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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John Schwenkler
3 years ago

I think there is a lot of wisdom in what Trout says here, and that anyone considering an academic career should give it close consideration. That’s because a job in academia is just that — a job — and its merits and deficiencies should be evaluated as such. This is something I often try to convey to undergraduate and graduate students hoping for a career in academic philosophy. What they see me doing — teaching classes, going to conferences, publishing papers, talking with interested students like them — is only a fraction of the usual academic’s workload, with the rest made up of activities like grading, committee work, assessment, various meetings, and responding to e-mails from students who slept through their exams, all of which is mostly drudgery. In my own case the balance of my responsibilities are heavily tilted toward research and rewarding conversation, but at the job I held for several years prior this wasn’t the case at all. There I taught a 3-4 load, did all of my own grading, was assigned lots of committee work, and had a steady stream of meetings to go to in the afternoons. Often I did feel like I was being told: “you must serve limitlessly or else you have not adequately demonstrated your devotion to the mission”. I don’t mean to say that this wasn’t a good job — indeed I liked it quite a lot. But one thing it gave me was a dangerous tendency to take far too much work home with me to do in the evenings and on weekends — the excuse being that it wasn’t really “work” (because it was scholarship), or that I had to do the grunt work on my own time in order to do research from 9 to 5 (except when I was teaching or in meetings, of course). This was unhealthy for me and quite harmful to my family life.

Add in the fact that academic salaries are usually quite meagre — this after the decade of lost earnings while you’re in graduate school and then a few years of temporary employment — and there is a lot to be said for trying to live a philosophical life while paying the bills in some other way. Of course *I* am happy I didn’t make that choice. But, like Trout, I am lucky.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  John Schwenkler
3 years ago

PS. I should not have left out the other side of what I just said, which is that anyone who does end up with an academic job should always remember to approach it *as a job*, and not as some sacred calling that deserves to govern their life. Philosophy might be a sacred calling. But a job teaching philosophy at a college or university is not.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  John Schwenkler
3 years ago

I work hard for my students and on my research, but I rarely put in more than 40 hours or so a week. If my administration wants me to spend more time on my students, they can give me fewer of them or fewer classes. That you get what you pay for applies to academic work too.Report

Not a tenured faculty member
Not a tenured faculty member
3 years ago

I completely agree about 40 hours a week! But that 40 hours a week needs to be divided in a fair way, such that you still do your fair share of service in the department.
Far too many tenured faculty (though by no means all!) have reached the promised land, only to retreat to the comfort of their own research, leaving the hard work of their teaching commitments to their TAs (or lessening the quality of their teaching by offering courses that check boxes instead of promoting actual learning), and leaving the hard work of their service commitments to their more conscientious colleagues, who are thereby overburdened.
Note that if all the service duties were more equitably distributed — AND IF THEY WERE ACTUALLY EXECUTED IN GOOD FAITH — then no one individual would need to work more than 40 hours a week. As it is, the senior colleague “free loaders” exacerbate the service load of the conscientious senior colleagues (and good-hearted junior colleagues) who aren’t willing to let the department suffer the consequences of their freeloading.
Departments don’t run themselves, and creating a vibrant and healthy intellectual culture takes investment. It’s unfortunate that so many of the faculty who are best-placed to make that happen have essentially checked out.
(Again, I feel the need to emphasize that I’m not endorsing limitless investment in the “high calling” of teaching — far from it! What I’m advocating is an awareness of how your actions — or lack thereof — affect those around you, that you pay attention to the attendant moral affects, and then change your behavior accordingly.)Report

historygrrrl
historygrrrl
3 years ago

What’s worked for me is to view my research as a hobby and to begin valuing time over money.

I’ll note that I’m recently tenured at a teaching-focused institution; this means that I teach 12 credits a semester, do all my own grading, and am expected to do quite a bit of ‘service’ – which is often really boring administrative drivel involving spreadsheets and powerpoints that feature SLOs, compliance, blah blah blah. I prioritize my service to students; they work hard and pay a bunch of money to deal with me. The rest gets done.

I’m pretty sure that coffee shot out of my nose when I saw my “raise” for promotion. It was funny. If my family actually cared about living a normal middle-class life – with things like a nice house, a car that works, and a vacation that isn’t for work or to deal with family crap – we might be upset.

But we’re not upset – not in the least – because we’ve learned to value time over money. When I look around my lower-income neighborhood, where I was able to purchase a home with a loan program for lower-income people (a class that apparently includes tenure-track assistant professors), I feel very grateful. Many of my neighbors are working two or three jobs just to keep the power on and their kids fed. Some have college degrees. Some are trying to get college degrees while also working overtime. I’m pretty lazy compared to my neighbors.

If I worked harder – teaching overloads, getting a second job, and so on – it still wouldn’t be enough to clear my debt. So, instead, I enjoy the time I have to spend on things that matter. To me, this includes research: doing philosophy, which is the reason I got into this mess in the first place. My institution requires research, but if I do only the minimum, I will produce only the minimal crap that will keep me in a job. If I treat it as a hobby, I can produce top-quality research that at worst will bring me satisfaction and at best might land me a better job. Either way, I’ve beat the system: it’s 2PM, and I’m at home wearing slippers. Boom.

.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  historygrrrl
3 years ago

You’ve just won the thread!Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Terrific interview. This part caught my eye in particular.

“All of the other trends that concern me in philosophy are shared by many other disciplines, particularly in the Humanities – their proneness to fetishize cultural identity, their celebration of detachment from practical concerns, their constant alertness to, and search for, insult to their sensibilities, etc.”

I agree entirely.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

This also struck me, and I concur:

“I am not optimistic about philosophy as it is traditionally practiced in Philosophy Departments in the U.S. But I am enthusiastic about the rate at which other disciplines, like psychology, concern themselves with foundational problems in the field, problems typically or historically thought of as philosophical.”Report