An End of Academic Critique: Mindfulness and a Philosophy of Humility

An End of Academic Critique: Mindfulness and a Philosophy of Humility June 16, 2017

Teetering on the edge of academia, I watch eagerly as each new hiring cycle rises and falls. This year marks the first season that my PhD, the longest single endeavor of my life, is finally done. My parents and many of their generation assured me throughout that once that diploma was in hand, the doors to milk and honey would be opened.

Or at least an entry level job with benefits.

But they were living in the past. I, along with countless friends and colleagues in academia, watched the real-time shriveling of the job reservoir. It was like the California drought, except that rain never came.

I teeter still a bit, scanning the job-sections of the academic news hubs, empty as the desert skies. But I’m also taking the skills of academia elsewhere (yes, those transferable skills they tell undergraduates about are real). I can write. So I write now for a great online Buddhist publication based in Hong Kong: Buddhistdoor Global. I keep a toe in academic waters with an online Philosophy class here and there – sometimes World Religions too; as well as occasional on-the-ground classes.

And I have transfered my teaching skills, along with over fifteen years of meditation practice, over to mindfulness classes, which have been well-received thus far, leading to the rise of and I’m also co-leading a trip to India later this year and, well, we’ll see what happens in my new home in Seattle, Wash.

As I turn my attention more away from academia (which is hard, as I do love it so), I leave with some simple footnotes on a critique. My own feelings are far too milquetoast – or rather ambivalent – to warrant their own, unaccompanied expression. So I turn to a piece in The Baffler by Maximillian Alvarez titled “Contingent no More.

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING ACADEMIA—the specter of something that has yet to definitively claim a name for itself, but is rising nonetheless. So many of us have been buried underground, so many breathing through small breaks in the soil that covers our pristine university campuses where guided tours are given and frisbees are thrown, where deep-pocketed donors stroll nostalgically and future debtors gaze longingly. Looking up, we may, each of us, feel like the forgotten seeds moldering beneath these hallowed grounds—but we are, all of us, the tectonic plate holding them together. When we move, the world above will feel it.

Part of my reason for finally drawing this out is Pierce Salguero’s recent guest post here on the critiques of mindfulness [6/17 edit: to be clear, the thoughts here are not aimed at Pierce or his work, but in part at least toward my own potential place in academia and sympathies for many of the critiques]. Many of these critiques have come from folks picking figs from the hallowed halls of academia; tenured and tenure-track intellectuals ignorant of or content to ignore the specter haunting them.

There’s no sense in reciting these conditions yet again. We already know the score. New generations of faculty and students crushed by unprecedented levels of debt; the increased precariousness of the academic labor force; the systematic devaluation of academic labor itself; the corporate-style structuring of higher education—something, somehow is going to give. Still, either out of pure denial or self-preservation, we keep carrying on as if these circumstances can be ignored—as if they exist only in dark spots on the fringes, which we can escape by doing “better work,” enrolling in “better programs,” getting “better positions.”

I’ve asked fellow academics a few times about the specter and this sums up many of their responses. When I suggested that perhaps a nation-wide solidarity movement was needed, one more honest (imo) friend, suggested that tenured/tenure-track folks won’t step up for students and the precariat because: “they’re afraid.”

image via pixabay.
Image via pixabay.

And, as if to punctuate this fear, a university threatened the jobs of an entire philosophy department last month:

The chair of the Philosophy Department, John Hittinger, wrote, in a public Facebook post:

Here are the facts and their significance: every member of philosophy (11 of us) and every member of the English department (7 of us) was not given a contract. That means we do not know if we are going to return to the university in the fall. We are dangled, our very lives and profession, are dangling before the whim of a strong man.

How many adjuncts or graduate students, whose lives have dangled every semester that they have ever known, are going to burst forth with sympathy for Hittinger and co? As later reported on Inside Higher Ed:

…it’s puzzling to many on campus that reappointment notifications to tenured faculty members in philosophy may be sent up to month late this year, as the administration reviews department offerings in looking for ways to close a campus budget deficit.

Can any academic (especially those in fields like philosophy, english, foreign languages, or religious studies) really guarantee that this won’t be them in the not-so-distant future? The answer is, I believe, a resounding “no.” However, most if not all are content to keep their heads down, smile warmly as provosts or presidents approach, talk of tightening their budgets and their “better work.” Content may be an unfair word there; as many are perhaps just quiet in their desperation.

Alvarez continues:

This speaks to the truly tenacious allure and staying power of the foundational myths that shape the academic vocation. As I argued recently in a piece for the Chronicle Review, the essential function of these myths is to guide the currents of professional and existential want, to shape our desires and expectations for what life as an academic should be. Such professional myths tell us what we are and what we should be striving to be—via the perceived rewards they deliver, the cultural capital that colleagues and non-academics ascribe to them, and the way they shape our conceptions of what an ideal “academic” looks like.

And, getting right down to it:

It’s time we come to grips with the uncomfortable truth that many of the desires and lofty aims that drew us to academia in the first place are killing us softly, rotting away our ability to achieve the goals that initially drew us in while compounding the conditions of our own exploitation…. That is, after all, the supreme draw, the sweet poison, of such myths: they prey on the most self-serving and hyper-individualized conceits of an already laissez-faire academic culture that idolizes individual thinkers while equating professional success with genuine intellectual worth. It shouldn’t be hard to see how the mythology of such a culture merges so seamlessly with the neoliberal ethos of self-reliance and the self-serving fantasies of meritocracy and capitalistic bootstrapism.

I could quote all of it, but there’s a word for that. And you really should read the full piece yourself.

Instead, I come back to mindfulness and my own turn away from academics critiques of it.

Academia is a Goliath, and it is slowly being brought to its knees by neoliberalism. Mindfulness, by contrast, is a pretty insignificant corner of the world, economically and culturally. I applaud continuing projects that uncover the history and understandings of past Buddhist practices (such as Robert Scharf’s lecture here), current trends as discussed by academics like Ann Gleig, Scott Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, and others, or the forward looking thoughts discussed here or Miles Neale’s long-time insider critique discussed here recently.

I have no desire to draw out my own critique of academia. It is, after all, a critique of all of us (inside academia or not). It is a critique of the whole corrosive neoliberal system around us. Academia, and academics, are no more to blame than are mindfulness teachers or Buddhist lamas with twitter accounts. I’m leary, as well, about tribalism: the idea that we don’t criticize “our own” because we (buddhists, mindfulness teachers, academics, etc) are all on “the same side” against some reified enemy. People on our side are just as apt to make mistakes and just as deserving of the kind notice when they (and I!) do.

And so I go on, one eye on the system around me, one eye on the ground before me.

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