By John Protevi
I’m currently Phyllis M Taylor Professor of French Studies (my primary appointment) and Professor of Philosophy (by an affiliate appointment), at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. For the past year and a half I’ve also been Chair of the Department of French Studies (DFS).
I should first explain how a philosopher came to work in a French Studies department. After a couple of majors my undergrad career finished up, 8 years after it began, in 1981 with a BA in Philosophy from Penn State. I then took 2 MAs, first in English and then in Philosophy, leaving Penn State at age 31 in 1986. I finished my PhD in Philosophy from Loyola University of Chicago in 1990, with a dissertation on Aristotle’s theory of time in Physics IV as read by Heidegger and Derrida; this was the basis, after revision and addition, of my first book, Time and Exteriority (Bucknell UP, 1994).
Immediately after the PhD I worked at what was then called Memphis State University as Visiting Assistant Professor (4/4 load split between Intro and Logic), then the following year as an Instructor at a number of schools in the Boston area (Boston U [Political Theory – Hegel and Marx], Simmons [19th century philosophy], and Spring Hill [Intro]), and then 2 years at Villanova (Western Civ), Widener (Logic and Intro), LaSalle (Intro), and St Joseph’s (more Intro). So that was 3 years in a row of the freeway flyer lifestyle. Fun courses and a great start to a broad teaching portfolio, but exhausting. Luckily I was able to find the time for the transition from dissertation to book and so kept my research production going.
I then got another VAP in Baton Rouge in 1994. During that year my life changed forever when I met Kate Jensen, at the time a newly tenured Associate Professor in French Studies. We got married that year, but Louisiana was in a state budget crisis so the job, which might have been extended, evaporated. So I took a postdoc at University of Warwick for 95-96, and then returned to LSU for 5 years as an Instructor, teaching in the Honors College (Western Civ, again – go ahead, ask me about the Iliad!) before the DFS was able to search for a “French Theory” TT job, a search which resulted in an offer to me. (A note of explanation: while most French departments are almost exclusively oriented to the study of literature, we take an interdisciplinary approach – hence the title “French Studies” – directly employing linguists, cinema studies people, and a philosopher.)
All along the way to my PhD I was teaching as a TA, so that makes 9 years of precarious labor, as the current (and correct) term would put it. So it was another 11 years of precarious labor before I landed my first TT job at age 45.
So, while that makes 20 years of NTT work I have to be honest and say that during the 5 years at LSU while married to a tenured professor, it was precarious in principle, but in fact about as good as it gets in NTT positions for security (they wanted to keep my wife off the job market, so short of a complete budget meltdown and declaration of exigency I was assured of an extension of what in legal terms was only a one-year-at-a-time contract). So I was de facto secure even though de jure precarious.
As for work conditions during my Instructor years at LSU, they weren’t as good as a good post-doc (I taught 1/1 while at Warwick), but they weren’t backbreaking either as there wasn’t the rush from one campus to another I had in Boston or in Philadelphia. At that time, then, I was teaching 4/4 with a team-taught Honors lecture course and 2 breakout discussion seminars (I was Instructor of Record for those sections) as the base, plus an upper level course in French on Foucault or Deleuze, and an occasional course in WGS or the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts program. I did help the DFS chair with reports and grants an so on, but I didn’t have any service obligations other than that (no meetings, no committees, not much professional service other than the occasional journal article refereeing request), so I was able to keep publishing even with that 4/4 load; since the Western Civ course was very familiar to me, I basically had only 1 or 2 new preps a year.
I had a second book out by the time my TT appointment began so I went up for Associate with tenure in 3 years and got that, and then up for Professor another 5 years, and another book, after that. So I was full prof by 2009, when I was 54, but as that was only 8 years after by first TT appointment I didn’t feel too bad about that. I was then able to get a named professorship in 2012, as well as an affiliate appointment in Philosophy; those two moves complete the administrative side of my career path so far.
While Chair I have a 1/1 load, which I distribute between Honors and Philosophy. Before becoming Chair I had a 2/2 load, also distributed among Honors, Philosophy, and French Theory (with the occasional French grammar course thrown in there). I’ve taught grad seminars in the DFS but used English as the language of instruction in order to accommodate non-Francophone students from Poli Sci, History, English, Geography, and so on. (I conduct office hours and read papers in French if students prefer.) I taught a lot of Foucault and Deleuze grad courses, but have also done Badiou and Bergson to answer student interest. At the undergrad level I’ve done History of Modern Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind, as well as my Honors courses in either Foucault or “Evolution and Biology of Morality.”
As for time spent, the first prep of courses takes several hours a day in the summer before the course or in the mornings. I try to stay a few weeks ahead of the class, though sometimes that doesn’t always work out. I make outlines and / or write out lectures, which I post here: www.protevi.com/john. If it’s not the first prep, then it’s a quick review, maybe an hour per class meeting to reread the material and review the notes.
Administration and service.
The Chair job can be a real time-sink, but I try to keep it to Monday through Thursday afternoons from about 2-7 at the latest. On Monday and Wednesday I teach from 4:30 to 6:00 so I sometimes come back to the office for an hour but sometimes head home afterwards. The work is composed of signing papers, authorizing expenditures, figuring out budgets (we are able to support grad student travel with some departmental funds we’ve gotten from gifts), personnel evaluation (I do an annual review of all TT and NTT faculty based on teaching, and on research and service where applicable), student recruiting and retention, and then assessment, year-end reports, program reviews and so on.
When I’m not Chair I’ve been on lots of departmental, College, and University committees for, among other things, hiring and promotion/tenure, curriculum, research development, and the university Faculty Senate. I don’t do all that many DFS PhD thesis committees, but I do occasionally, and I’m sometimes a reader on dissertations in other departments. (One of my books, as a matter of fact, is co-written with a person for whom I was on his Geography PhD committee.)
I also spend quite a bit of time on professional service in the form of book and journal article referee reports, book reviews, and promotion/tenure letters. I used to be editor of a book series, which I counted as professional service.
I can only do research in the mornings, so when I’m writing I foreswear all email and social media until 11 am, so that I get 3-4 hours of fresh, concentrated mindwork before I get scattered. I do quite a bit of posting of reading notes and early drafts on Facebook or my blog, and the give-and-take there is often very helpful. I have a long-term book project that’s grown out of the Honors courses I teach “Evolution and Biology of Morality,” so I’m glad to have freedom in course design that allows that kind of teaching / research synergy.
I often say having my main appointment be in French Studies has allowed me more freedom in courses and research than I might have had in a philosophy department. I do a sort of philosophy-with-science approach that enables me to crisscross the analytic/continental divide, and I think because of that I might have been embroiled in department turf fights if I had been in a philosophy department (I’m not saying LSU’s department is any better or worse in that regard than lots of other departments I know, so this is a generalizable claim, not a subtweeting of my colleagues!).
The cost of being in a French department is that I had to spend a lot of time getting my French speaking and listening skills up to par (I have been reading French for probably 40 years now, but only have really picked up the pace in speaking and listening in the last 15). But now that I’m reasonably fluent (I still have an American accent but I’ve found French people don’t really care as long as you are comprehensible and have interesting things to say) I can code-switch in the department (about 1/4 of the daily interactions are in French) as well as present research and / or just be a tourist in French. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this in Paris, where I’m spending my Spring Break, meeting colleagues and attending talks – the research fund I have along with my professorship allows much more travel than I ordinarily would be able to afford.
A typical day.
Monday through Thursday: rise and shine at 6:30 or 7, breakfast with the computer (writing if I’m in that phase, or email / social media if not), then work (either research or class prep, though occasionally admin work if need be) until 11. At 11 I head to the gym for a 60-90 minute workout (running if my body allows it, and / or weights and stretching – I’ll probably start swimming again as various chronic health conditions are making running more and more of a challenge). Then back home for lunch and then to the office by 2pm. Home by 7:30, so I rarely work more than half a day (12 hours, badda-bing!). Then dinner with my wife, then NBA League Pass in season, then bed by 11pm – or midnight if the Warriors are playing. I often live-Facebook the game, or at least do some sportstalk with buddies in PM.
Friday, Saturdy, Sunday. If I can, Friday is a research or class prep day, with only the trip to the gym, so I can get the afternoon for that work. Saturday and Sunday afternoons are more relaxed but I still generally get some research / class prep work done in the morning.
Of course there are shopping trips, doctor’s visits, trips to the vet, and so on scattered throughout the week. And some weeks I’m traveling to give a talk or attend a conference, so that makes Thursday and Sunday travel days. I can sometimes get some work done on a plane, but it’s not really high quality, so often it’s some reading on the Kindle just to get the main points, which I then will go over at home.
So in sum, not the normal path for a philosopher, but the daily life now is probably very close to that of a tenured professor in a philosophy department at another public flagship research university.