Remote-Working Positions in Academic Philosophy


How will remote working in academia spread beyond the pandemic circumstances that familiarized so many of us with it?

Here’s one indication: the season’s first and so far only (to my knowledge) ad for a research position in philosophy that tells applicants: “remote-work flexibility is a possibility.” The position is a postdoctoral fellowship “at” Emory University:

You can view the full ad at PhilJobs. If you know of other jobs in academic philosophy offering similar options, please let us know about them.

I asked Christa Acampora, the philosopher at Emory serving as the principal investigator on the project on which the postdoc would be working, about the decision to include a remote work option for the position. She said:

The pandemic has shown that we can have deep engagement with colleagues through remote means. Of course, the basic tools were already available earlier, but the broader campus readiness and wider array services were lacking. It is now possible to have more and more connections with others on campus without actually having to be on campus. I think we’re already seeing fundamental changes in the workforce, with new ways to participate and new expectations among employees. Faculty life—our research time and how we organize our teaching and learning with students—is also changing. Ultimately, I think this will bring new opportunities all around.

I wanted to be able to attract the philosopher who is right for the project, regardless of where she, he, or they might be. What matters is that the person is prepared, ready, and eager. If they are able and want to be in Atlanta and on our campus, we’ll welcome them. If they can’t be here—or need a flexible arrangement—but can still help move the projects forward, then that’s what really matters.

Adding a remote work option certainly makes positions more accessible—to people around the world for whom moving would be impossible or extremely burdensome, to some disabled people with conditions that make in-person work challenging, and to those with caregiving responsibilities that make working outside the home difficult, for example—and that speaks in its favor.

At the same time, it seems we wouldn’t want everyone in an academic department working remotely, if we could avoid that — right? So one challenge will be to figure out how institutions can offer remote work as an option for individuals to make use of, without it being an option that is exercised to an extent threatening to the goods provided by having people work in the same physical space. Discussion welcome.

UPDATE: HPS Bloomington tweets in reply: “Not quite. Depends on what is meant by remote. Not possible for non-US citizens in order to comply with work visa regulations. You have to be in located in the US. So not remote as in home country. You *can* sometimes get special accommodations also with work visas. But hell of a paper work. Hardly any US department/group does that.”  I’m not familiar with the law on this; comments from those knowledgeable about this issue would be appreciated.

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7th year postdoc
1 month ago

I hope this practice becomes widespread. It is a rare thing: an intervention we philosophers can make on our own, with relatively little required of funding bodies or university administrators, which would overwhelmingly improve the postdoc career stage (a stage which has in the past decade grown much longer and more personally disruptive).Report

Recent PhD
Recent PhD
Reply to  7th year postdoc
1 month ago

I agree. I don’t even like working remotely, but given that I have few prospects of having a partner who is willing to move with me every two years and would like to have a family in the next ten, having more remote postdocs or even teaching positions would make staying in academia a realistic option for me.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  7th year postdoc
1 month ago

Me too. Most of my work as a postdoc is stuff that can be done remotely. Of course it is nice to be able to meet with other people in the department in person, but the cost of that is my husband had to leave a good job for one that is incredibly trying, and we’re in a small town that doesn’t have a ton of other options. Moving some place just for a year or two, when you have other people to uproot too, is just really hard.Report

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  7th year postdoc
30 days ago

It seems to me that what you need isn’t a remote postdoc, it’s a permanent academic position.Report

7th year postdoc
Reply to  Grad student
30 days ago

Inshallah. In the meantime, a remote postdoc would help.Report

remote postdoc
1 month ago

I landed a postdoc right at the beginning of the pandemic that was supposed to be in person. The PI was thinking about canceling it and/or delaying it with the uncertainty of the pandemic, but after a few exchanges with him via zoom/email, he decided we’d try doing it remotely. It’s been great – and I’m certain my PI would say the same. We’ve co-authored two papers together that have been accepted for publication in very good venues, which I’d say is evidence that we have a great working relationship. We’ve also presented at a big conference together over zoom. In fact, we’ve co-written a grant that we’re hoping will let us continue working together for another 2 years.

Granted, it would be nice being around the department to build relationships and network with others, however the amount of flexibility not having to uproot my, and my family’s, lives has been utterly fantastic. For me, I see no reason why most research postdocs can’t be done remotely.Report

Joona Räsänen
1 month ago

There was a postdoc in Jagiellonian University (Poland) and the add said remote work is a possibility. It was in philjobs a couple of months ago, I think.

Developed, sophisticated countries usually allow people to work from home, at least some days of the week. There is really no point to force people to come at the office everyday – whether academia or not – it’s a job, not a kindergarten.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
1 month ago

There is a difference between working from home some days a week, and taking a job in a different city from the one where you live, where you wouldn’t be able to sleep at home and work on campus on the same day. I think the former arrangement has been standard for academics without a 5-day-a-week teaching load for years, but the latter arrangement hasn’t been.Report

James Collinsworth
1 month ago

We need to be very very careful about this! Here is why (using the UK as an example). The price of electricity is expected to surge in the UK (along with gas) (given a problem I won’t bore you with – those in the UK will know what I’m talking about). When philosophers work from home, they are shouldering all of the costs (gas/electricity during the day) that would ordinarily be shouldered by the University. However, they are not being compensated for this at all. When you factor in that ‘remote work’ is usually going to be work for adjunct lecturing, it is going to be low-paying jobs that are then going to be even lower once all the gas/electricity from working at home is factored in. This is not good. I’m not saying that there is an in principle problem with remote philosophy work – rather, the problem is remote work by employers who *ignore* for the purposes of contracts the fact that they (the institution) will not be covering these costs. A better model for remote work is one that includes an additional stipend for these costs.Report

Only Humean
Only Humean
Reply to  James Collinsworth
1 month ago

This is certainly true, although presumably it’s mitigated or even outweighed by savings in transit costs to the office etc (which typically are shouldered by the academic).Report

Matt L
Reply to  Only Humean
1 month ago

At least in the US and Australia, it’s also at least often possible to write off expenses of a “home office” on one’s taxes. It’s not always 100% straight-forward, and you should clearly talk to a tax professional about it, but if you have significantly greater expenses because of working at home, it should be possible, at least in some countries, to have some of that dealt with via the tax system. (I have literally no idea if this is a possibility in the UK.)Report

John
1 month ago

Remote work has some advantages, there is no doubt. It also has disadvantages. We can all come up with a good list of each.

But I want to draw our attention to one disadvantage in particular: the possibility that the university will claim your recorded lectures as its own intellectual property, and then fire you and use your simulacrum to teach paying customers from all four corners of the globe.

Don’t put it past them. Universities are among the worst kinds of business precisely because they pretend not be one.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Mr. Student
James Collinsworth
Reply to  John
1 month ago

John is right about this. One thing that I know some people are doing to protect against this is to ‘temporally sabotage’ the lecture content, by intentionally SAYING THE DATE in the video recording, and when possible also refer to time-sensitive newsworthy events (e.g., in making examples). That way, it has been temporally sabotaged – and cannot as such easily be used again.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by James Collinsworth
John
Reply to  James Collinsworth
1 month ago

That might be a stopgap, for sure. But once the university catches whiff that an employee is intentionally damaging its intellectual property–because, again, intellectual property is precisely what the university would be claiming here–you’re in deeper than you want to be.

I speak from experience here: my own university (which I will not mention) has fought with the union about intellectual property over lecture content for some time.Report

John
Reply to  John
1 month ago

Just to beat this stick one more time:

Imagine the intellectual property claim goes through and the university is now amassing thousands upon thousands of high quality recorded lecture content. It then decides to monetize this content by, say, offering it at a discounted price (viz. in-person tuition) to customers (‘students’) who might not meet the eligibility criteria for admission, but who have enough money to get a ‘certification’ in x, y, or z.

Unis already do this with ‘continuing education’ garbage, selling its alumni the nostalgia of ‘dipping back into your radical, intellectual-driven undergraduate self’.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  John
1 month ago

“What if universities make thousands of hours of (ex hypothesi) high-quality recorded content available to large numbers of students so they can get an (albeit lower-quality) education for a much lower price than the current sticker price for a university degree?”

Throw me into that briar patch, thanks.Report

John
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Yeah, point well taken.

I think there’s a distinction somewhere, but I admit I don’t have my finger on it right now.

It’s something like: on one hand, you’re entirely right because if students can get an education more cheaply without significant loss in quality, that seems like a good thing; one the other hand, ‘without significant loss…’ is precisely the point of contention (as I alluded to when I said the university is selling this product to customers who do not meet eligibility criteria for admission–in other words, weaker student, crappier product.)

Nonetheless, I see where you’re coming from entirely.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  John
1 month ago

Ultimately, if your teaching can be delivered through prerecorded lecture without loss, you’re doomed anyway. Even if you can protect the intellectual property of your own lecture, it will still be cost-effective for your university to pay someone for the rights to the lecture and then use it indefinitely.

I actually think the teaching experience during the pandemic has been good news for people worried about the MOOC threat: students very consistently seem to have valued in-person education and, failing that, synchronous interactive education. (And in a world of shrinking enrollment numbers, what students want, they’re likely to get.) But to be honest, if my UG teaching actually was deliverable without loss through a recording, I’m not sure what would be wrong with me being fired and replaced by a video (at least qua UG teacher, setting aside my research/graduate-student duties).Report

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I largely agree with this, but think this comment is underestimating how many university administrators will decide if there is “loss” or not, how they will balance that with cost (to them, primarily).Report

praymont
praymont
Reply to  John
16 days ago

You can have a kind of immortality, like the Concordia (Montreal) Art History prof whose lectures were still being broadcast after his death. https://slate.com/technology/2021/01/dead-professor-teaching-online-class.htmlReport

Grad student
Grad student
30 days ago

This seems like a truly horrible development. When academics work in the same building – maybe not 5 days a week, but some of the time – share workshops, get coffee with each other, co-teach, trade drafts, they form communities that are a core part of what is great about academia. You might be able to sustain ties with someone remotely, but you rarely invest in them without sustained in person contact. Or, you might even invest in a rare person remotely, but you don’t build vibrant intellectual communities that way.

The pandemic should not precipitate a withdraw from public life.

The life of universities is what is most valuable about being an academic. That requires connecting to people in person. Physical presence cannot be replaced.

My sense is that the interest in replacing physical presence with remote work is mainly driven by not getting much out of the activity in question. I got immense life satisfaction and meaning out of being part of academic communities where people showed up. Not everyone does, but people who don’t should maybe consider being independent scholars and finding other revenue sources rather than funding ‘remote post-docs.’

I wonder what it even means to be a post-doc “at Emory” if you’ve never been on the campus rather than a post-doc “at [insert other university].” Emory gets to put out a press release when you publish your book? You maybe give a talk over zoom a semester? That doesn’t seem like a lot of value added to the university or to the post-doc.

It might be that this particular post-doc isn’t really a ‘philosophy’ post-doc in the standard way – the emphasis on “data collection, analysis, interpretation” and “independent research, directed” by the Deputy Provost sounds like this is maybe closer to wanting a social scientist to carry out directed research in the model of a lab. Should “recruiting someone who is right for the project” really be understood as a “post-doc” or a doctorate-required research assistant? If, for instance, the post-doc believes that she or he has found the fatal flaws in Prof. Acampora’s conclusions and that diametrically opposed conclusions should be endorsed instead, would this be welcome and celebrated or discouraged?Report

Christa Acampora
Reply to  Grad student
27 days ago

The option of remote work needn’t mean that the person never sets foot on campus, doesn’t participate in research discussions and collaborations, or isn’t introduced as a very welcome colleague. Indeed, the option is precisely that–an option to which I’m open if it facilitates a robust and collaborative research relationship. Finally, the position arises in my context as a full professor of philosophy, not my administrative role. The debate about what is and isn’t philosophy is surely the topic for a different posting. I will assume that only those who find the activities worth doing will bother to apply,Report

Christa Acampora
27 days ago

I’m deeply grateful to Daily Nous readers for interesting comments, because they’ve helped me advance my thinking.
 

  1. On work visa requirements, etc., this just indicates another way in which we need to grow to be ready for a new world of work. At universities, we sponsor visas permitting trainees to participate in our campuses all the time. How to do that in a remote work environment may require some flexibility on all parts, including some shorter-term residential experiences.
  2. On whether remote work will become a norm that eclipses residential-based teaching, learning, and discovery—I very much doubt it. Worries that making remote work available to some might damage positions for all seem misplaced. The tradeoffs are far too great. Being in residence would surely give a person more opportunity for engagement and connection with others, which is highly valuable, and it is the primary way that most of us understand how to do such activities. Still, not everyone who holds a fellowship in residence actually makes much of the residential dimension. It can be very hard to connect with others, particularly when cultural differences are great or research areas are very limited in scope. The existence of some remote academic work options is unlikely to lure away the very many who will prefer and seek a shared residential experience.
  3. Some commenters raise objections about sharing/shifting work costs. This is reasonable, though it isn’t limited to postdoctoral fellows. Also, for the latter, it is uncommon to have moving expenses and cost of living adjustments made for these pipeline/entry-level posts. In most cases, covering the costs of keeping the lights on a little longer and paying for internet (something that is essential for most in everyday life) seem likely to be far less than the cost of uprooting home and family. Accounting for shifting work costs is something that both employers and employees will need to consider in their terms.
  4. The remote teaching and intellectual property concerns, while real, are not especially relevant in this case, which is mainly a research post. Nevertheless, I understand why some seize the opportunity to press the point. 
  5. Thinking about the financial costs that might need to be considered and the value of in-person and residential experiences in the overall scope of a position like this made me think that I should build into the budget some dedicated travel expenses so that the person may easily travel to campus for periodic engagements. I’m also going to consider budgeting for travel for me to go to them, if that seems valuable. In the future, if and when such arrangements become more commonplace, then we might also need to think about start-up and research packages somewhat differently, and we should be open to more fluid conceptions of “residence”. 
  6. Finally, a remote-work environment *could* also provide some greater stability, at least for some people. In the event that a PI leaves an institution, it will be much easier for a remote postdoctoral fellow to follow, since the relationship with the research may have a greater role to play than the relationship with the institution (all of that assumes the money/financing can move with the people or be picked up by other institutions, of course). 

Many thanks to those commenters who helped me advance my thinking not only for the position for which I’m hiring but also for others I might be asked to support in my administrative capacity.  Report