I have mixed feelings about the message of this essay.  Surely a moderate form of its wisdom — that there is more ways to have a satisfying academic career than landing a prestigious R1 appointment, and that in many ways one is in control of one’s own happiness — should be accepted.  And there are certainly enough cases where this wisdom isn’t recognized.  I have friends that landed in jobs that many would describe as “wow! that’s really great! there’s no shame in your job! good for you [strained expression]”, and who worked hard and turned their departments around and made them better places.

But.  The entire essay suffers from more than a basenote of kids-these-days scented with topnotes of ivory tower worship.  Pence’s first two examples are of thirty-year-old academics who landed solid jobs at non-prestigious places, discovered they didn’t like living in small towns with no social life*, and left (or contemplated leaving the profession.)  Pence seems to think they’ve shown themselves to be entitled brats unwilling to sacrifice for the Lady.

I think they’re making exactly the right decision.  Moreover, I think philosophy would be better off if it stopped treating itself as the One True Calling, and instead recognized that philosophers who decide that the great joy they get from teaching and research fails to balance the negatives however they can construe them should leave. Like other people do when they hate their jobs!  Academia has got to be the only profession in the world where the news of someone deciding to find another professional job, suited to their skills, in a great location, that pays more money, does more to help the world, and is intellectually stimulating is discussed in the same hushed tones one would use to say “stage IV ovarian cancer.”

The other major criticism of the essay is that it seems to overestimate how easy it is to move from full-time adjuncting into tenure-track appointments in 2008.   Pence seems to have worked his tail on in the early 1970s, teaching as many as 12 courses in a year, and managing to publish enough to get noticed.  A couple quick points: I remember reading back on Leiter six or seven years ago that the level of philosophical accomplishment required to secure a tenure-track position is much greater today than it was years ago.  Not to take anything away from Pence’s impressive accomplishment, but I wonder if the same mobility is likely in 2008, especially if one took time off to sell real estate as he did.

One wonders, too, about income.  Around here an adjunct position pays anywhere from $1,500 to $3000, meaning that if one were to secure 10 positions, one might still run the risk of not being able to pay the rent.  And again, there is nothing wrong with looking at that situation and saying “You know, I have a Ph.D. from a good school and I don’t love philosophy enough to impoverish myself for another ten years. I have options. O options, give me money.”  A fortiori if one needs things like health insurance or has a family to support.

The advice to bloom where you’re planted is well-taken, and I think the profession would do well to remember that there are more than ten universities, and philosophy actually happens at those other schools.

But to find fault with someone who is unhappy and decides to do something else, to find fault with them as insufficiently dedicated?  Bugger that for a bag of chips.  As the kids say.


*I read both of these stories as saying “I’m single, I’m in a small town, I’m 30, and there’s no one to date.”