The Problem with Intellectuals, and Thomas Sowell

[Updated with additional discussion and context for Sowell interview on 06/11/2020]

A growing distaste for intellectuals as intellectuals is one of the things that subtly pushed me away from academia even as I moved further into its depths as a doctoral student. Moving into the private sector has given me a new perspective on that distaste and allowed me to better understand it.

The underlying cause of my unease, from what I can tell, is the pervasive belief–whether conscious or unconscious–that so many intellectuals and academics have that they know better. They believe, from some combination of a sense of altruism and awareness of their own intellect, that they have solutions for the problems of wider society, even when they have no substantial knowledge (to say nothing of expertise) in the areas in which they would problem-solve.

Most academics and intellectuals are not explicitly aware of this belief, but some are. One professor I had while at Cal State Northridge, who is an expert in his field and a very talented lecturer, expressed this very belief when we were discussing some extra-curricular reading I’d done (because this book would not likely be assigned in a Critical Theory course in an English Dept.) on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

I essentially said I thought Nozick’s fundamental claim was right–that the minimal State is the most most moral State and the free market is the best mechanism we have for creating wealth and minimizing poverty. He disagreed, saying that while the free market might be good as some things, he believed some people were intelligent and knowledgeable enough to create structures in which wealth could be more fairly distributed.

It was more than that, though: his implication was that certain people, people smart and enlightened like him, should be the ones to organize this re-distributive society. He was not so bold as to say explicitly “I know best” in so many words, but his meaning was clear enough.

I was a little taken aback in the moment at how blunt this claim was–and it so clearly ran counter to history. It often took a little time, but in literally every case when a carefully engineered economy was attempted, mass murder and starvation was the eventual result (think Soviet Union, Maoist China, etc.) At the time, I still considered myself a Marxist, albeit leaning more toward a quasi-Anarchist left-libertarian tradition, so I didn’t fully appreciate the danger of this claim. But make no mistake: it is a dangerous belief.

This academic sense of superiority seems innocuous enough from the outside. After all, many academics are content to continue their research undisturbed, fighting the good fight, such as it is, between the covers of academic journals, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear how pernicious it is: it robs people of their autonomy, their ability to decide for themselves what’s best. Even worse, perhaps, is it does this under the guise of altruism. “I’ll tell you how best to live your life because I care deeply about you,” this attitude says.

Thomas Sowell does an excellent job of taking apart these underlying beliefs in Intellectuals and SocietyCheck out this interview where he talks about the book:

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What Finishing a PhD Taught Me

After four and half years, I can finally politely request that you call me Doctor.

It’s still a little surreal, in part because I’ve ended up in a job where my scholarly credentials are less important than in academia, but also because I’ve looked forward to finishing my doctorate for much longer than I’ve actively been working on it. I still find myself quietly whispering “I have a PhD” to myself. It makes me feel a little like Ross Geller, albeit hopefully less self-important.

Ever since I decided I wanted to teach writing/literature at the university level, I’ve had my eye on this degree. To say it feels incredible to finally be done is an understatement. If I had to attempt to describe the feeling, I’d say it feels akin to wriggling yourself free from a cramped car out into a wide open space–it feels airy.

What does feel a little strange is finding myself working in private industry as I finish my degree. That, along with finishing things up in the fall semester and choosing not to fly back to North Dakota to walk the stage, has found me thinking more about the intangible lessons learned from reaching this ultimate academic finish line.

So, I thought it might be nice to share what are for me the biggest lessons learned. Perhaps someone out there is considering getting their PhD (or some similar academic thing) or is needing a little morale boost while neck-deep in exam reading. Either way, here is what I learned through finishing a PhD in English:

1. I’m capable of way more suffering than I assumed

It’s not something they like to advertise, but doing a PhD is rife with suffering: toiling away for countless hours in the library stacks, prepping and grading student papers, and, most of all, the endless amounts of reading (if you’re in the humanities, at least, though I suspect my STEM counterparts spend plenty of time in the literature). At least in my experience, there’s an intentional amount of hazing built into the process to ensure you’re up to snuff. Why, after all, would your professors want a colleague whose mental fortitude is lacking?

Most of the suffering for me came as I studied for my comprehensive exams. This will vary wildly from institution to institution, but at the U. of North Dakota (before the program was changed right after my exams), we had three areas of specialty. For each area, you’re tasked with building a reading list of approximately 50 works, both primary and secondary, that cover the most important work and criticism in that area. These areas can be pretty general or fairly narrow, depending on one’s committee. My areas, for example, were post-1945 American fiction, Trans-Atlantic Modernism, and lyric poetry.

It’s recommended that you take approximately a year to prep for these exams and do all the required reading, ideally while you’re not doing regular coursework. I ended up still taking courses while reading for exams, but was lucky enough to have courses offered that aligned with my reading. So, over the course of approximately a year, you read around 150 books. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I included in my lists the properly long/important (read, difficult) books in my areas: UlyssesInfinite Jest, Louise Gluck’s collected works, etc.

While the sheer volume of all this reading can be intense, it’s actually a really interesting time. I don’t think I’ll ever again spend 30-40 hours a week reading intensely, for better or worse. I’ve already found myself looking back fondly on the experience. I miss the cozy chair at the little Caribou Coffee where I spent hours with Galatea 2.2 and Neuromancer.

If the year of reading is the marathon, the exam period is the sprint to the finish line. In my program, you’re tested in each area separately, one exam per week. For each area, I was given a collection of questions of which I had to answer three, each with a ~10pp. essay. To do all three essays, you were given 28 hours. Like most students, I chose to do my exams on sequential Friday/Saturdays. So, over the course of three weeks, you’re writing around 90 pages in 84 hours. This, above all, was the most brutal part of my doctoral work.

But, it was doable. I’m proof of that. Before getting into the more intense parts, it seemed draconian, and after going through it, I was right. It’s intentionally draconian, and that’s part of the value. My mantra during all this, when my mental health was not so great and was just plain exhausted, was “the only way out is through.” I’ve found that to be an incredibly useful mantra in life in general, and one whose meaning I deeply appreciate.

2. Most people don’t understand academic work (and that’s OK)

One of the best parts of doing high-level academic work is the opportunity to work on increasingly narrow and specific subject matter. Unlike even the latter half of a Bachelor’s degree, when you’re taking courses entirely in your major, doctoral-level work allows you to choose the direction of your research, invariably leading to relatively specialized areas.

The upside to this is obvious: you get to spend as much time as you’d like digging deeply into texts that interest you most. You’re not bothered with a survey course and lengthy reading assignments that only tangentially relate to your interests. For example, I got to spend weeks reading and sketching out the intersections between postmodernism, Marxism, and Cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s in preparation for my exams. When will I ever get the time to do that again?

The downside is that the more specialized your work becomes, the fewer people out there understand it. This is true of academia as a whole, too. Most people just don’t understand what the average doctoral student is up to. Most of my family and friends outside of academia seemed to think I either spent all day in the library (not altogether untrue) or in a lab (if they didn’t know what field I was in).

While this lack of understanding usually isn’t a big problem, it can certainly be lonely, and it makes celebrating academic accomplishments like getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal harder to celebrate with folks outside of the academic world.

3. The finish line is just finish line

This is probably the best life lesson I’ve derived from finishing my degree: as human beings, we seem to thrive off of movement toward an accomplishment, not actually accomplishing the thing. This is so counter-intuitive. After all, shouldn’t achieving something as substantial as a PhD bring some kind of euphoria? Well, yeah, but only for a short time.

I was pretty surprised at how quickly I shifted from celebrating my crossing the finishing line to focusing on another big project I was working on for the company I’d just started working for. I got a clearer sense of my tendency to get hung up on pushing toward a deadline that feels like the deadline, after which I’ll be able to take it easy for a while, but it just doesn’t work that way. Or, at least that’s just not how I’m wired.

This is not to say you shouldn’t acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments–you absolutely should. Just don’t be too upset when the feeling isn’t what you anticipate. As cliche as it is, it really is about the journey, not the destination.

4. Achievement doesn’t bring happiness, but it can bring contentment

Echoing much of the previous realization, I learned that hitting a big milestone like this doesn’t really bring happiness, however we can define that slippery term. It can, however, bring a deep sense of contentment. That’s probably the best word I can find for how I feel after finishing my degree: I feel content.

It’s not exactly the degree itself that elicits this feeling (it’s just a piece of paper, after all); it’s the sense of having made it through something so challenging and come out the other end more resilient, more knowledgeable, and (hopefully) more qualified. In other words, it’s the personal accomplishment that brings contentment, not so much the external title and accolades.

That seems to be the bigger lesson here: it’s how we choose to understand and interpret our accomplishments–and failures, too, for that matter–that determines their value. That’s really the core lesson that the humanities teach. You have the power to step back and choose how to read your experiences, for both good and ill.

Would I do it all again?

That’s really the question, isn’t it? If I knew that I’d transition from academia into the private sector and be happy, would I have spent the past four years the same way?

If money and opportunity cost were no object, I’d say yes without reservation, but it is in part an economic question. I was fortunate enough to earn a a tuition waiver, so my degree was ridiculously affordable. This makes it pretty easy to say it was time and money well-spent. It’s such a unique experience, after all.

On the other hand, if I’d gone into any amount of debt for this degree, I’d be far more hesitant to so quickly say yes, I’d do it again. Just having those three letters attached to your name does carry some weight and has opened some doors, but I’d be lying if I said it’s worth going into debt over–I honestly don’t think it is.

There’s so much incalculable value wrapped up in the whole experience, though. I’ve learned so much about myself that I may not have otherwise learned. So, in my particular case, despite deciding not to immediately pursue an academic career, I’d say yes, I’d do it all again.

Wrap up

For those either currently in the doctoral trenches or considering applying to programs, I’d just say think long and hard about whether you’d like to end up in academia long-term. Look at the job market, carefully. Research what the market’s like in your area or where you might have to move to find work.

Look at what life’s like not only for those lucky few who end up with tenure track jobs, but also those on their second post-Doc or those with three lecturer appointments at different schools. Be realistic about what your options are, and don’t be afraid of looking into the private sector. Columbia University has a helpful resource for such research.

My main goal here is to share my experience, not offer advice, but I do wish someone would’ve told me more about the myriad non-academic routes there are.

Regardless of where you decide to go afterward, a doctorate is a hell of a ride, and I do feel better for having made the trip.

Some other interesting articles on the value of getting a PhD, etc.:

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breakfast. [jazz hop/lofi]

I hope your week is off to a good start, whatever that means for you.

This is the mix that got me going while enjoying some coffee this morning. Courtesy of The Jazz Hop Cafe:

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Quarantine, Uncertainty, and Dealing with Anxiety

With COVID-19 continuing to spread (though thankfully slowing down in some areas), it’s a difficult time for everyone, to say the least. Most of us have moved indoors until some yet undetermined point in the future, moving our work, our social lives, and pretty much everything else into an insular, private space. There are pushes to reopen certain businesses and public areas, but health experts agree this is risky.

More than the obvious danger to our physical health and economic health (both individual and collective), the toll on mental health is perhaps more troubling, in part because it’s far more difficult to see and quantify. I’ve certainly been struggling more with my mental health with all that’s going on, like I’m sure many have. The CDC has even put up some recommendations to help people cope with the stress.

I may or may not have mentioned this in a previous post, but I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) while in graduate school. I had known for a long time that the underlying sense of dread I experienced somewhat frequently, like a distant, unsettling hum in the background, was not something most people dealt with, but I struggled with admitting to myself that I had a problem. Eventually, when I moved from California to North Dakota to pursue my PhD, my anxiety worsened and I could no longer ignore it; it just became too disruptive.

Thankfully, I was able to seek treatment and have learned to keep it more or less under control without regular medication. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has pushed me back into a difficult space again. Admittedly, I have it far better than some: I have a good job I can do remotely, a stable home life, and enough resources to remain fed and clothed and ensure my family is similarly taken care of. But still, I struggle to cope with what my anxiety really feeds on: fear of the unknown, the perpetual interstitial space between one normal and another acceptable normal.

I understand that we’re all pretty much in the same space, and that provides some relief. “It’s OK to feel not OK” is a helpful mantra I’ve heard. It at least removes the component of loneliness from the equation. My anxiety doesn’t seem to care, however, how much I can intellectually understand or rationally explain to myself; it’s pretty well set on pushing me into a fight-or-flight state whenever possible.

I’m sure some of you reading this have experienced the same thing, or are experiencing it now. To those of you in this same position, my heart goes out to you. Know that you aren’t alone, and know that your experiences are real and valid.

Understanding and acknowledging the validity of anxiety seems to be pretty helpful (at least for me) in blunting the edge of the negative emotions: the panic, the dread, the feeling of being trapped. These are real experiences, though they’re usually based on an imagined scenario that we’re not fully aware of.

I do think there’s a lot we can do to cope with anxiety, but if you’re feeling especially overwhelmed and unable to even begin thinking about making some small changes, please seek out help. Seek out tele-medicine or phone counseling or medication–anything to give you a reasonable starting point. I’d love to share what’s been helping me in the hopes that it may help others, but I’m obviously not a doctor (not the medical kind, anyway) and obviously can’t make medical recommendations. If you need help, please get help. The US Dept. of Mental Health and Services might be a helpful resource to start with.

What’s been helping me cope with the pandemic and the feeling of being stuck inside (and stuck inside my own anxious, swirling thoughts) is a handful of things:

Unplugging from news and social media

I have actually been pleasantly surprised at how much creativity and positivity has been generated by the quarantine. It’s refreshing to see the best in people emerge amidst something so troubling. Still, I’ve personally found that the more I scroll through Instagram or Reddit, the worse I feel.

It’s not that I want to stick my head in the sand or anything. On the contrary, I actually want as much information as I can possibly have, which is part of the problem: more information doesn’t help in this situation. No matter how many times I look at the infection rate, the fatality rate, no matter how many angles I try to get on the data, I’m still stuck in the same place. More information just adds to my sense of panic; the fact that I can’t do anything with that information just makes everything worse. And, as we all know, the internet (and social media in particular) excel at providing endless amounts of information.

Psychologists seem to understand the connection between social media and anxiety pretty well, especially among younger adults, and it seems to be the case that those of us who are more disposed to anxiety are probably more likely to experience the negative consequences of social media use, or at least experience those consequences more acutely.

Even just after a day or two of distancing myself from social media, only checking once or twice a day, if that, I feel better–like I have more space in my head, if that makes sense. I’d definitely suggest not scrolling through your app of choice right when you wake up. I’d developed that habit and cutting it out has helped immensely.

Practicing meditation & mindfulness

Long-time readers of this blog will likely know that I post about Buddhism, Zen in particular, from time to time. I’ve long been a student of Zen and a somewhat irregular meditator. I’ve maintained a regular meditation practice for several periods throughout my life, but can’t claim I’ve always had a regular practice.

In an attempt to get my recent bout of anxiety under control, however, I’ve delved back into a regular practice and I’ve seen a huge benefit almost immediately. In a lot of ways, despite how cliche it sounds, it feels like hopping back on a bike after not having ridden in a long while. My mind already feels clearer and that tightness in the pit of my stomach and the attendant heart palpitations have become less frequent.

If you’re looking for a good resource to get started or return to a meditation practice, you are spoiled for choice. The popular but costed option is headspace. I can vouch for this app but don’t believe you need to spend money to get started.

If you’re after a simple timer, Insight Timer is a great little (free) tool I’ve used a lot over the years.

Lastly, if, like me, you think a little bit of dogma provides some helpful structure and you’d like some more formal instructions, you can refer to this guide from the Zen Mountain Monastery. This is essentially the instruction I received in person at the Los Angeles Zen Center.

Regardless of what resource you use to get started, I’ve found the key to be simply remaining consistent and maintaining even a 5-minute practice every single day. There really is power in meditating regularly.

Journaling to capture recurring thoughts

While meditating is a practice in acknowledging thoughts and letting them go, journaling is a way to siphon those thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Even just sitting down to write about all the silly unlikely scenarios can be helpful.

What I’ve personally found to be therapeutic is to document the reasons I’m fortunate and explicitly lay out the things that are within my control and the things that are outside my control. A significant component of anxiety (for me, at least) is focusing on the unknown and what’s outside my control–this is what makes the endless news cycle so anxiety-inducing.

When you lay out all those things that are outside your control, you give them form, affirming that they are indeed outside your control. There must be a part of our brain that continues to fixate on these things that are stressful and outside our control, looking for some angle from which we might be able to influence or otherwise prepare for them, and writing them down seems to provide enough acknowledgement to quiet down this part. Perhaps this tendency is just more pronounced in those of us who have anxiety.

Really, write about whatever you want. Write poetry, write stories, write jokes. Use the space to clear things out of your mind or to flex your creative muscles. It’s been a huge help for me.

Producing rather than consuming

Disconnecting from social media  and journaling both fit under this umbrella, but the general advice to do less consuming and more producing is too important to leave implicit.

For me, trying to consume less and produce more has meant returning in earnest to writing again. After completing my dissertation (which can be read here, if anyone’s interested) and wrapping up my PhD last December, I’d hardly picked up a pen beyond scrawling out the odd line or two. I haven’t even read much poetry. As I dive back into it, though, it’s like taking a long drink and not realizing how thirsty I’d been–it’s rejuvenating.

I suggest you try something analog. Return to an old hobby or pick up a new one that will allow your mind (and hopefully your hands) to work through interesting problems or provide a sense of accomplishment. It seems that one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic will be a renaissance in analog hobbies and DIY skills that haven’t been popular in decades, like sewing or bread baking.

If I had to pick hobbies to suggest to help combat anxiety, I’d suggest something that’s active and participatory, requiring that you engage with whatever you’re doing. So, if you’re wanting to watch a movie, watch a challenging movie that will make you think rather than cinematic junk food loaded with special effects and trite plots. In my experience, the more analog, the better.

Getting outside for some fresh air

The ability to get outside will vary greatly depending on your living situation, but getting outside in whatever capacity is reasonable for you can be a big help. I’ve been taking walks as frequently as I can (whenever the unseasonably cool and breezy New England weather permits) to take a 30-minute walk or let my toddler wander around.

There are some deep, palpable psychological benefits to getting outside and into nature, if possible, that feel like a dose of anti-anxiety medication. Some studies show that time outdoors can actually have this effect.

Part of the benefit, in my experience, is having something consistent that you can build your day around. I know, for example, that I will take a 30-45 min. walk in the early afternoon, and that’s just enough of a routine to add some structure to my day.

Much of what we’ve lost during this crisis is the routine we’re accustomed to. We no longer visit our favorite coffee shops or visit with our neighbors. That destabilization can wreak havoc on the mental health of those suffering from anxiety, and I’ve found that even a little routine–so long as you’re not trying to obsessively stick to a schedule–can go a long way in helping you feel more grounded.

Some concluding thoughts

Probably the most difficult part of all this is that there’s no easy solution. The best response we have while we wait for the infected to recover and for treatments to be developed and tested is to, well…wait.

I’ve found some comfort in all doing all these things, but above all, not being too terribly hard on myself and remembering that the only thing I must do is just be. That’s enough.

If you’re suffering, I hope these suggestions can help you find some respite so you can be as present as possible, both for yourself and those around you.

I’ll leave you with Alan Watts, who I find endlessly interesting and elucidating:

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

― Alan Wilson Watts, The Culture of Counter-Culture: Edited Transcripts 

 

 

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mtbrd — “Damn Fine Coffee”

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Talamanca – Arrivals and Departures (Silk Music)

I may or may not have shared that I’m a big fan of EDM, especially Trance and House. I find it one of the few genres that I enjoy regardless of what I’m doing.

Especially now, though, when I’m spending a lot more time at home plugged into my headphones, music feels like a pretty amazing escape–and this music especially. So, if you’re plugged in like I am and looking for some music to work to, hopefully this does the trick.

By the way, all the artists on the Silk Record Label are pretty amazing. I’d recommend any fans of Progressive House and Trance to check them out.

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I Am Really Here

After being in a soft quarantine for a while, I’ve had the strange experience of feeling a little distant and dissociated. Perhaps it’s spending too much time sitting in front of a computer (I work in tech) or spending less overall time moving around in the world, but regardless of what it is, I’ve noticed more instances of feeling not here–just not being present in my body. It’s not a terrible experience, but it’s quite unsettling.

Part of the story, I think, is how surreal the world can feel at times in this new “normal” to which we’re all trying to adapt: to wake up each morning and, at least in the West, see more sickness and more death where the news would usually be the usual politics, weather, and general nonsense. Major media’s tendency to play up the tragedy certainly isn’t helping.

What I’ve found to be the best treatment for this dissociative experience is to do things that help me feel my body. I take walks, I exercise, and I try to take frequent breaks from sitting in front of my computer as much as I can.

John Green’s latest video on the vlogbrothers Youtube channel is a great meditation on getting out and just being–reminding ourselves that we’re really here. Stay safe and sane out there.

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Stephen Fry on What Makes Us Human

I’ve always enjoyed Stephen Fry. More than many celebrities or personalities, he seems particularly capable of cutting through the noise and being vulnerable in a way that makes others want to meet him in that space. It’s difficult not to admire that honesty, candor, and obvious love of humanity.

On The Jeremy Vine Show on the BBC, he contributed to an ongoing series that posits a simple question: what makes us human? While I’ve not heard many other installments in this series, I was taken aback by Fry’s beautiful contribution. Is it really any wonder he names James Joyce’s Ulysses as his all-time favorite book? Spoiler alert: Fry argues language is what makes us human; I’m inclined to agree.

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Zane Alexander – Transition

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been working on a project with Gibson’s Neuromancer (trying out some Twitter scripting art thing), but I’ve been on a real synthwave kick lately.

In the seemingly endless number of Youtube mixes, this is one of the best tracks that manages to escape the somber/pessimistic mood of so much synthwave; it works in a space that feels open and perhaps even hopeful. I hope it’s something from Computerland you can enjoy, wherever you are.

Soundcloud

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a l e x — ghosts

a l e x

 

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