On the Eve of Financial Independence: How Losing my Job was a Blessing

Approximately two years ago my employer informed me that my tenure-track contract would not be renewed. Needless to say, I was shocked. I cried. A lot. I suspected foul play (though I will never know for sure; was it me or was it them?). I was genuinely heartbroken, as the small college felt like a second family to me. Per the advice of my colleagues, I talked to an employment attorney (who said he would gladly take my case pro bono). However, ultimately I decided, “their loss”. And I walked away. Because it really was their loss.

All the while, I ruminated on what I had learned about higher education. Through the appeals process, I learned more about institutional “governance” (or rather, lack thereof) than I ever would have learned had I won tenure. As a young junior faculty member, I got to see what happens “behind closed doors”, so to speak. (I have no interest in rehashing it; at this point, that knowledge will go to my grave.) I was afforded the opportunity to explore the nature of my former institutional home, eyes wide open. At the same time, I investigated the interior of myself, and I owned my own mistakes. I am still owning my mistakes, which are many.

At the time I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card or two that I needed to pay off. I did not have the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. (The average American dies $60,000+ in debt!) Though I needed the money, I was definitely not eager to apply for and accept another tenure-track job in philosophy, since I still remain skeptical that other institutions are any different or that the philosophy profession is female-friendly.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  After all, this is 2018. I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and had that belief confirmed, time and time again), but then the reality of this weird cultural moment slapped me in the face. I signed my severance agreement the day after the 2016 election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret that decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life.

In any case, I never really had the plan of achieving financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a 33% profit (after four short years of owning a house that was ridiculously too big for me) and used the funds to pay off all debts. (Like the majority of Americans, I did not grow up rich. I have had to work for everything, including my education.) Instead of prioritizing academic publications (which make me little or no money), I self-published my own book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, ridding myself of almost every monthly bill. My profits went toward a small condo, which I purchased for cash. Between savings, my 401k and my book royalties, I have arranged my finances so that I only need to work 2.5 minimum wage shifts a week to live securely and comfortably. I am pretty much retired, at age 33. Yes, my job loss was a very good thing, though it did not seem like it at the time. Lemonade out of lemons!

So, the next salaried job I take (if any!) will be on my terms. From hereon out, I contribute to society in ways that I define. 🙂 Because, fundamentally, financial freedom is not about money. It is about having control over your time and your energy, such that you do not have to pursue an institutional agenda you fundamentally disagree with. (Another influential book I highly recommend: Your Money or Your Life.)

I still have a lot of hope in our institutions; but I also believe they will not change until we demand it — and that requires being no longer bound to them through financial (or medical!) necessity. Why wait until you are 65 to achieve financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter? (This is crazy; and yet, we Americans have accepted it, thanks to successful advertising.)

Is achieving financial freedom easy? Of course not (especially given our consumer culture)! But it is worth more than a giant house or a nice car or all the cool vacations in the world. Because you own your own time. 😉 It is a beautiful thing.

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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

A Short Meditation on Teaching Humanities: Dispassionate Reasoning, Passionate Conversation and Friendship

In his essay on friendship Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,–and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words. … For long hours [in conversation with friends] we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that they who sit by, of our own kinsfolk and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual powers. But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over. He has heard the first, the last and best he will ever hear from us. He is no stranger now. Vulgarity, ignorance, misapprehension are old acquaintances. Now, when he comes, he may get the order, the dress, and the dinner,–but the throbbing of the heart, and the communications of the soul, no more.

I will just come out with it. I want my classroom to be a place of friendly, passionate conversation. This is an ideal, to be sure. But given that I teach relatively small classes (28 or less), it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire. [I am scheduled to teach Symbolic Logic next semester — a subject that does not exactly lend itself to passionate emotions!]

Is this ideal unreasonable and wrongheaded? Or rather, is it just what we need in order to improve campus climates and to broaden the appeal of the humanities beyond the academy — to hardworking people who do not have the leisure to play vacuous games of intellectual one-upmanship.

I cringe when educators sell the humanities on the basis of “critical thinking” skills. First, the humanities do not have a monopoly on critical thinking. Far from it! Second, critical thinking is only a small, relatively insignificant part of what the humanities teach.

When, in the 1960’s, Northern Arizona University was transitioning from a college to a university its slogan was “to become educated is to become more human“. Indeed, many small liberal arts colleges today incorporate similar notions into their mission statements. And yet — these same institutions tout the classroom as a place of “dispassionate reasoning” and “cool thinking” — a space quite different from the Emersonian ideal of exalted conversation and friendship.

How do the humanities teach us how to be human? They connect us to our human ancestors and to other cultures. They open us up to new ways of being and doing and seeing in the world. The humanities expand who we are. They help us tell better stories about ourselves and our world. They cultivate our awe of beauty. They inspire us to dream big and live large. I have no idea how one would achieve such connection, openness, storytelling, awe, inspiration and dreams in a dispassionate classroom that engages only cool reason.

Perhaps the way forward is to take our cue from Emerson and foster friendliness and friendship in the classroom. Too often classmates treat their peers as nameless strangers. But students can learn not just with each other; they can also learn from each other. How do we foster friendly bonds between students? How do we teach them how to be human to each other?

If my students can learn how to learn from each other (and learn how to pursue the humanities beyond the academy), then I have succeeded. And if not — well, at least I have tried. 🙂

Sarah

Writing from my calm place (Sedona, Arizona). The sun sets near Bell Trail.

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Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergrad and graduate school, I always felt a little guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, quite correctly questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Ultimately, it was philosophers who helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s functionalism, which represents the psuche as a set of life capacities or functions.

I have never been fond of psychology. Too often, ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said it better. There is a wisdom in ancient traditions that contemporary psychology only clumsily comprehends. The ancients were not constrained by modern “science” and its supposed moral neutrality. How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological problems. We are sad because societies and families are sad, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual brains. So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma (as Margot Julian, who has a background in sociology and anthropology, pointed out to me). People are traumatized because modern society is traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community.

 

The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a Pima Community College video course. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the same time, I took a video course in psychology. I instantly knew that I wanted to study philosophy, not psychology. To me, philosophy was the mother science — the study that encompassed all other areas of inquiry.

Since then, I have always connected my commitment to philosophy with Arizona. As a teenager, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. At UCLA I had professors who literally changed my life. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curriculum, to react to the times and to our individual students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been studying/producing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.

 

Sarah