Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What I Learned from Philosophy Graduate School

After finishing my post on feminist blog trolls yesterday, I spent a good bit of time reflecting on what my post-undergraduate training in Philosophy did for me, and how it might have offered me some real tools for coping with trolls. Most people who have been graduate students in Philosophy have experienced a fair amount of real, flesh and blood trolls. Graduate seminars and interactions outside of class can be incredibly competitive and downright nasty. Most graduate students in Philosophy know that there are only a few great jobs out there for us and this knowledge tends to heat things up.

I did not attend a predominantly Analytic program, like Steve G did, but there were enough embittered analytic philosophers in my department to teach me the classic moves of the snarky analytic. The classics are: (a) look dumbfounded, confused, scratch your head and then ask a basic question that leads to your whole argument crashing down, (b) furrow the eyebrows and ask, "is this Philosophy?", or (c) lay on some ad hominems. The Continental students are more maddening. They're modus operandi is to (a) show off how many languages they can read it, (b) cite a passage from a footnote of the winter seminar in Tubingen of X German Philosopher, (c) wear more black and smoke more cigarettes than you, (d) suggest that anyone who hasn't read Foucault is an idiot!

It is tough in that environment, and because I am a masochist, I liked taking it from both the Analytics and the Continentals. Many people might leave graduate school on a lot of medication and a broken person given this enviroment. But, what it did for me, I think, is inure me to trolls. I learned to see right through their antics and recognize that much of what they did was done out of extreme insecurity. I also learned some pretty effective tools for interacting with trolls.

First of all, I hardly ever (unless totally without sleep) match the tone of trolls. When they get snarky, I get polite and self-effacing. It generally throws them off balance. I engage them respectfully, suggest they might be right and explore the ways in which they are with them, iff they are willing to continue the dialogue. Secondly, in the real world, I have found that saying something loudly doesn't make the point all that more interesting or profound. Staying calm, enunciating and respectfully yieding the floor when you are done is a good tactic as well. And finally, learn to brush off most trolls. I can honestly say that I have never learned anything of value from a snotty, competitive and insecure troll (whether online or in the real world). I have, however, learned a great deal from people willing to enter into substantive debates, where there were back and forths, and I even profoundly disagreed with the person I was debating with. But, this could take place only iff the person you are debating actually plays by the rules.

What I mean by the rules, is he or she is willing to reconsider a position based on a better argument or new evidence or an unearthed hidden premise. Moreover, playing by the rules means that you avoid lying (i.e. when someone points out a contradiction in your position, you swiftly try to explain away, via some sort of obfuscation, that you now changed your positions) and that you don't enter into a conversation assuming that you are 100% correct.

I just got a lovely email from a student in Scotland today who is encountering the cruel reality of postgraduate studies. He feels really isolated and alienated by the competitiveness of other graduate students. Rather than finding a place of collaboration and exploration, all he is finding is snark. I sympathize with him. But, I know that if he sticks it out, he will find those he can collaborate with and he will gain some valuable life skills in dealing with dickheads.