It was about five and a half years ago now that my dissertation on Śāntideva was approved and I could receive my PhD. Most doctoral graduates try very hard to turn their dissertations into a published or at least publishable book. I can say with some confidence that that will not happen.
There are two key reasons for this, and I’ll address the second next week. The first, which I will discuss here, is practical and political. I have removed myself from the meatgrinder that is the faculty job market, and that fact creates new possibilities for me. My dissertation has been available free online here to you the readers ever since Love of All Wisdom began. I sent a link to the blog to a friend and colleague of mine; as soon as he received it, he sent me a Google instant message full of shock: “You posted your entire dissertation! Aren’t you interested in publishing it as a book?” His surprise was understandable. What publisher would want to sell a book whose contents are available for free? By making my diss free and easily available, it would seem, I had just made it that much harder to get on the traditional path: get your diss published, get tenure. I have heard some argue more recently that having a freely available dissertation doesn’t really affect one’s odds of getting published. Perhaps that’s true, and I hope that it is, but that was not a gamble that my friend would have been ready to take at the time. If I had tried to remain on the traditional path, I wouldn’t have been ready for it either.
What my friend didn’t know at the time was that I had just decided to get off that path. I had had a hard enough time finding a tenure-track job already, and with the crash of 2008 I saw the writing on the wall. I had wanted to start this blog for years before that time, but had felt too timid to do so.
Then in early 2009, I was very close to a tenure-track job at the University of Alberta – one of just three candidates offered a flyout. It was the kind of dream job I’d aspired to since beginning my PhD. It was a job specifically dealing with South Asian philosophy, and one poised between departments of philosophy and religious studies so I wouldn’t feel confined to one disciplinary approach. Even better, it was a 2/2 position at a research university, so I would have time to write, and be supported in that ambition. It paid very well, it was in a city, and it even meant I could return to Canada.
One Sunday evening, I got the dreaded email telling me another candidate had accepted the position. I felt glum and disappointed and went to bed.
The next morning, to my own surprise, I felt bright and joyful. But that didn’t make sense… or did it? Then I realized: a weight has been lifted. Now that this job is out of the picture, I know that I will no longer be making a serious effort to a faculty job. Now I can go off and find some other line of work where I can live where I choose, and which does not expect to devour my whole life. Now I don’t have to keep trying to convince myself that Edmonton is a place I want to live. (I’d already spent rather too much time listening to Stan Rogers’s The Idiot, and its quintessentially Canadian tale of hard-luck East Coasters who move to Alberta for work but miss their home.)
And especially: now I don’t have to write for the arbitrary specifications of academic gatekeepers, living in fear that saying the wrong thing will torpedo my job or tenure if the wrong person reads it. Only now do I have the “academic freedom” that is so laughably dangled before doctoral candidates, as if that were something that were actually likely to happen to most of them; only now can I say the things I’m actually thinking.
So I think the story has a happy ending, for as far as I can tell, my friend and I both played the game in the right ways; we both ended up with we wanted most. He is now a tenure-track – maybe even tenured? – professor, and I am not. But he’s based in an outer suburb in Texas, and I’m in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, places as full of intellectual activity as one could wish for. I would not dream of trading my life for his, and I hope the same is true in reverse.
And to return to the dissertation: I’ve long been a believer in open access, above all for scholarly publishing. Those who require payment for digital content usually justify the practice on the grounds that it’s the only way to ensure content creators – artists and writers – are compensated. For a number of reasons I think this argument is often unconvincing. But even if we assume it is correct in the general case, it has no justification in the academic world, where the creators are not paid. Currently, for the bulk of scholarly work, individuals or institutions must pay high prices, often extremely high prices (over U$100 for most 200-page Brill books) – for work that is produced for free! That is a racket and an outrage. It seems to me that the sooner we can end this closed ecosystem and make our freely created knowledge available to the whole world for free, the better.
And so I proudly make my dissertation available to everyone, on principle. That’s the ideal choice for the benefit of the world, whether or not it is the wisest choice for a tenure-seeking academic. Happily, I’m not that anymore.