Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 4: Intellectual Play)

Ten years ago this month I defended my dissertation “Rights and Responsibilities: An Examination of Rawlsian Justice” here, and then I started my first full-time position at this department in Scotland.

I believe it is important for an academic to periodically reflect upon their experiences in academia and the trajectory of their career. I do this quite often. I find it helps me orient my research interests, learn from my mistakes, and think more creatively about my future. So to mark the 10th year anniversary of my transition from being "a grad student" to being a "faculty member" (though still a student in spirit, as I explain below), I thought I would write this rather lengthy post.

And I intend to interweave these personal reflections into my continuing narrative about the importance of play (Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here). So what I have to say will draw from my own experiences in academia, but no doubt one could draw parallels to other types of jobs and experiences.

Let's start then with a brief re-cap of "play". What is play? And why play? Playful activities are those that possess the kind of properties Brown identifies. These are:

(1) play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake).
(2) voluntary
(3) inherent attraction
(4) freedom from time
(5) diminished consciousness of self
(6) improvisational potential
(7) continuation desire

And we play because it helps us develop the diverse skill-set needed to flourish in a constantly changing and challenging world. Perhaps no other trait has as much survival value as a playful disposition. And humans, thanks to our large and plastic brains, are the biggest players of all.

My understanding of my own job, as an academic and, more specifically, political theorist and philosopher, is that I am in the business of promoting and celebrating intellectual play. I do this through teaching undergraduates, supervising graduate students, attending conferences, publishing papers and books, blogging and by conversing and interacting with people in my day-to-day life. I love my job; who wouldn't love to get paid to play? Every day I am grateful for the opportunities I have to engage in intellectual play and thus I seek to make the most of those opportunities and share the rich and diverse rewards of this play with others. After all, taxpayers pay my salary, and thus I take the responsibility of fostering intellectual play very seriously.

Just as a brief aside: I haven't always lived the charmed life of an academic. Before becoming a full-time academic my previous occupations included office cleaner, factory worker, dish washer, cleaner and then line worker in a pig slaughter factory, photo developing, mobile washer, directing traffic in construction zones, amongst other things. And these experiences, many of which were also enjoyable and rewarding, played an important and formative role in fuelling my desire to pursue the risky (jobs in my field are pretty scarce) and sometimes turbulent (you have to be willing to move where the jobs are) life of intellectual play that I now enjoy.

When I first began university as an undergraduate in 1990 I was actually registered in engineering rather than the humanities. As the first person in my family to get a university degree, my parents hoped I would pursue a degree that would get me a good job. And engineering seemed like a safe bet. But in my last year of high school I took one (and only one) course that wasn't a math or science course. It was a history class that had a section on the history of political ideas. So we covered Marx and Mill. I loved in. And when I started my first week of University in engineering I recall one of the professors saying that perhaps the most important questions we could consider did not involve how to build stronger bridges or faster computers. But rather they involved figuring out what constitutes a good society and the responsibilities we have to others. That professor inspired me. Indeed, his lecture motivated me to switch from engineering to the humanities after just the first week of term. And instead of taking calculus, chemistry and physics, I ended up taking courses in political science, history, philosophy and art history. My life was changed forever.

When people ask me what I do for a living, the exchange typically focuses on what political theory is, and what it is for (e.g. what can students do with it in terms of a job). Over the last few years this exchange has grown less awkward (at least from my perspective) as I have become more convinced of the importance of the lasting value of intellectual play (and political theory is an important form of this play). So here are the typical questions I am asked, and what I am now inclined to say in response to them:

Q: What do you do for a living?

Me: I teach at the University.

Q: What do you teach?

Me: Political theory.

Q: What is that?

Me: [long answer here] I am interested in political ideals, like equality and justice. I also teach students about the history of political thought, so thinkers like Plato and Marx. [I often also mention my interest in aging research, which also takes the conversation in interesting and surprising directions, but I won't address that here]

Q: What can students do with that?

Me: Hopefully they will think more clearly, consistently and imaginatively about the kind of society they want to live in.

Q: Why?

Me: So that our society can be better than it would otherwise be if students were not encouraged to think clearly, consistently and imaginatively about the kind of society they want to live in.

Q: But what job will they get with that?

Me: I don't know... I do believe the skill-set I aspire to help my students develop and hone can be transferred to many other areas of their lives, including any jobs they happen to take on during their lifetime. However, I am not a career counselor, I am a play counselor. My job is to ensure my students have the opportunity to engage in intellectual play. If I do my job successfully, my students will enjoy doing this (it is intrinsically rewarding) and their lives will be enriched by the experience. So will the lives of the people these students then influence when they discuss these ideas and aspirations with others. Play is infectious.

Q: Isn't it just a waste of time then? [this question is to be expected when one keeps in mind the first property of play--it is apparently purposeless]

Me: No, I don't think so. Before we expect students to decide which careers to pursue (and we should assume they will have more than one over their lifetime) they should have the opportunity to discover who they are, understand the world they live in and ponder the potential futures they hope to realize. Then they will be better positioned to tackle the issue of deciding what they want to spend most of their time doing after they leave university.

Do I have a "playful" role model that inspires me most? Yes. He was a Greek chap named Socrates, and he lived long ago and was persecuted for his playful mind. Socrates embodied the ideal of an intellectually playful mind. He was always asking questions and challenging the conventional wisdom of his contemporaries.

Many aspects of being a professor can help one keep the fire for "intellectual play" burning. In the ten years since defending my dissertation I have held positions at 6 different universities. From 1999-2000 I was here, then I spent two years (from 200-2002) here, one year here (2002-2003), five years in total here (2003-2008), a sabbatical year here and here (2006-7), and the last year (2008-present) here in my current position. In that time I have had the privilege to learn from a diverse range of wonderful colleagues and taught over 1500 bright students in Scotland, England and Canada. It has been an amazing adventure, one few jobs could match in terms of life and intellectual rewards.

Without a doubt the most important part of being a professor is having the opportunity to discuss and debate things with all the bright students one gets the privilege to teach. My students are the most important component of my own education. They inspire me to continue a life of intellectual play. They constantly expose me to fresh ideas and perspectives, and even though the faces of the students in my lectures change each year, their enthusiasm for knowledge, wisdom and debate remains a reassuring constant. And that is the fuel that keeps my passion for intellectual play burning.

All this brings me to this final and important thought. What constitutes real success for an academic? If you had asked me that question early on in my career I would have invoked certain "esteem" indicators that weigh heavily in tenure and promotion. So getting articles published in a particular journal, or the number of books published or impact one makes on a specific debate in the field. While I still do care greatly about these things, I no longer invoke them as the benchmark for real success.

So what do I think ought to constitute the benchmark of success for a play counselor? Well, most of the colleagues I have had over the years were much more senior than I. Some colleagues near retirement greet it with great enthusiasm. They no longer enjoy teaching and some had long abandoned any new research aspirations. But there are others who enter retirement at the other end of the spectrum. They retire with as much (if not more!) zeal for teaching and research as they had at the start of their career. My friend Jan is one such example of these rare, motivated individuals.

In a way the intellectual minds of these motivated scholars have remained "ageless"; they are just as curious and energetic as when they started grad school. And I believe that is the real benchmark of success for an academic. To retain one's enthusiasm and curiosity over a lifetime. If I end my career with the same zest with which I began graduate school then I believe my career will have been a genuine success. For I would have achieved "intellectual immortality" [I am using the term immortality loosely here to mean "the absence of a sustained decline in one's capacity and desire for intellectual play"; I do not mean immortality in the sense of "beyond this life on earth"!] I do not think a philosopher could aspire to achieve anything more worthwhile than that. And 10 years on I am cautiously optimistic about the prospect of my reaching that goal.

So the secret to "intellectual immortality" is play. I aspire to cultivate an appreciation of the playful life in my students by engaging their intellects and inspiring them to explore the value and viability of our possible political futures. I am not an ideologue. Education is not about brain-washing young minds to be "left-wing" or "right-wing", or to make my students (or myself) become a devotee of a particular theory or thinker. Real education encourages intellectual growth and exploration. And I aspire to grow and explore with my students. I learn much more from them than they learn from me.

I believe the good life is the playful life. Of course it encompasses much more than just intellectual play. But for now, I'll end things here with these brief personal reflections on the role of intellectual play in my life.