Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hell Comes to Baltimore

This weekend is the annual eastern meeting of the American Philosophical Association and this year it is in Baltimore. The APA has three meetings each year, the eastern, central, and pacific meetings, but the eastern meeting is where every philosophy department in the country that has a job opening and every philosopher in the country looking for a job come together in the world's most uncomfortable and ungraceful dance. You have intense vulnerability mixed with epic proportions of social awkwardness and incredible power imbalances.

You have grad students who haven't worn a tie since the high school prom trying to dress up and not look as stiff as they are, people who have been on the market for more years than they want to think about hoping beyond hope that the one or two interviews they have this go round will allow them to step into the position they've been working towards for over a decade, spouses trying to do whatever they can to get that position that will bring them within a couple hundred miles of each other, and those who despite sending out dozens of dossiers don't have a single interview and are plaintively searching every bulletin board and table top for the possibility of a last minute interview with some department, any department.

And then you have the departments. Some are up to their necks in internal politics. Others are small schools now feeling the power that they are generally denied and enjoying their Napoleon moment. Still others are from programs with few majors, feeling insecure around all the hot shots. All are exhausted from the process, the end of the semester, the holidays, the stream of nervous candidates blending into a blur, wishing that one of them will jump out as perfect (especially if it's the one he or she wants, not the one his or her colleague seems hell bent on bringing in). Of course, if the candidate is perfect, that candidate will probably have other offers and turn us down...again, so next year we'll be right back here.

The tension is horrible and all-pervasive. The eastern APA is, simply, hell on earth. It is a sad, uncomfortable place.

The papers read in the sessions (and yes, philosophers do actually write and then read word-for-word their papers to those sitting in front of them) are a mix of grad students trying to pad their job applications, junior faculty members trying to pad their tenure and promotion applications, and senior people just hanging out chatting with their friends. The smartest never really prepare anything intense and if they did, you'd need to sit down and work through it slowly to get anything out of it anyway. The sessions' q&a are then dominated either by long-standing inside arguments that can't be followed by anyone other than the two who have been disagreeing about the same point for ten years, angry comments that amount to nothing more than "how could you have possibly ignored MY paper on the matter which settled this years ago?", or bizarre remarks out of left field that have nothing really to do with the conversation.

Then there's the star gazing. Everyone looking each other straight in the name tag, especially anyone gray or balding, hoping it will turn out to be one of the towering figures whose work you've admired for years. Cornell West smiled and waved at me on the escalator in Boston a bunch of years ago. Of course, the physical manifestation is nothing like what you expect and here you are trained in the deepest sort of contemplative analysis and all you can think is "Oh my God, he's so fat." It is a curious, curious thing to be disappointed by the fact that your philosophical hero, the thinker who holds a herculean place in your field, turns out to be the short, bald, Jewish guy with thick glasses that, of course, he is. And there you are realizing that you are halfway to looking like that yourself, but nowhere near halfway to writing like that.

And I'll be in the thick of it all on Saturday. If you are there, find me and say hey. I'm the balding, nerdy looking one with glasses, just look for my name tag.