Your life’s work

by Peter

4 June 2009, 1728 EDT

To respond to Patrick (and then I promise this will be the last I’ll say on this until late August…), I largely agree with important parts of what he says, but as a friend pointed out to me, to be able to occupy the position required to realize such a vocation requires a certain degree of luck and privilege. Moreover, I think it is perhaps time to apply some of Patrick’s own ontological commitments to the notion of a vocation itself.

As Patrick points out, the idea of a vocation, a calling, is explicitly religious. But our understanding (and his) of that concept is filtered through Christianity, and perhaps here is where some distance from that religion is helpful. In the classic sense, the vocation was a calling to serve one’s religion, and in the Medieval context, the only institutional form for such service was the Church. And to this day, it largely remains so—the vocational calling to religion in the Christian context has one institutional outlet, the Church (of whatever denomination), which sets the terms of service, traditionally through the clergy (to which Patrick compares scholars, the high-priests of knowledge).

Things are different today—this is not the world our students enter. Perhaps lets us think of a vocation not as an essential way of being, but as a set of practices that orient one’s life. Thus, the calling is not to embody a certain essence or acquire certain qualities, but rather to engage in certain practices, certain ways of life. The vocation is not to be a university professor, but rather to engage in the practice of teaching, mentoring, researching, or mastering a certain domain of knowledge. As a friend and colleague said to me yesterday—if I had realized that my vocation was teaching, I would have scrapped IR for a much more lucrative profession and taught technology or something.

The vocation to which Patrick aspires exists only in limited institutional forms—the small subset of top 100 (maybe 200 if we are generous) universities in the US (I’ll exclude the rest of the world for now as most of my students aren’t oriented in that direction, and understandings of scholarship and teaching differ enough in other cultural settings to matter for the purposes of this meta-discussion). To get a job in this realm, you usually need to have a Ph.D. from a top 20 school. You must do as Patrick did, not as he does now—a Ph.D. from our institution doesn’t position you all that well to get the type of job that allows one to realize the vocation Patrick describes. Most academic jobs are like that friend of mine just landed—-its tenure track at a small, second tier state school in the middle of nowhere. He’ll be teaching a 4-4 load of large classes to mostly mediocre students not all that interested in Political Science. His department is small, he’ll be one of 2 jack of all trade IR / comparative guys also required to teach a service section of US government every other semester. His research requirements are to stay active in the profession—an article here, a conference paper there, but not the degree of engagement in the profession that Patrick celebrates. Indeed, such engagement in the profession is difficult from such a position given the teaching load and paucity of resources available—resources one requires to attend conferences, conduct research, subscribe to journals and buy books to keep up with the latest research.

What worries me most about Patrick’s discussion is the idea that the University is the only institutional form in which his vocation can be realized. Rather, I think one must understand what vocation actually calls them, and then explore the ways of life in which that vocation can be realized. As I was recently telling a student currently at a crossroads in her life, trying to decide upon graduate school or some other path, realize that you can engage in these ways of life in any number of institutional and professional forms.

If the calling is to teach, one can teach many places. While the classroom is the traditional place for such exploration, there are many classrooms, and many more teachable moments. Professors teach. But so can high school teachers, coaches, nurses, movie producers, artists, parents, baseball analysts, and many others. If the calling is to mentor, one can mentor in the university, but also in the community center, as a youth group leader, or even in the professional workplace. If the call is to research or to produce knowledge, again, the academy has no monopoly on that.

Why must the production of knowledge and research only rest in the academy? I’m reading (slowly—as newborns don’t allow much free reading time) Peter Singer’s Wired for War, and the introduction to the book lays out his biography, his calling to research war. He has all the requisite “scholarly” training (Harvard Ph.D. no less), but he is able to research war from a think tank, and his work has significant impact on how many (including many in the policy relevant community) are thinking about war. Some tenure committee would probably reject the book as not at a university press and not methodologically sophisticated enough, but that’s not the point, and clearly he didn’t write the book for them. He wrote the book because he couldn’t imagine himself writing about anything else. Luckily for him, it also pays well.

So, the question is, what exactly is it that you couldn’t not do? What practice must you engage in, what way of life must you lead? These days, I would submit, there are many, many opportunities and institutional forms to realize that vocation, most of which are outside the academy. One can have a love of numbers, charts, research, and public policy, and start a blog about it and turn that into a job. One can love to teach, and find teachable moments in nearly any setting. One can mentor a Big Brother, a co-worker. Why couldn’t Patrick realize his calling working for Baseball Prospectus? They research rigorously, challenge conventional methodological orthodoxy, use innovative technology to teach those lessons to wide ranges of regular and fantasy baseball enthusiasts, and the results of these endeavors have fundamentally changed how many of us understand and pursue the passion that is baseball.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the children of academics do quite well in this profession. They want to enter it, they know what it is, and they know what it is they like about it. They understand the “game” and have an intuitive sense of how to play, having grown up steeped in the family business. I grew up steeped in welding equipment and industrial gasses (the Howard family business once upon a time—can you imagine me selling gas?). For quite a while, that led me to a math, science, and chemistry focus, though eventually my love of politics and fascination with the international let me to a shift away from a math-science track to a poli sci / IR track sometime in college.

To be able to realize the life of the academic in today’s institutional form requires a significant degree of luck and a significant degree of privilege in addition to a significant degree of skill. Being smart is no longer enough—indeed it was never enough—you must also know the right people, have the right pedigree, and be in the right place at the right time. One must get the right guidance as an undergraduate in order to know which graduate programs to apply to and how to get in—its not something you can do on your own. One must get into the right grad programs with the right advisers to be competitive for a job (and grants and publications and all those other things that help get a job). And, one must have the right topic (and theory and methods) that are ‘hot’ or ‘in vogue’ to impress hiring committees. Privilege can provide a lot of this—access to the right undergraduate situation, ability to engage in the practices that impress admissions and later hiring committees, and most importantly, time to contemplate. Luck also plays a role, as some are simply fortunate to find themselves in the right time. A very bright friend from high school went to Ohio University (not known as a gateway to anything, really) but happened to get along with his history professor quite well and have a strong appreciation of the subject. His history professor was lured away to Yale and brought my friend with him as his graduate student. Indeed, the luck of age is a significant part of this. Patrick and I have discussed where our top students should apply for graduate school to do what we do, to take the next step in realizing the vocation. It’s a tough conversation, as departments have changed and there aren’t a lot of top graduate programs that can train students in our line of inquiry—Patrick’s experience at Columbia is sadly no longer possible, as the particular configuration of faculty, environment, and students have moved on and Columbia is now a different place.

What’s missing here is of course the merit part. We like to think of the academy as merit based and merit driven, and on occasion it is. Brilliant people can in fact succeed by being brilliant. But, more and more, merit is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in this field. There will always be room at the top for the best of the best, but none of us are that person (well maybe one of us is—but its not me). There will always be the exceptional student slightly more driven than the rest, able to overcome lack of privilege to succeed –Patrick and I have had such students, and I’m proud of one in particular to say she’s doing quite well as a young scholar and she’s going to make it in this field all on her own.

But, the contemporary reality is the institutional forms in which one can realize Patrick’s vocation are disappearing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then yes, this profession is for you. Expect significant suffering along the way. Be prepared to accept conditions you otherwise would find untenable to realize your dream. Realize that other portions of your life will suffer to fulfill this one deeply felt need.

But for the rest of us, take the time to reflect on the calling you hear toward a vocation. Consider—what is it, exactly, that provides the satisfaction, that fulfills the desire, that provides a way to organize your life. This is in fact more difficult than it seems, and requires some serious personal reflection. It is not a choice to be made lightly. With that in mind, then set yourself free to realize that calling in all the novel and exciting ways that the 21st century provides.

Post script— the answer to the obvious is: Yes. But more on that later. I’ll endeavor to return to substantive postings on the actual IR stuff we all enjoy.