Friday, November 19, 2010

Dreaming of Picking Up My Tortoise Pace

Every author dreams of the freedom to write. It must have been hard for many creators to die in poverty and obscurity, such as Oscar Wilde. On the other hand, J. K. Rowling is an amazing story. She was a so-called “welfare mom," but through successful writing, is now one of the world’s wealthiest people, with not only the freedom to write, but the liberty to help oversee her written vision’s translation into the big screen. However, what if you do academic writing as I generally do? It is known that academic writing does not earn its authors significant amounts of remuneration. Therefore it does not, by itself, sustain its authors.

So academic writers depend on getting jobs as professors, and that gives them the freedom to write. Or they are independently wealthy. Or, like me, they come from the weird ranks of working-class scholars and write in their spare time.

Most of the time I now work as a substitute teacher in public schools, minding other peoples’ classes. I thought I'd get some classes of my own. I achieved an A+ in every course at University of Toronto teacher's college, except one course, English, in which I scored "A." It is a top-flight teacher's college in Canada which is characterized as demanding. I had stellar write-ups for practice-teaching. I got a resume expert at my school to help me and by all accounts my application materials are really excellent.

But I found the hard way that public schools generally do not want to hire people with doctorates for full-time teaching. (It is a miracle, I see now, that I obtained this substitute-teaching post, which pays well below the poverty line.) They have to pay you more (except for substitute teaching!), assume you will take off for better job prospects, are "overqualified," or they just do not want to "risk" being alongside a colleague with a Ph.D. for peculiar psychological reasons. If you excel at education to the point of being a person of achievement post-doctorate, the public education system punishes you for it. I kept my doctorate on my resume in keeping with the advice of an "expert" who came to talk to us just before we graduated from teacher's college, who was also happy to sell us his book of advice, and credibly claims to have sorted through thousands of resumes in his time. He said the Ph.D. would be a boost. But meeting another academic doctor, years later, on the substitute teaching beat confirmed my suspicions. He also faced systematic discrimination.

It must have been nice for Renaissance creators such as Da Vinci to have wealthy patrons. Or for Marx to have had Engels’ financial support. They had some fallouts but stayed strong in the end. Marx was no beggar. He gave Engels a great opportunity to contribute to progressive world culture and human history on an unimaginable scale. True, I would say that Marx lacked positive vision and was too given to violence, among other problems I note in my essay, "Animal Absolutes." But Marx also highlighted the problems of capitalism and its destructive side more than any other thinker, which is a great service to the world. Marx's rate of output was inestimably accelerated, and works appeared which would not have otherwise. How long would we have had to wait for the critique of capitalism without Engels? Indeed, Engels himself finished Capital after Marx died, working in daylight hours according to his fading eyesight. Being a co-author gave Engels a special kind of interest. Engels' money, for its part, was much better spent than on a new boat, summer house, decorative objects or the like, and would have given his life an expanded sense of meaning, significance, and purpose. His gift of wealth was used very well indeed. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

There is also the case of Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the word and hence the discipline of sociology. He was dismissed from his teaching position and so had no means of income. But until his death he was sustained by subscriptions of supporters who thought his views were important.

If there were no bad judgment there would be no immoral acts, in my opinion. Forging a system of good judgment, that includes judging what is good, is therefore priceless in value. People who have capital arguably have a moral duty to use some of that for the greater good, although obviously there is a great deal of choice as to how to discharge that general obligation, and given these liberties amidst an overflow of things that urgently need addressing, no given cultural creator can point to any individual and claim a right to any kind of material support. The many needs of the world are burgeoning and flood our very consciousness.

To take an even more modern-day example, Bob Barker was the host of The Price Is Right, an absurd game show in which people would guess the price of consumer items—in real life an almost worthless skill—and win prizes. He nobly promotes animal ethics studies where he can, among other important animal rights initiatives. He has endowed law schools to have animal law courses, and granted a million dollars to Drury University, where he himself was educated, to fund animal ethics. Some peoples’ dreams to write (and teach) can come true. Be nice if we had a comparable initiative, or rather several such spear-headings, in my own country of Canada, as well as every other nation on the planet. 
There are no posts in animal ethics in Canada. I have a Ph.D. in animal ethics, true, but there were no undergraduate or graduate courses in the subject that I could take. The closest was having animals covered in a few undergraduate environmental ethics courses, the junior of which I took, and the senior of which I later taught. If there were posts in animal ethics, or even just courses in the subject, I know I’d have a respectable shot at undertaking such employment. I have still managed to teach 13 university courses, with students often ranking me excellent in every category on their course evaluations. But that is not enough to get you a post if they virtually do not exist in your field. Technically, my field is ethics. Since there were no animal ethics courses I got my full share of--you guessed it--ethics courses. But if you teach "animal ethics" you are branded.

It does not necessarily matter that no less august a personage than Professor Michael Allen Fox has proclaimed that my ethical theory of best caring is better than all other ethical theoretical views, better than those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Singer, Rawls, and so on and on. I am also reputed as having constructed the strongest version of anti-animal rights by philosophers Fox, Evelyn B. Pluhar, and L. W. Sumner. I try to cover both sides. But if you do animal ethics, your application lands in recycling, as it did when I applied for a one-year teaching job at York University, Toronto, Canada. I did not even get an interview, although the people in that department probably never earned such praise for their own work and, no disrespect intended, likely never will. No good reason exists for this tossing of merit into the trash. I guess, then, there are only bad reasons such as wanting to eat one's steaks, strips of cow flesh, without being at least implicitly objected to by a colleague. Indeed, ironically, animal ethics people are better ETHICS scholars. Only oppression excludes animals from serious moral consideration, as I argue at length in my formal writings.

I knew when I signed up for my animal rights doctorate that I might not make it as an animal rights professor. There was nowhere to land with that parachute then, still is not now, and no assurance that there will be such a spot in the future. Canada is a bust for professorships in animal ethics to date. Yet I have a son and cannot and totally do not wish to desert him to go to the United States or elsewhere. Honestly I have never regretted taking the animal rights Ph.D. I think it has been good for the animals, and that is the main reason for following through and keeping on with my animal rights scholarly writing. There are different kinds of success. Having social status in one's job and financial reward is one kind, but in my mind takes rank far, far behind being a good person. I would also rather be a success in winning the affection of loved ones and friends than a cold-hearted individual with oodles of cash. And I would much rather being a pauper-scholar with something to say than the common run of professor who fills professional journals with items of little moment, to say nothing of the many papers that do not even make it that far. It is even better to be an academic exile with views that are much harder to knock than is supposed by many who rush in where angels fear to tread than to be any professor whose views may be noteworthy, but are really theories demonstrably premised upon errors and illusions, lack of evidence, and logical fallacies. My life is not full of moula, but I feel that it is full of meaning. And that makes me happy.

In a capitalist society, good things like writing meaningful books only happen if they either make money or are given money or other resources to be sustained. Or if one is underemployed and otherwise looks to available times in one's life. Thankfully, writing is not an expensive profession to carry out, once you have the equipment. The time to write is the most expensive. On a different and more general note, bad things commonly happen because good things are more expensive, and a growing majority of the world cannot afford good things. Indeed, the better part of a billion people (800 million at the last count I heard) are literally starving.  I can’t complain, although I can comment on how things stand. I don’t want to be greedy, or unappreciative of the good things that life kindly affords me.

I don't feel alone regardless. I know a lot of people are with me in spirit. I feel like I am part of the family of humanity in its highest aspect in aiming to address increasingly urgent human-animal, environmental, and social catastrophes in the best possible way. Many of these are comparable to the Holocaust, which will always haunt my family tree. But the tree of life, our shared heritage, is greater than any single family tree.

Really in this post I am partly reflecting on patronage of the arts, and also fantasizing about having a patron of my own work. It is not asking for assistance. I have no right to ask any individual for such support. Is my fantasy immoral? Some might think so. Why? Do I have an exaggerated sense of the importance of my work? Given the history of ideas and logical errors, that is probable, even if I can't see it. Am I vain? False modesty should never prevent one from doing an important job that one is uniquely qualfied to do. All false modesty aside, I think that Fox is right about my work, on strictly logical grounds, and so long as I think my work is significant for teaching, learning and even legislation, then I have a duty to promote it even if I am mistaken in some way I do not yet understand. I have found objectors to my work to misunderstand it more than anything else. Is my fantasy selfish? I do not need to tell myself what my views are. I know what I think. I work hard at this literary and intellectual advocacy for animals, human and other. Most scholars in my position would have given up long ago. The work is also satisfying to me, but that is by the by. Is it immoral to dream of sources of income that are unconventional or noninstitutional? The capitalist system has failed me. I think my work is usually dismissed or not considered due to speciesism as much as anything else. When institutions fail to support work such as mine through academic jobs and scholarships, I think it is acceptable for private individuals to step in, as in aiding the poor, assisting with education for liberation, and helping out starving artists as Theo helped his brother Vincent Van Gogh. Would it be wrong because there are those needy such as animals and the poor? In that case scholarships would be immoral too. I advocate helping the needy too, and since my work has been found persuasive, it may play some role in sparing the vulnerable from suffering and death by seeking to address the root of such problems. Should I work all the day like everyone else for employers who pay for labour? I am not thinking about anything different, really. A patron would only allow me to work more effectively. I do not think the capitalist market determines which works are worth supporting through attempts to "sell" them. Should I not write about my fantasy because it might offend some people? My comparison of animal treatment to the Holocaust offended some people too. I think people should do what is right even if that offends some people, although upsetting people should be minimized so long as one does what one thinks is right. But I am just day-dreaming anyway. The kind of dream that does not come true, by all normal expectations. Am I immoral for this thinking "aloud"? Then I apologize. Perhaps I am obtuse for not seeing the wrong.

I can at idle moments dream that if I won a lottery (not that I play them), I would work full-time at the financially unrewarding enterprise of academic writing. Or if I could work for some appropriate institution or whatever or whomever, even for just enough to get by, I would work full-time trying to write significant books on animal ethics, human issues in ethics, environmental ethics, liberation movement strategies for legal reform, socialism, the theory of knowledge, and much more. But wait. I am already trying to get these done, at the best pace I can manage, with the freedom to write that I do have and value, plodding along inside my tortoise-shell of the substitute-teacher. The latter profession is not entirely a waste of my abilities. I am doing fine as an author anyway. As I say, I cannot rightly complain. I sometimes hope though of going from fine to better. Rightly or wrongly, I feel a responsibility to write. It is no mere fantasy that I spin. Yet my life does not afford too many idle moments. So, right ho! Now it's back to the real world for me…


  1. I am glad for the animals' sakes that you are continuing your work despite the difficulties.