On the Eve of (Relative) 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. Following the advice of colleagues, I consulted an employment attorney, who agreed to handle my case pro bono. But 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 college 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 saw what happens “behind closed doors”. 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.

When I was “let go” I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card balance or two. I did not possess the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. Though I needed the money, I was not eager to pursue another tenure-track position in philosophy.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and have 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 US presidential election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret my decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life. Instead, I set my sights on the regular kind of currency: money.

I never planned to achieve financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a huge profit (after four short years of home ownership) and parlayed those funds to pay off all debts. Instead of prioritizing low-paying academic publications, I published a book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, lowering my monthly bills to almost nothing.

My hard-won profits went toward a small condo, purchased for cash. Between savings, retirement accounts and (meager) book royalties, my finances are such that I only need to work half-time, minimum wage to live securely and comfortably. I am semi-retired, at age 33, and — so long as I invest wisely — I may fully retire at the regular retirement age. Yes, my job loss was a good thing, though it did not seem so 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 agenda you disagree with. You get to live your values, which is worth more than any amount of money. (To learn more about financial independence and living your values, check out Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, recently featured in Time Money.)

I still have 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 a measure of financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter, vehicle or education?

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. And that, my friends, is a priceless thing.

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching 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 and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

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Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

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Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. 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 simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, 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 militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, 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 caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah

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, it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire.

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 sigh 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 more human to each other?

 

 

Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert: Mental Illness and Society

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 undergraduate and graduate school, I always felt 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, questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Over time, philosophers 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 soul or psyche as a set of non-material life capacities or functions.

I have never been terribly fond of psychology. It always seemed to me that ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said them better. There is a real wisdom in ancient traditions. 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 — perhaps even spiritual problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological neuroses. We are sad and sick because societies and families are sad and sick, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual cognitive architecture.

So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma. People are traumatized because modern society is, in many ways, 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. This is the problem with treating individuals in isolation rather than treating communities.

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 community college video course, back before online courses. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the time, 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. 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 curricula, to react to the times and to our 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 doing 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