Today’s New APPS interview is with Kelly Oliver, W Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University
Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Kelly. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures of philosophy for you?
I love reading difficult philosophical texts because I feel like a detective following clues. I am especially drawn to philosophy that takes up big questions about the meaning of life, particularly as they relate to social issues.
But it can’t be all positive.
With teaching, research, service to the University and the profession, conferences, and various other professional responsibilities, including reading manuscripts and writing letters of recommendation for students and for tenure dossiers, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do. Sometimes, I think that my job gets in the way of my work—that is to say, my writing, which is what keeps me going. When I discovered writing, it changed my life.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I usually try to work first thing in the morning. I find that if I do other things—errands, exercise, or too many chores—that I don’t get to work. If I work for a couple of hours every morning, then I accomplish a lot. I schedule my teaching for the afternoons; and try to protect my work time in the mornings.
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?
All of my work is related to things that surround me everyday or to social issues that surround us. My work is usually pretty interdisciplinary. I draw on stuff outside of philosophy, including popular culture, film, law, medicine, media, politics, among other areas.
How do you integrate teaching and research?
I try to teach things related to my research when I can. But, often I can’t. I have found that my research follows my teaching, wherever it goes, rather than the other way around. So, I end up working on whatever I am teaching.
How did you come to study philosophy?
I grew up in the Northwest, in Montana, Idaho and Washington. My maternal grandfather was a forest ranger and my paternal grandfather and father were loggers. Already I was faced with conflicting values—save the trees, cut the trees.
Excellent! I wonder if the ability to sustain, to live with and deepen, that sort of conflict isn’t a prerequisite for philosophy?
Although he didn’t even finish grade school, my paternal grandfather was a homegrown philosopher. Even when I was a child, he talked to me like an adult about the meaning of life. As I refilled his whiskey, he told me, “the answer is not in the bottom of a glass” –another example of conflicting values!
Every bartender knows that! What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I had a biology teacher who was taking philosophy night courses. I used to put what I knew were the “wrong” answers on his tests just so that I could argue with him. He told me about his philosophy classes in which they asked questions like “is this chair real,” and I was intrigued. He had me pegged as a philosopher.
Who doesn’t love that sort of thing? If you can’t get into counter-intuitive stuff like that, what good is philosophy?
At the same time, the high school guidance counselor was telling me to follow my passion when I got to college. But, given that I liked school but wasn’t particularly passionate about any of the subjects, I figured that what I liked about school was thinking and this must be what philosophy was about. So already I was a fledgling philosopher, even though I had never taken a philosophy class and didn’t really know what it was.
Yeah, “argument” has a great double sense doesn’t it? Laying out premises, inferences, and conclusion, but also arguing with an opponent, even if that opponent is your common sense intuitions!
In fact, when I was in Junior High School I was one of the honors students recruited for the new debate team. Debate was an important part of my life throughout high school and college. And it has served me well as a professional philosopher.
Tell us a little about your undergraduate days.
Coming from a working class background, my parents were concerned that I would go to college and take up a career where I could be financially independent. They wanted me to major in accounting, then go to law school to study tax law. I entered Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington declaring myself an accounting and philosophy double-major, even though I had never studied either. I was probably the only accounting-philosophy double major in my class! I hated my first accounting class—it was so boring I couldn’t stand it. But I loved philosophy from the start. And I had some great teachers, most of them Jesuits.
So like so many of us, you got hooked on philosophy as an undergrad, although you had some exposure to it in high school. What about graduate school?
I was one of the only women in the program at Northwestern University. And even in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was in graduate school, it was rough for women. The other students were great. But I have some hair-raising stories from those days. The sexism that I experienced in graduate school turned me into a feminist.
What was your early professional life like?
My first jobs were heavy teaching jobs. And I moved from job to job, always making my career my top priority, sacrificing many close relationships along the way. I got tenure at The University of Texas at Austin in spite of the fact that Continental Feminism was not popular there.
But you succeeded nonetheless.
Well, by the time I came up for tenure I had the publication record of some Full Professors.
How did you establish the practices that led to that productivity?
I used all of my holidays to write and didn’t take vacations. Now that I am established, I am trying to balance working with vacations. The problem is, once you spend decades working all the time, it is a difficult habit to break!
Yes, the double-edged sword of habit: it makes it easier to do what you do, but by that same token, harder to change what you do! I assume you haven’t completely broken the writing habit – not that you want to! What’s next in line then for your projects?
At this point, I have two books in production, one on images of pregnancy in Hollywood film and another on Derrida and technology. My recent Stone post at The New York Times on “Pet Lovers, Pathologized” may turn into another book on animals, a more accessible and popular companion to my Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (Columbia, 2009). Otherwise, hopefully, I will continue to write books on Continental ethics most broadly and on film and popular culture. My work always engages philosophy as it relates to contemporary social and political issues. And, if I can remember how to play, I may give that a try after so many years of hard work.
Thanks, Kelly, for this look into your life and work!