Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part V

I turned in my official unofficial letter of resignation last wednesday. My academic life is over.  What a relief!  What this means is that I am now free to tell the story of my adventures in philosophy school after they resumed last fall. 

Let me start by saying that I harbor no resentment or bad feelings toward the department, which I've studied with now for five years.  They've been generous in funding me, and reasonably patient.  My conflict is with academia in general, not with any particular department or branch of study.

I left off the story with my 2-year leave of absence, during which I wrote a manuscript of about 200 pages arguing that the theories of Malthus and Darwin prove that societal progress is impossible in the long run.  At the same time, I had a number of mystical experiences that convinced me that a kind of unquantifiable spiritual progress, on the other hand, is possible.

In January of 2010, I let the deparment know that I wanted to return in the fall.  That spring, I made a last push to finish my manuscript so that I might present it as a possible dissertation.

But the project refused to come together nicely. It was simply too big.  I had written hundreds of pages, but I didn't feel that I yet had a core argument strong enough to make the radical point I was trying to make.  After a sleepless week of desperate revisions last April, I finally put the project aside and started thinking about a smaller, more conventional dissertation topic to pursue when I returned.

There were plenty of loose ends in my manuscript that seemed to me would make interesting dissertation topics.  The most promising was my research into the development of the steam engine, as an example of Darwinian technological evolution.  So I spent a few weeks last spring reading up on evolutionary histories of science and technology, as well as the history of mechanical engineering.  Perhaps it wasn't the most conventional topic, but it seemed to me to be a promising avenue of scholarship.

That summer I spent working, and last fall Emily and I finally (after six months of impatient waiting) tied the knot.  I mean it when I say it was the best day of our lives -- when we arrived in Pittsburgh I was beaming and optimistic.  It didn't take me long to convince a handful of professors that my project on evolutionary history of science would be a good one.  I promised to finish a prospectus as soon as possible.

But it didn't take long for old tensions to begin to rise again.  Thinking back on it, it was largely my fault.  The professor who was most excited about my project, call him "Professor Z," is a relatively new professor specializing in history.  At first I wanted my project to be historical in focus, and so he was in the running for being my advisor.  A couple of the other professors advised me to change my focus to the philosophy of science, since I was planning to look for a job in the philosophy department.  I should've ignored this advice, but instead I sent Professor Z an email letting him know that I would like him on my committee, but that I would need a more philosophical advisor.

This left Professor Cigar and Professor Plaid in the running for my advisor.  While I worked on making this decision, and putting together a proposal, one night I had a dream and I was suddenly thrown into an anxious depression.  This was late October, early November of 2010.

In my dream I was trapped in a vast, rickety wooden clockwork, stretching throughout a dim library.  The library was filled with men, all of whom looked identical:  they were dressed like students but with gray hair, each with the same faint smile, humming an eerie chant.  Each one desperately wanted to say something, but they couldn't stretch out to touch the person closest to them, because the wooden framework kept them separate, and it was so fragile that everyone feared to disturb it.  Instead, they simply swayed along with it, smiling their eerie smile and humming their eerie chant.

I woke up in a cold sweat.  Suddenly I was filled with the fear that I was slipping back into my old pattern, that I was sacrificing the truth to build a career with an institution that would slowly squeeze the life out of me.  Was I once again making too many sacrifices?  Would I again be caught on an endlessly digressive path, this time in evolutionary history rather than emergence?  Would I be cursed to never be able to say what I wanted to say?

The choice I made during the following couple of weeks was pivotal.  It was psychologically painful, but now that I look back on it, necessary.  If it hadn't been for Emily's support, I'm not sure that I would have made it through unscathed.  But I had to work my way through it, one way or another, or else it would have eaten me up inside forever.

The night of the dream I was up for several hours, brooding.  I thought about my manuscript.  I had worked on it for the better part of two years, reading over 10,000 pages of books and articles, and typing up four different drafts, each over 200 pages long.  Moreover, I knew I had something to say.  No book is perfect.  No argument is airtight.  I had to give myself a chance.  Going over the supposed "holes" in my argument in my mind, I finally decided that they were the result of a clumsy presentation.  I suddenly came to think that by streamlining my manuscript, deleting whole passages and even chapters, the best parts of the argument would shine through and I would have something good, and perhaps even (I told myself) revolutionary.

I spent the next four days making quick revisions to the manuscript I had almost completed six months earlier.  Unfortunately, the revisions were hurried.  I was worried that if I wasted too much time on the manuscript, and then discovered that it wouldn't work out, then the semester would be over and I would have nothing to show for it.  I was already behind in the program -- this was my fifth year and I still didn't have a proposal ready for my dissertation.  I decided that I would just quickly polish up what I had written, and show it to a few of the professors just to see what they would think.  Hopefully they could help me decide if it was worth working on.  If so, perhaps I could graduate much sooner than expected.  If not, then no big loss -- I could return to my work on the evolution of steam engines.

Deciding who to show it to was a bit of a nightmare.  At first I was inclined to pick just one professor.  But the manuscript was so unconventional, that I knew I would want at least a second and third opinion.  Secondly, I wanted at least three professors to have a chance to read it before perhaps being biased against it by whomever the first reader had been. 

To make matters worse, no one professor seemed to have the right interests or sympathies to help me with this project.  Professor Plum was interested in evolution, but would probably resist my application of evolutionary laws to society.  Professor Plaid was also interested in evolution, but rejected the possibility of group selection wholesale.  Professor Cigar's interests in evolution were relatively shallow, but he was fairly open-minded and interested in social science and the big picture.  Professor Spectacle was not interested in socio-historical questions.  Professor Z would love the radicalness of my new ideas, but didn't have the expertise in evolutionary theory to properly defend them to the rest of the faculty.  Professor Q was very interested in cultural evolution, but primarily from a psycho-social point of view, rather than a historical one.

After hours of agonizing deliberation, I settled on Professor Plum, Professor Q, and Professor Cigar.  I was not entirely comfortable with my decision, but I knew that no decision would be easy.

I wrote a cover letter of maybe about 750 words, trying to explain that this was a work in progress, that I knew that it was unconventional, but that I believed strongly in its importance.  I explained that my views drew heavily on anthropology, and asked if they would be willing to help me get in contact with an outside reader in evolutionary anthropology.  I even suggested several eminent professors whose books I had studied.  I knew that the department had connections, and I didn't think it an unreasonable thing to ask.

At risk of sounding too pushy, I also gave them a deadline to respond.  I explained that if this project didn't work out, I would need to know as soon as possible so that I could return to my prospectus and finish it on time.

I don't even remember if I slept on this letter before I sent it.  I think I was probably too impatient and losing too much sleep already.  I comforted myself with the thought that these professors were reasonable people, and would be understanding and helpful.

When I say that the response I finally received was neither understanding nor helpful, I do not mean to imply that these professors are, in fact, unreasonable people.  Thinking back on it, it was largely my fault for making so many demands in such a hurried way.

Here's what happened.  After a day or two I received some emails from these professors explaining that they could not possibly read the entire manuscript by the deadline I had given them (10 days hence).  Surprised that they had misread me this way, I responded and told them that all I wanted them to do was skim it so they could tell me if it would be an appropriate dissertation topic.  I told them that if they read the first 20 or 30 pages, that would probably be enough.  I then "extended" my deadline by another week.  That day I also received a disheartening comment by Professor Q that the outside readers I had suggested "wouldn't have enough time" to read my manuscript, as if they were simply too busy and distinguished to bother with my work. 

Then, a mere 4 or 5 days after sending him the manuscript, Professor Plum (who had originally complained loudest about the 10 day deadline) responded with a lengthy email and comments on the first 25 pages of the manuscript.

I was devastated, because the email was very blunt and mostly negative.  It said the manuscript was "not a scholarly work" and was much too broad to be a dissertation.  It raised half a dozen technical complaints about its use of evolutionary theory and the definitions it employed.  I don't remember half of what it said, because, honestly, I found his comments to be absurdly nitpicky.  He offered no counter-views or counter-arguments to my overall picture, and most of the criticisms were based on his own controversial views.  For example, most biologists accept Lewontin's conditions as sufficient for evolution.  But this professor complained because I had ignored his own little-known objections to this view.  As I see it, it would have made for a much less convincing argument if I had employed Plum's framework, which is accepted by only a minority of biologists!  And to answer Plum's objection to the majority opinion would have taken at least another 40 pages, which would have tripled the length of the argument Plum was criticizing!  This is only one example of the nitpickiness of Plum's critique.

I didn't know what to do or say.  I decided to wait a couple of days to cool off.

And then I received another email from Professor Plum, having a much different tone ...

(to be continued...)

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