Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Jim Ryan's Story, and Mine

Let me start off by recommending Jim Ryan's defunct Philosoblog, the archives of which I have begun exploring. There is excellent material here worthy of the MP's STOA (stamp of approval). Jim still blogs occasionally, over at The Conservative Philosopher. The following is in response to my query as to why he left teaching.

Well, here's my story, thanks for asking: I've always taken learning to be almost sacred, scholarship to be transcendent, books sublime. Given this disposition, I was unable to stomach teaching that 20% of my students who were there to get by by hook or by crook (avoid class, avoid the book, succumb to cheating, etc.). I realized at 37 that I would become a bitter old man if I taught for another 30 years. I liked the other 80% of my students, and I liked my research, but these weren't enough to get me through the bitter part. So, having reasonable math/science background I boned up on chemistry during my last year of teaching and hustled a job in the Chem department at U. of Virginia. That was two years ago, almost. It's been fun, but now I'm thinking of moving into the business world, so that I can make more money and have more time with my kids.

What about your story, Bill? How'd you come to quit?

BV: Learning sacred, scholarship transcendent, books sublime. I can see we have something in common, a commonality that is also part of the reason why I gave up teaching. The average run of students would dismiss your sentiments and mine as bullshit, as some kind of empty self-serving rhetoric that could only be spouted by some weirdo we fills his belly by spouting it. Most people have no intellectual eros, could not care less about scholarship, and place no value whatsoever on good books.

Proof of the latter point can be found by scouring the used bookstores in a locale like Boston-Cambridge. Take a book off the shelf that was assigned in a course, note the underlining or 'magic mark-up' and how it extends maybe three or four pages and then stops -- great for me, of course, who gets a relatively pristine copy for pennies, but indicative of the pointlessness of reading assignments.

Most teaching is like trying to feed people who aren't hungry. Pointless. Of course, I had some great students and great classes. But not enough of either to justify the enterprise.

Then there is the problem of stimulating colleagues. It is easy to end up in a department without any, in which case you are on your own, and you may as well be an independent scholar. Isolation? Not any more. Not with the WWW and the blogosphere in particular.

But the main reason I quit was to be able to do philosophy full time and live a more focused existence. It had been something I had been thinking about for a long time. I had tenure, had enjoyed it for seven years, had enjoyed a two-year visiting professorship, and was ready to take the next step in my life. The catalyst was my wife's being offered a great job in a beautiful place. Being a Westerner, I had served enough time in the effete and epicene East and was ready to get back to where mountains are mountains and hikers and climbers are damn glad of it.