Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wanderer

When I got my PhD from Stanford University at the beginning of 1976, I had already started on a one-year job in Claremont Graduate School in California. The future seemed golden. It didn’t occur to me that it would be 1983 before I landed a tenure-track job. But that’s what happened.

Picture for no tenure blog post
I had a good PhD. My professors (Julius Moravcsik, John Perry, Dagfinn Føllesdal) were well-known and supportive. (I always felt well-treated at Stanford.) And I was publishing regularly (in such places as Phronesis, Noûs, and the Canadian Journal of Philosophy). Yet I spent eight years in one-year jobs. This had a lasting effect. 1975-1983 represents eight years without pension credit; it marks nearly a decade of low income, rented accommodation, no savings. It was a long period in which to deal with disappointment, anxiety, and resentment. But why was it that way?

I had several weaknesses that might have contributed to my failure to launch, career-wise.

1. I was in the wrong field. Most of my efforts were focussed on ancient philosophy, but basically I was not interested in historical research. My first degree was in science. My interest was in certain philosophical problems that also interested the ancients. I wasn't all that interested in getting the philology straight, or straightened out. Still: I did publish in the field. (I am still proud of three articles I published in those years; one is among the best I have ever managed.)

2. I was (and am) very bourgeois. My identity resides in a certain kind of risk-avoiding prudence, in doing things because they are done, an owlish earnestness about culture—in short, an attitude that makes many people think “Who does he think he is?” Relatively few people in the profession think of themselves as “coming from a family,” as I did, and this didn’t quite fit with the North American ethos of those days. It gave (and gives) me airs, I suppose. I was thought, with some justice, to be arrogant. And yet: I was quite sociable, and capable of both receiving and giving pleasure in society. It wasn’t as if I was friendless and unpopular.

3. I was (and am) brown. A South Asian Indian before it was chic to be so. (See photo!)
Which of these weaknesses predominated in my many failures to land a good job? Honestly, I don’t know. At one campus interview (at the University of Toronto, actually) I remember a very distinguished scholar asking me (in a rather prosecutorial tone) whether I had read Zabarella. This suggests a preoccupation with weakness 1—though my job talk had been a terrific success. Another time, somebody told me that I was “too good” for the job they were offering. This suggests weakness 2 was the problem. But an explicit concern with scholarship or character doesn’t rule out an implicit concern with “otherness”. (In fact, one of the main lessons we have learned about discrimination is that it gets deflected to other concerns.)

The question resurfaced at the front of my mind recently when somebody from the Canada Research Chairs secretariat called to interview me on my experience as a member of a visible minority. This kind of interview is meant to, and does, elicit opinions normally unvoiced. And voicing an opinion tends to disinhibit thought. Moreover, I had been sensitized by a Statistics Canada study that suggested that non-white professional immigrants take about eight years to catch up to their peers—exactly as long as I took, if you assume that getting a tenure-track job seven years after my PhD is “catching up.”

The interviewer didn’t express much apparent emotion one way or another, as one would expect from a professional. But she kept probing. Was there anything else I felt strange about? And, actually, there was--though it was rather superficial.

My main career priorities are (of course) to have a good job and have my papers published in visible places. By 1985, I was publishing well, and the University of Alberta had started bumping my salary up to reflect my years in the profession. The gap was closed by 1991 or so; I was a full professor by 1989. I owe the folks at Alberta a lot for doing me right. (Not to mention for hiring me in the first place.)

But there are things that never came my way: professional influence and honours. I never did get to sit on national committees or boards. I have only once sat on a national adjudication committee. This was in 2005 (i.e., thirty years in). On this occasion, I was repeatedly assigned as “second reader” on the committee to a much younger guy who wasn’t expert in most of the topics. This petty incident epitomizes my doubt. How could I be second chair to a mostly unpublished person on files in philosophy of biology and mind? (And isn’t it unhealthy to worry about rubbish like this?) It wasn’t until 2009 that I got invited to give my one and only keynote address; in Canada, I still never have been. These things are superficial. (Have I said that already?) And often tedious. But they lead to networking and influence and interdisciplinary connections. I wonder why I never had these opportunities.

I am fine now. (Is it my bourgeois pride that compels me to say so?) I feel privileged to teach in a great department, and to enjoy the friendship and respect of my colleagues. But it has always been this way: esteem up close and the hint of something else just over the horizon. And I still wonder a little: what do distant, nameless “selectors” think when they look at my photograph?


Jonathan Cohen said...

Of course, I am biased by my personal respect and admiration for you, Mohan. But for what it's worth, I think it is completely uncontroversial that you are, at this point, one of the respected leaders in your subfields. Certainly this is true in philosophy of perception, where you are clearly a leading figure in every sense, but I think it is also true in the larger field of philosophy of mind. Anyway, so it seems to me.

Farid Masrour said...

Dear Mohan-It's my fourth time on the market this year. And reading your post, I felt that I'm going through something very similar to what you went through. Reading your post gave me a sense of relief. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because it gave me hope: it will happen eventually. Or maybe it was nice to see these issues being articulated in the nice way that you did. At any rate, I'm sure that there are many people out there in a situation similar to mine who will equally appreciate your post. Thanks for writing this!