024 – How Commerce Became a Tool For Getting Outside My Head

At the beginning of a new year it’s customary to reflect on events of the past year in order to set new goals and chart a course for the future. This is the first in a three-part series where I discuss the lessons I’ve learned in 2017.

In this episode I talk about the surprising role that commerce has played in raising the relevance and impact of my work as a critical thinking educator, and other positive highlights of 2017.

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 024.

Hello everyone. Happy New Year, welcome to 2018, and welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.

At the end of a year it’s customary to reflect on events of the past year, and think about what lessons you can learn that can help you set new goals or new priorities, chart a course for the future.

I’ve been working on my own 2017 Year in Review since before Christmas. It was a really valuable exercise for me, and it ended up becoming a very long blog post.

I originally thought I would record a version of it as a single podcast episode, but I’ve decided instead to break up the discussion and spread it across two or three shorter episodes. The topics that I want to talk about are distinct enough that I think it’ll work better this way, with each episode focused more or less on one specific topic.

I don’t expect everyone to care equally about all of this, but I know there are enough people who are interested in how I’m doing financially, and what it’s like to try to make a living as an independent educator, that I think some of these details are worth sharing.

And if you’re interested in the status of the Argument Ninja Academy project, these details are important because I can’t really explain what’s going on with that project without referring to them.

Here’s the breakdown for the next three episodes, which will come out pretty close together.

In this episode, episode 024, I’m going to talk about the best parts of 2017, why I think of 2017 as a transformative year for me. I really feel like I found my voice as a critical thinking educator this year. And I found an ambitious project, the Argument Ninja Academy project, and a team that is helping to make it a reality, to whom I am very grateful. Thank you John Lenker and Julie Dirksen for volunteering your time and support and pushing me to develop the foundations of the Argument Ninja Academy. These really are the highlights of my year.

And it may be surprising to learn that I credit much of these developments to the power of commerce.

When you come from academia — especially the humanities — anything to do with commerce or money is viewed with a certain suspicion, because it’s seen as a corrupting influence on the pursuit of knowledge.

I want to explain why, in my case at least, the exact opposite is true. I firmly believe that bringing commerce into the picture has made my work more relevant, and that I’m a better philosopher and educator because of it.

That’s this episode. Next episode, episode 025, I’m going to give a detailed overview of how my business has worked over the past couple of years, how I earn money working from home. And I’m going to talk about the financial challenges I faced in 2017, which are significant.

I’ll give you a teaser for that episode, a little spoiler. In 2016, not his past year, but the year before, my total business income was only $25,000. Not very much. In 2017, this past year, my total business income was just over $60,000. Not bad, right? That’s a good trajectory. But in 2017, I was also hit with a huge tax bill, for income earned in 2016. It turns out that I owe $26,000 in taxes to the Canadian government. For a year where my business income was only $25,000. And I was audited by three separate agencies: the Canadian federal government, the US federal government, and the State of Iowa, where I used to live. So … what the hell happened? You’ll have to tune in to episode 025 to find out.

In episode 26 I’m going to share my analysis of what’s working and what’s not in my business, and what strategic changes I need to make in 2018 to correct some of the problems and make better use of the tons of content that already have. I’m working with my partner John Lenker on this, and I’m really excited by these changes, I think they’re a long time coming.


Let’s talk about commerce and critical thinking, two things you wouldn’t think have much to do with each other. But it turns out that the realities of having to make a living online have had a profound influence on how I approach critical thinking and critical thinking education.

I’ve come to realize that the way I thought about these questions while I was a working academic, was heavily influenced by my socialization within academia and working within a university environment.

In academia there’s a culture of learning and teaching that you’re introduced to at an early stage, with your experience of being a student. And it extends through graduate school and into your career as an academic researcher and classroom teacher, where you eventually end up teaching the very same classes that you took as a student.

A key element of this culture of learning and teaching is the fact that, as a student, for most of your classes, the reason why you’re paying up to a thousand dollars to take this economics or psychology class isn’t because you’re so interested in learning the content in this course that you’re willing to pay a thousand dollars for the opportunity.

The reason why you’re there, sitting in that seat with your notebook open, waiting for class to start, is because that’s a condition for receiving an academic credit that goes toward completion of a degree from this institution. And the reasons why you value that degree have little to do with how interesting or valuable you judge the content that is being taught in this particular class — reasons like getting a decent job when you graduate, or having the social status that comes with holding a degree.

It would be the rare student who would put up a thousand dollars to take any class if it wasn’t connected to an academic credential in some way, or in some tangible way to a professional goal they may have, like learning a computing technique that has become important in a certain industry.

But if the class is your typical philosophy 101, or introduction to Shakespeare class, only a very rich and highly motivated clientele would pay a thousand dollars just for the educational experience of being in that class.

Now, think about what this situation looks like from the instructor’s point of view.

You, the instructor, love philosophy. You love Shakespeare. You love it so much that you’ve dedicated most of your adult life to studying it. You’ve read dozens of books, hundreds of papers, in this field. You’ve written papers yourself. Part of your identity is embedded in this academic tradition. You’ve become a participant in a dialogue of ideas that might stretch back hundreds or in some cases thousands of years. And you’re part of an academic community today that shares this common ground with you, that speaks this language, that cares about these questions just as much as you do.

And now you have the chance to stand in front of a classroom full of students and share a tiny bit of your experience, give them a glimpse of the world that you see. You know, of course, that only a small fraction of your students will share your enthusiasm, but that one in fifty or one in a hundred students that you really touch, that you really inspire … that can make all the rest of it feel worthwhile.

When I was a university philosophy professor, especially in the early years, this is really what it felt like. The value of what I was teaching was absolutely clear to me, because it lived inside me. It still does. It feels like you’re the custodian of an ancient lore that is precious, that touches the spirit, that speaks to the highest ideals of humanity.

Now, as members of the university community we had to learn to speak the language of pragmatic value, to be able to say what economic and social benefits this instruction has, how it contributes to the broader mission of the university, and how it provides value for the taxpayers of the state, or the private donors, who pay our salaries.

But we didn’t need to speak this language to ourselves, to justify the value of what we were teaching. Philosophers love philosophy. Biologists love biology. Historians love history. We’re there because we find these to be intrinsically fascinating and worthwhile subjects to learn.

Now let’s bring the students back into the picture.

You’re the teacher, and every term, your classroom fills up with new students. You don’t have to advertise to get them into your class. You don’t have to cold-call. You don’t have to recruit. You just have to show up and they’re there. Like magic.

You know that almost none of them are intrinsically motivated to care about this material in the way that you are. But it doesn’t matter, they show up anyway.

And they keep showing up even if you don’t do a great job. For most courses, enrollments don’t track the reputation of the teacher. The worst teachers and the best teachers face the same full classrooms. Students need credit hours to graduate. That seat is a stepping stone to their degree. That’s why they’re paying a thousand dollars to fill it.

I want you to pause and consider just how unusual and oddly privileged this situation is. In what other profession can a person command the attention of an audience on a regular basis without having to think about the value proposition from the perspective of the audience?

If you’re acting in a stage company or you’re a musician in band, you don’t expect the theater seats to just fill on their own. You don’t expect to play to a packed theater night after night, regardless of how much the audience enjoys the performance.

Being a teacher in a formal educational environment, where you’re teaching courses that fill up in this way, is like being a stage actor where your audience is compelled to return to your show every night for months, regardless of how great or uninspired your performance is, and regardless of how entertained or bored the audience is.

From the standpoint of creating value for the audience, this is a problematic situation to say the least. The actors really only have to care about creating value as they understand it, from their perspective, because they’re not accountable to the experience of the audience. There’s a disconnect between what matters to the actors on stage and what matters to the audience.

There are various ways that teachers can rationalize an arrangement like this. We can tell themselves that we’re the experts on what’s important and valuable in philosophy or literature. It’s not our job to entertain students. It’s our job to present this value as we understand it, and as it’s understood within the academic discipline that we represent. It’s the students’ job to make a reasonable effort to understand what we’re trying to communicate. If they don’t appreciate it, if they don’t care about it the way we do, that’s unfortunate, but it’s not our problem to solve. It takes two to tango. Students have to come willing and prepared to learn.

This makes some sense of course. It’s part of the student-teacher relationship, where the teacher is acknowledged to be an “expert”; it’s part what it means to learn from someone who knows more than you.

However, when there’s a systematic disconnect between what matters to the teacher and what matters to the student, there’s a risk that comes with this kind of rationalization: you can use it justify teaching just about anything.

Imagine Taylor Swift walking on stage and announcing that she’s going to share a new piece of music. And then she starts atonally plucking away at the guitar while making animal noises. The audience starts to complain and she stops and says look, trust me, this is the latest thing. I’m the expert here. Your job is to sit back and make an effort to understand what I’m doing.

And you know there’ll be a few in the audience who are like, “You’re right Taylor Swift. This might sound like garbage to my ears, but that’s my issue that I need to work on. I’ll get it eventually”.

This is an absurd scenario, of course, because we know that this attitude would be suicide for anyone whose livelihood depended on creating value for an audience. Taylor Swift is an entertainer, and she most definitely is accountable to her audience.

But what is the mechanism that makes her accountable to her audience?

The mechanism is commerce, in the form of music and ticket sales. There’s a direct exchange of value that makes it so that what Taylor Swift cares about has to connect to what her audience cares about.

I think of this feature of commercial transaction as an orienting mechanism. It orients the producer to the experience and the needs of the consumer by making them vulnerable to consumer choices. If I don’t like Taylor Swift’s music I won’t buy her music. If enough people feel the same way, she’ll need to adapt or find something else to do.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to make a case for running education like a business. Education is a public good as well as a private good, and a culturally distinctive one at that. There are good reasons for not treating it like a purely commercial industry.

But I do think the value disconnect that I’m describing here is real, and it has real effects. Whether you think this is a problem or not depends on what you think the goals of education are. For some fields it may be more of a problem than others.

As a thought experiment, just ask yourself: what if teachers had to sell admission to their classes, on a per-class or per-term basis, for their livelihood, the way that music teachers or martial arts instructors have to. What do you think would happen?

In my head I can’t help but imagine a kind of Hunger Games for teachers, with only a few standing at the end. 🙂 At the very least you’d see a lot of empty classrooms.

The value of this exercise is that it can serve to reorient the attention and the priorities of teachers in the direction of students, and more broadly the public. It forces instructors to ask questions that they may have never had to seriously ask before. Like …

  • Why would anyone want to learn biology, or history, or literature, from me, rather than someone else?
  • Why would anyone want or need to learn this material at all?
  • How can this knowledge that I have help people to solve a real problem, or achieve an important goal, or satisfy an unmet desire?
  • In other words, what is the value proposition that I’m offering for the student, or for the public?

And it if turns out that you, the teacher, would be unable to attract an audience if you had to sell tickets at the door, I think it’s worth reflecting on what this means. If it turns out that your particular academic discipline, your area of specialization, would likely go extinct if it was subjected to this kind of market filter, I think that’s worth reflecting on too.

For academics and professional educators, this is just a conversation starter, a hypothetical exercise. No one has to worry about the Hunger Games for academics any time soon.

But for me, there’s nothing hypothetical about this. This is my reality. I actually have to sell tickets at the door to survive.

When I left my tenured job to work for myself, what I was doing, fundamentally, was making myself directly vulnerable to market forces.

And markets don’t care how valuable I think my knowledge is, or how much I love what I teach. What matters is how other people value it, what the value proposition looks like from their perspective.

It can be a harsh wake-up call to discover that the world doesn’t necessary value the same things that you value, or in the way that you value them.

But this is ultimately what I love about the transition to entrepreneurship. It demanded a shift in mindset, from a focus on myself — my learning, my interests, my reputation, my career — to a focus on other people, and how I can be of service to them, how I can create value for different audiences.

This shift in mindset is what lead me to rethink what I was teaching, and the way I was teaching it.

It’s what lead me to pay more attention to the performative side of critical thinking and argumentation and persuasion, and how people learn and master new skills.

It’s what lead me to create the Argument Ninja podcast, to explore these ideas, and to take action and pursue my vision of an Argument Ninja Academy.

So when people ask me whether I resent having to worry about money and marketing and the details of running a business … I say no, on the contrary; the business is instrumental to the most fulfilling parts of what I do, because it’s what ensures that what I’m doing actually matters to other people, people who are not clones of me.


I’m going to wrap this up here. This is a shorter episode, but I think it’s long enough to make the points I wanted to make, which I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Please stay tuned for my next episode, which will really get into the details of my business and how I’m making a living online. If you want an advance peek at that, you can check out the blog post at kevindelaplante.com titled “Adventures in Entrepreneurship: 2017 Year in Review”.

Just a reminder for those listening who may be unaware, if you become a supporter of the podcast and my work on Patreon, starting as low as just $3 a month, you’ll get access to all of the video content and other resources I’ve put together over at the Critical Thinker Academy, at criticalthinkeracademy.com. Our Patreon URL is patreon.com/kevindelaplante. All these links are available at kevindelaplante.com or at argumentninja.com, and you can find show notes for this episode at either of those websites too.

Also, if you’re on Facebook, I encourage you to follow the conversation at facebook.com/criticalthinkeracademy.

Thank you for listening, have a great week, and we’ll talk to you soon.