Philosopreneurs: Thoughts on labor at the Exciting New Grad School

Is the Exciting New Grad School an inherently anti-labor institution?

First, as Adam has already pointed out, perhaps one reason for the apparent excitement for the Global Center for Advanced Studies is the hunger for an alternative to the increasingly neoliberalized world of U.S. higher education. It is, of course, incontrovertible that higher education is under attack from a number of directions, and that, particularly from the perspective of students, skyrocketing tuition costs are one of the most troubling trends. After one reads past the alarmingly fantastic rhetoric on the GCAS website and facebook page, it appears that one of their primary marketing strategies is to present the school as a low-cost, easy alternative to traditional schools. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Weaving, Not Unweaving: Feminism, Fabrication & the Disruption of Intellectual Culture

When I learned that Helen Tartar, editor of Fordham University Press, had died in a tragic car accident, the first thing I thought of was the fact that my school’s (Drew University) annual Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium was only a matter of weeks away. I go to this conference every year, and I found it impossible for me to imagine the TTC without Helen in the audience, patiently knitting and listening while she sat through the extremely long and intense weekend conversation. I still remember the first time that I attended the TTC, as a new PhD student, in 2009. I saw this elegant woman in the crowd, quite obviously attuned to the intellectual discourse, yet simultaneously knitting this incredible and intricate lace garment. I found it oddly empowering. I was unsurprised to learn, over the course of time, what a subtle, elegant, and intricate critical imagination Helen had—as a thinker, and an editor. In a certain sense—though she was extremely kind, deeply unpretentious, and totally unassuming—you might say that she almost wore this on her sleeve. As an editor, she did so much to broadcast the kind of intellectual work that was being done at Drew. She started a series, to publish the annual proceedings of the TTC, and the kind of feminism that’s emerged from the ecosystem that is Drew University (deeply informed by thinkers like my advisor Catherine Keller, by Virginia Burrus, by Laurel Kearns, as well as former administrators like Maxine Beach and Anne Yardley) came through so well in powerfully simple things like the covers of these books. But over the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to articulate what it was that I found so oddly empowering when I saw Helen knitting in the midst of an academic conference.

On some levels, it’s obvious. I grew up in a family of women who sew. My great grandmother was skilled at making lace crochet. By the time I knew her, she had lost much of her hearing and much of her eyesight. But the home of my grandparents, and my own home, were graced with curtains she’d made decades earlier. The lace was thick, but the patterns she wove were large enough to filter the sun into speckled streams. My mother and I were both a little heartbroken when our crazy beagle, Teddy, chewed off the corner of one of these curtains so that he would have a small porthole to stick his head through, to stare out the window. I think either my mother or I might have cried. But who can really blame a dog for wanting a better view? My grandmother used to make these fantastic dresses for herself, and for her grandaughters. Living in an immigrant family (with seven children), who’d come to the U.S. after living in a displaced persons camp, my grandmother never had much money. But she worked as a seamstress and had enough to buy, periodically, some beautiful silky fabric for an elegant dress. And enough to keep a little bottle of Chanel No.5 on her vanity, for special occasions. She was glamorous, and I was in awe of her. One year, for Christmas, she made my cousins and I these velvety dresses in different shades of red. I felt like we were royalty. My mother went through a period in her hippy youth where she made all of her own clothes. And we still own some of the intricate and embroidered little garments that she made for me as a small child. I used her old sewing machine until I was in college, and I cried when it broke down. I did. I had to call her, thinking that I should ask for permission before I got a new one. She laughed, because it’s just a machine. But for me, there were histories bound up in the machine: ties to my past, to the women of my family who’d passed away and left me with their skills and sensibilities.

It’s weird, I know, for me to write about this at a place like AUFS. Even though I’ve written about things like Barbie before, I kind of feel like this is one of those places where I go to be a little bit more of a dude. But I’ve seen this blog billed as an “anomalous” space. So I’m just going to go ahead and anomalize a bit. Say what I want.

This past weekend, at the TTC, we ended up making a quilt for Helen. Read the rest of this entry »

The ultimate reasons to distrust the Exciting New Graduate School

Whatever you think of their awesome “faculty” (i.e., the roster of people who said they’d hypothetically be open to doing guest lectures), it appears that the intellectual habits that the Global Center for Advanced Studies is inculcating in its supporters do not offer an encouraging alternative to current academic norms. In all my interactions with self-identified advocates, the same patterns have repeated themselves, namely:

  • Blind faith: If anyone questions the vast claims that the GCAS makes for its transformative, revolutionary power, advocates simply repeat the propaganda talking points without even engaging with any of the questions about the gap between reality and the propaganda. Sometimes they will gesture toward some level of “constructive criticism” that is hypothetically allowed, but that seems to be a purely virtual point of reference — in practice, no criticism or questions are tolerated.
  • Ad hominem attacks: Critics of the GCAS invariably have an ax to grid in advocates’ minds. They dislike the founders personally and want to undermine them out of pure spite. They are coddled by the current academic system and resent the possibility that the GCAS’s disruptive innovation could challenge their privileges. This follows naturally from the blind faith — since the GCAS is so self-evidently good, the only possible motives for criticizing it are malice or selfishness.

This dynamic resembles nothing so much as Christian heresiology. The fact that such an attitude has sprung up around an institution that does not even exist yet in any meaningful form is alarming and saddening. (The one exception to this dynamic was Patrick Provost-Smith, who is no longer associated with the effort; cf. my original thread on the GCAS.)

As I said the first time I addressed this issue on the blog, the GCAS does not show us a viable way to reform academia. At best, it’s a rehashed European Graduate School, and at worst, it’s a MOOC provider. At a certain point, insisting on the hype in the face of all the obvious counter-evidence is no longer optimism or faith or love — it’s either delusional or dishonest. I don’t know how to reform academia, but I’m pretty sure that buying into insane lies is not the answer.

Posted in academia, politics of the absurd. Comments Off

New School Phenomenology Conference and Lecture March 14th-15th

Our New York readers may be interested in the conference this Friday and Saturday at The New School. I will be giving a keynote on Friday evening entitled: ‘Will Nothing Ever Be with Nothing Ever Again?’: The Theological Construction and Its Negation within the Limits of Race Alone. All information is below on the poster and as you can see it is free and open to the public.

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Posted in academia, Conference announcement. Comments Off

Updates from the Exciting New Grad School

The Global Center for Advanced Studies is offering a one-credit course on contemporary philosophy of religion. It will consist of four class sessions team-taught by John Caputo, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis, with special guest lectures by Thomas Altizer, Jeff Robbins, and Pete Rollins — a rare case of having more professors than class sessions. Despite this surplus of instructors, however, it appears that they were unable to find room for a single woman or person of color for either the teaching docket or the reading list.

In a blow against neoliberal hegemony, the class will consist of video lectures supplemented by online discussion sessions — i.e., it is distinguished from a MOOC only by the fact that they’re charging. In a bold stand against corporate domination of the university, those discussion sessions will be held on Facebook and Google+, and the textbooks (which mainly consist of the writings of the professors themselves) are made available through links to Amazon.

Under the section on credit, the syllabus specifies that “This course is designed to be as rigorous academically as any graduate (upper level under-graduate) course.” And it shows — students are expected to write a five-page research paper that cites at least two sources. Those of us who suspected that GCAS would amount to little more than an American version of the European Grad School can feel a certain vindication, given that this section also reveals that the GCAS will be piggy-backing on the EGS’s European accreditation for the time being.

This course may very well prove to be informative and helpful for the participants on some level, but I don’t think any but the most blinkered advocates can claim it adds up to anything revolutionary or paradigm-shifting. People have suggested various theories for why I’m so skeptical of this venture, including personal animus toward the school’s founders or jealousy at not being invited to participate. I think that a careful reading of this syllabus can lay those speculations to rest. I’m skeptical of this venture because the gap between the insane hype and the lackluster reality is a yawning, nigh-unfathomable abyss.

Non-tips for submitting proposals to national disciplinary conferences

I served on a steering committee for a programming unit of the American Academy of Religion for several years, and I have helped plan a seminar for the American Comparative Literature Association national conference this year. I have also proposed paper sessions, “wildcard” sessions, and individual proposals to AAR and SBL groups, with varying levels of success. Out of all this experience, I have derived the following general non-tips for aspiring conference participants.

The first thing to note is that, as with so many things in academia, the most important factors in determining your success are beyond your control. As long as your proposal passes the initial “laugh test” for relevance and competence, you are in the running — but after that point, it’s more a matter of putting together semi-coherent panels than rewarding the “best” proposals. If there’s a really great proposal that stands out, it might wind up contributing to the success of less great proposals that happen to be on the same topic. By the same token, a great proposal might not find its way onto the program because there’s nothing to group it with.

Hence, while one might have success with a proposal that doesn’t fit any of the specified topics in the call for papers, the odds are low — not because they’ll be pissed off you didn’t follow directions, but because the very fact that they asked for certain topics means more people will likely submit on those topics. By contrast, your totally left-field proposal, no matter how brilliant in itself, is unlikely to fit into any plausible grouping.

In general, I’ve had more success when submitting something as part of a “package deal” than when submitting individual paper proposals. This is not only because the package deal saves the programming unit some work — it’s more because it guarantees a level of coherence that a post-hoc grouping of individual proposals can never achieve. This is where a topic outside of the call for papers has more chance for success, because it can take up the “open session” slot that each AAR programming unit typically leaves unspecified.

All that being said, stressing out over the proposal itself and trying to jam pack as much into it as possible seems to me to be a waste of effort and emotional energy. Don’t just phone it in, of course, but don’t promise the moon, either — in my role as a steering committee member, I’ve sometimes expressed skepticism of good ideas that seemed too big to do responsibly in a conference paper. The maximum word count should not be taken as synonymous with the desired word count.

There are of course special factors at work with other major disciplinary conferences, but I would be surprised if these broad principles didn’t apply. Of course, that’s what commenters are for!

“But what would it look like?”

In recent years, it’s emerged as the leading academic cliche, the ultimate objection. Asked quizzically or impatiently, good-heartedly or dismissively, in any case it does not invite an answer. “Yes, but what would that look like?” “That sounds good, but I guess I’m wondering: what would it look like?” The question constantly dogs radical thought, calling high-minded abstract thinkers back to the concrete world of mere appearances. Your concepts are all well and good, the question says, but back here in the real world, we need something a little more solid.

Yet it’s not as though contemporary radical thinkers are the first to introduce the idea of transforming the world through abstract concepts. Imagine telling someone in the late Middle Ages that they needed to trade in their hierarchical world order based on bonds of personal loyalty and instead impose a regime based on the formal equality of all and organized around the systematic stockpiling of abstract value. Surely they would be puzzled: “Yes, maybe that would be better — but what would it look like?”

One might object that back then they could point to things that it “looked like” — they had something akin to factories in some places, and mercantile exchange presupposed something like abstract value. Then as now, though, I’m sure the wise, realistic thinkers would dismiss the examples as manifestly inadequate, just as you’d presumably elicit little more than a chuckle if you said, “Well, maybe it would look a little bit like an Occupy encampment” or “Maybe it would look something like open-source software.”

The question isn’t actually asking for a concrete instantiation, however — it exists solely to point up the absurdity of thinking abstractly about hard-nosed, realistic things like politics. It expects silence, but it’s happy to defend the abstract concept itself against the inadequate instantiation if it comes to that. Its power as an objection lies precisely in that radical abstractness.

An important discovery

It is possible to keep up with research and writing in a teaching-heavy position, even in a position that makes heavy demands on faculty to participate in the administration of the school. The only problem is that it is extremely exhausting and stressful. Hence, I’ve come up with a few tips:

  • Don’t have kids. I cannot emphasize this one enough.
  • Stay flexible. You don’t choose which days you totally collapse and cannot imagine anything more taxing than marathon TV watching — they choose you. If you stay a couple days ahead of the curve on your strictly required work, you’ll leave room for those blessed events when they need to happen.
  • Start saying no to things that are irrelevant. I know this seems foreign to early-career academics, but one reaches the point where chasing CV lines does little more than introduce more incoherence into one’s research profile.
  • Say yes to things that will give you external deadlines for your own work. As a result of talks I’ve agreed to for this semester, I’ve got close to a full first chapter draft for my devil book and a workable schema for Creepiness. That never would have happened without the external pressure.
  • Get enough sleep. Different people need different amounts, and I suspect I’m on the high end — but I also suspect that many people who claim to be on the low end are lying to themselves.
  • Floss. Unexpected dental work can destroy a carefully-constructed research schedule. Don’t let it happen to you.

Are you a religious studies person teaching at a weird school?

I’m part of a group trying to put together a pedagogy panel for the AAR about religious studies people who are in “niche” schools — basically, the kinds of places that don’t have traditional departments, etc., like Shimer, St. John’s, Deep Springs… Not necessarily “Great Books,” but including them. Niche programs within traditional colleges and universities could work, too. Please e-mail me at a dot kotsko at shimer dot edu if you are interested.

Posted in academia. Comments Off

Can we get a moratorium on the word “influence”?

The question may seem strange, as “influence” is a central category of intellectual history — indeed, without understanding a thinker’s influences, it seems impossible to understand that thinker at all. In practice, however, it often seems as though the term “influence” refers to “a connection the speaker wants to posit between two thinkers, without justifying it or specifying its nature in any way.”

Now this descent into hand-waviness is understandable, because influence is said in many ways. If we disallow ourselves the general term, we would be forced to be more precise about the nature and importance of the relationships we’re discussing — or else we’d testify to the deep influence of Wittgenstein by remaining silent.


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