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You Don’t Have to be a Professor to be a Professor

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Rock Your Otium With Purpose09032013-philippe-ramette-15

Australian philosopher Damon Young’s Distraction cites the fascinating example of Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. An able, talented and academic-class thinker, he did much of his work outside the academy. But in 1673 Spinoza was offered a position at Heidelberg University where he would teach while earning the salary of a full professor—opening for him a “life worthy of a philosopher.”

Spinoza refused.

He preferred to continue to practice his craft: grinding optical lenses for short-sighted friends. Spinoza wanted to earn his own income and use his free time (his otium) to uncover the mysteries of the universe and sort out how people should treat each other. Teaching would be a distraction from his primary work of writing and thinking. He refused the distraction, though the job seems a much easier route for what he was already doing.

Young wondered if there was something of the work of the mind in the crafting of the lenses that helped Spinoza move his thinking forward. That connection between thinking and craft is something Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soulcraft) would likely agree with. Spinoza’s lenses were renowned and admired—he did good glass work. But his philosophical writings are why we remember him.

We still read Spinoza today. Young points out that while Spinoza’s prose makes for boring reading, it is among those unusual texts that have passed the test of time.

09032013-9781844652549_p0_v2_s260x420The truth is there are only so many hours in a day. If you’re an adjunct professor, you are basically volunteering your time, which might have gone toward research. If you are a full-time professor, you must diligently make clean breaks from distraction to do the research you studied for.

I relish Spinoza’s example for the intrinsic motivation that led to his colossal works. I am also intrigued by the relationship between his daily lens grinding and the sight he brought to his writing. I very much enjoyed Damon Young’s book.


Image credit: Philippe Ramette via Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World

Written by kirkistan

September 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

6 Responses

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  1. “If you’re an adjunct professor, you are basically volunteering your time ….” Thanks for this post. Can’t stop thinking about it… Don’t know what I’m going to do with it though 🙂


    September 3, 2013 at 10:54 am

    • Of course, volunteering our time is good and beneficial. It’s a choice we make. A good choice. You are most certainly blessing your students, Wendi.


      September 3, 2013 at 11:51 am

      • I really meant the thank you 🙂 I continue to struggle with my decision to continue teaching. I have this nagging thought in the back of my head that I could accomplish more if I didn’t have to spend so much time … hand holding. You know, sometimes I just want to work with people who want learn and achieve – not just get piece of paper. Good post, Kirk.


        September 4, 2013 at 12:25 pm

      • Of course, the fun is when you do find those few who really are interested. Thanks for tuning in.


        September 4, 2013 at 12:30 pm

  2. […] audience could see the central action in context and form stronger conclusions. Damon Young, in his Distraction, cites Henri Matisse in explaining how art became his way of looking at the […]

  3. […] written about Mr. Young’s book before, like here and here. But now that I’ve gone through it a second time, made annotations, outlined his […]

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