Thursday, May 26, 2011

Promotion (and some reflections on getting here)


Last week I received the final word that I have been promoted to full professor, which is very welcome and pleasing news. I thought I would take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on the past 11 years of my career and the road I have taken to get to where I am now.

I'm afraid my reflections don't really offer any "advice" per say, to junior faculty or grad students considering a career in political theory. But perhaps some readers can relate to some of my experiences.

I started my career back in 1999, having finished my PhD in a philosophy department in England. I can recall quite clearly the final year of my PhD and how eager I was to send off applications to all the jobs ("open" and in my area of specialization) that were advertised that year (Fall 1998). I bought a map of North America and put pins in all the cities where I had applied to.

I must have applied to 50+ jobs in total that year. And I was (naively!) optimistic that I would land a tenure track job back in North American to start in the fall of 1999. The months that followed were tough and, as my father is fond of saying, "character building". As I did not even have my PhD in hand at the time, and limited teaching experience and only a few papers in print (or forthcoming), I should have had lower expectations. So the months that followed was a real learning experience.

The worst experience that year was probably attending the famous "smoker" at the Eastern division meeting of the APA. The conference takes place over the winter holidays and attending the talks was fun. But the job interview component of the conference was much less pleasant. I had one job interview lined up that year so I decided to fly to Washington (I was visiting family in Canada anyways so I wasn't too far away) to attend the interview at the conference. The interview itself was fine, but during the "smoker" event job candidates have the awkward experience of hanging around the dept's table, conversing with other job applicants and faculty from the department. Most job applicants were from the US, and thus they had their advisors and other faculty and grad students to converse with and help them mingle. As a lonely grad student from the UK I pretty much wandered around aimlessly trying to make sense of this process and event. Needless to say I was not keen to experience the "smoker" again any time soon! (I have not attended it since that first experience)

As rejection letters began to come in I removed the pins on my map until there were none left. I gathered the large stack of rejection letters and had my wife take a picture of me lying down with them spread covering me from my toes up to my head! Luckily I didn't let these rejections in that first year get me down too much. In the winter and spring of my last year of the PhD I kept chipping away on the dissertation, taught my first lecture course (on Marx), and got a few more chapters published. I also turned my attention to one-year UK appointments that were coming out in the Spring of 1999.

I was very fortunate to land my first academic position, a one year lectureship, in the Department of Philosophy at Aberdeen University. The position started in July 1999, a month before I was to defend my dissertation. Aberdeen has a beautiful campus, and the philosophy department is housed in the "old Brewery". I recall fondly the old, small desk I worked on in the office I was given for that year. Allegedly it had been JS Mill's desk (there was a Latin inscription on the desk though I don't recall what it read), and I was told Mill gave it as a gift to (if memory serves me correctly) Alexander Bain, who held a Chair in the Aberdeen Philosophy Department at that time.

So there I was, fresh out of graduate school, working away (during the dark, cold afternoons and evenings) writing papers and preparing lectures on the desk of one of my intellectual heroes! Funny enough, I actually suffered some pretty bad back pain that year. The desk was very small, and the chair I sat on was not a proper desk chair. It wasn't until I left Aberdeen months later and the pain subsided that I realized it was sitting hunched over Mill's old desk all those hours a day that probably caused the back pain.

Over the winter and spring months I interviewed for a number of jobs (here are some reflections on one of them) and it wasn't until the week my eldest son was born in the spring of 2000 that I landed a 3 year appointment in the Department of Political Studies and International Studies at Birmingham University. Within the first ten days of my son being born I had to rush off to three different job interviews (in addition to doing grading for the term), and that was probably the most stressful time of my career as I only had a few months left on my job contract in Aberdeen and I had to financially support my wife and our new baby.

The stability the new Birmingham appointment offered was very appealing and so we moved back to England in 2000 and remained at Birmingham for the next two years.

The move to Birmingham marked a turning point in my career for many reasons. That job eventually became permanent (though I ended up leaving shortly after it became permanent) so we were freed from the immense financial stress of not having a secure income (though trying to buy a house in the UK proved to be a real challenge and headache, and if we weren't gazumped on a house in 2001 we might still be living in Birmingham!). Secondly, taking the appointment in Birmingham marked a turning point in my career as I switched from being based (primarily at least) in a Philosophy department to a Political Science department. I have stayed in the latter ever since. This switch has profoundly shaped my research and teaching. Perhaps I will expand on this point on another occasion.

Rather than trying to re-work my dissertation into a book, I decided instead to start writing this book and this edited volume. This really helped to broaden my interests.

In the fall of 2002 I joined the Department of Government at Manchester University, which had (and still does) a very strong theory presence in the UK. While at Manchester I had the opportunity to teach my "Genetics and Justice" course for the first time. And the course was co-taught with my colleague Hillel, which made it even more fun and interesting. Manchester was also the first time I taught large lectures. The first year "Introduction to Political Thought" course had 300 students, and the second year "Freedom and Equality" course had around 200 students. Learning how to teach large classes required developing a slightly different skill set than the one I developed early in my career. In large classrooms you don't have the opportunity to learn the names of the students and things are obviously less interactive than in small seminars. But in the years that followed I learned to appreciate the importance teaching large lecture courses has had on my intellectual development. Nearly a decade later and I still enjoy teaching large intro theory courses.

I left Manchester after only a year in order to take up a tenure-track position at Waterloo University back in Canada. I recall, shortly after receiving the Waterloo offer but before I decided to accept it, the then President (now GG of Canada) of the University phoned me long distance from Canada to the UK to persuade to join the University, and he even mailed me some copies of his published books! His generous gesture really made an impression on me, and brought home the importance social virtues can have to the success of higher education (something often unappreciated by academics). My wife and I didn't need much persuading to return to Canada. When we initially embarked on the journey overseas for my PhD in 1996 we thought it would be for just a few years and we always planned to return to Canada. We were eager to be closer to family and, with a young family to support, the lower cost of living in Canada would enable us to finally buy a home.

The years that followed marked the longest time we have lived somewhere since getting married. We stayed at Waterloo for 5 years (with a sabbatical year in Oxford in 2006/7). I enjoyed teaching an "intro to theory" course, a course on the history of political thought, a contemporary political philosophy course and my genetics and justice course while at Waterloo. I also had a great time debating Jan in the bi-weekly reading group we regularly ran during my time at Waterloo. While at Waterloo I also finished my work on this book, and continued chipping away on a new project on genetics and justice. I also co-edited this volume with Larry. I was promoted to Associate Professor in 2007.

Then in 2008 I moved here to Queen's as a QNS. Kingston is a great city and I enjoy teaching the large, full-year course on the history of political thought and my science and justice course. Over the past few years my research has focused on the ethical and social issues that arise with longevity science and, much more recently, play and happiness.

Looking back over the past decade of my research I have become much more critical of "ideal" and "abstract" methodologies in political theory/philosophy. This shift has come about because of my interests in topics that intersect the biological sciences and debates about justice, as well as my interests in virtue ethics and the fact that I switched from philosophy to political science. This shift also came about because I tend to prefer to tackle a disparate array of practical topics rather than working on just one or two "core" topics or issues. The topics I have published on include the basic income proposal, free speech, neutrality, genetics and justice (here, here, here, here and here), aging (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) , incest, historical materialism (here and here), judicial review (here and here), ideal theory, taxation, gender selection, deliberative democracy, and justice and incentives (here and here). Tackling these different applied issues has helped transform me from the ideologue I was when I started my career into the pragmatist than I am today. I believe this transformation has been for the better, though much of course depends on what we think political theory is for.

I believe the question "Why do political theory today?" is the most fundamental question a theorist can ask herself. And the answer, for me, has never been an inward, professionalized answer. Political theory is important because it is an intellectual activity that can help develop and hone those moral (e.g. empathy, humility) and intellectual virtues (e.g. adaptability of intellect, attention to details, understanding, etc) needed to achieve phronesis. Conceiving of the discipline in such a fashion has lead me tackle issues not traditionally addressed by the field (e.g. decriminalizing incest, the evolution of patriarchy, and, especially, longevity science- as someone recently joked to me "I have the field of aging and political theory to myself!"). Tackling issues not addressed by the field has risks and is challenging. But it can also be very enjoyable and rewarding.

So that wraps up some reflections on my progress from holding lectureships in the UK, to my time on the tenure-track in Canada, and then Associate and now full Professor. I'm afraid I don't have much to offer in terms of sage advice to those starting out early in their careers. But I suppose there is one important issue I wish someone had mentioned to me early on in my career- and that is to find a healthy balance between work and family. This has, at least for me, be a constant and ongoing learning experience and challenge. It is easy to feel that you are not doing enough, whether it be with publishing, reading, spending time with the kids, etc. Priorities need to be set and kept. For me, the highest priority is, hands down, my family (I have three young kids). The pressures of getting a job, then getting tenure and then promotion to full professor can place immense strain on an academic's relationships. And so it is imperative to realize that flourishing as an academic ought not to be confused and conflated with flourishing as a person. And the latter ought to remain one's #1 concern, though it is sometimes tempting to equate them and thus to pursue a course of action that comes at the cost of those things (i.e. relationships) that are constitutive of the latter. This is an occupational hazard worth noting, especially for those early in their career.

I also want to emphasize the importance of teaching. Sadly many academics see teaching as distinct from scholarship (as something that interferes and distracts them from publishing). But teaching has played an enormous role in my development as a scholar. I continue to learn from interacting with hundreds of bright young minds each year. They bring fresh ideas and new perspectives. Aspiring to engage students with political theory remains the most rewarding feature of being a professor. I have been fortunate to play a small role in the intellectual development of thousands of students from Scotland, England and Canada. Most of these students do not go on to be political theory professors. They go on to be teachers, journalists, lawyers, parents, taxpayers, spouses, etc. They take on diverse roles and identities. And I hope the skill-set I have tried to help develop and hone in my courses will prepare them for the challenges they face in life. Contemplating the big questions of theory, like "what is the good life?" or "what is justice?" has brought me so much happiness. And I have tried to pass on the joy of the "examined life" to my students. Teaching is a real privilege. And it has helped me develop as both a person and as a scholar.

So that completes these rather lengthy reflections on my road to becoming full professor. When I started my career in 1999, teaching philosophy in Scotland, I never would have dreamed that I would have the opportunity to meet such an interesting array of colleagues and students as I have at the 6 universities I have been affiliated with. I have been very fortunate. And I look forward to the new challenges that await the next stage of my career.

Cheers,
Colin

UPDATE: And if I had to pick just one of my publications to date that I felt came closest to the aspirations of Kant's 3 maxims of "public sense"- 1. “Think for yourself” (the motto of the enlightenment); 2. “To think from the standpoint of everyone else”; and 3. “always think consistently”- it would be 3 wishes. Below is the video version of that paper.

video