Monday, June 17, 2024

Academic Cats and Dogs: Does Academia Need to Get Weirder to Survive?

I’ve never been entirely comfortable in academia. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading and writing. I enjoy teaching and interacting with students. I’m fond of conversation about subjects most people don’t understand or care to understand. 

But in recent years—especially with the convergence of the pandemic, my tenure, and feeling middle age—I find myself caring less and less about academia as an abstract system of disciplines. I care about my friends, my colleagues, and my students. I care about philosophy as a global human endeavor. But I don’t care about being a Very Serious Academic. I’m not sure how much I ever really did. 

Part of it is my allergy to elitism and pretentiousness. Some of us in academia act as if we’re more important than other people because we study Very Serious Things. Sure, these things are important, but if I had to choose between academics or farmers and janitors, it’s easy to see who’s more important for the functioning of civilization. Of course, a society needs lots of different people, none of whom are more inherently important than others (although we could probably do just fine with fewer billionaires). 

My point here is that we need different types of people within academia as well. An analogy with cats and dogs might help. I’m drawing on the usual stereotypes, of course, but with the caveat that I’ve met plenty of furry friends that don’t fit the mold: antisocial dogs, hypersocial cats, etc. 

Some academics are like dogs. They find meaning in the academic hierarchy, working well within a pack. They’re either alphas, setting the agendas for their pack, or following the agendas set by others. They’re fun to be around as long as you’re accepted by the pack. 

Other academics are like cats. They’re difficult to herd. They tend to go their own way, only coming together with others when it suits their whims. They may squeeze into strange places. They might pop out of nowhere. You may like them, or you may not. But they probably don’t care either way. 

And some academics are just assholes of whatever species, but sadly that’s true in any area of human activity! My point is that we shouldn’t let the academic dogs run everything, although I like both dogs and cats just fine (of both the furry and academic varieties). 

To be honest, I’m a bit of a cat-dog hybrid. I understand the need to pitch in with the essential work that academics call “service”: planning events, attending meetings, serving on committees, organizing conference panels, reviewing manuscripts, etc. We need a bit of a dog-like pack mentality just to keep this whole rigamarole of academia functioning. 

But a basic tenet of my personality is cat-like: I don’t really care what’s popular. I made a conscious decision at age 14 to go my own way with little to no concern about what others think. And I’ve been 1000% happier ever since. 

I care as little about whatever is hip and cool in Very Serious Academia this month as I care about recent pop music or the latest Tik-Tok trends. Becoming an uncool middle-aged weirdo isn’t a threat to me, because I was never cool to begin with. (There is one thing I do care a bit about: I’d hate to think that someone might think I’m deliberately cruel or callous, but on the other hand, philosophy has taught me that I can’t control what other people think and I may be as self-delusional as anyone else.) 

I don’t say all this to be cool. Like I said: I’ve never been cool. 

To some extent, I’m just being realistic about where I stand in the academic order. I have the wrong PhD, the wrong type of job, and the wrong research interests to be part of Very Serious Academic Philosophy (the types of interests and departments that used to be ranked highly on a philosophical-report-that-shall-not-be-named). 

Some people might say I’m being defeatist. But I’ve never wanted that research-focused R1 job at an Ivy League or equivalent Very Fancy University. I’ve never wanted to be a Leader in my Field. I don’t want to set a Scholarly Agenda. Even less do I want to follow someone else’s agenda. 

I’m quite happy doing my weird little projects from my regional state institution. I feel incredibly lucky to have the job I have. I get to teach, read, and write philosophy for a living! How cool! 

Honestly, I have a lot more freedom to teach and write on what I want without worrying about what Big Philosophy might think. I wouldn’t trade this freedom for the fanciest R1 job (although the fancy R1 funding would be nice). 

Very Serious Academic Writing is rarely supposed to be as personal as I’ve been here, but I guess I’m trying to establish what our rhetoric colleagues would call ethos or what regular people might call “where I’m coming from.” Maybe this would be a way to make academic writing more relatable? More on that later. 

Another thing that has always annoyed me about academia: the weird hierarchy of intellectual taste. In academic philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition, there’s a sense that “rigor” is what places something higher on the scale of Very Serious Academic Philosophy. You find such “rigor” mostly in metaphysics and epistemology, the more logically formalized the better. I’ve never quite understood what “rigor” is supposed to be, but it usually involves the use of egregious logical operators, esoteric abbreviations, and mathematically inspired Greek letters, whether they actually clarify anything or not.

This hierarchy is slowly changing, I think (I hope!) as philosophy becomes a bit more open, but we have a long way to go. For example, my interests in the convergences of philosophy with science fiction, horror, and fantasy are sometimes met with amusement by other philosophers (my interests in Non-Western philosophy are a whole other can of tuna). I’ve never faced outright hostility, but I get the sense that many philosophers don’t think my pop culture work ranks anywhere on the scale of Very Serious Academic Philosophy. 

And maybe it’s not Very Serious Academic Philosophy! But why should I care? 

Philosophy and other academic disciplines face serious problems. Especially in the humanities, colleges and universities are cutting programs and majors at an alarming rate. The very idea of the Liberal Arts in the sense of learning a wide variety of subjects is under attack here in the US as we move students toward narrow specialization in economically lucrative fields (or at least fields that students’ parents perceive as lucrative). The more we as a society saddle students with unpayable student loans, the more narrowly economically we look at every aspect of human life, the more we erode the idea of education as a public good… the worse things are going to get, not just for the humanities, but for the arts and even for less economically exploitable STEM fields. 

And I don’t think the best response to these problems is to encourage everyone in academia to do more and more refined work accessible to fewer and fewer people. It may seem like a good strategy in the short term as we become more dog-like, chasing grants and prestige in the eyes of administrators (our true pack leaders). Yet attempting to mimic our grant-dependent STEM colleagues is, I fear, a losing game of fetch. For starters, we’re always going to start with a lot less money to throw around. 

Again, I have no interest in legislating other people’s intellectual tastes. If you want to do a Bayesian analysis of the semantics of knowledge ascriptions or whatever, more power to you! I’m too cat-like to interfere with anyone else’s fun. But we should be open to other philosophical paths. My point is very much a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” 

Unlike STEM fields, philosophy and other humanities fields don’t produce immediately obvious economic or technological benefits. I’m never going to get a patent for the next billion-dollar iPhone app or receive a $10 million National Science Foundation grant. Most non-academics are shocked to learn that I don’t make any money at all on my publications (although I need publications to keep my job, which does pay me, so it’s complicated). 

Unlike the arts, philosophy and other humanities don’t produce relatable artistic creations like painting, music, theater, film, literature, and so on. When I played the string bass, my family used to come to my orchestra concerts and get something out of it, but most of my academic philosophy writing is … less relatable to say the least. 

To spell this out: If disciplines like philosophy are to survive, we need more of the public to be aware of what we do, which may translate to more public support. We can’t assume the public understands the value of what we do like our STEM and arts colleagues can. And even less can we claim the obvious personal economic benefits of business and professional programs, although of course philosophy majors, contrary to all the jokes, tend to do well economically after graduation. More deeply, philosophy classes may be some of the few places where students can openly question—as many already do—the pervasive cultural assumption that the main purpose of life is making money. 

A lot of what I’m saying probably applies to other disciplines, especially in the humanities, but let me continue to focus on my home discipline of philosophy. 

I think we need to explore new ways of doing philosophy. Public philosophy is one thing to try (at least if we don’t limit “public philosophy” to New York Times editorials). Engaging with popular culture (as I try to do on this blog and in the Science Fiction and Philosophy Society) is another possibility. We could reflect on ideas in the global history of philosophy and how they might help people rethink pressing issues that most need rethinking: climate change, inequalities, the rise of nationalisms, and so on. 

We need to do more to show regular people (students and the general public) that philosophy is relevant to things they already care about. I love showing people that philosophy is a human activity that we all to do to some extent: most people are already doing philosophy even if (especially if?) nobody thinks of it as Very Serious Academic Philosophy! 

We might try writing with a little more warmth and personality, experimenting with less stilted styles that—gasp— people both inside and outside academia might enjoy reading! An example that always puts a bee in my bonnet: I’ve received comments on a few academic drafts over the years that contractions aren’t appropriate for Serious Academic Prose… c’mon! Contractions are just natural English! What’re we doing to ourselves, academics? 

Philosophers are imaginative people (at least when we’re not limited to imagining new funding sources). We could think of lots of new ways to get philosophy out of its shell and encourage others to pursue their own creative projects if we stopped caring so much about forcing all philosophy to be Very Serious and Rigorous and Respectable Academic Philosophy. 

Helen De Cruz, a great philosopher in her own right and fellow traveler in philosophy and science fiction, recently made a similar point more eloquently than I have here. 

Some people might tell me this is easy for me to say, especially as a cishet white man with tenure. And I agree. But part of my point is that those of us with some degree of comfort and power in academia ought to make things better for everyone else, whether that’s in reviewing manuscripts, making hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions, or generally being supportive of the cool fun projects our colleagues might do if we all loosen up a bit. I think it would be better for all of us. I’d rather have more cool fun stuff in the world. Wouldn’t you? 

So, maybe I do care about academia. But it needs to become something weirder, more diverse, and more willing to take risks if we are to continue having academic disciplines at all. Yes, we need academic dogs for the pack order we require to function institutionally, but we also need academic cats—those who wander off quietly on their own, returning later as if from nowhere bearing strange gifts.

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