Over at The Smoker, there was a brief but interesting exchange recently on fear and prudence for early-career philosophers. At July 6, 5:14AM, Anonymous writes:
I am wondering if the current job market situation creates a culture of fear whereby young scholars are advised to be as mainstream and risk-averse as possible (e.g., publish in the top philosophy journals, no coauthoring, no online activity, don't work on unpopular or fringe topics). This is a high price to pay. After all, not all my work fits in top journals, and steering my work to the direction of the narrow range of topics that are considered there is not something I feel like doing. I like co-authoring. Finally, I like the engagement with fellow philosophers and people outside the discipline that blogging provides. All things that are important to me as a philosopher.
We should not wait until tenure to take risks. Also, given the importance of online media, creating a thoughtful online presence can be an important part of one's professional life and, after all, your career starts *before* you get tenured or even on a tenure track position.
"Zombie" then responded at 8:19AM:
I don't think this is about fear, but about prudence. I don't see anything wrong or worrisome with anything you're doing. I'm thinking more about the kind of stuff that makes you look like a jerk, or immature, or psychotic. Posting racist, drunken rants on Facebook, or publicly posting ad hominem attacks on other philosophers, etc. The kind of stuff that makes you look like a bad colleague. I suppose this could extend to stuff that makes you look like a sloppy, bad philosopher too.
Finally, however--in a comment that preceded both of these--(another?) Anonymous wrote:
Zombie is right. Prudentially speaking, all us smokers should build firewalls, and keep our public online presences positive...Prudentially, we should all keep their heads down and live in fear.
I can only speak for myself. But that's not what I got into philosophy to do. And I, for one, would rather fail to secure a TT job, or even driven out of the discipline, than to continue to "be careful" (and fearful) one more year.
I want to comment on this exchange for a couple of reasons.
First, it is an issue that is very close to my heart. I used to "live in fear" as an early-career philosopher. I worked on "safe" topics, and basically kept my head down...and it sapped most of the joy out of my career.
Second, many early-career people I have known and spoken to tell me that they live in fear too. I've had people tell me, for instance, that they would like to blog, but fear that it might make them look bad, harm them on the job market, etc.
In what follows, I am not going to suggest that it is rational for everyone to take risks. It can make sense to keep one's head down, play it safe, etc. Playing it safe might even land you a tenure track job and/or professional esteem. All I am going to suggest is that playing it safe carries its own risks, and that whatever choice one makes--to play it safe or take risks--one should do it with a full view of risks/benefits in mind.
It's hard, of course, to define "playing it safe" in philosophy. What is "safe" to some may not seem safe to others. What I would rather like to do, then, is define "safe" in a way that is relative to a person's own experience. Allow me to explain.
Suppose you're doing certain things in your career--you're working on certain topics, not blogging, etc.--and you feel constrained. You feel, on the whole, like you're "not doing philosophy authentically"; you're not staying true to who you are as a person and philosopher. You feel isolated, you feel uninspired. And you begin to have the hankering suspicion that if you worked on other, less popular topics, or if you started blogging publicly, it might make a difference: it might make you enjoy your career more. It might bring the fun back into research, and it might connect you more to other people. But you stay away from both things--you stay away from working on unpopular topics, and from blogging--because you fear certain risks. You fear, let's say, that people will consider you a bad philosopher for working on the new topics, or perhaps just ignore your work. And you worry that, if you start blogging, it might harm you on the job market. Finally, let us suppose that both risks are genuine. In short, suppose you experience yourself "playing it safe" out of fear of taking (genuine) risks.
Is it rational to continue to play it safe, or should you take the risk? I don't think there's a simple answer to this question. There is great uncertainty involved either way. That being said, allow me to tell you a story.
Several years ago I "lived in fear"--just like some people I've talked to. I found myself working on projects that I didn't really believe in--projects that didn't inspire me--because I thought they were "prudent" to work on. I thought I could publish on them in good places, etc. I kept my head down, worked my tail off, and didn't interact online (this was before I started The Philosophers' Cocoon). I was, in short, "doing what I was supposed to" (at least as I understood this). And I felt isolated, alone, and unhappy with my career. I discovered, much to my dismay, that I was doing none of the things that made me fall in love with philosophy in the first place. I was not exploring bold new ideas. I was afraid to even discuss ideas with others, out of fear of judgment. Etc.
"This", it occurred to me, "is no way to live." So, I made a change. I started The Philosophers' Cocoon. I started working on crazy ideas--whatever tickled my fancy, really. I began to connect with colleagues. I laughed when they said my ideas were nutty. And I began to love philosophy again. The past several years have been the most enjoyable years of my life as a philosopher, and not by a little bit, but by far.
I'm not going to sit here and say that I've taken "crazy risks." I'm not that full of myself! :) I'm also not prepared to say that whatever "risks" I have taken will pay off in the long run. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I still don't have a tenure-track post. The only thing I can say is this: to anyone out there who is "living in fear", who feels afraid to take what seem to be risks, if you are unhappy with your situation, you can change it. You do not have to live in fear. Whatever risks you take may or may not work out. But simply making a change--and trying something new and unexpected--can make all the difference. It can make you fall in love with philosophy again. It can make you realize why you got into this career in the first place. And that is something.
The only final thing I would suggest--following Zombie's remarks above as well as my experience with the Cocoon--is that whatever risks you take, whether they are blogging or whatever, commit yourself to pursuing those risks kindly, and helpfully. As I mentioned above, early in my career I found the discipline to be a rather scary place, full of judgmental people. Part of this, I think, was just my fear talking (I "saw" judgmentalism everywhere). But it was not all fear talking: there are judgmental people here and there. But, what I will say is this: if you commit yourself to pursuing your career--your "risks"--kindly, you may be surprised just how many people of good will are out there. In my experience running the Cocoon, there are a ton of people out there looking for more kindness in the discipline. Be among them, and be among those who contribute kindness. If you do, you have little to fear.