Today’s New APPS Interview is with Alexis Shotwell, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Laurentian University.
Thanks for doing this interview with us, Alexis. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
By disposition, my writing practice is less solitary than many philosophers. That means that I like writing in cafes and libraries, I work through ideas best by talking them out with others, and I genuinely love conferences. I do tether myself to my desk when I need to grit my way through a particular stage of the writing, but a lot of the time my best work happens in ways that don’t look like work from outside.
I make sure to grumble and groan a lot about how hard my work is!
Oh, it’s not that I don’t struggle with writing and talk about it! But I rarely have writing blocks, and I’m good at patching together small by-the-way bits of writing time. This is irritating to people like my partner – a writer but not a professional academic – who have the feeling that I pull articles from whole cloth out of the air.
How do you go about writing then?
I like to leap-frog writing along; I’ll trick myself into working on a new project by saying I’ll present on something that I haven’t totally worked through – so I’ll start with a title, then figure out what the paper is about, then write it as a presentation, and finally make it into something submittable.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
My work routine in the school year is pretty regular. I wake up not very early, do some (Buddhist) meditation practice, and then either teach or write, depending on the day. I’m a devotee of writing and teaching in low-drama ways, and so I try to build short daily work periods into my day, rather than longer binge-style sessions. I like Robert Boice’s book Advice For New Faculty Members very much on this.
How about environmental inputs?
I work best to music, and I definitely run on caffeine. On Fridays I meet a group of faculty in a local cheese shop for two or three hours for a writing group; we don’t read one another’s writing – we just meet, chat a bit, and then settle in for timed 45-minute “units” of writing, during which no one is allowed to talk, check email, read something amazing out loud, or do anything else but work on our work. Then we’re forced to take a little break and stretch before we start a new unit. Also marking or prepping classes is not allowed. Very effective!
Very cool! Group discipline as it were. How about other areas of life; do you have ways to integrate them with your philosophy?
I’m quite strict about allowing myself time to meditate, read novels, and exercise. I’m a potter, a decent bike mechanic, and politically engaged in local struggles around militarism and poverty. These things all inform my philosophical work in obvious ways (I write about some of this stuff) and probably in more subtle ways too.
How do you integrate teaching and research?
I’m still working on productive practices around this, but I’m lucky to have space in my teaching to work through issues that I’m writing about. I taught a course on “houses and homes” a couple of years ago that fed right in to a paper I was writing about gender and home; usually it’s less direct than that. But often the texts I set for classes end up showing up in my research, and the reverse.
Tell us something about your childhood, if you would.
I pretty much grew up in a café-used bookstore; my parents are former hippies, Shambhala Buddhists from California who opened a store in Boulder, Colorado, when I was six.
I don’t think you can get more hippie than that!
That was when Boulder was a white hippie enclave more than a playground for rich and beautiful white wheatgrass drinking yoga enthusiasts.
You were there before it signed with a record label!
We moved to Nova Scotia when I was fourteen as part of a big Buddhist migration to the Maritimes. At the time, I was irritated, but in the years since I’ve come to really love the Atlantic Provinces – I miss them. Growing up with the run of a bookstore and café gave me a completely unrealistic idea of how much books and good coffee cost and how readily they’d be available – though my parents still have a bookstore-café in Halifax. I was a voracious and obsessive reader as a kid; when I was really bad as a kid, my parents would ground me by not letting me read for several hours at a time.
What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I was basically not a very good student in high school – I wanted to be an artist, I was disaffected and moody, I had a radio show on the campus station, that kind of thing. Really I had no plans about anything, and more or less on a whim applied to both art school – the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a great institution that’s been under attack over this last year – and King’s College, which is a small institution semi-affiliated with Dalhousie. They have a journalism program and also what they call the First Year Program, FYP. In Canada, you apply to university after your first term of grade 12, and you’re accepted based on those marks. My second term marks were terrible, and so when it came time to choose what I was actually going to do, it seemed more sensible to stick with the academic school that had accepted me already - since they’d never make that mistake again!
Going to FYP really changed my life. It’s mostly a great books program, starting with Gilgamesh and running through the present.
I think “Enkidu” would be a great name for a band. It might be already, for all I know.
It could be a post-metal twelve piece with lyrics composed entirely of philosophy quotes and show up on the Map of Metal! Anyhow, at FYP there were lectures in the morning to the whole class of, you know, 200 people, and then small seminars in the afternoon. So I had this lovely survey of the history of western thought, and real spaces to work on writing and talking with others. I feel grateful to the tutors and teachers in that program, because they modeled a genuine way to read and talk about ideas.
But… There’s always a “but” in these stories.
They also modeled a real failing: I’m pretty sure that the only woman we read that entire year was Simone de Beauvoir. I wasn’t an ardent feminist yet, but even so I could tell that there was something a little off about that.
Part of the predictable life cycle of people raised in Halifax is to move to Montreal, if at all possible.
Sounds like one of those Nature Channel shows!
From a larval form by the sea to pupating with good beer! So for my second year of undergrad I went to McGill, and there I really fell in love with philosophy.
Why’s that? What turned you on?
My first term I took a feminist philosophy class with the magnificent Marguerite Deslauriers – the concerns and questions she brought to that class continue to animate much of what interests me: what habituation has to do with subjectivity, how to think about the fact that we’re constituted within and in relation to systemic oppression, and yet we have capacities for resistance, what pleasure means. Her Aristotle class was really significant for me.
Charles Taylor had transferred into the Philosophy department my first year there, and I was lucky to study with him, as well – my last class of my undergrad was with him, on Wittgenstein. I remember the last class of that course – so, my last class of undergrad – we were all feeling a little momentous. And Taylor ruffled up his eyebrows in this way he had and said, “Well, that’s how it ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
A number of people in my undergrad cohort of the McGill philosophy world are well on their way to being successful professional philosophers – Serena Parekh McGushin, Antonia Lolordo, Marc Djaballah.
What happened next?
I moved back to Halifax for a job in an archive, not intending to continue school – I took two years off before getting so itchy and cranky that my partner at the time convinced me that life would be better if I enrolled in an MA program.
For both of you I take it!
Indeed! At that time there was a Women’s Studies MA that was run between three different universities in Halifax – so I enrolled at Dalhousie. The main gift of the MA was working with Sue Campbell, a brilliant and generative philosopher of relationality, memory, and selfhood. I did a thesis with her on heterodox political knowledge. Sue remained a beloved mentor and friend to me from then on; alongside and with her gorgeous thinking, she modeled a mode of reading and thinking that I think is very rare and precious in Philosophy as a discipline. She approached texts and conversation from a fundamentally collaborative position but with absolutely no room for bullshit or intellectual cowardice. Sue died last February, young and in the middle of exciting projects, some of which will come out posthumously.
I’m so sorry to hear that. The best tribute of course is to continue working in that spirit she modeled.
I think about that a lot – the responsibilities we have toward the people who we’ve worked with. Somewhere Spivak says that she’s no one’s mother but many people’s teacher – Sue is that, too. After the MA, I continued my course of dubious professional decision-making by enrolling in the History of Consciousness program, at UC Santa Cruz.
If I’d thought at the time that I’d want to try to get a job in a Philosophy department, I probably would have instead gone into a disciplinary program – but I was seduced by the kinds of things that people in HistCon were doing, and in the end I don't regret going there at all.
Regrets are not allowed in New APPS interviews!
I love that. The person I went there to work with ended up leaving after my first year to take a job in the UK, and so I worked with James Clifford – an anthropologist – Angela Davis, Donna Haraway, and David Hoy. That committee was – I have only superlatives – precious?
I don’t know what to say about it, but I would be a different person without the ways they called me to shape myself.
That’s a good way to put it: “called me to shape myself.”
I’m fascinated how what are at some level biographical accidents end up becoming our fundamental being. Altogether, HistCon was a really incredible place to do doctoral work. Sometimes I think it’s spoiled me for normal academic life, where it’s not necessarily as easy to find a brilliant and generous academic community.
No, it’s not.
There had been lots of conflict several years before my time there, and just recently many of the significant figures in the program have retired, but for the years I was there I had a wonderful intellectual community. In part I think this was because the faculty members were each field-changing figures in their own areas – they brought a kind of intellectual humbleness and curiosity to one another’s work. A disposition I’ve seen in people trained by HistCon is to assume that things are complex and that they are interesting – a certain kind of openness and a synthetic willingness to draw from unexpected sources in order to be adequate to a conceptual problem, if that makes sense. I imprinted on that style of interdisciplinary thought, and I doubt I’ll ever shake it.
It doesn’t sound like you should.
I was also getting a “parenthetical notation” in Philosophy, which is something that HistCon set up when it became clear that although people could do wonderful dissertations on interdisciplinary topics, when it came time to get jobs there would need to be a little more institutional certification that we’d be able to teach in disciplinary contexts. So I took a lot of courses in the Philosophy department, and most of my grad student teaching was for them. That meant that I got to study with Alva Noë, before he moved to Berkeley, and do lots of work with David Hoy and Jocelyn Hoy.
How did these courses affect you?
I got practice with translating ideas across disciplinary boundaries, and I continue to appreciate that. Alva’s class in the philosophy of perception was formative for me, and Jocelyn introduced me to Gadamer. David was just finishing his book Critical Resistance in my second year, and he taught it as a grad seminar – I loved being able to read his work in process alongside the philosophers he was engaging, and I think that modeling the grittiness of writing a book was very generous of him and important for us.
Tell us about your work at Laurentian. That was the next step for you, yes?
I came to my current job at Laurentian University right out of grad school. They were just setting up an interdisciplinary PhD program, and they wanted someone who could be what Donna Haraway called, when I told her about it, a utility infielder. So my tenure home is in the Philosophy department, but I teach cultural studies classes in the English Department, and every year I teach one or two classes in grad programs – especially in these interdisciplinary MA and PhD programs we have here. This is very rich and interesting, and also sometimes – especially it was at the beginning – an institutional strain.
I fell prey to something that happens to a lot of younger women academics especially; at the start of my second year I counted and figured out that I was on nine different committees!
“We need to have a woman on this committee!”
I’ve tried to dial it back, but I do have this sense that if you have particular opinions on things, it’s important to also step up to do the work you think needs to happen. So I’m chairing a new committee that we’ve called, in institution-speak, the “Committee on Sexual and Gender Diversity,” but which everyone calls the Queer Committee.
What is the charge of that committee?
We’re trying to address – and get data on – how heterosexism and presumed cisgender (that it, non-trans) experience may shape life at Laurentian. We don’t actually know much about this, but I and others kept hearing stories from students that made us think that there needed to be an institutional home (not just a student social club, which there is) to address things. This is the first time the institution has started an inquiry into the experience of queer students, faculty, and staff, and it’s quite exciting. We’ve had good support from the administration.
I’m the director of a small humanities research center, through which we have research clusters and give writing workshops and things. I feel that in academe it’s important for us to cultivate more ease and pleasure in writing, so I give these workshops about how to have less pain in academic writing – and I’ve started to pull in other people to give workshops on procrastination and editing work for publication.
I procrastinate a lot; my office is never so clean as when I need to start on a paper!
I love the way that we can procrastinate productively! And it’s not that procrastination is always bad – sometimes it’s a way of pausing to work through something we don't yet have a clear path through. Sometimes I procrastinate on one piece of writing by working on another one.
What about your teaching?
My teaching load is pretty good – 2/3 – and there’s support for integrating teaching and research, even in sometimes unorthodox ways. For example, I teach Intro to Philosophy regularly. At Laurentian, it’s a full-year class, and that lets me do this thing that I love: I teach a standard history of philosophy-style first semester, just trying to give the students footing for what they’d need if they go on to the major. And then I have the students choose between three or so topic areas which I’m working in; I explain the areas and why I think they raise interesting questions, and then we decide as a class what to do.
This is in the second semester follow up? So it’s the same group of students?
Yeah, it’s the same group for the whole year. What I like about this is that right away they’re thinking about what they’d like to think about, they’re trying to show one another what’s interesting about a particular area – they’re doing philosophical work together from the first weeks of the first term. Then for the second semester I put together a reader based on what we decide. So this term I’m teaching a grouping on “subjectivity, freedom, and embodiment” (the other options were “work” and “food”) – starting with Nietzsche and going through some recent stuff ranging from Iris Marion Young to Shaun Gallagher. It’s really fun.
Sounds like it. Will you put the syllabus online?
For sure – it’s linked on my teaching page.
What are the Laurentian students like?
My students are mostly the first people in their families to go to university, and a good number of them come from the North – farther north than Sudbury. Sudbury itself is a city built on a nickel mine; in my old apartment you’d hear and feel the blasts every day. It’s also a bilingual city, about 35% Franco-Ontarian, and Laurentian is a bilingual school. We also have a bigger proportion of aboriginal students than most schools in Canada – something like 10% of English-speaking and 13% of French-speaking students are Native.
This is a standard question in all the interviews: how do you negotiate the tension in the relation of “continental” and “analytic” philosophy?
I agree with a lot of the folks on this blog who see the analytic/continental divide as largely fictional. However, as we know from thinking about how social relations like racialization are fictions, imagined divisions can have profound practical effects!
Yes. There are all sorts of Ian Hackingesque “looping effects” here.
My experience of the battle lines around this has manifested more in terms of disciplinarity – things that I do tend to show up as simply not being “philosophy” rather than being seen as not analytic or continental enough.
I often wonder if my own work is philosophy any more.
It’s a thing, eh? I think philosophy is prone to a shedding process – things begin within the bounds of the discipline and hive off. Often work on race is seen as “sociological,” not philosophical, for example. On the broader question, though, I think that as a discipline, I think we could take a more pedagogical orientation toward things that we’re offering to one another – we might need to teach our interests a bit more than we do, understanding that people who don’t share our archive won’t share our presuppositions.
Yes, we need to be aware of the time-cost in becoming familiar with terms, concepts, methods, etc.
And then in listening to one another, maybe we need to be more able to occupy the vulnerable position of being good learners, learners who don’t understand things but are interested in stretching ourselves.
What are your thoughts on the way philosophy is institutionalized today?
I think that we have a lot of work to do. I know so many really amazing people who simply can’t get jobs in the profession, or who’ve had horrible experiences and left for other departments – or for work outside of academia altogether. I’m heartened by the work that people are doing to try to make things in the discipline more livable for people who experience multiple forms of oppression. But because we’re working within a pre-set system, and in response to capitalism’s imperatives, from within Philosophy we’re pretty much not going to start the revolution for a world beyond sexism, ablism, racism, heterocentrism, and, as Butler puts it, the “embarrassed ‘etc.’”
Yes, the “isms” stretch out to the crack of doom.
But don’t get me wrong – I’m on the CPA’s Equity Committee and the APA’s LGBT committee, and I’m invested in non-institutional work for transforming the discipline, because I believe in what the Black Panthers called “survival pending revolution” – not to trivialize that idea!
Not at all.
Ideally, we can aspire for more people who are not now able to stay in the discipline of philosophy, but who want to, to have that option – more queers, people with disabilities, people of color, trans people. And the discipline can also become more livable for my straight white guy colleagues, too; I think all this comes along together.
Yes, and not just more livable, if you’ll let me put it that way. I think we have to concentrate on how a more inclusive profession is not simply more just in social terms – as if that’s not enough! – but also better in strictly professional terms. We would all be better philosophers if we were able to think and act in inclusive terms.
Yes! It’s a fundamental point in disability work: when you set up physical spaces using principles like Universal Design, which allow for many different kinds of bodies and kinds of mobility, everyone can use those spaces better – the curb cut that people can wheel up is also excellent for bodies that walk, for example. When I apply these principles to my classroom, I notice right away that showing the subtitled video rather than the one without subtitles lets my low-hearing student follow better, and it also helps my students whose first language is French understand, and my slightly skittery ADHD students focus. Holistic practices which take seriously the fact that social relations overlap are sometimes seen as constraining or uptight or something.
But if we really start tapping into holding disability, sexuality, racialization, age (and more!) in mind, I think it’s tremendously productive and, actually, exciting. Consider really basic things, like addressing well-documented tendencies we teachers have to mark women and people of color more harshly than we do white men. It’s very easy to have people put their student number rather than their name on at least some of our assignments; assuming that it’s true that our prejudice causes some people to not do as well in philosophy, and to think that therefore they’re not good at philosophy – what might shifting those grading practices do to the future of the discipline?
I tend to think about this in terms of practices in the classroom, but the basic sense holds for what we hold in mind when we’re doing our own writing, when we set up conferences, when we assess theory. I’ve never yet seen someone trying to hold complexity in view produce worse philosophy because of that attempt – quite the reverse!
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. What are you up to now?
I’m still so much at the beginning of my career. My book Knowing Otherwise just came out last year, and it’s very interesting to have people starting to take it up, disagree with it, move it around. On one level, when I finished that I felt like, Right! Onward! – but then I find myself circling back over and over again to ideas that I started thinking about in that context. Sometimes I have the idea that I’m thinking about something I’ve never thought before, and then realize that I’ve totally been trying to write about that thing for years.
Right now I’m working on a couple of projects on health, broadly, especially how state policy shapes individual subjectivities and lives in the making of disease and identity categories. I’m also writing about the ethical questions raised by bodily entanglements – these for me come up in thinking about our bodies as way-stations in food and waste systems, our bodies as material sites for really complex relations that refract stuff like the meltdown at Fukashima, labor and pesticide practices in food production, urban geographies and waste treatment plants. I’m excited about these, in part because they’re very big, moving theoretical objects.
Indeed, and I’ll be looking forward to reading these! Thanks very much, Alexis, for sharing this time with us.