Monday, December 28, 2020

Year in Review (2020)


As I am sure it has been for everyone else, the year 2020 has been one filled with new challenges, stress and some significant losses.

On a personal note, sadly my mother passed away in early June.  This was during the strictest part of the COVID-19 lockdown in Ontario, which meant that I wasn't able to see her in the last 3 months of her life, nor was I able to bring my children to her funeral.  That was very hard.  And now I have had both my parents pass away within 18 months of each other. Both were major losses.

The pandemic meant disruption to the kids school and work plans.  They are pretty versatile but I know it has been tough on them.  For about 6 months I had them home doing online learning while I tried to work from home.  Let's just say that was not fun.  And we are set to repeat that again in January for at least a few weeks. 

The BLM protests in the summer of 2020 lead to me doing a major re-think and overhaul of my year long history of political thought course.  In the past the issue of racial justice was addressed in just one week, covering MLK, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Prison" and a discussion of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks and Stokely Carmichael.  But I undertook a major (6 months +) revision of the course content, adding more details on the Black Lives Matter movement, and new sections on anarchism, Mills on the racial contract, and a new substantive section on Black Political Though covering Anna Cooper, WEB Du Bois and Franz Fanon.  This work was a major undertaking, but I believe it has made the course more current and balanced in terms of the topics, voices and perspectives it covers.  I wanted to ensure the course was part of the solution to the problems of today vs part of the problem.  

The other main challenge with teaching this year was moving all my courses for the year online.  I am teaching approximately 300 students in both terms. This has proven to also be a major undertaking, eating up most of the scarce free time I have had for the past 8 months.  I estimate that a typical one hour of lecture took at least 4 hours on average to design into an online lecture of that length (typically 3 20 minute lectures, with embedded videos, etc.) after a steep learning curve.  In the beginning it took me approximately 10 hours to design 1 hour of online lecture content.  Surprising I found this task more enjoyable than I thought I would.  I have made it playful, adding some jovial content into the lectures to lighten things up for the students and fuel my own enthusiasm.  However it is a distant "second-best" to in-person teaching.  I cannot wait for a return to in-person classes, whenever that should occur. 

The pandemic also meant my usual volunteer teaching in the prison was cancelled this year.  I really feel for the inmates, as I know they are now subject to many additional stressors (less family time, cancellation of volunteer activities, stress of COVID-19 spread within the prison) beyond that typical of imprisonment.  I am optimistic I will return to those volunteer activities hopefully some time next year.

Despite all of the events of 2020, it was a very product one for me research-wise.  The following publications appeared in print this year:

"The Focusing Illusion of Ideal Theory" was published in the book John Rawls: Debating the Major QuestionsThis paper develops the line of criticism against Rawlsian ideal theory I first developed in my 2007 paper in Political Studies.  It was timely this chapter should come out in 2020 as I believe the pandemic and BLM movement protests reveal the importance of theorizing the non-ideal vs ideal.

I also had two collaborative publications appear in print this year, which were the outcome of a workshop at Harvard University back in 2018.  The two papers are:

Current recommendations on the selection of measures forwell-being” in the journal Preventative Medicine.

And a follow up commentary on that article titled “Brief well-being assessments, or nothing at all?” also in Preventative Medicine

In the works for appearing next year, I have a new chapter titled ""Positive Biology" and Well Ordered Science" forthcoming in this OUP book Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities.

I have also committed to write a commissioned article on ethics and life extension for a new edited volume next year.

I also have plans for a major research project on pandemic justice, this will be a multi-year research project and will likely dominate my more substantive research interests for the foreseeable future.

And finally, as already noted earlier this month, I also just signed a new book contract for a new introductory textbook on classics in political philosophy for today with Hackett Publishing.  This is a major undertaking, bringing together 20 years of teaching experience covering some 2000+ years in Western political philosophy.

This will be the third textbook I have undertaken over the last 20 years, the other two books being An Introduction to ContemporaryPolitical Theory and Genetic Ethics: An Introduction. I know many academics have a somewhat negative view of the value of writing textbooks.  Such works are often considered “low value” scholarship compared to publishing specialized journal articles and research monographs.  As such many academics would never consider writing a textbook, either because they see it as beneath them or of low value to scholarship.  I think this attitude is very unfortunate, and people outside of academia will (rightly) find it somewhat surprising.  Professors teach students, so why would writing books that students will utilize in their classes be considered “low value” compared to publishing articles that only a handful of specialized scholars would ever likely read?  Such is the hierarchical state of knowledge and research in higher education today.  I think it is very unfortunate.  

I am lucky in that I am at the stage of my career, with an established track record of published specialized journal articles and research monographs, that permits me to indulge myself with undertaking another textbook.  Indeed, I see these projects as intimately linked to my other research projects.  I have become a much better scholar because I have published more introductory books on the subjects I have written on. 

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art (see my book review herehe makes a distinction the writer who writes from their heart and a writer he describes as "a hack".  A hack asks what their audience wants them to write before they start writing vs the author that writes from their heart (or intellectual curiosity).  A hack writes what they think will play well in the eyes of others- be it tenure and promotion committees, research grant committees, etc.  The artist, argues Pressfield, must do their work for their own sake, not for the validation that comes via hierarchy. 

Of course academics are not artists, so we have to keep an eye on hierarchical markers if we hope to get, keep and flourish in our careers.  But I think we shouldn't be uncritical slaves to such markers either.  If research and writing is, first and foremost, “a calling”, then we will be able to transcend hierarchical thinking and (at least over the long run) genuinely write  from the heart.  The ideal situation is when writing from the heart also ticks key boxes in the “hierarchical markers” needed to keep one’s academic career moving forward in a positive direction.  In my case I know that writing interdisciplinary work on topics I believe are pressing and interesting societal predicaments is my passion.  This doesn’t always lead to the optimal payoff in the hierarchy of academia as such a hierarchy often rewards the inward specialization of knowledge and the tackling of “topical issues” distinct from what I address.  But I think my career success can be (largely) credited to my tendency to gravitate towards outlier interests and be somewhat innovative and a bit more risk-taking on methodological issues.  I did not start my career that way.  My first four journal publications (here, here, here and here), all based on my PhD dissertation, were very much in line with the interests and methodology of analytical political philosophy in the late 1990s.  I did write them from the heart, but they also provided what Pressfield calls “psychological security” within the hierarchy of a group.  Once I gravitated (in the early 2000s) towards non-ideal theory, and my interests in human biology and genetics, I started to carve out my own niche way of thinking about ethics and political philosophy that went against the hierarchy.  This reflected my connecting with what Pressfield calls “your territory”.   

Pressfield’s suggested test to reveal one’s territory is as follows- imagine you are the last person on earth, what activities would you do? This test stripes away any hierarchical considerations.  I have tried to take a somewhat similar approach to my academic research over the past 20 years or so- imagine there are no tenure and promotion committees, no external referees, no research funding committees or Deans, no journal editors and referees you must placate.  What research and writing would you undertake in those circumstances?  That is your true territory.  Indeed, this blog constitutes “my territory”.  I write here purely for my heart for the reward of expressing and conceptualizing my thoughts and ideas.  I do not receive any financial or (direct) career benefits from writing blog posts for over 16 years.  I have written more on this blog than in any book or journal article I will publish.  This writing has been immensely valuable to my intellectual development as both a scholar and a human being.  I have fun expressing my ideas here when they are still at the embryonic stage of development.  I suppose the blog functions as both an intellectual diary and a “idea catalogue” for me. 

The above projects will keep me more than busy for the next few years.  2020 has certainly been an exceptional year in many respects.  I have been fortunate to discover positives in the challenges that have been thrown at me in my professional life.  I am very passionate about pandemic justice, as it brings together my interests in non-ideal theory, science and aging.  It is likely to consume most of my research for at least the next few years.  I find it a significant, challenging and fascinating problem to theorize about.  

I hope others have been able to find some positives and opportunities for growth and development in the year 2020, despite it's challenges and adversity.  And here's to a New Year and a brighter future for all in the year 2021!