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My Strange Vocation, Part 7

In modern times, the field of philosophy is an industry. Anyone who enters graduate study in this field had better not expect to do any independent thinking.  It’s all about plugging into current debate and positioning yourself relative to an already-recognized authority in the field. No one can just come in and pose a new question. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to be readily identifiable.  What (already-established) philosophical questions are you interested in, and who are the (already-established) authors who have provided the correct answers?  The trick here is to rely on authors who have it almost right, and then you can spend the rest of your career riding on their coattails while correcting their errors. You cannot expect to become a professional philosopher on your own merits.

My first rude awakening to this fact came just days after I began my doctoral study.  I explained to our most celebrated faculty member what I was planning to do, and she cut me short.  “That’s not interesting,” she said.  I gasped.  Nobody had ever accused me of being boring.  It took me several more days to learn the lingo, and then I understood.  A question is considered “philosophically interesting” only if it’s already being discussed in current professional journals and at professional conferences.  My question—God’s relation to secular life—did not meet that requirement.

For the next couple of months I walked around dazed.  I wasn’t going to start teaching until Year 2, so at first I felt aimless.  I had spent my life listening for my own unique calling and consciously tuning out all the other voices clamoring for my attention.  Now I was required to find someone else to connect myself to, quite intimately.  And I must do it quickly, because I was like a knight without a shield, much less a sword.  I found the Arthurian metaphor extremely appropriate.  In a philosophy department, we hack away at each other at every opportunity: in the classroom, in the hallway, in the graduate students’ room, out on the walkway.  It got to the point where I cringed if I saw anybody from my department, because every conversation was a duel, and I was knocked off my horse every time.

Then one day I prayed quite frankly about it.  “What am I missing, Lord?  What are you trying to tell me?”  And I was amazed at the answer that came immediately to my thoughts.  Absolutely amazed.  For I suddenly realized that I was at Saint Louis University for a reason I had never suspected.  I wasn’t there to get my questions answered or to learn wisdom or any of the other things I thought I was there for. 

I was there to learn how to fight.

I’m a nice guy.  Up until that moment, I had had no aspiration to mix it up with anybody.  I always tried to see the other person’s point of view and always always sued for peace.  That was my nature and my religion.  And now I believed that God was inviting me to be open to a new side of myself.  I had a mission that the members of my department were incapable of understanding.  It would be my job to figure out how to get that job done.  But in the meantime, there was one thing my fellow graduate students and the faculty could do for me: they could give me daily practice in arguing for or against an idea.

From that moment on, graduate school was a blast.  Although I didn’t attach myself to any particular philosopher, I found that logic was my ally.  I used it when talking to my peers and even to faculty.  I would listen to their claims, consider their reasons, and then, either in my head or on paper, I’d write out their argument symbolically.  If it was invalid, I’d point out the inconsistency.  If it was valid, I’d search for the weakest premise.  I became really good at arguing.  And from then on, we all got along just fine.

Within the larger context, I was now a member of a Jesuit university—a school devoted to the principle that God can be found in all things.  And as my second year of studies began, I had the opportunity to teach undergraduates within such an environment.  This was where I belonged.  I loved being in the classroom, and I reveled in the synergy that took place as my students and I struggled together with life’s toughest questions.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was on the right path…

…except for that one minor point I mentioned a moment ago: if you want to succeed in the field of philosophy today, you have to wed yourself to an already-established philosopher.  My coursework was done and I was now ready to write my dissertation.  Unfortunately, I was still quite celibate. 

I did the best I could.  I chose a subject that was related to my philosophy of God in the secular world.  I wrote about the Problem of Conceptual Change.  It made sense from my perspective, but it was a bad career move.  As our most celebrated faculty member complained when I went on the job market, “You’re neither fish nor fowl.”  The Problem of Conceptual Change is an issue within the Philosophy of Science, but Saint Louis U didn’t specialize in Philosophy of Science.  It could be vaguely attached to Epistemology, but we had no epistemologist on our faculty.  I was apparently unmarketable.

I was also naïve.  I had such faith in my abilities that I believed I would obtain a teaching job on my own merits.  If you know anything about the academic world, especially these days, you’re probably laughing hysterically now.  For in the slush pile of applicants, nobody gets a university teaching job anymore just because they’re good at teaching, or even because they’ve published some papers (which I did, by the way).  Search committees don’t even see most of the applications.  You’ve got to stand out, and you do that by being attached to already-established scholars who are willing to go to bat for you.

For a year after I graduated, I taught part-time at SLU and at UM-St Louis, and then I had a lucky break: a chance to teach full-time at Xavier University in Cincinnati (another Jesuit school).  It was temporary (a two-year contract to fill in for faculty who were on sabbatical), but I could get my foot in the door.  And the people at Xavier told me with a wink that there would be a tenure-track position opening up within the next year or two.

Nancy and I sold our home in St. Louis and moved to Cincinnati.  Just before we left, we learned that we were going to have a child—something we had been trying to accompish for five years.  My life was finally starting to make sense…

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4 thoughts on “My Strange Vocation, Part 7

  1. Brother James on said:

    Having spent many years in the fields of academic philosophy, I can understand and relate to this at a pretty deep level. Many thanks.

    • Hi, Brother James. I knew you had a Jesuit education, and that always includes a good dose of philosophy as well, so I thought you might understand what I meant. Thanks for confirming that!

      Ron

      • Brother James on said:

        Ron,

        My undergraduate degree was in philosophy of language: a great course of study, and terribly challenging. I’m glad I did not choose the academic life, however.

      • Philosophy of Language is a very difficult subfield. I do think it all has to do with the questions we ourselves are asking, and how deeply we want to pursue the work that others have already done on those questions.

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