Tuesday, April 20, 2010


This is one of those words I (almost) remember learning the meaning of. When I was getting my PhD, I noticed that everyone was using it to describe the postmodern condition. There was talk of the "experience of contingency", often related to the great intellectual sea change of the 1960s. One got the sense that before 1968 everyone experienced the events of history and the facts of nature as necessary. Then, suddenly, in, say, 1968, people realized that things could be different.

But I think I was already using (or had at least already heard) the word in the context of "contingency planning". Also, I can't imagine we didn't deal with "contingent truths" vs. "necessary truths" in my undergraduate days. (I got my BA and MA in philosophy.) Necessary truths are true no matter what happens. Contingent truths depend on something.

Last night I learned a new use for the concept: contingent faculty. These are academic positions that do not offer the security of tenure, and they therefore occasion a completely different research and teaching experience. This YouTube interview with Cary Nelson introduces the problem: one teaches in a state of constant anxiety. Indeed, so-called "existential angst" is also technically related to contingency, i.e., is grounded in the fact that we have been "thrown" into the world and may, of course, be thrown out at any time.

The issue of academic freedom is essentially the question of whether a particular part of our mental life, that part devoted to the study of our area of specialization, for example, should be protected from "the experience of contingency", from anxiety and worry. (Should what you think condition your ability to think at all?) Nelson, rightly, notes the tension between the anxiety of contingency and the pressure to be "frank", i.e., the decidedly intellectual virtue of speaking your mind. An interesting question emerges: should academics need courage in order to be frank? Should their livelihoods (their lives are not, let us agree, at stake these days) be contingent on what they happen to say (whether in the classroom or in print)?

And that question has got me thinking about academic style. It will be granted that the style of academia in general, and its writing in particular, changed in 1960s. How much of that change, I wonder, is related to the increasing "contingency" of the faculty—the growing use of part-time and temporary faculty in university teaching and, indeed, the growing use of temporary research contracts. Has academic writing become less frank and more anxious? I think a case can be made that it has.

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