For the followers of Shaneisms (all two of you), you’ll have heard me mention Dan Mullin, he of The Unemployed Philosopher fame. Not only are we best friends, but we were college roommates and, during most of our time, our university’s sole philosophy majors. We both took a certain pride in that fact, making sure that we were faithfully representing the grand tradition of Philosophy, even if Dan was more in the tradition of Kant and Hume and I more in line with Jonathan Swift.
Recently Dan has been writing about leaving the academic world and becoming a post-academic. From the talks we’ve had, it’s been a decision that weight heavily on him, one that took many long nights of contemplation to reach. We’ve had long talks about “what now?” and what the future holds for someone who, for many of the years I’ve known him, has looked at the academic world as somewhere he was was supposed to be.
For all the similarities we have, a big difference is that I’ve never seen the academic world as somewhere I’d end up. This isn’t to say I don’t value education and don’t love learning about everything I can. The constant, seemingly never-ending pile of books cluttering up my desk says otherwise, but as I’ve read Dan’s posts as he reflects on his academic journey, I can’t help but reflect on my own.
While Dan has gone on to get his doctorate in Philosophy, I never finished my undergrad degree. While I had my reasons, my own decision to leave was based on something different from the reasons why many people leave university.
I have always had a very hard time in an organized school setting, from grade school to university. Technically, I have two learning disabilities, even if for all practical reasons they’ve never interfered with my actual learning process. Case in point, I taught myself to read at three years old with minimal help. When I say “taught myself to read”, I mean I could read at a high school level by Grade 3. More than once I was given the opportunity to skip a grade in grade school. In her wisdom my mom didn’t take those offers, and I thank her for that. My learning disabilities would have manifested that much worse if she had agreed to skip me ahead.
The first problem I have to contend with is dyslexia. For me, it exists mostly in transposing letters in words or words in sentences. Public speaking has helped me immensely with the verbal part of it but if I’m tired I have a harder time controlling it. While dyslexia hasn’t affected my grades for the most part, higher math, such as algebra, is an issue for me. In university a friend in the math program discovered I could solve complex algebra equations just by looking at them, but when I tried to actually show the steps in solving it, I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. In high school, I lost marks in math classes because of this, since the marks were assigned for showing the work more than getting the correct answer.
The second learning disorder is far more problematic. I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which makes sitting still for a prolonged period very arduous for me. While I can absorb and memorize large amounts of information in a very short time, I’ve always found structured class settings very difficult. The best way I can phrase it is that the class was far too slow for me. I can remember many times in university, the professor would start a lecture and within a few minutes I’d figure where he was going with it, and I would zone out and let my mind go on tangents. However, this left me lost if the professor would suddenly ask a class question.
With ADHD, when I get bored, I get restless and fidgety. When I get fidgety, bad things happen. In grade school I’d get up out of my seat and wander around, start rummaging through my backpack or a textbook, regardless of what was going on in class. This led to my mom homeschooling me for my high school years. Grade wise there was a meteoric improvement, from low 70’s in a normal classroom setting to mid to high 90’s homeschooling. Without the structure of class holding me back I could do an entire day of schooling before noon. When I went to university, the problems I had with being in a classroom setting crept up again.
In one of his posts, Dan quoted The Dark Knight Rises, writing “As James Gordon tells John Blake, structures can become shackles”. This is the best way I can describe what sitting in a classroom setting was like for me. The structure became a shackle. I’ve never been on medication such as Ritalin, so I’ve had to find other ways of coping with ADHD. One way I’d try to compensate for it in class was having a snack such as chips or peanut M&M’s on me to munch on whenever I’d start to feel myself losing focus.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with my view towards the academic world, those two learning disabilities made the academic world a place where I felt I never fit in. While in terms of brainpower I have no problem keeping up with high academic scholarship, I find it too dry, too focused on what I feel are small details such as footnotes. The resolute focus on form is something I have a very hard time doing. It’s telling that I wrote my philosophy papers in a way that almost never used footnotes.
I realize that I lucked out in terms of the professors I studied under. My philosophy professor, the late Theodore Plantinga, gave me a lot of leeway in my papers and class behavior. He knew I had a strong handle on the material and he recognized the challenges I faced in dealing with dyslexia and ADHD. A good example of this understanding is that when we had to write papers for him, we had to hand in an outline so he could tell if we were on the right track or not. Half the time I’d hand in a one or two sentence outline, as opposed to the more detailed outline we were required to do. Once I handed in an outline in the form of a beatnik poem, complete with spaces for finger snaps. When he handed it back to me, his only comment was “Groovy, man!”. He showed me similar leeway in my paper construction. While we were supposed to use proper APA format I usually ignored that and wrote in a style he referred to as “like reading a History Channel show transcript”.
I minored in Theatre and English, and here as well I had understanding professors. The English professor would often let me hand in my own original fiction in place of reviewing a play. The Theatre professor let me hand in film projects instead of theatre ones as he wanted to nurture what he saw as a gift for filmmaking. Even in these less structured classes my learning disabilities caused some issues. I’d often forget to read an assigned story or poem for various English classes, often reading them in the few minutes between the time I sat down for class and the time class started.
Theatre assignments would occasionally be forgotten as well. A good example here is we had to recite a poem in front of the class, done in the style of a dramatic reading. The professor pulled names out of a hat to decide who went first. Guess who got called first. While the other students were armed and ready with passages from Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, I had completely forgotten about the assignment. I stood up, and recited the first thing that came to mind. Unfortunately that ended up being the Dukes of Hazzard theme song. My fellow students looked horrified as I went on but the professor was laughing hysterically. If you’re wondering about the grade… I got an perfect mark, with the professor commenting “Easily the strangest, most unexpected and most entertaining presentation of the class”.
As much fun as I had in my classes, by my third and fourth year I felt more and more that the hallowed halls of academia weren’t for me. And, despite knowing I could mentally could do the requirements of a post-grad program, I knew I didn’t have the discipline, or rather, I knew I couldn’t reign myself in to what I knew would be a much more structured environment than what university was. I never finished my undergrad program because by the middle of my fourth year I felt I had gotten what I had come for: the education, the knowledge, the opening of my mind to new horizons.
Am I saying drop out of university? By no means. I have nieces and nephews taking their first steps into the world of university and I’ve always encouraged them to get the education they need and stick it out, no matter how boring they might think university can be. Hypocritical? Probably.
I do remind them that while school has never been my strong point, I’m always reading whatever I can get my hands on. While structured academics isn’t for me, it doesn’t mean I ever plan to stop learning. I applaud those, like Dan, who can push themselves through the rigors of the academic world because I know I would go insane within a few weeks and probably go to the university library and start rearranging all the books just out of spite.
Would I ever go back to the academic world and finish up my degree? Probably not. At this point I find keeping myself reading on diverse topics is what works best for me and how I learn. I’m quite content with knowing that the only degree I’d ever get would be an honorary one. If that happens, cool. If not, no worries.
I wish Dan all the best as he charts his new course after having left the world of academia. Oh, and if you’re wondering what he thinks of the strange situation of having a doctorate in Philosophy while his best friend is a university drop out… he gets a certain perverse glee out of it.
I think the German philosophers had a word for that: Schadenfreude. I can’t be sure though… I’m not an Academic.