This Academic Life
  The job and the calling
There's a curious ambiguity about the English word "vocation." On one hand, it refers quite literally to a "calling," and thus implies that there is something trans-personal about the occupation to which it is applied. To work in a calling, to have a calling, means in some sense to be beholden to a force outside of one's conscious control: one is called, and the choice is either to answer the call or to ignore it. But in any event, having or working in a vocation is something quite different than simply working at an occupation for money.

On the other hand, a "vocation" is just a career, as in "vocational training" -- which is all about getting a (often low-skill, low-paying) job. "Vocation" becomes a synonym for "occupation" in this case, and simply answers the question "how do you make your living?" where "living" means "the money that you need to pay your bills." The etymology of the term vanishes into the social structuring of the situation.

The same ambiguity -- job/calling -- exists in German, signaled by the term "Beruf." This is the term that Weber uses in his famous lectures on science and politics, which is why translating them as "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation" is one of the only things that I really like about the existing English versions of the lectures. [One day I'll do my own translations and stop bitching.] And Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the 'Spirit' of Capitalism is all about how that ambiguity was produced and the effects that it had: the rise of innerworldly asceticism, the relative quietism of formally free laborers, the notion that diligent work was God's will for each and every individual. So the conflation should be no surprise.

But analytically, we can still distinguish between the "job" and "calling" aspects of a particular vocation. By "analytically" here I mean "in accordance with my own peculiar value-orientation," of course. The "job" part of academia involves the social patterning of professorial ranks (Adjunct, Assistant, Associate, Full, and the numerous variations and extensions that one finds to the basic scheme -- including the increasing prominence of "temporary" faculty ranks in many departments), the quasi-market procedures through which available jobs are allocated, and the criteria that are used to evaluate particular individuals occupying a professorial position. This last one usually consists of the basic trinity of "teaching, research, and service," understood slightly differently from university to university.

All of this is "job" rather than "calling" in that it is a more or less tangible set of social arrangements that exist in the world as it is at the moment. Being an academic means having to deal with the job market, the ranking scheme, and teaching-research-service trinity. It is these aspects that administrators get involved in, either to facilitate the performance of the tasks indicated or to judge whether or not someone has done so effectively. And it is these aspects of things that those of my colleagues who do not have a calling for academia tend to focus on rather excessively. And why not? They are, after all, the tangible aspects of the vocation, and the immediate issues with which one has to deal on a daily basis.

[Yes, there are many academics who do not have a calling for academia, for whom "being an academic" is much more a simple job than it is any kind of vocation. I sometimes envy my colleagues who are like this; their lives are relatively unconflicted, their path relatively clear, and their professional issues almost entirely technical ones -- not having enough articles published or good enough teaching evaluation scores. But I only envy them a little bit; I then wonder where they find fulfillment, if not from their chosen career -- and if they are not finding fulfillment in the academic environment, why are they staying in it? It's not like the pay and benefits are all that great in comparison to other careers.]

So what is the "calling" aspect of academia? As someone who has faith that I do, in fact, have a calling for academia, what aspects of things do I think of as the most important ones?

I think that the "calling" part of academia -- academia as a calling -- relies on three aspects that in a sense underlie or sustain the three parts of the basic job-trinity. (The job market is a necessary evil -- necessary under the current arrangement of things. And I have no great objection to professorial ranks, although I abhor the increasing tendency to turn to temporary faculty positions, and am not convinced that the way that some departments handle tenure decisions makes much sense. Going from a tenure-tracked Assistant to a tenured Associate should not be as bureaucratic a process as it often is; but on the other hand, I wouldn't want to introduce too much more room for arbitrariness into such decisions. Tweaking the criteria a bit might help, especially on the "teaching" point; evaluation scores provided by students at the end of a course are, in my opinion, pretty useless -- and I say this even though my scores on such evaluations are generally quite good, even excellent.) I am aware of the dangers of using such a procedure -- a kind of philosophical abduction -- to get at the "calling" part of the vocation, but as long as we keep in mind that I am not saying that these aspects are somehow more fundamental or deeper than the "job" aspects of the vocation, we should be fine. Academia-as-job and academia-as-calling are parallel tracks, as it were, or different views of the same things. I experience academia-as-job as a place to (imperfectly) exercise academia-as-calling; not sure if others do (but I do know that some of my colleagues don't experience academia-as-calling in the first place, so…).

Enough preliminaries. If academia-as-job has teaching, research, and service as its three points of evaluation, academia-as-calling has pedagogy, thinking, and management as the three equiprimordial constituents of its form. I arrived at these by the following considerations: "teaching" does not always, or even mostly, take place in the classroom; what we publish as "research" is only one part of the activity of working through puzzles and problems that occupies much of our time; and the kind of committee-work and participation in campus life that often gets labeled as "service" has a purpose that is not in my opinion adequately captured by the existing terminology. [Universities like mine, which have the bizarre tendency to regard media appearances and other public performances as "service," need to have their collective heads examined. When I appear on television or on the radio to talk about the upcoming presidential elections, which I will, I am not functioning as an academic any more; I am functioning as a commentator or as a public intellectual. Worthy endeavors? Yes. Central to academia-as-calling the way that I understand it? No. Capable of distracting people from the calling aspect, and also from the job aspect if they get too wrapped up in it -- just like overmuch "consulting" with NGOs and the like? Abso-freakin'-lutely.]

What do I mean by these three replacement aspects?

By "thinking" I mean the more or less systematic working-out of a line of reasoning. Thinking in this sense is not a purely cognitive function, but more of something that arises from one's being: the way that one is in the world, the way that the world worlds for one, is the ground and the limit of thinking. So far, so Heideggerian; but I would argue that worlds are characterized by considerably more ambiguity and discrepancy and contingency than often appears in Heidegger's philosophy. But in any event, thinking is less a cognitive operation and more of an operation, so to speak, of the soul: arising from the most basic way that one is at a given moment in time. [By "soul" I mean something emergent, not something exogenous to the social world; "self" would be an equivalent expression. As a friend pointed out, this is a very Buddhist conception: self as sandstorm. Keep that image in mind as we go further.]

By "pedagogy" I mean, in effect, Heidegger's definition of teaching: letting learn. Pedagogy is all about letting things happen, opening spaces where people can confront issues, be challenged, explore individually and collectively: argue, wrestle, experiment, grapple, play. In short, think: pedagogy is, in the last instance, about enabling other people to think. Teaching -- classroom teaching -- is only one part of that, and often not even the most important one. This past summer in Poland I was engaged in pedagogy pretty much at all hours of the day, which was fantastic; it can be done in other kind of living/learning situations as well. Pedagogy is the polar opposite of "getting the material across," i.e. skills training or the imparting of facts; these latter are something different, a use of the classroom space not for pedagogy but for the production of some kind of functional outcome.

If thinking arises from the soul -- and I am again speaking broadly here, since thinking in the sense I mean it here need not culminate in any published written product at all -- then pedagogy arises, I'd argue, from the spirit. The distinction is a subtle but important one. Spirit, according to certain heretical interpretations of Christian doctrine (and other metaphysical / theological sources, not least among them being Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), is not the basic constituent of the person, but the animating force that makes the person move. The breath, so to speak, or the faculty of discernment -- often inaccurately shoe-horned into "the emotions" or "the intuition," I think.

Why spirit and pedagogy? I can only give an experiential testimony: when I am in a pedagogical situation, if I think too much things get out of control. If, on the other hand, I react to the subtle flows of attention and energy and awareness that students are participating in, and kind of feel my way along to the crux of whatever matters they are discussing, the session goes much much better. Pedagogy in this sense is a spiritual activity, distinct from thinking and from the soul that gives rise to it -- although good pedagogy, in some sense, risks your soul and that of everyone else in the session by opening the possibility that everyone will begin to world differently and collectively. You put your soul on the line when you teach with the spirit.

If the soul is a sandstorm, the spirit is the wind blowing the grains of sand around. Pedagogy is an effort to release that wind and see where it takes you.

And what of the third facet, "management"? What I mean by that is the physical arrangement of resources (time, tables and chairs, computers, etc.) so as to achieve a desired effect. Classroom management is about producing space for and enabling and supporting pedagogy. Curriculum management crafts a lifecourse through which students can participate in pedagogy and thus do some thinking of their own along the way. That's what university committee service is supposed to be about: making pedagogy and thinking possible. If we lose sight of the goal it becomes mere "service work," an infringement on things that we'd rather be doing with our limited time.

These are just initial reflections. In future entries I plan to elaborate. Come, think with me about this.

[Posted with ecto]

<< Home
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



Powered by Blogger