Resisting the “Serve Limitlessly” Narrative


Many institutions control your choices in various ways, and bend your time to their aims, by suggesting that you must serve limitlessly or else you have not adequately demonstrated your devotion to the mission. It is satisfying and empowering to ignore that narrative…

Those are the words of J.D.Trout, the John and Mae Calamos Professor of Philosophy at Illinois Institute of Technology, in an interview with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

Professor Trout recounts a bit of his youth, discussing his abusive father, the death of his mother when he was 11, the selfish and mean relatives who raised him after that, and the fact that while many of his relatives had been to jail, none had been to college. Perhaps it is those experiences which contribute to his view that, if we can, we should use the flexibility of academia not as an excuse to let it take over our lives, but to pay oneself—both with extra money and extra time with loved ones.

Here are the set of questions and answers in the interview relating to this matter:

Do philosophy grads usually know what they’re getting themselves into?

I regularly find myself in conversation with graduate students, postdocs, and young professors on this topic. So often they share with me their anxieties about embarking on a profession in which they have so little control over their salary, their course load, and their service requirements. In the corporate environment of an undergraduate teaching college or university in which the employment of adjuncts and full-time instructors announces the expendability of tenure-track faculty, so many young people in philosophy, understandably, feel frustrated and powerless. They know it will be years before they will be making a decent salary, and that raises will be low. They know that raising salary issues with their employer will be deemed crass and mark them as perhaps uncooperative, or not adequately intrinsically motivated. While that stance by an administration is unfair, it is also entirely predictable. So I always encourage young people to stay in close touch with the things, both in and out of philosophy, that bring them not only joy but money. Try to do things that make you feel powerful and try not to position yourself in a way that could make you a victim.

Of course, bringing in extra money demands time—teaching summer or JTerm courses, online courses, doing your own repairs and improvements on your house, writing a textbook or a trade press book with a royalty advance or at least the expectation of future royalties, etc.—and this is only possible if the research expectations of your job are light, or if you write easily and quickly. So here is my advice: If your hope is to be tenure track in a decent department, the writing requirements will be nontrivial. There is little chance that truth can be finessed. So, if you don’t actually, positively, enjoy writing and/or you procrastinate, spare yourself that agony and choose another field whose necessary task is one you enjoy and perform easily (or pursue an academic position that doesn’t demand much research).

Brutal, dude. Brutal.

Of course, after a PhD, you shouldn’t HAVE to live on the tight budget that so many young faculty do, and after spending years in graduate school studying, writing, and teaching, you have amply demonstrated your devotion to having and sharing a life of the mind. No institution should doubt your commitment to its pursuits simply because you are vigilant about compensation, to pay off loans, start a family, buy a home, have a functional car, and so on. Of course. My point is that, institutional facts are typically impersonal, and while kind deans may commiserate with young faculty, given their charge, it is unrealistic to expect adventitious remuneration in the disciplines. “Hey Kiddo. Nice paper in Synthese. Here’s an extra $1000.” I have had many colleagues who say they don’t expect this kind of appreciation, but then act angry or crestfallen when they receive their 1.5% raise. After all, completing that Synthese paper may have competed with their kids’ birthday parties and soccer games, nights out and vacations. Such is the academic life, in which there is no barrier to using personal time for professional ends. You would have written that paper anyway, but perhaps not with the same urgency.

So, do you have any advice man? You’re bumming me out!

The best remedy for these anxieties, in my view, is to be effective. Think of ways that you can pay yourself.  I am lucky. My family was in the trades, and I learned to save money by doing many of my own car and home repairs. Over the last 25 years, I would estimate I have saved at least $50,000 repairing plumbing, electrical, and generally performing tasks that are typically hired out. And I have increased the value of the two houses we lived in during that time by at least that much by finishing a basement (in which my wife tiled the shower), turning an uninsulated mudroom into a proper nursery, etc. You get the idea. My wife’s job schedule is less flexible than mine, and her job’s daily demands are greater. But let me be clear about this. Many people can’t take this route to effectiveness, either because they don’t have the background or because, for many reasons, they don’t have enough time or the physical capacity for this work. I am not blaming people who don’t or can’t; I am offering encouragement to those who can. Many institutions control your choices in various ways, and bend your time to their aims, by suggesting that you must serve limitlessly or else you have not adequately demonstrated your devotion to the mission. It is satisfying and empowering to ignore that narrative, and spend part of your life adding to your income in the many palpable ways that are not prohibited by a contract. And if you love doing the labor, all the better. I have been healthy, and I like writing just fine. So the most time-consuming aspect of my job was eased.

Great! You seem well adjusted.

While I have always felt lucky to have an academic job, I have always been at places that might be thought of as teaching institutions. Until recently, my job history is not a story of academic privilege. Even so, my schedule is far more flexible than those of most people in the country. I cannot emphasize enough to young people how wonderful it is to raise a family, or just frolic without children, when you have so flexible a schedule. My kids are in their teens now, and my job has never competed for time with my family. I have coached my daughter’s softball team, coached my son’s baseball team, and when they were younger, read to them nightly and played with them daily, And, I am always available, or can quickly work something out, if the kids get sick. There is nothing to not like about this story. I had mentioned that heading for graduate school was an easy one to make; for reasons like this, it was also an easy one to live with. But then again, I am lucky.

The whole interview is here. Discussion welcome.

Shirin Abedinirad, “Sky Stairs 2”

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