I spent eight years doing teaching and research in Philosophy at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Arizona, from 2015 to 2023. I now have a love for America and its people, even though I am not sure I could ever live there again. Americans would say that Tucson is an outlier, an odd post-frontier town which is not reflective of the rest of the nation’s cities. And I only really visited New York, the Bay Area, and two towns in Mississippi, so I mostly take them at their word. But I could see something in common between these places that’s distinct from where else I’ve lived. I will not seek to capture that here, but instead focus on how life in Tucson was, and some things I learned.

When I first arrived I was very unsure about whether it would be a good idea to stay. I was ambivalent about reentering academia, and uneasy with the contractual terms under which I would be able to study there without paying any money for it. Once I did decide to stay for at least one semester, I tried to get myself set up with a daily routine that would be suitable for making progress with my classes, while also allowing me time to pursue my other interests. So I went to check out the library, that being where I’d done all my work as an undergraduate. I was appalled to find that there wasn’t a culture of silence. Supposedly the upper floors were designated as quiet, but the only way I could feel confident in not being interrupted was to find one of the small study desks sequestered in far corners, with those moveable shelves of books they have in university libraries between me and everyone else.

This initial problem with finding quiet and concentration somewhat epitomises a lot of my academic experiences in Tucson. I felt that the academic culture in the US was a noisy one: talking loudly to each other was valued a lot more highly than it had been in the UK, and real deep reading and thinking was something that people did on their own, at home, and didn’t talk about much. You talked about all the writing you had been doing, and indeed about what people you’d read had said, but with the latter it was as though the actual reading had happened outside of time, and the things happening within time were on-campus activities, and the hours of writing. You might say, well, it was grad school, of course the focus is more on producing one’s own work. But we did read a lot, in fact, and it’s not as though undergraduate Philosophy at Oxford didn’t involve regularly spending a lot of time writing, even if tute essays are something strange and staccato when compared to what we tried to write in grad school. And this is not to say that I didn’t learn and develop a great deal from many of those loud conversations, both in and out of seminar, but I think a productive campus needs more quiet, too.

We had two kinds of classes, lecture-style with both undergrad and graduate students, though in smaller groups than undergrad, and seminars with almost exclusively graduate students. Many people would take as many seminars as they were allowed to, and we all continued to join seminars once we’d completed coursework. But a few of us, including me, joined as many lectures as we could, even after completing coursework. I just love listening to masters of their domains of study. This was distinctly uncool – you’ve got to practice producing in order to become a philosopher yourself, would go the thought. But it’s not as if I didn’t produce too. And you can’t be disdainful of continuing to pump good philosophy into your head. Perhaps my attraction to the lecture classes was because it was somewhat closer to the deep reading with which I was familiar, that proved elusive on my American campus. You have to do the hard work to make philosophical progress, but you can’t engage with philosophy only by doing what feels like hard graft if you want to succeed, I think. You have to engage with it in other ways too, like just by listening.

A quality about the Americans I knew well which struck me early was their generosity with time, friendliness and just materially. I mean to include here peers who were my friends, as well as people who were part of my life for extended periods, but with whom I didn’t have enough in common for friendship. When I first arrived in Tucson I lived in a house in the Sam Hughes neighbourhood, owned by the parents of one of my two roommates, Nick. He was from Phoenix, and was taking a second undergraduate degree after deciding that he didn’t really want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, but wanted to be a programmer. Nick and I would drive to the supermarket together every Saturday in his big Ford truck, and we developed a habit of listening to The Eagle’s Take It Easy on the ride back. I never signed a lease for living in that place. At one point I was short of American money after spending a lot on a summer trip, and I asked whether I could pay my rent erratically for a while, as my stipend came in over the following academic year, rather than transferring savings from the UK. It was no problem to do this. One Spring Break and one Thanksgiving, I joined Nick in driving up to Paradise Valley, Phoenix, to stay with his family. His mother had sat in the state House of Representatives as a Republican, and had two very yappy chihuahuas, traumatised as they had been by a previous owner. At one point they had to stay with us down in Tucson for a few days. One of them refused to walk on the tile floor, and we had to create a bridge of doormats between the carpeted room in which it was sleeping and the front door.

Nick introduced me to the American love for pulp cinema, which we don’t really have in the UK. Once Nick graduated and I developed closer friendships in my department, I watched a lot more such films with philosophers.

After living with Nick I lived alone, for nine months, in a small terraced bungalow, for barely any rent. The people around me were mostly economically deprived retirees, and some young people working jobs like driving some kind of tractor around on the extended grounds of the airport, on his own, far away from the planes. At one point a different corporation took over management of the properties, and they tried to make us pay an additional fee for the laundry room that had until then been included. They did this by installing a lock, and telling us we had to come down to the office to pay the new fee and receive a key. My neighbour Wilma and I took the bus down to the office and objected, and eventually got keys for free. Now that I think about it, I don’t know whether other existing tenants ended up paying for it. I improved my understanding of how the economically deprived, even in the West, can get casually abused by businesses, from this.

Wilma would sit behind her screen door in the evening, without the lights on, and a disembodied greeting would float out to me, among the crying cicadas, as I biked up to my own place. I had a nine month lease and I left that place right after because I was fed up with the insects infesting the place. But at the same time, living there was when I figured out how to be happy with my life in Tucson, and I maintained that happiness from then until the pandemic, when everything got hard for most everyone. Wilma was generous like Nick.

Before I said goodbye to Nick and moved in next door to Wilma, I tried to live a life involving the kind of variety that my life in Korea had had, before I went to Tucson. I was continually frustrated in this, because it was too distant from the lives that the people around me led for me to be able to figure out how to do it there, and more mundanely, because of how car-centric Tucson is. When I moved into my place on my own I somehow decided that I would try focusing entirely on my university work, and I also expanded that work a bit by registered for a seminar in Japanese literature up at the East Asian Studies department. My future PhD thesis supervisor Julia joined me for that seminar and one more the next semester, and I was able to draw upon some novels we read for my thesis.

I didn’t have Internet access at my little place, and we had finally got some designated-silent shared offices for grad students, in addition to the noisy ones where people held office hours, and talked loudly about philosophy. Suddenly my life got a lot more focused and quieter. I would get up and scramble an egg with some cheese and black pepper, and have it in a pitta bread-like thing which I sliced, froze, and defrosted in the toaster. I’d head to campus, early, and write. I’d do my classes and reading. Then I’d go swim in the big outside pool the university had, in the dark. I’d do one or two lengths at a time and then hold onto the edge and just think hard. I especially did this after my literature classes. They ran until 6pm, I think, and then I’d go to the pool, and do my lengths interspersed with thinking hard about the literature we’d discussed. Then after a long time out I’d go home late, and listen to pre-downloaded tabletop roleplaying podcasts. I slept the best I ever have, in the quiet among the noises of insects – it really was quieter despite all that noise – on this wonderful Japanese floor bed I’d found on Amazon. What I discovered during that time was the power of a simple life, I think. Or perhaps it was more about not trying to live a more complex life than the place you live allows. Or perhaps it wasn’t anything more than about the benefits of giving up fighting against a prevalent culture of workaholism – but at least, it was giving in to that situation in a way which strongly benefitted me. Going with the flow, or something.

I tried to build upon my new focus with the next phase of time in Tucson. I moved into the university’s grad student dorms, living right next to campus, in the middle of a commercial district for students that felt like one had left Tucson and gone somewhere more contemporary. This was a change I appreciated a lot, having, as I said, grown tired with all the bugs. At this time I got to know my now-fiancée Ke. I had finished with class credits but sat in on so many classes and reading groups, while still continuing to write a lot, that my work life didn’t change too much. While most people would start teaching their own classes at this point, I asked if I could continue to be assigned teaching assistant roles instead; I started teaching on my own only during the pandemic. My social life, aside from time with Ke and her roommate, mostly involved cycling East for forty minutes or so, to a house in which three fellow philosophers lived. I loved those evening rides there and nighttime rides back. Tucson is a dark city for the astronomy, and it’s also flat and bike-friendly, so for most of that journey I was on a route where various things had been set up to discourage cars from staying on the same roads as cyclists. The friends I had who lived in that house, Brandon, Tyler and Nathan, and later Nathan’s partner Meg and Tyler’s partner Amanda, were now the humblingly generous Americans in my life. We got two tabletop roleplaying groups going, with me and Nathan running a game each, and playing in each other’s. Later we were a pandemic pod, watching through Terrace House: Opening New Doors together.

I also significantly ramped up my involvement in Debian at around this time. Each Saturday morning I would visit a local coffee roasters, Caffe Lucè, have an excellent bagel and a couple of cups of coffee with half-and-half, and work on my packages.

I’ve described how a built for myself something of a sense of belonging studying Philosophy in Tucson. But ultimately, it did not compare in this regard to the place I was most content, which was in Balliol, my Oxford college. The Arizona grad students would go out for beer at a nice place called Time Market on some Friday nights, and while it was often a very good time, I would walk home with this heavy feeling of disappointment. I can now identify this as the lack of a sense of camraderie and belonging which I thought was essential to a productive academic environment. I can now also see that I had an intellectual kinship with Julia, Nathan, Tyler, Ke and others which was just as valuable, but it was still something had only with individuals, lacking a sense of being part of something not only bigger but also concrete, actually in the world. The pressures of professional academia in the US didn’t seem to leave us enough space to have what I remember us having had at Balliol. Not that the Balliol I inhabited still exists – it was dependent as much on the place as the people I was there with.

The advent of the pandemic, and the remainder of my time in Tucson after the pandemic, eroded this life I’d figured out. Our department eroding too was part of that – a lot of people moved away to be with their partners or families when lockdowns began, and faculty retired (and in one case tragically died), and so we lost a critical mass of intellectually energetic individuals. This hit me hard, and I did not have the emotional resources remaining, post-pandemic, to try to kick start things again, as previous versions of myself might have tried to do. I find, though, that most of my memories of life and Philosophy in Tucson are of the good times, and I find it easy, now at least, to write a post like this one.

When I think back to all the classes I took, discussions I had and essays I wrote and revised, I can see significant intellectual development. At the same time, it was as though my development in other senses was put on hold for those eight years, in a way that it had not been at Oxford and in Korea. (I even find myself wanting to say that my whole life was put on hold, but that would be hyperbolic even if it felt that way sometimes, for as I have said, I developed many important friendships.) Postgraduate Philosophy was just too consuming. I don’t know if it could have been other way, but I knew all along that it had to stop at some point; I knew that I couldn’t put all the other respects in which I wanted to grow on hold forever. Somehow, Oxford got this balance right: it managed to be just as satisfyingly intense and thrilling, without being quite all-consuming. Of course, I probably have rose-tinted glasses. It does seem, though, that European hard work manages to be more balanced, at least for what I seek to achieve, than American hard work.

During my final year, a current postdoc at Oxford happened to visit Tucson to speak at a political philosophy conference. Our quiet (to her), old-fashioned, relatively informal academic life out in the desert as grad students seemed to have a lot of advantages over hers in Oxford, despite how she had graduated from her doctorate and had obtained an academic job, and we were students. Until I met her, I had taken for granted, I think, all the ways that academic life in Tucson was quite like Balliol undergrad had been – she told me how her colleagues are all on Twitter, but none of us were, really. When I first arrived in Tucson I found it distressing how much more of an ivory tower it seemed, with Oxford being such a politically engaged place. In the end I am very glad I did a humanities PhD where I did, and am deeply grateful to America.