The Productivity Syndrome (or why I stopped writing philosophy)
You are at a conference, wandering around the book exhibit. A former colleague walks up and greets you. A few minutes into the conversation she asks the inevitable question. “So, what are you working on?” You say, “nothing.” Or to make it perfectly clear, you say, “I am working on nothing.” You are met with a suppressed shock (without the awe) that barely obscures your companion’s dark thoughts: you are living “dead wood,” worse, someone who has the gall to admit it. You can’t bear to be seen like this, and quickly add, “but I am actively engaged in research in new areas of interest, which I fully expect will result in a series of articles or books.” Not really dead wood, you see. Just taking a working, productive, hiatus. Never let it be said, or even thought, that one is not productive.
I have three articles sitting on my electronic desktop, in various stages of completion. I haven’t touched them in many months, nor have I moved forward on a book project. I just stopped writing scholarly philosophy. I am currently running an F in productivity.
The decision wasn’t premeditated. I have been trying to understand why it occurred. No doubt this motivational desert was in part created by personal and familial challenges, as well as the extraordinarily disturbing current political climate. But I’ve become convinced that my deepening disappointment with professional philosophy is what broke the camel’s back. The solution might have been to sever all ties with professional philosophy—people do—but I’ve been part of this discipline for too long and know too many people. It remains part of my identity. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop all writing. There were blog posts (some relating to the philosophy profession), as well as miscellaneous unpublished writings. But no traditional scholarship in philosophy. If you were to ask me today what I am working on, I would have to say, “nothing,” given the way that the question is usually understood.
Academic disciplines in our time have been subjected to a productivity principle: more is better, and a lot more is even better than better, giving rise to a kind of productivity syndrome, in which “more is better” becomes one’s modus operandi. Alternatives to this MO come to seem unnatural, and quantitative measures take center stage. For example, while we may rail about the importance of quality, the reality is that for tenure and promotion decisions, as well as a host of other professional perks, quantity rules the day. Honestly, how often have you heard of someone not receiving tenure because his or her colleagues said that the quality of the work was unacceptable? Of course this happens, but I am asking you to consider how often. Having served on many internal and external reviews, my take-away is that quantity, and prestigious venues, are typically what win the day. Yet, there is no guarantee that a book or article published by a prestigious press is of high quality. We all know that weak or mediocre books slip through, for various reasons. Quantity is so much easier. Professor X has 18 articles, 12 book reviews, 21 conference presentations, two monographs, and an edited volume. The University T & P committee is going to be impressed. End of story.
Academic culture has become monomaniacally infatuated with productivity as a marker of accomplishment, of a successful academic life, of a successful life, and quantitative measures have become increasingly important in determining what counts as success, as we see, of course, in other sub-cultures of endeavor. It’s increasingly difficult for people in America to consider non-productivity markers as acceptable indicators of a successful life, and academics are not immune to this productivity syndrome. Quite the contrary. Although they can be found resisting (mildly) the measurements of productivity foisted on them by university administrators, they also enthusiastically measure themselves. It’s hard not to impress oneself by the number of one’s publications. (I recall one young academic philosopher telling me years ago that he wanted to publish 100 articles by X date, and 150 by Y date.) We can all recite the many warnings going back to the Ancients about avoiding the temptations of Mammon, or Mammon stand-ins. And the current stand-ins for academics are recognition and prestige, which invariably require productivity, and yet more productivity.
The productivity syndrome affects not only the lives of those who are on the tenure track or are tenured. It is also part of the system that exploits contingent faculty. How so? One of the justifications for the universal salary and benefit discrepancies between tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream staff is that tenure stream faculty are more productive than their adjunct colleagues. Just look at how many more articles and books they produce! Of course if people with tenure were teaching 5 or 6 courses a semester at different institutions, their productivity presumably would take a significant hit. Further, once someone has not produced much for several years, it becomes virtually impossible to find a tenure stream position because the assumption is, well, once a productivity loser, always a productivity loser. How marvelously insidious. A perfectly self-fulfilling and self-justifying framework for exploitation. To add insult to injury, adjunct colleagues who do manage to write must send their work to journals that are overloaded with submissions, leading to massive delays in the peer review process. This certainly hurts those with less work to submit more than those who can circulate several articles at once. No doubt if people were driven less by the productivity principle, the peer review process would be more streamlined.
Philosophy was supposed to be different from other disciplines, or so I thought some 45 years ago when I was hooked. Philosophy has been deeply committed to the honing of critical skills for millennia, as well as to enhancing our capacity for thoughtful and sustained reflection on matters public and private. Philosophers were supposed to be the fearlessly critical ones. The ones who wouldn’t be sucked in. The ones who stood back and said, look, don’t uncritically buy into the values of your society. Question. Reflect. Think. Are these values truly those of a good life? Socrates was the archetype. Sadly, too many philosophers have decided to set old Socrates aside, embracing the productivity principle with varying degrees of fervor. And to make matters worse, a lot of these people have highly visible positions, which makes them, even more unfortunately, the face of the profession.
I was naive to have believed that philosophy would be different—that philosophers would be more vigorously critical (even about their own professional activities) than those in other disciplines—but I never fully gave up on the hope over the years. Today I am close to despair on this front–hence the motivational crisis. I don’t want to be part of the productivity system. I don’t want to be identified with academics or philosophers who suffer from the syndrome. A few words about my dark enlightenment, through my atypical trajectory in philosophy, can help explain how I got here.
I had been concerned about the obsessional preoccupation with productivity in the profession before I became head of the Philosophy Department at Penn State. Before Penn State I had taught at institutions that offered masters level work in philosophy in interdisciplinary graduate programs. Penn State exposed me to inner world of doctoral programs in philosophy, and the result was seeing the productivity problem on steroids. The obsessional preoccupation with career advancement among graduate faculty, and here of course I am not only speaking of Penn State, can take one’s breath away. And doctoral faculty serve as models of professional behavior for graduate students. Their postures, however, are often unrecognizable as artifacts of philosophical inspiration. In many cases they might better serve as models for those who want to work on Wall Street, where the bottom line can always be measured.
I left Penn State for Juilliard, where I was chair and then, as we redesigned and expanded the program, Director of Liberal Arts. (Liberal Arts is responsible for most of the traditional academic work of Juilliard undergraduates.) You don’t get a more competitive crowd than Juilliard students and faculty, and yet there are significant differences from traditional academia. There is an intense investment in quality, but few ways to translate this quality into numbers. It’s not how many Haydn quartets you have played. Rather, it’s how well you are playing this one. I am not saying that there isn’t careerism. But that careerism isn’t tied to quantifiable productivity in the same way it is in academia. In this light, philosophy departments, especially ones with doctoral programs, often seem more like places that wish to produce iPhones than places that focus on performing a sonata (really well), although philosophers will tell you that they are all about quality. (To avert misunderstanding: I am not saying that most philosophers don’t care about quality. Of course they do. My point is rather that the system makes it too easy to substitute quantity for quality, production for thoughtfulness. And too many philosophers have gone along with this game.)
As much as I loved being at Juilliard, there was one major drawback. If I stayed there, I would never work with philosophy majors again. And so when I saw that a good regional university, Manhattan College, whose campus was near my home, was searching for a chair to help them reorganize their philosophy department, I jumped ship.
I expected Manhattan College, which has a long history of emphasizing teaching, to be different, that is, not as driven by the productivity principle. And it has been, to a degree. But I was not able to escape the pervasiveness of the productivity syndrome, because no matter where one goes, it hovers over the hopes and expectations of one’s students. If they decide to go into philosophy, this is in all likelihood what they will have to face. To reinforce this point I had to look no further than the way that the profession had signed onto the Philosophical Gourmet Report. The response of colleagues in the profession to the PGR is probably what finally scuttled any hope I had for a frontal assault on the productivity syndrome, in spite of the fact that many philosophers criticized the PGR. Let me explain.
The Philosophical Gourmet Report, a good old-boy prestige machine, should never have been taken seriously by any serious philosopher. And yet we found well-placed philosophers publicly insisting that the rankings were of unquestionable value for future generations of philosophers, while knowing or suspecting that it was a limited and flawed instrument, basically an unscientific prestige survey for analytic departments.* There were philosophers who were willing to say that the PGR wasn’t especially helpful to prospective graduate students. But they gave other reasons for defending the PGR, although they typically didn’t advertise them: their departments would benefit from a high ranking, or an improved one, with regard to increased resources, getting grants, impressing deans, recruiting, etc. In other words, high rankings could be used as a marker for a department’s success (when appealing to administrators), and of course, it goes without saying, success involves productivity and functions as a promissory note for future productivity.**
My exchanges about the PGR became a watershed. Yes, there were many philosophers who saw its dangers and its limitations, but even adversaries frequently framed their opposition in terms of how their work, their productivity, wasn’t being properly acknowledged. And while these claims were often true, they only made matters worse for me. People weren’t saying that the productivity pie was poison. They only wanted to make sure that they got their fair share of the pie. In this regard analytic and continental philosophers often behaved like peas in a pod.
Where were the philosophers who should have been saying that philosophy doesn’t play the productivity game?!? The unexamined life is not worth living. And living as a vehicle for production—as an instrument of production instead of as an instrument of action, of life—must be resisted, must be fought. And fought in the name of philosophy.
I know what some of you are going to say: old hat and unrealistic. People have to get tenure. They need to produce. It’s not their fault. I agree, it’s not anyone’s fault in particular. It’s a system. Nevertheless, people could work to curtail the reign of the productivity principle. They could try to undermine the use of quantity as the most compelling marker of achievement, for example, by modifying department criteria for promotion, and following up with good arguments to administrators for why the department’s approach is warranted. Philosophers can work in places that are less obsessed with productivity and let others know that this was a choice, not a fallback after a failure to win a position in a doctoral department. Further, they don’t have to continue on the productivity path after receiving tenure.***
I’m not holding my breath. It’s hard to shake all of those years of socialization that chant produce, produce, produce. It’s difficult not to have a robust answer when asked by a colleague at a conference, so, what are you working on? No one wants to be seen as a slouch, as lazy, in a culture that takes the work/productivity ethic as gospel. Better to keep plugging away. Better always to have something on the burner than to feel the embarrassment of being seen as dead wood.
None of this speaks to the deeply personal and tradition-bound reasons we have for wanting to write philosophy. But we must find a way to separate the activity of expressing ourselves from the commodification and commercialization of that expression, which is at the heart of the productivity syndrome.
Here is another suggestion: stop writing philosophy for publication for an extended period of time. Announce this decision to colleagues. Be willing to say that this is for your good and for the good of philosophy. Acknowledge that you need time to reflect on what the productivity preoccupation is doing to philosophy and to you as a philosopher.
By making this suggestion I know I sound hopeful, after I’d implied that I’d lost hope. Perhaps my time away from writing has given me some insight into alternative possibilities, at least for those who are willing to be viewed as dead wood. Maybe this post was a start.
So, what are your working on?
* Before the internet made department specializations readily available, one could argue that the PGR did have one virtue: it informed prospective graduate students about the specializations of different departments. Of course the caveat here is that the departments ranked were almost exclusively confined to the analytic tradition, so we saw odd effects, for example, when a department with one or two people in continental philosophy was ranked and continental departments with ten to twenty philosophers working in this area were unranked or sent to the nether regions of the rankings. And don’t get me started on how Classical American Philosophy (one of my areas) and non-Western philosophy fared, or how gender and other biases pervaded the rankings.
** Perhaps as demoralizing as the not-so-hidden agenda people had for supporting the flawed PGR was the fact that its supporters never seemed to the question whether the apex of philosophical achievement is a position on a doctoral faculty, preferably a top ranked one. Apparently the unexamined life is worth living if it doesn’t undermine one’s career trajectory.
*** I hope to write another post in which I address what might be done to move us away from a quantifiable productivity culture. (For a start, see the cartoon below.) In the meantime, I would like to hear from philosophers regarding steps we might take to address the problem. (To say the obvious, challenging the productivity principle may involve thinking of philosophy as something of a collective enterprise—one in which teaching is as important as research—rather than the work of isolated extraordinary minds, who after receiving the apple of illumination, produce reams of world-transforming philosophical prose.)