I haven’t written anything here in a while and although I’m skeptical that it is necessary, I wanted to offer a little explanation about why that’s the case without get too navel-gazey. That being said, this is pretty personal stuff, though, I think, not at all novel or surprising.
The short explanation for why I haven’t been writing as much is that I graduated from my PhD program last spring (that’s right, I’m a doctor now) and the transition from graduate student to “person” has been somewhat challenging. Of course, the fact that completing a dissertation involves quite a lot of writing means that, at the end of the day, writing for pleasure became something that just didn’t seem too appealing. So, given the option of writing something and, say, playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (excellent game, by the way)…well, let’s just say I’ve gotten very good at digital cattle rustling.
Some other more concrete things have also been affecting me. In the first place, the fact that I no longer had to work on the dissertation did not mean that I didn’t have to work. Indeed, I defended on a day I was teaching, and a week or so after graduation I started teaching a new summer class on Ideology using a whole new pedagogical framework. As anyone who’s taught at the college level knows, both summer teaching and teaching a brand new class can be quite a lot of work, so there was little chance to rest. After the summer session wrapped up, I also picked up a gig teaching another new class at a nearby university alongside my visiting appointment at UNC. I know that a 2 class load isn’t anywhere close to a full plate, but I have to say that the shift from teaching just one class at one university to teach two at two different places was a challenge. To boot, I also don’t have a car so making it to my second appointment required carpooling and staying on campus for about 8 hours at a time. I thought this may have given me some extra time to work, but, unfortunately, the second class ended up being quite challenging, so most of my time was spent making much needed changes just to make the course work.
In the background of all this are two other factors: first, the worry about my own financial and material future, and second, the near-constant feeling of inferiority. One of the funny things I discovered about taking on this adjunct work after graduating is that I actually made less money with a PhD than I did as a graduate student. Now, in some respects, this might seem like a testament to how well funded the UNC philosophy program is (and it’s true, it’s certainly not bad as far as similar programs go), but looking at the actual numbers gives a different perspective. When I was still ABD, I taught one class a semester or ~$1600 a month (x9 months + $5K for a summer class gets us just short of $20K). After getting the PhD, teaching one class (maybe the same class!) at the same institution brought in ~$1400 a month. In essence, I received a near $2K decrease in salary for being more qualified to do the same job. At the same time, the university also kicked me off the student insurance while not providing me with any benefits because, well, part-time workers don’t get benefits. Summer work next year is not available, and my contract runs out in May without possibility of renewal.
I mention this not to complain about my department—I understand that the difference in pay is due to the fact that that I’m now getting paid from a different place (the School rather than the Department), and I think it’s quite generous of the program to include this post-graduate buffer year in which one can still work if the job market didn’t go well. Rather, I mention it show that certain material interests come to light that didn’t seem as important prior to graduating, and which make it difficult to do other things.
The fact that all this happens while one is on the job market doesn’t help much. There’s something very dispiriting about sending job application after job application and getting absolutely nowhere. At this point, I think I’ve sent out over 100 applications in the last two years and have received zero interviews. Indeed, most places don’t even provide the courtesy of telling you that you’re not being considered—you simply find out that you’re out of the running because six months have passed and nothing has happened. Furthermore, given how opaque the hiring process is, it feels impossible to understand why this is happening: maybe the cover letters are just terrible, maybe the teaching statements aren’t good enough, maybe people read your writing sample and just laugh, maybe it’s just bad luck—each of these hypotheses (or all of them!) could be correct, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever know. The only thing I know is that something isn’t working and that time is running out.
The net effect of this, of course, is to conclude that the reason things aren’t working out is because I’m not good enough. If I were good enough, then it wouldn’t be a struggle to get something published and it wouldn’t feel like I was just throwing away applications like so much trash thrown out of a moving car. And as evidence that this isn’t a broad phenomenon, but rather that the difference lies with me, is the fact that I can clearly see other people succeed. This hasn’t yet made me resentful towards others, but it’s definitely made me pretty depressed. When I hear news that a colleague on the job market has gotten a prestigious position I feel a deep sense of disappointment and hurt at the limitation of my abilities, mixed with a sense of shame that I could have thought of myself as even having those abilities in the first place. To put it in simpler terms: it’s the feeling of both realizing that I’m not a rising star and the embarrassment of realizing that part of me thought I could be. This is perhaps also a trait shared with the dreaded “impostor syndrome” but I think the feeling I’m having is one that is distinct. It’s not quite the worry that I am an impostor that has tricked everyone into thinking that I am one, but rather that the only person who was ever tricked was me!
Now, I’m aware that there are some serious problems with this kind of thinking, that this is both a sign of anxiety, depression, and a confluence of a ton of other factors that operate on systemic levels that are not under my control. But it’s hard not to feel the pull of Bernard Williams’ intrinsic luck discussion from “Moral Luck.” I set out to do a project of becoming a professional philosopher, the project is not coming together, and the reason why it isn’t is because of something about whether I could have been the kind of person to have it come together in the first place, and not because of a series of extrinsic circumstances. It would be one thing if I wasn’t successful because I got hit in the head so hard that I just couldn’t do philosophy anymore. It’s another thing entirely if I’m not successful because I’m just the kind of person who can’t cut it (lazy ideas, low motivation, chronic depression, lack of faith, etc.). Both are kinds of failures, but, in Williams’ terms, the former doesn’t leave me unjustified in taking up the project, while the latter does. And what one does—how one continues to go on in light of that lack of justification—isn’t clear.
To be sure, one can go on—I’m testament to that fact. And in some respects, that’s a silver lining. Continuing is far from thriving, but life really does go on and I hope that it will only improve in the future. However, that process is turning out to be a slow and tedious one and, unfortunately, writing hasn’t played a big role in it so far.
That being said, my other hope is that I can get back to posting more regularly than once or twice a year, and although I haven’t done so in a long time, there really is a stack of pieces that I started but never bothered to finish. Maybe there’s something in one of those pieces that can help out, or that someone else might find interesting.
Anyway, with some minor apologies for the melancholy tone of this post and with a heartfelt thank you for reading, peace.
Many thanks for the explanation, and may I offer some validation. Sounds like a really hard spot to be in, with not a lot to look forward to. Life is sometimes super effing hard. Know that we support you, and that we are all really proud of you, inspired by you, and excited for you!