In terms of some of my favorite philosophers, I really like Plato. I’ve studied some of the German tradition and also think the trajectory from Kant, Hegel, post-Hegelian, and then to Marx is really interesting.

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NAME

Aaron Jaffe

JOB TITLE

Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts and Philosophy

LOCATION

New York City, NY

SALARY

Undisclosed

NUMBER OF YEARS IN THE FIELD

Faculty at Juilliard since 2010, Adjunct at Brooklyn College beginning in 2008

COMPANY

Julliard

Education

Brandeis University, 2001-2005
B.A., History, Politics, and European (German) Cultural Studies

The New School for Social Research, 2008
M.A., Philosophy

The New School for Social Research, 2014
PhD, Philosophy

Career Bio

The profession

For me, philosophy is the careful, rational exploration of ideas, where you come up with a tentative conclusion and do your best to defend it. You have to risk having a position, your position's gotta be informed and based on either reason itself, history or text, and you gotta be open to challenging it and being challenged--I think that going through this process is what philosophers do.

In terms of some of my favorite philosophers, I really like Plato. I’ve studied some of the German tradition and also think the trajectory from Kant, Hegel, post-Hegelian, and then to Marx is really interesting. It’s called German Idealism. I find the social and political aspects of German Idealism really interesting, and I’ve done a lot of work on contemporary theorists who have studied Marx or are interested in left leaning ideas.

I’m an Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts and Philosophy. I teach one philosophy elective in the spring term every year. I teach one elective a year where I get to design my own philosophy class. The other classes I teach are writing classes or are part of the core curriculum, and I approach these in a philosophical way while a historian would approach them in a historical way.

How I got here

I didn’t major in philosophy as an undergrad; philosophy is taught in different ways at different schools and I didn’t like the way philosophy was taught at my undergrad. It was the philosophy of science or philosophy of mind, and I didn’t find a lot of the classes interesting. I liked the history of ideas. I liked thinking about how ideas changed over time and how they influence people’s lives in a political direction, or cultural-social direction.

The New School’s program of philosophy is different from a lot of other programs out there. You’re allowed to study the history of ideas. It’s a program that focuses not just on contemporary problems or the philosophy of mind, or meta-ethics, but on the sources and the origins and the changing of ideas over time. And that felt more intellectually responsible and intellectually interesting to me. Knowing that history and knowing that background is something I really wanted to have. And it was also a place that did work in a left leaning direction. It wasn’t like a Catholic or Jesuit school that did a history of ideas in a conservative way. At the New School I was able to take a class on Karl Marx as a philosopher and make some of those ideas about resistance or organizing a reality by working with student organizations or starting my own or doing reading groups and being active in the city or in the school. It was a really interesting cultural environment where we could make ideas that we were studying have some real-world relevance. And it’s a great place to study Kant, Hegel, Marx and the European tradition. That was always more interesting to me.

A typical day

I’m very lucky to only have to teach three classes a term. Four days a week I have classes beginning at 9 a.m. So a typical day involves getting up around 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. Taking the train in from Brooklyn usually takes about an hour. I get to my desk and I start checking news, or contemporary events. Catching up on my e-mail. If I have to, if I’m a little delayed with class prep, maybe doing a little class prep before my 9 a.m. class.

I have two sections and basically teach the same class twice--the class is called Society, Politics and Culture. So it is part classical political theory, part contemporary application in the United States, involving current events or whatever travesties are currently going on. So it’s a mix of those two things.

The hardest parts

I’m different from other folks because I went to the New School for grad school and unlike a lot of other graduate schools, the New School didn’t offer funding or provide me with a stipend. I had to pay for tuition so I had to start teaching a lot earlier than a lot of people. But on the other hand the transition to working as a teacher wasn’t as much of a change for me, as it is for many others.

I think my key to work/life balance is that I don’t expect a lot from myself during the semester in terms of research. I can maybe get a revise/resubmit done or I can write a small piece here and there, but most of my research time happens during breaks and during the summer. After a long day of teaching or when I’m done grading, I take time for some self-care--that's when the life balance comes in.

The best parts

Being a philosophy professor in New York City is great because there are so many reading groups, research groups and conferences. If you are academically or intellectually inclined New York is one of the best places to be! That said, New York is extremely expensive; I’m living in Brooklyn because I can’t afford to live near the neighborhood where I teach.

It’s really awesome to have winter break and spring break away from teaching where I can do my own research or take a week off and visit family. I've been using this time to turn my dissertation into a book--my dissertation is about species being and alienation in Marx. I've also been trying to get an article or two out every year. I have written papers on Aristotle and Marx, Arendt and Socrates, one on Kant that I’m trying to get published, and one on Adorno. I try to think about philosophers in a way that makes them vehicles for critique today. I like to use ideas from the past to help us understand what is wrong with society.

The myths of the profession

I think a lot of my students taking a philosophy class for the first time expect answers and truths to be given to them. But I’m not in the truth business, I’m in the question asking business.

The other misconception is people often think, as a professor, I have a lot of time off. In a certain sense, yes, but my job entails a lot of work. It’s not just teaching classes. A lot of work goes into syllabus construction. You gotta read, you gotta decide what you’re going to include in a syllabus. And then there's research. Juilliard is primarily a teaching institution but the guidelines for promotion still include significant research contributions; somewhere between six and eight articles or at least a book in order to receive a promotion. There is a serious expectation that you do high quality work and it takes a lot to get something into reputable journals past peer-review.

The workplace

This is a pretty odd place to be teaching--it's a liberal arts department at a school that doesn’t offer bachelor degrees in liberal arts. At Julliard everyone majors in a musical instrument, or in the kind of performance they’re engaged in. At Julliard there’s no chemistry major, for example. Even to take a chemistry class they'd have do an exchange with Columbia University. So in the liberal arts department there’s one political theorist, one philosopher, one historian, one English literature, etc. So it’s that as a philosophy teacher I have free reign to design classes as I see fit. So if I want to teach Plato’s Republic one semester I can do that. Or if I want to teach theories, philosophies of friendship in another I can do that too. In a sense, it’s freeing.

When I taught at Brooklyn College as an Adjunct, they gave me guidelines for the class, a syllabus construction, etc.--it was pretty set. There wasn’t as much freedom but maybe that’s in part because I wasn’t full time. I was still getting my master’s at the time. So maybe it was justified. The other big difference is that here at Julliard, class sizes are limited to 15 students. At Brooklyn College there were about 35 students in a class.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Don’t do it! Since the economy crashed in 2008 a lot of schools no longer have funding in the humanities and liberal arts. And there's been a shift towards STEM, and I think we’re going to see more of that under Trump. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to go through a PhD program and the chances of getting a job getting are astronomically slim. There is no tenure at Julliard and over 200 people applied for the position I ended up with. So there are a lot of unemployed people who are super talented! I was an internal candidate. I happened to be at the right place at the right time.

If you are interested in teaching that’s a noble thing but I don’t think social conditions are generating a lot of opportunities to be rewarded or to be highly respected as a teacher. I’m extraordinarily fortunate in that regard.

Advice to my younger self

Be more open minded about enjoying different kinds of experiences, different philosophies, different ways of thinking and different disciplines.