On being taken Seriously
Now that I’m back in Bloomington for a while, everyone has a ton of advice on how to present myself on the academic job market so that I’ll be taken Seriously.
What’s weird is that no two people can agree on how to do that.
You should list all the reading groups you lead and participate in on your CV to show how active you are in fostering intellectual community! No don’t do that, it’s “cringe.” Well it’s up to you, reading groups won’t help or hurt you.
You should lead with your dissertation on assholes, it’s super accessible and demonstrates your commitment to public outreach! Actually, there’s no need to be so polemical and in fact, maybe you shouldn’t even mention Donald Trump anywhere in your dissertation. Well, maybe just don’t mention his name on your materials.
All this talk about showing that I’m a Serious Philosopher has gotten me thinking: How important is Seriousness anyway?
After all, my dissertation uses Unseriousness to try to get at something Important: the enormous difference between self-interest and well-being, which the very Serious philosophical literature I’m interacting with has almost totally missed. (To be honest, no one fully appreciated my worries until I started writing about assholes!)
I’m still not quite sure how to sketch this distinction between Seriousness and Importance, but here’s a first pass:
Seriousness has to do with form or procedure or decorum.
Importance has to do with content or substance or significance.
I think we go back and forth between these so easily that we often say “I don’t take X seriously” as shorthand for “I don’t think X is important.”
But how many of the Important moments in your life are Serious anyway? (And how much bullshit have you seen that tries to use Seriousness to dress itself up as Important?)
My dissertation definitely breaks from traditional decorum by using the word ‘asshole’ 278 times and the word ‘bullshit’ another 104. And I lean into the inherent humor of that subject matter to help motivate and clarify the larger moves I’m making.
But I think being Unserious helps me make a substantial contribution to an (otherwise) extremely abstract literature. It provides a methodological reframing that’s much better grounded in our everyday ethical commitments, and it uncovers just how thin and undertheorized previous notions of well-being ultimately are.
In the end, I’m much less interested in the Seriousness of my work and much more interested in whether it gets at anything Important. I want to do good, careful work that addresses and clarifies real problems because that’s what matters, dammit!
Don’t get me wrong: Being Serious (or being taken Seriously) can be very useful. Being Serious at a funeral is a clear way to help show respect for the dead. And being taken Seriously might very well help me get a job.
But being Unserious can be useful, too. In the classroom, a joke can simultaneously soften and clarify an objection to a student’s initial thoughts. And in research, a bit of methodological diversity can expand our horizons, offering us new approaches and perspectives to consider. Why so serious? Here’s Horace:
A jest often decides matters of importance more effectively and happily than seriousness.
So where does this leave us?
Sometimes we confuse Seriousness with Importance, but they often come apart.
If it’s not Important, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not Serious, it still might.
Seriousness might be Important, or might help bring about Important things. But so might Unseriousness!
(don’t worry that’s not my real signature)