Philosopher: James Chansky


James Chansky is the Assistant Dean of Summer Session & Pre-College Programs in the School of Professional Studies at Brown University. After earning his PhD in philosophy from Boston College he taught in a prison-based degree program run by Skidmore College, where he gradually transitioned into more administrative roles. In this interview he talks about the rewards of teaching prisoners, how he made the transition to academic administration, and the ways in which philosophy is still part of his life.

DEREK: At what stage of your education or career did you first think about doing something other than holding a traditional faculty position? Did you consider or pursue any alternatives other than academic administration?

JIM: I didn’t so much decide to move away from seeking a traditional faculty position as gradually come to realize the decision had effectively been made without my quite realizing it till it was settled. My first teaching job with a PhD (this was in 1985, when job prospects in Philosophy were quite bleak) was in a maximum security prison in upstate NY, through a degree program run by Skidmore College.  I began teaching two courses a semester, and the following year was hired as an Academic Advisor and continued teaching.  It was by far the most rewarding teaching experience I have ever had – before or after.  The students approached the study of philosophy – which I taught historically as a series of efforts to make sense of things, whether metaphysics and epistemology or political theory and ethics – in the way I thought it should be studied: as raising issues of deep significance not only personally but socially and politically: how one is to understand one’s self, one’s way of living in the world, and doing so with other people.  Over the years, I gradually took on more administrative tasks involved in running the degree program (and so taught less), but also filled in as a sabbatical leave replacement one year in Skidmore’s Philosophy Department, and taught campus courses for the department now and then, usually one a year. While for a few years after earning my PhD I continued to apply for full time teaching positions as they came up in my area (continental philosophy, history of philosophy), it was pretty clear that the path to a “regular” tenure line position had been effectively closed, given the combination of my non-traditional prison teaching, administrative work and my areas of specialization and my dissertation topic – Schopenhauer, in between Kant and Nietzsche (in which there seemed to be little interest, if not downright hostility) – or so it seemed to me.

DEREK: What attracted you to academic administration, and specifically to administering pre-college programs? How long have you been?

JIM: It wasn’t academic administration per se that was attractive as my commitment to the degree program in the prisons, given the extraordinary students we worked with and the tremendous impact that education has upon them.  My work as an academic administrator involved student advising and working to recruit faculty to teach in the prison program, and in the process I learned how to be a successful administrator.  Initially it was very much like teaching in that the core of the work is talking with students about what they know and guiding them to learn what they don’t yet know but do need to learn, and then locating faculty to teach them.  The satisfactions there – even though it involved the full range of the liberal arts and not just philosophy – were, sans the actual content, much like those that come from teaching.  In 1995, after working in the prison program for a decade, state and federal funding for education in prisons was eliminated, and so the program was shut down.  A retirement in another area at the college enabled to me avoid unemployment and move on to a position developing and supporting a wider range of programs – a Writers Institute, residencies in Judaic and Middle East Studies, a Studio Art program, and academic programs for high school students. While I was still able to teach one course a year to Skidmore undergraduates for a while, in effect this move meant leaving direct teaching to arranging teaching and learning opportunities for instructors and students. My responsibilities in those years were hugely varied, but all involved creating opportunities for faculty to teach and students to learn in both traditional and non-traditional settings.  My engagement with the pre-college audience was initially a small part of what I did (beginning in 1995) until I came to Brown in 2011, and it is now the bulk of what I do.  Working with faculty and students to create opportunities for teaching and learning is enormously satisfying, even if a good part of the satisfactions are vicarious.

DEREK: What are some of your main job responsibilities? Do you ever get the opportunity to teach your own classes?

JIM: I’m currently not able to teach, and indeed earlier in my career when I did, I found that the increasing demands of my administrative work made it difficult to give the students in the various classes I taught the attention they deserved, and so I did less and less teaching as my responsibilities grew.  My primary responsibilities now are, in a nutshell, working with instructors across all disciplines taught at Brown to develop courses for high achieving high school students.  This involves working with instructors – most of whom are graduate students – in developing courses and supporting their teaching, and reviewing student applications and guiding them to appropriate courses, but also a lot of work that involves getting deeply into the weeds regarding processes, data management, marketing, program development and so on, all the while trying to ensure that the primary purpose of all this – getting teachers and students together – doesn’t get lost.

DEREK: Is having a PhD a necessary credential for your current position? And, beyond the credential, are the skills and knowledge gained during your graduate education helpful in doing your job?

JIM: A PhD is an essential credential on two levels: most simplistically, and somewhat trivially but not insignificantly, it’s a sort of “membership card” that puts one in company with faculty and academic administrators simply by possessing it.  One is granted a degree of credibility in working with colleagues, students and their parents just by having it.  More substantively, because the work requires a deep understanding of the values and culture of liberal arts institutions, having been a scholar and a teacher, one is better able to be an effective administrator.  Of course, graduate school education per se, back in the late ‘70’s to early 80’s, so far as I recall, was all focused on studying and on scholarship, which in and of themselves were not skills that were passed along with any view of their value beyond perpetuating the discipline and the way it functioned in academic institutions.  I suspect the possession of competencies other than one would acquire in graduate school are more pertinent to my work – things I learned on the job over the years – what I think of as “unhappy competencies:” things I am good at but in any other context I would never do.

DEREK: Would you recommend academic administration to other philosophers who are considering alternative careers? What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs who are thinking about careers in administration?

JIM: I do not believe there is anything particular to Philosophy per se that would prepare one for academic administration.  The skills and talents that are of value for administration are likely those that come from advanced study in the humanities in particular, and likely also in some of the social sciences:  an interest, above all, in the impact of what a student learns on what he or she does and how he or she chooses to live; a delight taken in learning outside the discipline of Philosophy, essential in working with instructors from all academic disciplines; an interest in understanding how things work and a willingness to invest energies into the practical and technical processes the outcome of which is an instructor meeting with students in a class; and an ability to find satisfactions vicariously.

DEREK: Would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?

JIM: I’ve become quite disenchanted with the discipline over the last 30 years or so, given the dominance of analytic philosophy and the shift in interest away from the history of philosophy and the discipline as belonging in the humanities.  So I am not one to answer this question.

DEREK: What, if anything, do you think graduate programs can do to better prepare students for careers like yours?

JIM: Fundamentally, academic administration – done well – requires a kind of temperament that is a matter of personality, or personal taste, rather than training:  one has to enjoy figuring out how things work and how to make things work more effectively, and be able see the importance of processes and infrastructures as the sine qua non of teaching and learning in an academic institution.  If teaching can be compared to enjoying fine food, a good administrator has to enjoy being in the kitchen, and not in the dining room, and getting satisfaction from the happiness of those who eat without eating him/herself.  To the degree that graduate programs can help students see into the kitchen and invite in those with an interest in being there, that would be a good thing.

DEREK: What originally attracted you to the academic study of philosophy?

JIM: I read a lot of Nietzsche and Camus in high school, along with a lot of late 19th and 20th century European literature, and became very interested in reading in the history of philosophy and related areas to get a better sense of the various ways of seeing the world and being in the world. I had little interest in the sciences, as the questions raised and answers provided always seemed to me to stop short of what I was really interested in thinking about, and more interested in history and in the social sciences because these, approached philosophically, seemed to me the best way to encounter the variety of experiences that constitute the answers to the questions I had about the meaning of being a human being.

DEREK: In what ways (if any) would you say philosophy is still part of your life? Are you still doing – or do you have any plans for – philosophical writing? How often do you read or engage with philosophical texts or conversations?

JIM: I am told by my colleagues that I do approach much of my work philosophically, perhaps because I am always asking “the reason why” behind any action or policy, and because of a habit of connecting disputes over these things with correlating disputes in the history of philosophy: it’s the language I know, and it continues to find a place, even if others are sometimes more amused by my references than actually enlightened by them.  I think my training in philosophy has also provided me with a flexibility in thinking that’s enabled me to avoid the rigidity and rule-boundedness that often makes administrators obstacles rather than facilitators.

As for writing and reading…. No, I don’t think there’s much audience for the kind of scholarship I’d be most interested in doing, and much of current philosophical writing is not to my taste.

Thanks to Jim for taking the time to share his story. You can find more information about Brown’s pre-college programs, which include a number of summer philosophy courses, you can visit their website, or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram