When I started the Cocoon a little over six years, I didn't have many hopes for it. I was just a struggling early-career scholar with few friends or professional contacts in the discipline (due, admittedly, to some bad choices I made early on). I started the Cocoon not because I expected anyone to read it, but simply because I was sick of feeling isolated and alone in a discipline that seemed to me to incentivize those things. My only hope in starting the blog was that I might find a few similarly-minded others: people like me who were sick of feeling alone, and who wanted to help each other make their path through the discipline just a little bit better.
In some ways (many ways), the Cocoon succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. It seems to be widely read, at times has had a good stable of contributors, has been a wonderful way to get to know other people (and helped me feel far less isolated), and I've often heard people say complimentary things about it (though maybe they're just being nice). However, there's one major thing about the Cocoon that has been a persistent disappointment, at least for me--and that is how few early-career people have joined as contributors. I will be frank: since day 1, I've always hoped the Cocoon would really bloom--that early-career people would come out of the woodwork left and right to congregate here to post regularly and speak their minds: sharing their work, discussing their career struggles, and so on. Yet, while there are many commenters--as well as people who have (mostly anonymously) shared professional questions and career struggles in our "how can we help you?" series--the blog has consistently had few official contributors...and these days it is basically just me and sometimes Helen.
I've often wondered why so few early-career people blog. It could of course be anything: maybe people think they have better things to do (like, you know, research and teaching). However, I've asked people about this on occasion, and every time I've done so the dominant answer seems to be very different: fear. Fear of what search committees might think. Fear of what other philosophers might think. And so on (see the comments section above). If this is the truth--and it appears to be--I think it is just terrible. It is the reason why I began the Cocoon in the first place: because I was sick of living alone and in fear. I wanted a better profession than that. And yet--or so it seems--the fear is still there. Why? And how should we grapple with it?
I mentioned at the outset of this post that the profession seemed to me when I started the Cocoon to incentivize fear among early-career people. How does it do so? Although I don't know how much my experience generalizes, I remember distinctly being told by someone in grad school, "You need to watch what you say. People might hold it against you." I'll never forget hearing that. And, for a long time, I lived it. I shut my trap and lived a quiet life of desperation--one that made me bitter and contributed to me temporarily losing my love for philosophy. Unfortunately, few things appear to have changed. The other day, Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown) posted an answer to a query about social media on the APA Blog. While I appreciate the intent of the post--and think some of it may well be useful for advancing one's career and personal wellbeing (including marginalized members of the profession, who Professor Kukla rightly notes inhabit "a marginal or complex place in the discipline [and] face heightened risks of online abuse)--I nevertheless have concerns about the implicit message the post seems to me to send early-career people.
Consider the passage that Justin Weinberg highlighted over at Daily Nous: “Remember, whenever you engage online, you are building and curating a public identity for yourself. Do so thoughtfully and choose your risks wisely.” The implicit message here, and elsewhere in the post, seems to me very similar to the thing I was told early in grad school--namely: watch what you say, because others might hold it against you. Indeed, Kukla goes on to write, "Don’t talk about how much you are struggling to get work done on your main Facebook page...", "Don’t complain about the job market. We all know it’s terrible. But potential employers don’t need to know that you are struggling, and there are always people struggling even more than you are who don’t need to hear your complaints", and "Don’t post about your minor and relatively mundane professional accomplishments. It makes it look like this is the best you’ve got, and it comes off as vain and clogs your feed." I fear the message this sends to early-career members of the profession. I fear it, in part, because the very first thing I saw on my facebook feed this morning was an early-career friend of mine saying that, as a result of recent discussions about social media and the profession, they are now suddenly worried they've been damaging their professional status as a result of their presence on social media.
Maybe there is truth to Kukla's advice (indeed, I suspect there may well be quite a bit of truth to it). But this, I think, is precisely the problem: we live and work in a profession where the professionally wise thing to do is to (seemingly) hide everything real about you--our struggles getting work done, complaints about the job-market or profession, our happiness in our accomplishments both large and small (in a discipline where, in addition, many people's accomplishments--such as their published work--are often ignored, never read, never engaged with or written about), and so on. Think about that for a moment. Is that really the kind of profession you want to work in? For my part, it's not. I want to work in a profession where people--particularly early-career people and others in positions of professional vulnerability--don't live in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing: a profession where people feel comfortable being real, being themselves, being open about their interests, struggles, views, and so on.
Maybe that can never be. Maybe, to be a professional, you need to "Remember, whenever you engage online, you are building and curating a public identity for yourself." Maybe. But I, for one, hope we can do better. And while I won't pretend to tell others how to live their lives in the profession--in large part because, due to my own position, I cannot fully appreciate the situations and standpoints of others--I will say this: the best way to help realize a profession where people have less to fear may be for each of us who can do so to not give into that fear. Again, I don't mean to suggest that everyone should do this: I have not walked a mile, let alone a lifetime, in any of your shoes. But what I will say is that I've seen people do it: people in this profession--marginalized and otherwise--who speak out and refuse to be cowed by the fear of judgment the profession (perhaps unwittingly) tried to foist upon them. And, for my part, I've often seen it work for them: I've seen people who are open and themselves get jobs, get tenure, and so on. Sure, be thoughtful with what you say online; and by all means, don't abuse others; be charitable; be a good interlocutor (as Kukla puts it). Morality applies to online conversation just as it applies to everything else. But, if you have it in you, my suggestion is: don't live in fear. Try to have the courage to be who you are--whether that is sharing your struggles, your concerns about the profession, your failures or accomplishments, whatever--while, again, trying to be good and just to others along the way. The more of us who normalize professional authenticity, and denormalize fear and cultivation of online facsimilies and facades of who we are, the more we may slowly begin to realize a better profession: a profession where living in so much fear is no longer incentivized the way it is today.
These, of course, are just my thoughts--and I may be wrong. And I am, as always, open to reconsidering the views I have voiced, and to saying I am sorry if I have erred. Further, I hope this post has not come across as "picking on" Professor Kukla or her post, as that is not my intent. As I mentioned above, I think there is probably real truth to her post and recommendations. My only intent has been to highlight the fact that we work in a discipline where those are seemingly reasonable recommendations, due in part (if not whole) due to people's positions of vulnerability and fear. This post's aim has been merely to question that background state of affairs, and to examine how else we might respond to it to realize a profession where things are different.
In any case, I invite your thoughts and comments, and will close with some quotes on fear I find inspiring and possessing some wisdom:
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." -Alice Walker
"Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear." - Albert Camus
"My story is a freedom song of struggle. It is about finding one's purpose, how to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one's self." - Coretta Scott King
"Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone... Bad food is fake food... food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people's ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives." - Anthony Bourdain
"Too much self-centered attitude, you see, brings, you see, isolation. Result: loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centered attitude is the source of suffering." - Dalai Lama
"I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't." - Audre Lorde
"We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear." - Martin Luther King Jr.
"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." - Marie Curie
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." - Nelson Mandela
"My motto is: feel the fear, and do it anyway." - Tamara Mellon
"I'll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!" - Nina Simone
"I'm not afraid of storms, as I'm learning to sail my ship." - Louisa May Alcott
"I've learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you. The journey is valuable, but believing in your talents, your abilities, and your self-worth can empower you to walk down an even brighter path. Transforming fear into freedom - how great is that?" - Soledad O'Brien
"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." -Albert Einstein
"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy.' They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life." -John Lennon
"If you hear a voice within you say, 'You cannot paint,' then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced." -Vincent Van Gogh
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -Mark Twain
"I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had a daughter who I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." - JK Rowling
"True success is overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful." - Paul Sweeney
"I think fearless is having fears but jumping anyway." - Taylor Swift
"I have been fighting from a very young age. There is no fear there. It helped me cultivate the mindset of a fighter." - Ritika Singh