TRUDGERY in Academe

With this semester, I have begun the official work toward a PhD. There is always more to learn. And classes provide a way of finding new dialogpartners. I am struggling to find a proper balance between ordering my Socratic desire and meeting the requirements put forward for demonstrating basic knowledge.

That means trudging through days and nights of reading, stumbling along with the coursework for classes I am taking, and juggling the drudge work for classes to which I am assigned as a teaching assistant. ,

I call all of this trudgery.

When you get to be my age, entering back into apprentice-level academics brings special problems. Among these are physical and mental stamina, certainly. The great lament of all graduate students is the aforementioned work required to keep the “job” or stay in your “program.” To unpack it a bit more, I have three classes with different requirements of reading, assessment, and success. Each expects a certain level of focus—certainly no time for sauntering around. The best circumstance is finding a way to make them work toward my dissertation or at least synergize with each other.

To pay for all of this, in trade with the school I take on the duties of being a teaching assistant in a class for which I was given ten days notice over a topic that rarely sparks a great deal of interest in students: Logic. Besides attending lectures and grading quizzes/tests, I am responsible for “leading” two recitation sections (about 70 students) wherein I probably confuse more than enlighten, being sure to enforce the attendance policy, and collecting homework. All of this must be organized and duly recorded for the accounting.

And at every turn, there is some further intrusion from the department or the graduate school asking for more time. Again, the common lament.

The key: do not waste time with a frivolous life beyond the program. You must be the program. You must become the programmed.

At 51, I have 20 years as a Socratic philosopher of the Cynical variety. (Yes–it is hard to teach an old Dog new tricks.) I apprenticed closely to a mentor (or master) for a decade and then another decade travelled as journeyman alongside a few other masters in the field. So coming into the program for certification makes this, as I said before, going back to apprentice level in order to obtain official certification.

Our instructional systems have lost the ability to recognize anyone who is not stamped by procedure. I’ve pondered this a good deal.

Security remains, even here, at the forefront for providing justification in American organization. Maybe it is a remainder from the Cold War, like a security clearance. We want to protect our factories of knowledge production and our think tanks. These are the “Houses of Solomon” that come up with ways to secure the nation, both physically and ideologically, against “threats”.

After all, those who work within academia are giving shape to the future by the very fact that they interact almost daily with tomorrow’s decision makers. Here we see at some level a corresponding desire to protect the citizenry from the ones claiming knowledge. “I don’t want my child learning from a hack!” is the corollary to “We don’t want parents thinking we are corrupting their children.” (Here the correspondence to Socrates is too rich–believe  me, I know from personal experience.)

The basic notion is that if you are certified by an institutional structure, there is some trust that can be placed in what you say you know. And we pile on more than enough coursework and assessments to prove that the programmed know things.

The members of the institution are given authority as a public trust. But we can also say that it puts in place a chain of responsibility. If someone does become a predator on the good citizenry, we know who to blame for letting him/her advance.

Living in America–and especially in Texas–you see how chains of authority play a large part in decision making. Yet authority in the security state tends toward who you trust not what the trusted person can demonstrate as the case. (Hello old boyz club!)

Academics regularly experience a mass of non-academics disagreeing with “experts” just because a professor challenges commonly held beliefs. When folks agree with you, “common experience” is enough guarantor and certification is a bonus. (Confirmation bias.) When anti-intellectualism kicks in because of challenging the status quo, a PhD in Neuroscience and an MD specialization in Neurology would not be enough for someone to believe an expert when she says aspirin tends to relieve a headache.

I do believe that the overwhelming majority of academics I meet mean well and are doing what they do more out of a sense of service than out of a sense of protecting their jobs. But service is part of the program. Serving is being the programmed. Certification qua security drifts ever more into the center of academics via the safeguarding of standards (which we should do) and the protection of the “brand” (which is a bit more dubious). Quality research (i.e. product) means a quality performer (i.e. producer).

That begs another question, of course: what is the highest quality of research for someone who is a Socratic, even if one of the Cynical variety?

Despite my blogging from time to time and writing the odd review or encyclopedia entry, I am not much interested in adding more word counts to the overall superstructure of rigorous research. But the gold standard–as promoted by accreditation agencies and almost mandated by education agencies–remains writing essays and books.

I know enough about myself to recognize I have been forever changed by many of the great books/ideas I have read from people I would never have the opportunity to meet. But what if you take the actual Socratic mandate to heart? What if you are “called” to pay close heed to those ready for open communication right now/here? In that case, preference would be given to dialogical encounters, discussions you may not even have a chance to record even if they change your way of thinking. And this has been where my thinking has evolved over twenty years: in lived dialogs, in and well beyond the classroom.

And I know these dialogs have had an impact on students and faculty because of how often my name shows up in the acknowledgments of those same certifying essays and books.

Still: Where is the place for the Socratic who wants to go from conversation to meditation to dialog to contemplation? What place is there for the one who does not want to expend energy recording or explaining his thinking but keep his energy reserves for the open communication?

I submit there is nowhere for him to be now/here philosophizing.

Socrates would fail out of college–if not high school–by the end of his first term. He would never become accredited. He would only have a place in the university if invited by those who desire to take up recording and explaining ideas in writing. And up to now, this has been my role. People like Plato and Aristotle, thinkers who would have no issue in being certified because they embrace the gold standard of recording and demonstrating what they know, would be on track for tenure. Socrates could never be tenured because he could never be certified.

But… I am a Socratic Cynic, on my best days, not Socrates. I live in the 21st Century Society of Control with its obsessions with security, not 4th century BCE Athens.

If anything is to come from my trudgery in the halls and offices of Academe—rather than living as a guest—I must struggle for there to be a place once again for those who would philosophize beyond the essay or the book. There should be a shift in policy—that policy that polices the programmed by disciplining them with the written word.

Assuming that I can write something—oh the irony—I would explore at what levels the Socratic might be allowed to progress through dialog, poetry, documentary, art, and lecture, via capturing beyond essays the close engagement between the Socratic and his fellows who claim a philosophy as a way of life.


†Possibly this explains why conservatives have turned against the humanities. Not just because the humanities have out-scienced the sciences in their disciplinary rigor. Rather, in having gone too far in mimicking that rigor, philosophers and  humanists are no longer producing arguments that safeguard our national interests by protecting our intellectual borders. This could be very much off base, and I am sure that my fellow travellers Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle are thinking this particular issue with more care than I.


  1. Trudgery is the perfect word for this… Time in the service of that which is necessarily not-mine. What you’ve written here sheds light on my obstinacy and reluctance regarding finishing my own certification activities. I’m advised to “put my head down and finish.” Trudgery.

    1. Hai! We can be the programmed (written-already-ahead) or we can be the programmers (those-writing-forth a Way). Originally, the word PROGRAM meant to write something out publicly or a written public notice… only around the time academics itself began to become “disciplined” (1837) did the term take on the meaning of a pre-determined plan or scheme.

      Solidarity, sister… Trudgers of the World Unite! The only thing we have to lose is the Super-Structure. 😉

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