The Happy Sophist (guest post by Eric Schliesser)
The Happy Sophist (guest post by Eric Schliesser)




This is a guest post by Eric Schliesser, University of Amsterdam

Because my dad resented being shunted into the family business – and disguised his anger at himself for not escaping this fate – he made it very clear that unlike his parents, he was willing to support me in my education ‘whatever I would choose.’ (He had received an Associate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, but no other higher education.) 

My dad had assumed I would be prudent about my freedom, and was aghast when in my mid-twenties I was pursuing a PhD in philosophy partially subsidized by him. I had opted for a PhD because Professor Eichenberg (my Intro to IR teacher) had asked me to teach a number of sections of his intro to IR course. I loved that vastly better than any of the ‘real jobs’ I landed in the early 90s (the so-called ‘jobless recovery’); academia beckoned.

At The University of Chicago even junior PhD students were given the opportunity to teach their own classes in the required undergraduate great books/Humanities sequences. During one winter session in the late 1990s my dad visited my class, and sat in the back of the room. He had no idea what we were talking about, but after class he was beaming, and he said something like ‘you have really found your calling.’ After that frigid morning in Hyde Park, he only spoke with pride about my career choice (and gleefully remained ignorant of the content of most of my work until he died). 

Back in those days, we received no teacher training, and I was not an especially good teacher. I have some evidence of that: my dad himself often referred back to the class visit by telling people that apparently I had called on a student by asking “is that your hand or are you scratching yourself?” He thought that genius (and ridiculous). I am sure part of his joy in sharing that story is my obvious discomfort about it. But the other part was the shared joy in my vocation.

At Chicago, and also in my first few temporary jobs, I generally taught students who were obviously much smarter than myself. In these jobs, classroom sizes were small; ‘teaching’ basically involved sitting in a small circle and learning from my students while discussing the reading and facilitating discussion. Yes, there were lots of papers to grade, but basically I was being paid to read books with bright, articulate students.

In reflecting on my graduate and undergraduate teachers – remember I had received no teaching training  – I decided that good teachers used an exaggerated feature of their character to connect with their students and, thereby, re-direct their focus to facilitate mutual learning. Plato calls this (more highfalutin-ly) the turning of the soul; Adam Smith (a very successful lecturer), ever so practical, suggests it’s directing vanity to its proper ends. In acting on this insight, I became a classroom character, and my teaching evaluations were polarized. Later I realized that the student-critics had a point: I was teaching to my better students – the ones who would be teaching me – and not to all my students.

So much for introduction. A few years ago, I was disabled and spent almost year in bed with debilitating headaches and general lack of conviction I could ever be professionally active again. (Check out my long covid diaries on this.) I had plenty of time to reflect on my career and the existential choices that had brought me where I was. After discussing it with my occupational physician, and soul searching, I realized that in my job I was passionate about three things: undergraduate teaching, having my research read, and learning from my peers at workshops or conferences. Being denied all three was clarifying. There were also things I enjoyed not strictly part of my job description (like blogging). Things that on refection I really didn’t like: both ends of peer review, administrative tasks, being a PhD supervisor, and a few others. 

I had some hope I could continue to read and write philosophy (and found an audience), but for a long time I did not expect to return to teaching and conference participation. (In fact, as part of my recovery from disability, I did try to return to teaching but it clearly made me physically worse.) What I like about undergraduate teaching and workshops is intrinsically the same: I could learn from others theorizing in a non-competitive atmosphere.

Now, I realize that for many people entering the profession, and for certain kind of introverts, conferences and workshops can be horrendous. If you lack job security or are in the grip of status anxiety then conferences make visible the negative effects of the attention economy in the profession. But it’s also true that even then you can develop comradery and friendship with people in the same position, or (better yet) whose work and personality you admire. 

A few decades into the profession, I can state that most encouraging academic mentors and professional friendships date back to workshops and conferences I attended more than twenty five years ago. In many cases we have met spouses (and new partners), we have gossiped, we have hiked and discussed Spinoza’s Ethics, we have closed out the hotel bar while debating an unexpectedly heated Q&A, and we even keep each other’s secret having bumped into each other as rejected job-finalist for a job at, say, Oxford or Manchester. (The British have an especially perverse way of conducting job searches.) Sometimes we struggled with the same foreign language at an exotic conference; another time we spent a few hours at an airport discussing Newton’s metaphysics forgetting the delayed flights. We have, in turn, become mentors to new generations, and the young laugh at our lack of awareness of the latest metaphysical distinctions emanating from NYU and Rutgers. 

Now, before I continue, let me acknowledge that most ambitious academics I know want recognition. A few grow miserable because they always get less than they think they deserve. Unfortunately, and I suspect this follows conceptually from the previous sentence, many of the miserable ones are politically savvy and ambitious enough to end up teaching in very good PhD programs (very good here means ‘ranked’ in some sense not necessarily intellectually stimulating places). Sometimes such people (the miserable types) also envy their college friends who ended up in the financial 1%. 

As an aside, in my experience, a very small minority of academics are miserable because they recognize that their economic privilege may come at the expense of a precariat. Most, like the citizens of Omelas, appreciate their blessings all the more. Yet, there are a few who really cannot sleep at night by virtue of their luck.

But if you are part of an academic sub-field, and you are a moderately well-adjusted person, you will receive sufficient recognition from your peers; often this means undesirable work (refereeing tenure files, or (worse) grant proposals) – although some find gate-keeping inspiring –, but it also means very smart people reading and discussing your work knowledgeably. There were people at the annual Hume society conferences who really had read all the papers appearing on Hume. I was amazed by that because ‘being on top of the literature’ was never mentioned during my PhD. I later realized it was second nature if you were part of a genuine community. (Sometimes it also means remaining tactfully silent about each other’s work.)

Most academics in permanent jobs that I am familiar with recognize that they are lucky to earn a decent living with something that can give them joy and stimulate their ongoing intellectual development; they are pretty happy as academics. (I have worked in the States, Belgium, and the Netherlands in private and public universities.) That’s compatible with the fact that some of us are in positions that are objectively more desirable than others or fit our geographic/family preferences better. And that’s also compatible with the fact that we are not alike in what part of the job is joyous; in a recent post Liam Kofi Bright articulated this latter important insight in characteristically moving and self-deprecating fashion. I have friends who adore being a PhD supervisor and mentoring them, and others who really love being a provost or Dean. The latter are secure enough in their power that they even put up with my mockery.

Now at this point, I want to acknowledge that some of us work in systems or universities that are so badly managed or where we are treated with such contempt, or so little job security, that the anxiety this produces can undermine basic job satisfaction. In some places we are even the targets of political attack that may well trigger violent attacks (as I look over my shoulder to people working in gender studies)—and they deserve our solidarity. 

In some systems (I am thinking of the UK) reasonable expectations about the nature of an academic career seem to have been structurally violated during the last few decades at many universities, and so maybe there are fewer happy folk there. (They are more motivated to take strike action than many other academic communities.) In my own (Dutch) system tenured academics are structurally overworked with enormous class sizes and many sub-par facilities, and are expected to apply regularly to a very limited number of grants. I am disappointed that I made it to full professor and have to share my office with two others (both lovely roomies); I am bombarded by empty newspeak from academic managers at all levels. But none of that undermines my job satisfaction. (I have returned to full time work.) 

In addition, it’s quite possible that my experience is the effect of a kind of adapted preferences and that it exhibits survivorship bias. So, what I am describing may well, in reality, be an objectively bad system for most personality types and people belonging to certain social categories that are likely to encounter obstacles in the academy (say certain ethnic, gender, class, and/or political minorities). That is, I don’t mean to suggest that the existence of happy academics should be a mechanism to silence those that want to question or challenge the professional and institutional status quo wherever they find themselves. 

Now, somebody may well suspect that given changing political economy and political ideologies the good life I am hinting at is coming to an end. That is, of course, very possible. But universities are very old institutions and you don’t survive the fall of feudalism, the collapse of empire, and various dictatorships by being unadaptable. 

Kierkegaard (echoing Socrates) implies that university professors are sophists who lack all integrity. Perhaps, we have sold our souls for a steady paycheck. It’s not the kind of Faustian bargain that makes for great poetry or blues lyrics. But I am surely not the only reader of the Protagoras who thinks that whatever one can say about his philosophical acumen, Protagoras is shown to be onto something about the art of good living; if we are the heirs to the sophists we might as well also make the best of it.

Professor, Political Theory, Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam,

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Other blogging:

Crooked Timber — Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made

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