Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Scrambling and Reflecting on Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

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Me & my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and took her to a commune!)

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Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit my baby niece. (What do I do when I camp alone? I drink beer and read books. It’s awesome.)

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Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on all the ideas and arguments they studied fall semester. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two just talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). I plan to try this next fall, when I teach Intro to Philosophy again.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy at a university, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that, quite frankly, has no place in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more human and more free. The entire grading system militates against this project, which is one of many reasons why academic humanities is increasingly irrelevant. I feel like I spend half of my teaching energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. It is exasperating sometimes. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own standards. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

It has been a long journey getting to this place myself, but, at 33, I can honestly say that I mostly measure my success by my own standards. I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I rely more and more on observing people, institutions and my own self. I make my own judgment, thank you very much! And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think, which makes me a pretty poor professor sometimes. I do not like “professing”. I do not like playing the part of the expert or the authority. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it. Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in academia, but I soldier on. I’m not actually sure I will continue teaching after next academic year. I may “retire” in 2019, leaving a budding academic career behind me. Or I may teach part-time. It depends on whether I believe I am doing something truly valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, a good car (which takes me to amazing places), excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom made me miserable. I tried to find ways to get rid of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationship, etc. But all this scrambling just made me miserable. Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing. And since I have always wanted to write books, I am going to write another book. And then maybe another and another. Why? Because I can and because I want to. 🙂 And if nobody reads it, I will not be any poorer for that!

Happy 2018!

Sarah