About My Job

Conor Friedensdorf asked for people to write in to gripe about how their job is misunderstood. Since the odds are vanishingly small that he will publish my response, I will publish it here instead.

I am a philosophy professor, and subject to strange misunderstandings from almost everyone who comes to know this fact about me, to the point that I try to conceal it. A common reaction is “Really? Well my philosophy is…” followed by some crackerbarrel Polonial wisdom.

At a doctor’s appointment, the doctor examining me responded to my disclosure by expressing his heartfelt appreciation for The Power of Now, apparently some New Age mystical self-help book.

Others launch into a condemnation of students foolish enough to major in philosophy instead of something that is a surefire path to employment after nothing more than a bachelor’s degree, like sociology.

Some express resentment, as if there was something that made communicating some cultural literacy to young people (I start my Intro class with Plato) peculiarly more parasitic than other kinds of white collar work, like, say, title insurance.

And remarkably enough, colleagues in other departments seem to feel that we are simply the people who say no and raise objections every time they want to do something fun, “relevant” and intellectually irresponsible. I sometimes feel like shouting “hey! We are the people that invented the idea of modern science and modern democracy, and are the custodians of the memory of that inventing” but I fear that would be judged as delusional, as surely there must’ve been mathematical physics long before Descartes, an American Revolution long before Locke, a French Revolution long before Rousseau, a United Nations before Kant wrote ‘Perpetual Peace,’ etc. etc.

But I think my favorite off the wall response to having it dragged out of me that I taught philosophy was by a drunk at a cocktail party who asked, “oh? Where do you do that?” To which I replied (which was true at the time) “Northwestern.” To which she replied, “The airline?”


3 comments on “About My Job

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    Whatever philosophy professors do, it contributes at least as much as what urban economics professors do, and does less collateral damage.

  2. Iain Thomson says:

    I find more embarrassing when they ask me what my philosophy is.

  3. Gordon says:

    I have a philosophy professor friend, now retired, who had much the same experience. Whenever he replied that he was a philosopher in response to a query about his work the next question would be, “Oh, yeah? Well, then, what’s your philosophy!?” He took to replying “Stitch in time saves nine. What’s yours?” until one day he got the counter reply “What can be said can be said clearly”.

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