Wednesday, March 7, 2018

on not giving a shit

Thoughts from an interview with Caitlin Flanagan, who I think is a very good and interesting writer. (She's published a lot, but this article, which I can hardly believe was published over 10 years ago, is the first I remember reading by her. I still think about it.)

The interviewer is Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. The whole thing is worth listening to, but here's a bit from the very end, where they're winding down a discussion of sex, #metoo, toxic feminism, and fraternities:
Goldberg: “Caitlin Flanagan…”
Flanagan: “...You’re fired!”
Goldberg: [Laughs] “No, we love having you at The Atlantic, because you say interesting things and you don’t really give a shit.”
Flanagan: “I don’t give a shit.”
Goldberg: “Why don’t you give a shit? Because so many people give a shit right now.”
Flanagan: “Because this is why…it sounds so corny…I love America. You don’t have to be liked. Willy Loman should stop worrying. We have these freedoms that everybody mocks. You can say whatever you want. You know, you’ll get a lot of enemies, but…there’s 20 people I really care what they think about me. My family and my closest friends. After that, I don’t care. If people are offended or they don’t like it then they can turn this podcast off...It doesn’t matter if somebody likes what you say or not, you have the right to say it, you have the right to think it, you have a right to read the great books, and be the “artist reader” of the book as Nabokov would say and make your own meaning of the book. Beyond that it just doesn’t matter.”
First of all: excellent use of literary references. Second: I admire the sentiment. I doubt many people (myself included) would be able to carry off not giving a shit as well as Flanagan, especially since she can apparently not give a shit and keep her job, but I admire the sentiment nonetheless. And Jeffrey Goldberg is right to mention that she says interesting stuff and doesn't give a shit in the same breath. Because when everyone gives a shit things are so boring. If you watched the Oscar's this year, you know what I mean. A room of people carefully selected and eager for approval; I've been to academic panels more exciting. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

a philosophical windfall

Somewhere in the backwaters of twitter I came across this gem: an investor and fund manager has given $75 million dollars to the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins. Notably, this is the same department where he failed to finish his PhD.

My immediate reaction was, "I wouldn't give five cents to my grad school department." Upon additional reflection, yes, that's still true: I wouldn't give them a cent. Perhaps that's because they didn't kick me out when they probably should have? Regardless, I remain astounded that anyone could have had such a good time in a doctoral program that they decided to donate their hard-earned money to perpetuate that program. And I'm not even particularly bitter about my grad school experiences!

When I told Josh about the article, his very sensible question was, "What are they going to spend $75 million on? Books?" I imagine they will buy books, and also the very best graduate students in all the land. Too bad money won't be enough to get them all a job. Though I guess it will be enough to hire them all as lecturers for the next 30 years? 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


"But, dear aunt," Isabel broke out, "I have no one, no one to advise me!"

"Then count yourself fortunate," Mrs. Touchett implacably replied, presenting to her niece the blank aspect of a sphinx. "Advice is another term for mischief-making, and anyone who asks for it deserves the consequences. One cannot be told how to live, my girl—and one shouldn't wish to be."

—John Banville, Mrs. Osmond

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

sincere questions

1. Why is it illegal for me to sell my kidney but totally cool for me to make a small fortune "donating" my eggs? Or renting my uterus? (Of course, now that I am 33 my eggs and uterus are probably not as valuable as they once were, but I'm sure I could get something for them...even with my mediocre SAT scores!)

2. Why don't we eat more venison? I can't find it in any grocery store, despite the fact that it is really delicious and deer appear to be everywhere. Ordering meat online (from New Zealand, no less) seems unnecessary when the actual animal I want to eat is all over my neighborhood.  Maybe it's time to break out the bow and arrow?

3. Why is Andrew Sullivan the only person who seems to make any sense these days?

4. Why do we celebrate birthdays? Mine is tomorrow, and taking joy in my advancing decrepitude seems unnatural. And it always has: I've felt birthday ennui for as long as I can remember. I guess the presents are nice? Meh. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Three weeks ago, I started a new job. In brief: it's a good job, and I'm happy to have it. I'm also happy to report that finding a second job out of grad school was a lot easier than finding the first one.

As I was going through the process of changing jobs last month, I realized that I've never done it before. I've left jobs, but I've never gone straight from one job to another. The last job I quit because I wanted to travel for three months. And like any insane 24-year-old I did it just as the global economy was collapsing. Suffice it to say: I didn't work for a good long while after that.

Let me be clear: I have no regrets! I feel honored that at the ripe old age of almost-33 I am just now changing jobs like a real adult employed person who has a retirement account and an FSA. I don't know if this job history does me much credit, but I have no desire to trade all that time I spent unemployed or under-employed for any type of cash equivalent. I went a lot of interesting places and read a lot of good books during that period! It was worth whatever it cost me.

Anyway, if the process of changing jobs has taught me anything, it's that I'm not very important. I definitely knew this, intellectually, but the experience of leaving a job with various projects unfinished, and starting a new one where you know nothing, is humbling. You realize that nothing you were working on was that crucial, and that nothing you've been hired to do couldn't be done by someone else. In fact, whatever you've been hired to do could be done a lot more efficiently by anyone who has worked at your organization longer than you, because you can't even find the bathroom key. In other words: I feel like a superfluous idiot.

This feeling is useful, if only because it's accurate. I could very easily have remained at my old job, or I could have taken a different new job, and at the end of the day it doesn't matter all that much to anyone except me. And working on a new project, with new people, at a new organization means that I have very little idea what's happening, and am therefore kind of an idiot. And I am here to tell you that feeling like a superfluous idiot is kind of exciting. It may very well be the antithesis of boredom. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

everything > PhD school

A lot is happening in higher ed these days, and since my life is deeply enmeshed in higher ed stuff, I have Thoughts.

In an nutshell: the general public no longer thinks it's a good idea to spend most of your entire adult life paying for a degree from a mediocre school. As a result, the vast majority of schools are having money troubles and some have decided to eliminate subjects like English and/or university departments entirely. And the government has decided now would be a good time to make it more expensive to get doctoral degrees.

All the academics in my twitter feed seem to think this is a coordinated assault on higher education. But...doesn't it seem obvious that the cost of college is insanely high? And shouldn't students who are going heavily into debt major in something with clearly transferable job skills? Who could argue with a straight face that there aren't enough doctoral students in the world? Who among us disagrees that most PhDs (myself included) may have been better off doing something else with their time? And do we really think that all those entry-level jobs that require a 4-year degree couldn't be done by a high school graduate?

So am I crazy or are all the people in my twitter feed? My hunch: the tweeters (twitterers?) are actually just worried about their jobs. School and department closures mean fewer jobs for new PhDs. No grad students means professors will be deprived the pleasure of replicating themselves through their students. An army of administrators will no longer be available to fill out all that pesky paperwork. Academic jobs are disappearing, the means of (academic) production are changing, and many of us may need to re-train when our positions are eliminated. Who knew that factory workers and academics could have so much in common?! 

And the cherry on top: Ben Sasse saying that the humanities, hard sciences, and sports are all "greater than" the social sciences. Reader, I laughed! (Social scientists, of course, are pissed.) Now what I really want to do is find a way to make Sasse's tweets and the responses into a modern version of the Protagoras (a version where Socrates is too busy with his day job at Google to chat with the sophists). Obviously, the conclusion of the dialogue will be that sports management is in fact the highest form of knowledge. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

peripheral tidbits: grant edition

A couple nights ago I finished Ron Chernow's new biography of Grant. I'm feeling pretty accomplished, too, because the book is 960 pages and I managed to read it in three weeks. (I checked it out of the library so there was a hard deadline.) It's easy to read 960 pages when they're interesting, though, so it's actually Chernow who ought to be feeling accomplished.

Anyway, it's a good book and I learned many things. (Notably: reconstruction was hella important and I should know more about it.) However, as is my wont, I would like to make note of two peripheral tidbits:

First, I hadn't fully comprehended just how crazy office-seeking and patronage politics were in 19th century America. I feel like an idiot, but I finally understand what Tocqueville was talking about. Also, I think he's probably wrong, since Americans were clearly obsessed with place-hunting. Though I guess the French were worse?

Second, I learned that campaign tactics were infinitely cleverer before television and the internet: in the 1880 election, Republicans printed a pamphlet about Winfield Scott Hancock's political achievements—a pamphlet that contained nothing but blank pages. Why did no one think of this in the 2016 election? If either side prints a clever pamphlet in 2020 I will vote a straight ticket for them.