Interview on APPS Blog

APPS Blog Interview:These questions came from John Protevi.

1.     Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy.

a.     What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you? How do you experience solitary study and writing, collaborative writing, camaraderie at conferences?

b.     What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine? How do you get yourself in the mood to do philosophy? Time of day; music; caffeine? How did you come upon these practices?

 

Philosophy is a major addiction, let’s just call it out for what it is. As an adult, I took a three year break from philosophy, after I dropped out of college, worked various jobs, and did a lot of political activism, but I found myself mulling over Heidegger’s critique of Cartesianism on my day job, and daydreaming about Pascal when I was supposed to be putting out a newsletter. Like all other addictive behaviors, philosophy is neither pleasure nor pain, but compulsion. Time never passes so quickly as when I am reading and writing philosophy.

I enjoy both solitary and collaborative work. The latter stimulates my brain, forces me to become articulate about half-formed ideas, while the former allows me to mull over ideas at my own pace.

I have never been able to have a set routine. I had children fairly young, and babies that required my attention all through graduate school. I also held down part time jobs while my partner worked 12-hour factory shifts. I never had much control over my time or my space and thus developed the ability to work whenever and wherever I could, with definite help from espresso. I confess to a certain impatience with less encumbered philosophers who still miss deadlines. The bigger obstacles than my hectic home life came from those naysayers in my own mind, looking askance at me and at my work, in my imagination. My first sabbatical was waylaid by the inner demons, just when I finally had some real time to write.  I have now finally had enough therapy to shut them up, and could really use another sabbatical!

But in truth, the best way to work for me is to have uninterrupted time for at least part of the week. Best of all is to be able to pursue such work for more than one day in a row, but, alas, such luxuries are rare. One has to learn to enjoy the juggling act, to resist the idea that at some point, all emails will be answered, all reports written up, all papers graded, and for many women, all housework complete, before one can responsibly relax and enjoy a new book on social epistemology.

 

2.     How did you come to study philosophy?

a.     Can you tell us a little about your childhood? Did you move around a lot, or mostly live in the same place? What sort of town(s) did you live in? Were you bookish, artsy, athletic as a child?

b.     What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?

c.     Undergraduate days: where did you go to university? Any memorable teachers? Do you recall any particular paper assignments? Any essays or books that made an impact (then or later)? Did you major in philosophy right away? When did you know you wanted to do philosophy as a career?

d.     Graduate school: who were your most influential teachers? Your closest friends? What was the atmosphere like: friendly, competitive, stimulating, stressful? What were the most important seminars? Any inspiring visitors/talks? What did you do for your dissertation?

 

Like most people, I did not know philosophy existed until I went to college, though I certainly engaged in philosophy, even as a young teenager. I fell in love with nineteenth century novels, a ready escape from my dull and difficult surroundings, and they were chock full of philosophical ideas and debates. I wanted to be a physicist, however. I excelled at science in high school, and found physics particularly fascinating, both because of the big machinery and the essentially metaphysical questions that were driving high energy research at the time. My family had little education and modest resources. Education was a natural form of class escape, but physics was a crazy ambition for a girl, especially one whose mother came from sharecroppers. Yet on the other hand, anything I might aim for beyond the secretarial pool was crazy, so why not?

Despite my college ambitions, I could not manage to stick it out through the social and emotional challenges of high school and dropped out my senior year.  But I quickly got my GED and managed to get to college already married and without a dime of family support. It was something of a miracle. My first philosophy course was like the gateway drug: I was hooked, and it was also becoming apparent that the world of physics was not just male dominant, but male only. There were 3 (!) female philosophy majors, so at least I was not alone. Peter Dalton, Donald Hodges, Russell Dancy, and Eugene Kaelin were my gods as teachers. I decided to major in philosophy and pursue a career, despite the anguish of my parents, who thought I was throwing away my education on a hopeless and useless endeavor. But they were not paying my way, so I was free to do what I wanted. Kaelin spent one entire course on Being and Time, another entirely on Being and Nothingness. I studied Heidegger at the same time I was reading Wittgenstein, and the connections were overwhelming.

I then, again, dropped out my senior year, frustrated and pessimistic with the academic atmosphere of arcane debate while the world was burning, but within a few years found myself unable to kick the addiction. Getting to graduate school took some patience and effort, but when I got to Brown, I felt giddy to be at a place with so much philosophical talent.

The atmosphere was friendly, collaborative, and supportive. And yet there was a difference if one was a woman. Philosophical conversations with peers quickly turned into lectures, and I was reduced to asking questions. The faculty were much more egalitarian than the students. The women students had some uncomfortable competitions as well, a common effect among those who have chosen paths in which they are generally the singular exceptions as ‘the only one…’ . I found a best friend, though, in Vrinda Dalmiya, and we made it through together, passing notes in the backs of seminars like grade school students, sharing perceptions late into the night. No lectures from her, just challenging questions and brilliant ideas.  And babysitting help!

Vrinda and I noticed that the women students coming to Brown, though a regular 20% or so of the incoming class, tended to become more quiet the longer they managed to stay. By their 3rd and 4th year, none were talking in seminars or asking questions of speakers, even if they had done so in the beginning. It was quite striking.

 We had an incredible speaker series at Brown, partly because we were easily accessible from both Boston and New York. One speaker who had a big impact on me was Quine, a personal hero. Yet when he came, I discovered him to be completely inept at answering questions in public, which assured me that one could succeed in philosophy even as an introvert, and I also discovered him to be the most thoughtless political reactionary one could imagine. His politics brought home for me, again, the disjuncture between philosophical success and true philosophical wisdom. I was never again naïve enough to believe that philosophers are likely to be smarter than cab drivers, or the general voting public.

Outside the philosophy department, I went to the many lectures Brown offered with leading continental thinkers. Having lunch with Derrida, I asked him, had he read Quine? Mais oui, he answered. I kept finding theoretical commonalities between these disparate thinkers across the analytic and continental divide that were rarely noted. But in reality, the situation between analytic and continental philosophers struck me as similar to that between north American and Latin American philosophers: continentalists, and Latin Americans, could be relied upon to have read widely in both domains, while analytic philosophers and north Americans lived serenely cloistered lives.

I was in the minority of students at Brown interested in continental as well as analytic philosophy. Again, I found the faculty broader than the students: Chisholm had a strong interest in the history of phenomenology, Nussbaum in Nietzsche and Foucault, and Schmitt’s work took in Marx to Habermas. They also let me take advantage of the wealth of critical theory at Brown in other departments, an opportunity of which I made full use. This gave me contact with a coterie of English and cultural studies students and very different conversations, even though they still were mainly reading philosophy.

Although drawn to feminist philosophy, I decided not to risk my children’s future with a dissertation in an area so marginal to the discipline. Nonetheless, my topic was risky: I decided to pursue my interest in epistemology through a comparative analysis of influential analytic and continental philosophers. No single member of my committee could speak to every thinker I was including; I had to do the bridge work myself. But the skeptical questions my committee members asked were quite helpful in forcing me to clarify and explain and to look anew at the silent assumptions each side was making.

I came out of graduate school successfully, and even in an analytic department had managed to learn a fair amount about continental and feminist philosophy, pragmatism, even the burgeoning area of LGBT thought, but my interest in Latin American philosophy went unrequited. I had done some work in it as an undergraduate with an Argentinian professor, but since that time I had found no one, not even my Cubano thesis advisor, who could support my desire to read more systematically. That interest had to be done entirely on my own time, with the help of more expert colleagues like Mario Saenz, Jorge Gracia, Ofelia Schutte, and Eduardo Mendieta, after I began my teaching career. We shared sources, discussed our interpretations, plotted to make changes in the profession that could open it up to the tradition of Latin American philosophy, and emboldened each other to insert this area into our teaching. Twenty years hence, there are more faculty, courses, translations, and more of a general visibility of the field. Though there is still a long way to go, the progress we made gives one hope.  

3.     What was your early professional life like?

a.     Where was your first job? What was the teaching load? Did you like teaching there? What were the students like? How did you integrate teaching and research?

b.     What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?

c.     What were your colleagues like? Did you feel supported? Was there a formal mentoring process? What was your tenure process like?

 

My first job was at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, with a 2-2-2 load. The students were smart and intellectually self-motivated, but the campus had a bit of a claustrophobic feel to me, since I was used to large state institutions.  There had never been a woman faculty member in the philosophy department there, and there was a history of problems in the department, of the usual sort. I heard rumors when I first arrived, but was determined to ignore them unless incontrovertible evidence came my way. I of course hoped very much they weren’t true, and that I hadn’t move my family half way across the country just to be stuck in a small department with ongoing sexual harassment issues. By Thanksgiving, the evidence came my way, and I was sick. And panicked. Several faculty outside philosophy had known about the problem and assumed hiring a women would fix it, as if a young fresh Ph.D. could be left on her own to ‘fix it.’ I was furious to have this thrown my way in my first year while trying to learn the ropes as a teacher, but I was also moved by the sad tales of students. I counseled them with the usual advice: keep records, write things down, make a report. They were terrified, wanting to stay in the profession without making enemies, and looked to me again to solve the problem. So I made a decision. I would seek another job, then blow the whistle, or at least share what information I had with the Provost. I was able to land another job, uprooting my family again in the space of a year, and spilled the beans. I left, and he left soon after, both, as it turned out, to greener pastures.

Some great first year as a faculty member.

My next job was similar only in one respect, the department had not had but one woman before, and were rather nonplussed about how to interact. But most rose to the occasion.

These extra-philosophical challenges took quite a lot of energy to address that I might have been using to publish, but I managed to keep up a steady focus on writing. The second job was at a research university with enormous advantages: a regular speaker series, time off before tenure, graduate seminars, colleagues who read and commented on my work. It became quite clear to me that a successful publishing career was the product of institutional context, not individual brilliance.

There was no formal mentoring but I was aided by an excellent pro-active chair who had us meet with members of the tenure committee our first year and provided substantial information and advice on every step of the process. Just the feeling that the department wanted me to get tenure was quite important. Yet the hurdles were rather ridiculous: the last person who got tenure had a book, an anthology and 18 major articles, and I was told he squeeked through. But that is what I had to aim for, and came close to achieving. 

I published across a spectrum of journals that my colleagues knew little about, from feminist theory to continental philosophy to cultural studies. This was a problem, but with the help of my chair we were able to provide enough information to satisfy their questions. The spectrum was turned to my advantage, to showcase the bridge work I was doing and make an argument for enlarged spheres of influence.

Yet tenure was a nerve-wracking process. I didn’t mind the very fact of being judged, as some of my fellow junior faculty friends did, but I worried about being judged by those who had insufficient understanding of the area of philosophy within which I work. I remember a senior, powerful colleague saying “I just don’t know what you are up to, Linda” as he read a syllabus for a Foucault seminar I had taped to my door.  I was the lone continentalist and often had experiences such as being asked to explain deconstruction to a table full of (white male) analytic philosophers while we ate our lunch. I developed chronic indigestion.   

 

4.     Speaking of tenure, let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things.

a.     The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict? Are there signs of a rapprochement?  What suggestions do you have to overcome this division in the profession?

b.     Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?

c.     How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement? What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?

d.     What role do you see for the APA in dealing with these and other concerns of the profession? Do you have any specific proposals you’d like to see implemented? What do you see as the proper relation between the APA and the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) in the broader struggle of the humanities and of university faculty as a whole?

 

There are many divisions in philosophy between the diversity of approaches to philosophical methodology, preferred textual traditions, and styles of argument. The divide between analytic and continental is no doubt the largest divide, yet there are numerous others, and within analytic philosophy it is not uncommon to have one sub-area hurl the epithet of “that’s not philosophy” to another. I confess to having these thoughts myself as I read some of the work in philosophy of mind these days that look to be arguments over theory choice in the discipline of psychology or the brain sciences.

We seem to be a field of inquiry that is experiencing a meta-crisis of sorts. The divergence between sub-fields within philosophy is so wide as to give one pause. But that divergence itself might not create a crisis if the field itself were not in crisis. The social context that surrounds us assuredly plays a role in heightening internal tensions, as administrations, not to mentions public legislatures, seek to make education more testable, more demonstrably ‘value-added,’ and more utilitarian. Philosophy has its back against the wall, and some would have us, a la James Franco, gnaw off a limb to survive.

The question is, would becoming ‘leaner and meaner’ as a profession help us survive? And in what sense would we be surviving?

What I have always found mystifying is the quest for hegemony. Those who really want to push out the areas they believe to be ‘non-philosophy’ are not content with peaceful coexistence. They literally would like to see many of us leave the profession. But would the existence of a single meta-philosophical paradigm be good from a philosophical point of view? Are we so absolutely sure of the boundaries of our field? Have we settled all such methodological questions decisively, beyond further debate? Of course not.

The financial crisis that has beset philosophy began before the 2008 meltdown, building more slowly through accretion as university resources shrink and full time faculty appointments are replaced by adjuncts. The presence of this underclass in our midst rattles the nerves, certainly of our graduate students. Twenty years ago I felt optimistic about the ecumenical attitudes of philosophy students, the increasing numbers who were reading Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Rawls and Habermas, and Dennett and Deleuze, and ignoring the old divisions. This wide approach made perfect philosophical sense, motivated often by a problem they were trying to solve for which a diversity of writers could be consulted.

Today I feel less optimistic. The crises in the field has bred a new conservatism. Mustn’t take risks, mustn’t rock the boat. The senior fuddy-duddies are too much in the driver’s seat, our power extended by the relative paucity of our numbers vis-à-vis the mass of philosophy teachers out there trying simply to get a job with health insurance. Experimentation and innovation are luxury goods for times of luxury, which is definitely not our time.

Adjuncts will have to unionize in this country if they are to have a prayer of avoiding a continuation of the feudal peonage now in place. I helped in a small way a successful effort toward this at one place I taught. It can be done, and tenured faculty can definitely play an important role. But we have to get out of our offices, and our classrooms, and go to meetings and find out the facts and become politically involved. We should be called out if we don’t do so.

The APA has a critical role to play, and those who think it is becoming a tired and increasingly useless organization need to pay heed. Many have looked to the APA only as a job listing site, and have paid their dues only when they absolutely had to in order to receive the JFP. Now, there are competing independent job listings, providing a means to avoid paying those dues. Yet these independent sites will not be working with the AAUP to censure departments with bad labor practices, and will not have the credibility or the clout to influence universities to save departments, as the APA was able to do recently in Nevada. The APA needs significant retooling and restructuring to bring it into the 21st century and to provide more resources for members, but it is the only organ that will be politically accountable and potentially democratic.

5.     Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now?

a.     Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?

b.     What would you say is the most rewarding experience of your professional life? What was the most frustrating?

c.     In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?

d.     How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?

e.     What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?

 

I change my mind all the time. As our political candidates are routinely chastised for their ‘inconsistency,’ I often think about how many philosophers I know who remark about how their metaphysical commitments differ from weekdays to weekends. If one were to stop reading and stop thinking, one could maintain consistency. Why would that be a positive outcome?

Yet I do have core orientations that have stayed with me, as one generally finds in the philosophical world. I am a realist, though how I understand the meaning of this has varied and, hopefully, deepened. I am a materialist, but constantly find new challenges to materialism as well as new applications. I am an unrepentant revolutionary, even while I am constantly questioning what kind of revolution we need. It feels to me that Nietzsche was quite perceptive about the autobiographical nature of philosophical writing. We are all in the business of articulating our ownmost experience of the world, given the idiosyncratic particularity of our individual hermeneutic horizon.

Teaching is the most rewarding experience. The daily grind, with moments of unexpected insight and breakthrough, is without doubt the greatest reward. I have had more fun, and thrill, in intellectual collaborations with peers on shared interests, but it is the dialogic encounter in the classroom with students who are likely to take only one class that gives one a sense of possibility.

My greatest frustrations are probably common to many: that theses I believe I have soundly trounced in publication continue to be trotted out and even influential. Somedays I feel quite powerless to stem the tide of transcendental idealism and the turn away from the body that has taken over too much of feminist theory, or to counteract the apolitical self-understanding persistent in epistemology, or the scientism sweeping our profession. One just has to keep at it, without letting one’s frustrations coagulate into a dogmatism that refuses to read or consider the new ideas. There is already too much dogmatism.

My current projects include multiple books that will hopefully be soon finished, on the future of whiteness, on the ways we need to rethink rape, and on the relation of politics to epistemology. I am planning a Presidential Address to the Eastern this year that takes up the analytic-continental debate, again, but hopefully to a different stage.