In this post I begin with more confession than narrative when I juxtapose my innate intelligence with my poor study habits. My intellect is wasted when my scholastic will fails to promote my best interests. I then lament the loss of potential that I imagined for myself with a future career in higher education. I conclude by recapturing at least some of that potential, struggling to make sense of where to find my place and values amidst chronic illness. Could I contribute to science or health communication?
A favorite instructor of mine during undergrad said (and I am paraphrasing here) that the aim of a philosophy education is to make good philosophers, not good students. On one reading, the suggestion is student duties are subservient to quality philosophy. On another reading, probably the correct interpretation, it is presupposed that budding philosophers are already equipped with fundamental scholastic skills before pulling up a chair to the philosopher’s table, but for me, in that moment, the interpretation was not important. The prima facie reading was good enough: good philosophy trumps poor study habits. This was something I desired to hear, and so the philosophical truism remains appropriate: there is no value-free observation.
Here are two further claims, the first often spoken to me, the second often said of myself, each standing juxtaposed in a binary characterization of those features describing Adam as a student, a scholar, and (though I resist common use of the term) a thought-leader. The accurate statement is likely somewhere in the middle of this dichotomy, but for effect, let’s continue.
(1) Adam is the smartest person I know.
(2) Adam fucked up some of his education.
Let’s take each in turn. On the one hand, I excel at my endeavors when I manage to see them through. I continue to meet monthly with a group of four philosophers. These are past professors who shaped my life and academic career: a director of graduate studies and accomplished metaphysician, a current chair of philosophy and well-published philosopher of science, a leading Kant scholar, who, as the story was told to me, is someone who took the MCAT exam more-or-less only to accomplish the task, and not only was the task accomplished, the job done, but he performed strongly, and finally, an emeritus professor of philosophy who chaired a department for 30 years, publishing in the field of ethics. My professor who offered the quote discussed in the previous paragraph is one member of our five-person group. Our first unofficial official gathering of this band of philosophical brothers  occurred while I was inpatient at an acute rehab facility, confined to a wheelchair, living in room 202 of the locked brain injury unit. Here we are, interested in Einstein, my focus at that time, while the nurses and doctors round, take vitals, administer meds, and so on. Each of these friends display excellence in their fields, and I am driven to be better, to work harder, and consider more deeply after our coffee talks (“I’m verklempt.”) During our last discussion, one topic—and these topics always arise from the ether, interesting to one of us, at that moment, and then pursued by all while coffee cools and the dregs come into view—“is aging a disease.”
I recently read an NIH paper that correlates glucose metabolism and increased symptoms of agedness. The author compared diabetes and aging. Maybe I will bring up this paper next time we meet. We never managed to settle on an adequate answer, but it was discussed that our question hinged on to further objects of conceptual analysis: just what is ‘disease’ and what is ‘treatment,’ as the concepts are importantly related.
After my diagnosis some months ago, I began a journey to become a patient expert of my disease, and I am proud of my knowledge gained in only a short period. I have zero clinical knowledge, I have no idea how to diagnose a patient, I could not draw a vial of blood, place an IV, much less shunt, stent, or suture. I do not know the molecular markers of non-small cell carcinoma. I could not make sense of the morphology of a slice of tissue taken from a brain tumor. Though, if I were to slip in the back door of a neuro-oncology conference, I could make it through the morning sessions before my identity is embarrassingly revealed at lunch.
I have always been a natural public speaker, and this is not to suggest that I could stand up and speak on anything, at anytime. I certainly must put in the effort, do the work, to learn the topic, to weave together the network of vital information. Though, I am quite good at digesting a few papers and quickly drawing out the key information, synthesizing that information, and presenting that information in way that is digestible for large audiences.
Let these be my pieces of evidence in support of the first claim.
On the other hand, in support of the second claim, I mention it took me longer than it should have to finish my undergrad. During grad school I often submitted excellent work several days past the deadline. I still have a grade of Incomplete in one of my grad school classes (Note: this professor to whom I still owe a paper is also a member of the philosophers coffee group). I took the GRE and achieved at best a mediocre score. I only applied to one PhD program—relocation being out of the question for my young family. My options were limited, and I applied to the only program that made geographic sense while still recognized in the speciality area I intended to study. PhD acceptance rates in philosophy programs are more competitive than acceptance to Harvard Law School (fact check: not fake news). PhD acceptance for the program to which I applied looks something like this: 330 annual applicants, usually 5-7 candidates accepted. I was waitlisted. This means I was not accepted. I was on the bubble. I wasn’t thrown out at first glance by the admissions committee, but neither was I considered a must-have. On balance, applying to only one program and being waitlisted at that one program is viewed somewhat as a success so far as the competitive nature of PhD program admissions are concerned. Often applicants apply to a dozen or more programs with the hopes of gaining acceptance to one. Though for me, I intended to earn a PhD, and decisions less than acceptance I viewed as a rather unsuccessful outing. My professor, again, to the rescue, confided that maybe I could accomplish more as an “independent scholar” than I would manage to achieve during the seven-year slog to earn a PhD. At any rate, I intended to sit out a year before applying again, securing an adjunct faculty position at a community college to scratch the academic itch. Later, the private sector came calling. Then, *ahem* brain cancer. Here I am, lost, a rather lackluster academic career behind me, all the connections, conference attendance, and research of a graduate or PhD candidate, and the technical skills and foundational knowledge to excel in a strong program. Yet, I haven’t proved able to commit to the grind of earning my spot.
Here I sit in the gray area between claims (1) and (2). Stories like, ‘Einstein couldn’t get a job,’ or ‘Einstein’s kindergarten teacher said he couldn’t read,’ or ‘Einstein was a janitor at a university and solved math problems on the board and then he and Matt Damon watched Patch Adams and solved for the speed of light in a vector space’ do little to raise my spirits. The reality is I have done little to help myself out, and before cancer would dash my hopes for a long, rewarding career in academia, I did it to myself.
How is that for painful acknowledgment and confession?
I have been holding out hope for some time that after navigating cancer treatment, maybe after getting a year or 18 months of stable MRI scans under my belt—hell, I’m eight months stable now, I would rally around my academic potential, retake the GRE, dust off my writing sample, and once again apply and gain admission to a PhD program. I reflected recently that the liberal arts, and a graduate education in the liberal arts, teaches one how to effectively learn. This facilitates plug and play content to learn at will. Naive, maybe, or arrogant, but, see claim (1). I have been neck-deep in molecular biology and biochem textbooks, I am able to summarize the two rival theories of carcinogenesis (SMT and TOFT), I am able to speak to the Metabolic Theory of cancer, and I have an opinion on reductionism vs holism in constructing useful biological explanatory narratives. Maybe my return to academia would be a triumphant dissertation motivating deeper exploration of a robust philosophy of the life sciences.
Today I accompanied Whitney to Eskenazi Hospital, her employer, and home to my future primary care provider. We are strategic in this selection, choosing a hospitalist who is usually rounding on the inpatient floors and only holds clinic a day or two each week. We figure we can get in with him on clinic days, and when my disease progresses to require hospitalization, Dr. will already be familiar with my case.
Excited to be in a hospital and not on a gurney, I looked forward to meeting a new doctor today. I have come to regret not pursuing medicine in school. Regardless, here we are navigating a beautiful hospital campus, and I am overcome with the familiar light-headedness of overstimulation. The activity, fluorescent lights, shiny floors, and automatic doors, I begin to put more weight through my cane to steady myself. My pace slows. My eyes shift downward to limit focus. I fear an impending seizure, or fainting episode. Anxiety or neuro-chemical imbalance? Is it the nerves? Is it the meds? Is it the brain cancer?
How will I navigate a similar environment daily in university halls.
Sunday, March 5, we will see when I address 150 or more gathered to hear me present my journey with brain cancer. Will my intelligence carry the day? Have I limped my way through school adequately to earn my role as part-storyteller, part-instructor?
What potential fuels the next chapter?
 Philosophy has long struggled with the demographic composition of its students and faculty: typically all male, white, middle-income background. Few women. Few persons of color. Few persons with disabilities. The discipline recently has been rocked with charges of sexual harassment, and the very real problems of systemic discrimination, problems within the realm of academic philosophy to address, have failed to sway the discipline in a meaningful way toward public action. Philosophy is my love, and it is my passion to defend, but the discipline has faced an ongoing intervention from within and outside the field for some years. I wish not say more here, but the representation of my group of close friends and philosophy faculty being all white middle-aged men is problematic, but they are also men I respect dearly who have impacted my life in immeasurably positive ways, and I ask at least for your suspension of judgment, if only through the duration of this post.
This post originally appeared on Glioblastology. It is republished with permission.