Reflections of a Post-Academic Philosopreneur

Reflections of a Post-Academic Philosopreneur December 29, 2014

On January 1 of this year, I wrote a surprisingly widely read post with my reflections as I left academia. In response, Colleen Flaherty from Inside Higher Ed contacted me to do a piece on me. She sent me some preliminary questions and then interviewed me over the phone. Here are the answers I gave to her preliminary questions. My answers are from January and then expanded on in February so the information on the state of my business is out of date. All I have done today in preparation to publish these reflections is edit for clarity. I want to leave this as an accurate attestation to my mindset at the beginning of my post-academic life, before this first year had run its course. Eventually I hope to talk about the marvelous first year that I have had in another piece.

–What kind of feedback have you gotten since your announcement? 

People have been astoundingly supportive. Many are saying very kind things like that it’s academia’s loss but that they’re proud of me and pulling for me. Because I have devoted myself to engaging a broad community through social media in the last 4 and a half years since I started my Camels With Hammers blog, I have an incredible network of readers and friends that have been taking an interest in all my goings on the last few years and they have expressed a ton of support and belief in me. One of the most gratifying responses was from one of my first online students, who is himself an entrepreneur. He reached out to share his enthusiasm for my entrepreneurialism and to give me a ton of advice about how to be successful.

He is actually the second of my students with entrepreneurial experience to take an interest in helping me grow the business. It is very exciting when the people who have already believed in your services enough to pay you directly for them and make your business possible in the first place then want to go the step further, after having studied with you, to try to counsel you about how to grow that business. It’s very validating and gratifying.

And the adjunct community has been enormously supportive on Twitter. And from the philosophical community I have already been offered a freelance writing gig. And I was grateful that Brian Leiter linked to my post from his blog, which reaches the mainstream of the philosophy profession, so that my leaving didn’t go entirely unnoticed. It is very easy to feel forgotten and unappreciated as an adjunct professor, so I was glad that when I left at least it was noted within the profession and I had a chance to be heard on the way out the door.

-Why do you think you were so “zen” about the decision? 

I wrote about a number of these factors in my article, but I can quickly recap them. First, I have had 5 years to prepare for this day. I remember telling my students the first day of class in 2009 that I didn’t know if this would be my last semester. From that point on, I was resolved to soak it up and never take the job for granted, just in case it was over after that semester. And I kept that mindset for 5 years. So, while my decision in October to make fall 2013 my last semester came like a sudden flash, it was something that I had 5 years to reconcile with.

When the job market collapsed in 2008 and I saw how few jobs offerings there were in my area of specialization and that a couple jobs I might have had an inside track for get outright canceled, and I started to realize I might never get onto the tenure track, I resolved immediately to think in terms of opportunities rather than dwell on lost chances. I became pragmatic and began then reconceiving what success could be for me.

And then I relaunched my blog in 2009 as Camels With Hammers and it became a central passion for me. It has received a few million page views since September 2011. It has created an outlet for me to be the kind of public thinker that I really wanted to be and felt most comfortable being. I am bursting with ideas but have never submitted anything to academic journals because I have not known how exactly to pitch them to the mainstream of my profession and be understood. And I loathe the obscurity of philosophical writing, in terms of its hiddenness from public view and the way it is treated as irrelevant to public discourse. And I hate that scholarship is deliberately gated off and our journals require academic association to have access to them.

And I don’t think of philosophy publication as best done in an overly formal way. I think the journal is not our ideal model. We are not like other disciplines where one has to go out and do a sophisticated empirical research program and then come back to report on findings. This is a dialectical endeavor. I feel like it should be a vigorous daily interaction using modern internet technology wherein philosophers immediately can float their ideas to each other and get immediate professional feedback in an ongoing, informal process in the blogosphere or something akin to it that we set up amongst ourselves.

So through blogging I found my way to write about whatever I wanted and let it stand on its merits. It doesn’t have a peer review stamp of approval but it also wins readers on its own strengths. I am excited that I can write an uncompromisingly philosophically serious and sometimes technical (though jargon averse) blog that people outside philosophy regularly read, that participates in a live cultural movement of activist atheism, and that can generate hundreds of thousands or millions of page views a year at the same time.

So this blog became such a success and such a passion that I felt okay that I had an outlet to be heard and to reach people and even to be an educator without being in the classroom. Regularly I will write something that is read by thousands of people and in that way reaches more than I did teaching 93 and a half classes face to face. In fact, some of my university students would report googling concepts we studied in class and coincidentally arriving at my blog as part of their research and finding it helpful.

Then teaching online and doing some work as a philosophical advisor in 2013 made me extremely excited and confident about my prospects outside the academy. I felt like an entrepreneur and as someone from academia, this was incredibly liberating. Academia can make people institutionalized and feel incapable of living out in the wild. Being able to find my own students, receive direct payment, and create a business that didn’t exist before was incredibly empowering. And having 23 people complete full courses, and four people sign up twice (with more eager to), and other people generously donate scholarships for others to take the classes was incredibly gratifying. My advertising was confined to my social media network and my blog and a few friends’ blogs and I found enough people to make over $18,000 in just my first year, running classes around my more than full time university teaching schedule (11 class in 2013).

And so I was very encouraged and now knew that I could still teach, even without institutional support, just as I could still be read even without institutional support.

Finally, over the years I have thought about a wonderful set of dance students I taught in 2004. They were 15 of the 24 students in a class I had at Fordham Lincoln Center. All talented young people also studying dance at Alvin Ailey as part of a special joint degree between the two schools. I admired the way these talented disciplined young people threw themselves into a career that was destined to be substantially over by the time they were in their early 40s at the latest–and possibly much younger. Mostly they were headed to underpaid, short term work. Each had to face the prospect they may never dance as their primary source of income, despite having so much talent and so much devotion to their craft. Maybe they could stay in dance their whole careers in some capacity, but their years as performers were limited. And I just admired, and learned from, their ability to embrace a performance career that even if wildly successful is significantly limited to their youth and to enjoy it and to just throw themselves into it in all of its uncertainty and love it while it lasted and commit to it and sacrifice for it while it lasted.

Or I would even look at accomplished professional athletes at the ends of their careers who are still at roughly my young-for-an-academic-but-old-for-an-athlete age! Some of these guys would have no more money they ever need to make but would work out like maniacs to stay competitive with younger guys and hang on for just one more season. And I would think; how important can these extra 16 games this guy will pitch be that it’s worth all that sacrifice and personal investment to pitch them? So, I would think about those sorts of people who must live in those finite moments actually out on the field–all the buzz and hoopla and stress surrounding it just fading away and immersing themselves in the games while they last. These dancers and pro-athletes are people not sacrificing their youth with hopes for payoffs of a cushy midlife or old life. They’re sucking the marrow out of their 20s and 30s and enjoying thriving in their excellences as much as possible while their peak physical talents last, knowing well that they’re completely set up for an identity crisis in their 40s or 50s when their bodies age and they can no longer depend on them as their main source of achievement and recognition. And so I went into the classroom pretending I was an athlete savoring a game at a time knowing it could all end (as pretentious as comparing myself to elite athletes might sound!).

(I’m happy to report some of my dancing students have been enormously successful, one is even now a Broadway star, several have been Rockettes, one has performed at the Met, others have performed for Ailey’s main company or the second company–some even performing for the President the very week of his first inauguration.)

I also felt very good about the decision to leave adjunct teaching because it felt right to finally do the moral thing and to finally feel independent of the system that was exploiting me. I do feel some sorrow over having helped academia continue its system of exploitation for so long. There is definitely a feeling of relief to be out of it and more than a little feeling of defiance in leaving. I do feel somewhat principled in leaving–at least in that I have strong resolve never again to accept from a university the kinds of exploitative wages I’d been getting.

And finally, as I already mentioned in my previous blog post, it dawned on me that I had already experienced and enjoyed most of what there is to love about having university students. I had taught so many of them, had so very many enriching experiences working with them, had so very many chances to express myself in that forum and hone my teaching skills and have mutually sharpening class discussions with them about philosophical topics, that I realized it would be okay were I to leave the brick and mortar institutional classroom for good. I have lived the dream. I didn’t miss out. I got to do it to my heart’s content. While I want to remain a teacher the rest of my life, and I still hope the internet will make that possible for me, I no longer understand myself as needing to be a professor. I feel completely satisfied that I have already been one, that I got to experience everything great about being one, that I have a legacy in the form of 2,500 people whose education I had the privilege of being able to contribute to, that I have had a lifetime’s worth of love from my students and a handful of potentially lifelong friendships with a few of them. I managed to experience 20 years’ worth of teaching in just 11 years’ time. I feel like I really and truly experienced and accomplished what I wanted to with being a university professor.

And while I earnestly hope and diligently plan to remain a teacher online for the long term, were I for some reason to find myself no longer a teacher but exploring something new, I am excited by the prospect of repurposing my skills and developing new ones. There’s a feeling of adventure in contemplating a whole different daily schedule, with different rhythms, responsibilities, and rewards than a lifetime spent in school has afforded me. I welcome change as opportunity now. And the more weeks go by the less I can even remember why for so long I could not conceive of success or satisfaction for myself outside of the professoriate. It seems like such a curious, arbitrary, myopic, and self-limiting perspective now that its spell has broken for me.

I am astonishingly comfortable with my present state of uncertainty. I feel like I’m in recovery. It’s very restorative. And leaving New York upon leaving adjunct teaching was among the smartest things I did for myself. While I hope to be back in New York any year now, the clean break was incredible psychologically. I love many of the serial TV shows that are driving television’s renaissance in the last 15 years. And I love how important a good ending to these serials of finite duration is. One of the aesthetically great things about the end of a serial is the way it usually dismantles the entire premise of the show. After the events of the final episode there can’t be a continuation of what used to be seemingly endless, interlocking, and perpetuating storylines. They’re all over. There’s closure. The relationships that the show were structured around are dissolved. People move or die or go to jail or in some other way their long journey comes to a definitive end. They couldn’t revive the show as it was even if they wanted to. And that’s how I felt in moving. Throwing stuff out, leaving my jobs and my city and my routines and my entire way of life to start fresh with a blank slate and new projects to develop.

These days I live for the day, content that I am in a transition stage, with no feelings of pressure to rush it. As time passes and I am getting more and more distance from the life I just left, I find myself paying attention to the occasional anxieties I do feel and I am patiently figuring out what actually matters to me and why. I am starting to feel like by the end of the year I will have a much clearer sense of what I really should prioritize in the grand scheme of things.

–What is the fallacy you refer to in your piece? I haven’t heard of that. 

The sunk cost fallacy is basically psychologists’ term for the old concept that it’s a bad idea to “throw good money after bad”. Once someone has invested money or energy or time or education, etc. into something and it is not going well, it is psychologically very hard to let go even when it is increasingly clear it’s not going to pay off, so they just keep on putting in more money or energy or time, etc. into seeing that bad choice out instead of just cutting their losses and moving on.

I read a blog post from an economist a while back that I found really insulting and small-minded. He had been speculating as to why exactly adjuncts kept on accepting such terrible pay and working conditions and the best explanations he could come up with were things on the order of the sunk cost fallacy. We must be so deeply invested in the academic path that we can’t accept that it’s a dead end and move on. And it angered me because I wasn’t delusional. I knew this wasn’t the financially best thing for me either now or for my long term success. I was doing it because it was intrinsically valuable. My work was meaningful, impactful, important, and deeply gratifying, and a source of profound growth in my abilities and my understanding. There really is more to life than money.

And I am deeply offended when adjuncts like me are looked at like suckers for sacrificing money for our passions and our commitment to the ideal of education and for the love of our students and for the chance to do what we love with our lives. It’s one thing to not get the pay or the respect or the retirement plan or the consideration for our health and well being that we deserve. But then when they just talk about us like we’re fools or second-rate losers rather than like the principled professionals we are it is infuriating. Our tenured colleagues judge us so poorly by our lack of rank and our paycheck when it is academia that should be judged poorly by our lack of rank and our paycheck.

–Who have your clients been in the past for your online courses? I’m just curious about who is mainly interested in these kinds of courses and advising. 

I have had a very gratifying and exciting range of people. A proportion of them are formerly religious people. My blog’s primarily hook is atheism. And there are a number of wonderful people out there who have done the very difficult work of extricating themselves from conservative religious traditions that discourage independent thought, and wound up becoming atheists by swimming upstream very hard for themselves. Some of these people come out very hungry for knowledge and to reconstruct their own philosophy for themselves and they’re people who really benefit from what I offer.

Amazingly I have had university students so passionate about learning that they’ve been willing to take my classes, investing hours a week for no credit, while doing full academic loads. I am so honored by that. I have had a couple of retired people, a full time mom, a couple business owners, a couple musicians including a delightful young woman famous in the atheist community named Shelley Segal, a former pastor looking to get a less theologically skewed take on philosophy than she got in her pastoral training, a few computer programmers, an engineer, a biology student, a film student, a physics student, engineers, military people, a nurse–you name it, they come from a range of walks of life and are a range of ages. Some of them had philosophy as undergraduates.

They also come from around the world. I have a wonderful student from Singapore who lives with her very conservative and religious family that prohibits her activities with likeminded progressive and atheist people. I have had 3 Australian students, a couple Canadian students, and a New Zealander. One class I have takes place entirely on Saturday morning in Singapore and Australia while I teach it on Friday evening in America. Her class time with us each week, which she hides from her parents, is her outlet to talk about ideas. Most of my students found me through reading my work and at least a few were simply huge, supportive fans even before becoming students. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

–Do you envision that you will be able to support yourself on the courses? To do so, would that require a much bigger student load than you have now? 

I plan to support myself through my blog and freelance writing and most importantly through the courses. I need to at least triple my students or increase my retention rate for existing students in order to do so. The short term goal is to pull that off and to develop other services. I love the philosophical counseling I have gotten to do and would love to make that a big part of my daily routine. I would like to make the business big enough that I can hire other philosophy teachers. I would like to get involved in consulting, educational consulting, or developing business ethics workshops for businesses, for example. The atheist community gives me opportunities to do talks that draw on my years of experience lecturing. I would love to build from there to a wider public speaking circuit. I am interested, were there the right opportunity, in working for professional atheist organizations.

I have had opportunities to advise an amateur novelist on the philosophies of his characters and that was a blast. So, I have thought a lot about reaching out to writers to help them think through where their narratives or characters are going philosophically to help them with their writing processes. I think about doing ghost writing or  speech writing. I plan to write a book. I think about finally submitting my philosophical work to scholarly publications. My experiences working with entrepreneurs has made me very excited about the idea of helping out entrepreneurs and executives work out their personal philosophies and business philosophies. I am starting a podcast very soon called Hammering Out Ethics. And some days, I think it would be awesome to teach fifth grade.

I see the skies as the limit. I just want to keep trying everything and whatever works, I run with, and whatever doesn’t, ultimately doesn’t matter.

–What, if anything, do you hope fellow adjuncts take away from your blog about your announcement? I’m wondering if you hope others will take charge of their careers, in a sense. 

As I was writing it I didn’t even think they’d read it. I tend to assume they already understand everything I was saying. I hope I just gave them something they can point to to articulate that it’s possible at the same time to believe you’re being exploited and that that’s worth being angry about and yet at the same time to also affirm the intrinsic meaning and value and dignity and legacy of the work you’re doing day in and day out, even as you’re being mistreated. It’s very very difficult for us because it’s important to point out that we deserve to be both angry and yet to also feel gratified. There’s an insidious temptation to feel like you can’t be angry and happy at the same time so you have to choose. Because if you say you love what you’re doing, then people might think you’ve waived your right to complain. Adjuncts have the right to love what they’re doing and say it’s worth it even as is and to say they’re being treated unconscionably.

–Do you think the adjunct dynamic in higher ed will improve? Or do you think it will stay the same or even get worse (more adjuncts teaching under poor conditions) over time? 

I really have no idea. All I can tell is that the professors’ union is a complete and utter sham for ever letting things get to this point in the first place and it looks like it will take a very long time for adjuncts to get themselves together to do anything. I was always incredibly disconnected from my fellow adjuncts and so busy that I was neglectful in making any efforts to meet with adjunct union leaders. When you’re teaching 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 classes at 2, 3, 4, or 5 schools as I did, you are just on the campus to teach and do an office hour before flying out the door to another campus. There has to be a concerted effort to get adjuncts to share email listservs or private web forums where they can get to know one another if they’re going to organize at all. And I don’t see any sign of the universities caring about adjuncts. They seem perfectly happy to destroy the professoriate.

–I’ve heard adjuncts say before that they hate teaching as adjunct because it enables a system they don’t believe in. I was wondering if you, as a philosopher, feel particularly sensitive to that point (which you make in your piece).

Yes, I have felt, and still feel, a great deal of frustration. I knew that the only way to get them to pay us was to force them. And the only way to force them was for all of us highly qualified professionals to stop taking these jobs unless we were treated like highly qualified and valued professionals. One dreams of the day no adjunct agrees to sign the insulting and degrading contract the first day of school. And universities get so desperate they have to actually offer decent money and health benefits and retirement plan and job security, etc.

And you realize every day that by signing the contract you make it so that the terrible wage offered will continue to be offered. You realize you’re not making that day where we’re treated like what we’re worth happen. So, yes, I hated that. And I hated that that added another dimension of irrationality and, on a certain level, immorality to my work doing my dream job in the classroom. It was a frustrating bind to be in. I feel extremely at peace to reject that system now. I am okay with the prospect of not doing philosophy or teaching as my primary vocation if my online classes fall through. I feel resolved that I don’t have to do philosophy if it ever means perpetuating that system.

I think it’s irrational for the academy to treat its professionals with such contempt. It makes academia a lousy option for the most talented young people who can make far more money in any other profession. Academia is shooting itself in the foot. The years of financial and personal sacrifice in graduate school cannot regularly be rewarded with dead end jobs that provide no financial or personal stability. Many in my generation feel like they can’t get married or start families until they’re financially stabilized. Academia is wrecking a lot of our lives here.

Your Thoughts?

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