, but not electoral candidates. While the original site administrators gave the political movement some direction, legal actions attempting to shut down Pirate Bay forced it to build anonymity into its very structure: it operates through a network of servers dispersed over an unknown range of countries, with no individual or group knowing more than a little of the system.

So anonymity, however counterintuitive this may seem, was a major factor in enabling the communities around two sites to move towards real-world activism. By contrast, the other two formations Beyer studied -- the game World of Warcraft and an online discussion-board system called the Imagine Gaming Network – required users to register and regulated their speech and behavior in ways that,  she says, “undermine[d] collective group mobilization.”

Her account of how the layout of the different sites and the way they conditioned the degree of participants’ visible identity reveals a number of interesting contrasts – particularly between World of Warcraft, in which creation of an identity is part of the game, and the milieu of Anonymous, in which doing so is effectively impossible. On the gaming sites, in Beyer’s analysis, people are able to form smaller groups defined by shared interests or beliefs; they never reach the critical mass needed for mobilization in the offline world.

Perhaps, but other differences bear mentioning. Both WoW and IGN.com are commercial enterprises which exist strictly for entertainment. Individuals drawn to Anonymous or file-sharing through Pirate Bay are looking for entertainment too, of course. But they do so in ways that violate – or at best skirt – legal norms.

A gathering of stamp collectors might well include members also interested in international affairs. But no matter how passionate their discussion may become, they aren’t likely to be able to mobilize them on non-philatelic matters. I suspect gamers sites resemble the stamp collectors. They aren’t engaged in something that challenges any powers-that-be -- while Anonymous and the Pirates are, and wave a flag while doing it. Beyer's case studies are interesting, but her findings not entirely unexpected.

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Adjuncts stall U. of Memphis attempt to privatize their Social Security

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How a small group of temporary employees got the U. of Memphis to walk back a plan to kick them off Social Security.

Essay on the problems with philosophy in academe

In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The essay consists of a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressing Dewey’s concern that philosophy had become antiquated, “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. While taking pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy make contributions to culture both past and present, Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”

Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Back in America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, professional philosophers have followed W.V.O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman:

Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.

But is philosophy really analogous to chemistry, a domain of expertise populated by specialists? Or are philosophical questions part and parcel of everyone’s life, as far from a specialist’s tasks as anything can be?

Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay, it’s time for another reconstruction of philosophy.

I.

While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) the concerns of non-philosophers, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.

This is a shame, since we are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Today we are constantly confronted by philosophic questions, in many cases created by advances in science and technology. Open your computer and you can find thoughtful exploration of issues as varied as the creation of autonomous killing machines, the loss of privacy in a digital age, the remaking of friendship via Facebook, and the refashioning of human nature via biotechnology. In this sense philosophy abounds. But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation.

It needn’t be this way. Take the subject matter of metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of university syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Just as Dewey complained, classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. This can be seen in the leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins so:

Its detractors often characterize analytical philosophy as anti-metaphysical. After all, we are told, it was born at the hands of Moore and Russell, who were reacting against the metaphysical systems of idealists like Bosanquet and Bradley…

The discussion is entirely framed in terms of the disciplinary concerns of philosophy – and only 20th century analytic philosophy at that. We find no reference to people’s actual lives, to the metaphysical issues tied to the births and transformations and deaths that we all endure, no acknowledgement that questions of metaphysics involve some of the most intimate and transcendent questions of our lives. Instead, metaphysics is a tale told in terms of professionals: Moore and Russell, Bosanquet and Bradley, Quine and Lewis.

We are not claiming that the matters addressed by such essays are insignificant. But it takes one adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away.

Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? The May 25, 2014 issue of The Washington Post describes a patient taking heart pills that include ingestible chips: the chips link up with her computer so that she and her doctor can see that she has taken her medicine. The story also describes soon-to-be marketed nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and will be able to spot the signs of a heart attack before it occurs. These are issues that could fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine.

This needs to change, for the health of our culture, and for the health of philosophy itself. Unless professional philosophy embraces and institutionalizes an engaged approach to philosophizing, working alongside other disciplines and abroad in the world at large, it will become a casualty of history.

II.

In our opinion, the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance is the institutional situation of philosophy. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.

Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound.

Philosophers once recognized that there is something problematic about treating philosophy as simply one discipline alongside the others. It was once understood that in addition to fine-grained analyses philosophy offered perspectives that undergirded, capped off, or synthesized the work of other disciplines such as physics or biology, and then connected those insights to our larger concerns. Such work lost favor in the 20th century – dismissed as Weltanschauung philosophy by analytic philosophers, and as foundationalism by continental philosophers. But reopen this perspective and questions abound: if philosophy is not, or not exclusively a regional ontology, why are philosophers housed within one region of the university?

Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?

III.

Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production has become par for the course. Perhaps the most important site for such analysis is the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS). One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.

But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy. 

While Mode 1 philosophy is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing heterodoxy within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing, whether they go by the name of ‘public’, ‘applied’, or by some other title. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.

It will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they self-identify) exist on the margins and lead professional lives that run against the grain. As the feminist public philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff notes, many Mode 2 philosophers try to “walk a fine line between responsiveness to community needs and employment survival, pushing the boundaries of academic respectability even while trying to establish their credentials in conventional ways." It is these “conventional ways” that must change. We have to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs (not just disciplinary interests and imperatives) is an integral part of one’s employment and is viewed as academically respectable.

In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap. After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether. Socrates was engaged, but still an outsider. He certainly was no pundit looking to score the most outrageous sound bite and rack up the most “likes” on Facebook. We need a people’s philosophy that reserves every right to be unpopular.

 

Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity. Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas.

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Socrates

Essay on how podcasts could be a way for philosophy to reach a broader public

About 10 years ago, I was an admissions officer at a university in London, where (typical of the British system of admitting major by major) I read essays from those who wanted to study philosophy. To be honest, the essays were largely indistinguishable from one another, presumably because the applicants were all given identical advice about what they should say.

But my interest peaked when the applicants mentioned what drew them to philosophy in the first place. Often, they cited a work of “popular” philosophy, perhaps Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, or something by A.C. Grayling or Alain de Botton. The students would not be reading such works once they arrived to do their degree. Rather they would read the philosophical classics – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant – and cutting edge philosophical papers from the more recent past. They had been pulled in by popular philosophy, but at university they would experience professionalized philosophy, learning its special jargon, conceptual tools, and history.

There has long been a gulf between the public experience of philosophy and philosophy as it is pursued among the experts. Like other academics, philosophers focus on sharing research with colleagues, and draw on it when they teach the students who have shown enough aptitude (and paid or borrowed enough money) to get into their classrooms. Only a minority of academics try to speak to a broader audience, and when they do, the link to what they do in their professional life is presumed to be rather indirect. Knowledge trickles down from the ivory tower to the public sphere, but what comes out has typically been just that: a trickle.

This is beginning to change. The reason can be summed up in an unlovely, two-word phrase: “new media.” With tools like blogs and podcasts, platforms like iTunesU and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), academics now have the opportunity to reach an enormous audience of people who need only an Internet connection and a modicum of curiosity. There are online interviews with leading philosophers (Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” “Philosophy Bites,” “Philosopher’s Zone,” “Elucidations”) and themed series like my History of Philosophy podcast. You can also find free philosophy instruction on YouTube and on iTunesU (traditional university lectures recorded and put online), while many conferences and professional lectures are also appearing on the internet (for instance from the Aristotelian Society, or the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich).

It’s an unprecedented opportunity. So why don’t more academics take advantage of it? Many of the podcasters who host series on topics in history, for instance, are not university lecturers but independent scholars. I know, because I met them on Facebook (of course).

Of course there are plenty of practical explanations for this reluctance. New media projects require a certain degree of fearlessness when it comes to technology, and can be very time-consuming. With the heavy demands of teaching, research and administration, it’s no surprise that launching such a project may not rise to the top of an academic’s “to do” list. In theory, there could be rewards to balance the costs in time and energy. We are frequently asked to demonstrate the wider social “impact” of our work these days, on grant applications or in the Britain’s Research Excellence Framework survey. But “impact” is a rather ill-defined notion. When I first launched my own podcast, I was warned that it would not necessarily make a good impact case study in the REF: how exactly does one document the “impact” of a podcast? In any case, hosting a podcast is unlikely to help your career as much as writing a good journal article or two, which could easily take less time.

Beyond the practical issues, I suspect most academics still assume that media projects are inevitably “popular,” in the pejorative sense of being strictly introductory. A podcast or blog isn’t the place to do real philosophy or history – this view holds -- that happens in the classroom, or in the pages of peer-reviewed journals and monographs. But such worries miss the promise of new media. With no time limits and no editorial constraints, academics can make any ideas they choose freely available on the Internet. If that content isn’t for everyone, so what?

My own podcast covers the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” moving chronologically at a slow (some might say excruciatingly slow) rate. (Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. But my listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject. We should not underestimate how widespread that curiosity might be, even when it comes to rather recondite topics.

Furthermore, just as students in a university setting helping their teachers to see things in a new way, the audience for a new media project will respond with corrections, comments, and other sorts of feedback. So there is a chance here for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community. I believe that more and more academics will seize that chance, even if the use of new media raises questions about the role of universities and academic experts.

Why, for instance, should students pay high tuition to learn the same things they could be downloading for free? Yet this worry too, I think, is misplaced.

If anything, following a blog, taking a MOOC, or subscribing to a podcast will bring potential students to fields of study they would not otherwise have considered. I don’t read admissions essays anymore, but I like to imagine that some of the applicants say they’ve been inspired to pursue philosophy because of something they found online.

Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, in Munich, and the author of Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, (Oxford University Press) a series of books based on his podcast series.

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