In this interview, Janice Dowell, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University, talks about playing in the mud as a kid, finding an escape from the world in books, what she learned about people working as a janitor at a Princeton ‘eating club’, growing up during the paranoia and fear of the Cold War, visiting and exploring the Soviet Union, majoring in international relations, realizing it was bull, being involved in protests at John Hopkins in the 80’s, the violent response, dabbling in law and public service in Baltimore, returning to philosophy, dealing with sexual harassment and assault in grad school, how the professional blogs can approach these issues in a constructive, rather than harmful, way, how she learned to work on her own and how this skill was useful later on, meeting her husband, David Sobel, finishing her dissertation and realizing she was no longer interested in the topic, what it’s like to be married to another philosopher, winning the Marc Sanders prize, her dog, The Wire, and her last meal.
Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Any siblings?
I grew up in Princeton, NJ. I'm a faculty brat--both my stepfather and father were professors (physics and engineering, respectively). My mom started her career as a nurse, pretty common for her generation. Eventually, she went back to school and became a psychiatric nurse. I have a brother and a sister that I grew up with and also a stepsister and stepbrother.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
Fun!? In 'the early years', I played in the mud a lot with my best friend, Marion Peebles, and read A LOT. Eventually, I gave up the mud.
Favorite books from back then?
There was a lot of yelling in my childhood, so I used books as an escape. A lot of what I read didn't really stick with me. But A Wrinkle in Time made a big impression. Besides reading, I always had some type of job, starting in middle school. The most memorable one was as a janitor for one of the Princeton eating clubs. That was an eye-opening experience.
I didn’t know an ‘eating club’ was a thing! Was the janitor job your idea?
That's a good question, now that you ask. I don't know how I got the idea I was supposed to have a job. Work was certainly valued in my family--maybe because my parents all came from blue collar families? Not sure. The funny thing is that at a certain point, I realized that I didn't really need the money--my parents’ divorce agreement insured that my father would pay for my college education. So, I ended up giving my wages from janitoring to charity.
Do you remember which charity?
It was a scholarship fund for a university in New Jersey that specialized in taking students whose schools had not prepared them for college and getting them to a degree. I actually can’t remember the name of the school now. My church gave to it, so I figured they’d vetted it.
What did the janitor job teach you?
The janitor job made me realize that there is an apparently very human tendency to treat people in accordance with their perceived "station in life". Apparently a lot of Princeton undergrads never learned that folks who work as janitors are persons who shouldn't be treated as underlings. There were some cool kids, but mostly, I was treated like my function in life was to clean up the vomit they'd deposited on the wall last weekend. Once you notice this phenomenon, you can't help but see it everywhere, really. (PS: Fuck you, Elm Club!)
haha…but it wasn’t all bad, right?
The flip side of this is the positive influence of my stepdad, Dave Wilkinson. He was very good at taking the time to appreciate any job well done—the sort of person who would stop to watch construction crews and would always leave a tip and a note of appreciation for the cleaning crew whenever he stayed at a hotel. He taught me how to better notice and appreciate people doing good.
No fun in high school, then?
It was the 80's--I worried a lot about nuclear weapons. I managed to find ways to take two trips to the Soviet Union while still in high school--this served to further underscore the extent to which American perceptions of that country were based largely on paranoia. The idea that the world could be destroyed because [Stupidity] seemed very real and terrifying, frankly. So, I was as unfun in high school as I was in middle school.
What did you do when you were in the Soviet Union?
I went on two trips, both peace exchanges run through the Citizens Exchange Council. I went with groups touring the country, visiting Moscow, Leningrad, Tblisi, and Yerevan. To be honest, they were for the most part carefully scripted by Intourist. But we managed to do some off-script activities. I took a day to wander around Moscow by myself and we went to the public baths in Tbilisi, for example. The most memorable event, though, was a visit to the Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial for the victims of the Armenian genocide, on their Remembrance Day. The crowd was enormous, easily ten thousand people, I'd guess. Everyone waited patiently in a long line to pass by the eternal flame. Many got back in line after passing through. It was a very moving experience.
Did you start thinking about what you would do in college?
I worried a lot about how to promote peace....so I went to Johns Hopkins and started majoring in international relations. This turned out to be a bullshit major.
Why was international relations a bullshit major?
The university’s IR major was a reflection of the Reagan era. I’d expected courses that taught me something about what it’s like in different parts of the world and what I got was a world view that treated facts about relative military strength as the only facts that mattered for understanding world affairs.
What was Johns Hopkins like in the late 80’s?
Like on many college campuses, the undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins were quite conservative. I found a couple of like-minded friends and joined the Coalition for a Free South Africa and a few other volunteer groups. What surprised me was the deep degree of antipathy some students found for these organizations and their efforts. Apathy I expected. But our Coalition’s shanty was fired bombed by a frat a short while after I spent the night in it with a friend—the shanty, as everyone knew, was staffed 24/7. The students staffing the shanty were severely burned. The students responsible were found and expelled, but I believe that they did no jail time. This was the worst of it, of course. But there was, even aside from that, an astonishing degree of anger and active obstructionism, mostly from the College Republicans, but from the general student body as well.
That’s unconscionable. Still, as a person who went to a school where there were a lot of protests, I never really understood the motivation. I mean, I'm sympathetic to the causes usually, but it always seemed like posturing to me (since the audience is often just other college students)? Do you think that's a misguided thought?
Oh! Maybe you don’t know much about the divestment movement of the 80’s? It’s a fantastic example of campus activism making a real difference. The taxes US corporations paid to the apartheid government in South Africa was a significant source of revenue. A number of US universities, Johns Hopkins included, invested in those companies. The student activists were concerned that their university was funding a violent, totalitarian government. The audience for the protests across college campuses was the world at large; the idea was that by calling attention to the evil universities were supporting, they would be pressured to end that support. Some places, like Swarthmore College, divested almost immediately in the face of pressure. But Johns Hopkins had members on its board of trustees who were also members of boards of companies doing a lucrative business in South Africa. Our university’s response to the fire bombing was shocking—they banned the shanties. When the Coalition rebuilt them, students were arrested and it made national news. After that, the university divested their holdings in companies that did business in South Africa. Enough universities do this and it is no longer is good business to do business with apartheid South Africa.
As an interesting aside: Patrick Bond was the leader of our group. Bond left to work at NGOs in South Africa in 1990, eventually becoming a member of Mandela’s first post-apartheid government. If he was a poseur, he was really in it for the long haul.
Fair enough! Favorite classes?
I took my first philosophy class because I had a friend who was a major—it was an intro to epistemology taught by Jerome Schneewind. We read Plato, Descartes, Hume, and James. Scheewind’s undergrad lectures were fantastic, told a bit like a story. I was more excited about what we learned in that class than anything I’d ever learned before.
When did you realize you wanted to go to grad school for philosophy?
I am a philosopher almost entirely by accident. In my junior or senior year, I worked as research volunteer for a branch of Legal Aid in Baltimore. I deeply admired the work those lawyers were doing. They really did it all, big stuff like helping to craft new legislation and class action lawsuits against companies that illegally preyed on the poor to writing very simple documents that would allow someone under threat of eviction to stay in their home. So, my plan in the fall of my senior year was to apply to law school and become a public interest lawyer. But I found myself surprisingly depressed by the thought of never studying philosophy again. It was bad. So, I decided to apply to both law schools and a few philosophy programs. For various reasons, it turned out I was ineligible for student loans for law school, while Michigan offered to pay me to do philosophy (as I saw it). So, I accepted Michigan’s offer, thinking I would do that for a bit and switch back at some point. But then I just never felt tempted enough to switch back.
Was grad school friendly?
Unfortunately, grad school wasn’t friendly for me. I started out at Michigan-Ann Arbor in the fall of 1989, back when it was the only top ten philosophy department in the US that had never tenured a woman. There were problems among the faculty, between the faculty and the students, and among the students. Some women there at the time did well. But, many women left; I believe I’m the only one who left Michigan, but stayed in the profession, by transferring to Pitt. Pitt at the time was better, but by no means problem-free.
Although this is very unpleasant, I’d like to say something about my grad school experience, on the hoped-for chance that if folks can put a name to someone who has experienced some of the problems with harassment and sexual assault our profession has just begun discussing, it might dampen some of the truly damaging speculation about the motivations survivors have in coming forward that we see on some professional blogs.
There are too many bad experiences to list them all. I’ll mention two, as well as the effect they had on me. Early in my grad career, I was the object of a surprising amount of disturbing attention. Someone put a plastic erection in my mailbox in the department common room and a male grad student followed me home. He let me know that he had done this when I arrived home, telling me gleefully that he was glad to know where I lived so he could come see me whenever he wanted. As I said—disturbing.
The cumulative effect of this attention was pretty bad: I began to experience intense pain in my arms whenever I went to campus. Not surprisingly, I avoided campus as much as I could; no reading groups, student lounge conversations, no socializing before or after class. Also, not surprisingly, it was very difficult to concentrate on my work, particularly to follow lectures in class, given that they included some of the students I was having trouble with. In retrospect, it’s astonishing to me that I finished any of my classes.
Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it. I was subsequently raped by another philosopher, someone who is still in our profession and whom I occasionally see at APA meetings. I’ve already written about this experience anonymously, here.
That’s terrible. Thank you…it takes a lot of bravery to share something like that. I’m sure others have had similar experiences. Would you like to add anything?
There’s not more to add, only to underscore. The discussions of sexual harassment and assault in our profession are extremely unhealthy; they’re bad for individuals in our profession and for our profession itself. Fortunately, we don’t need protests or shanties to fix this one, we just need folks to say something when they see or hear something. Discourage speculation about complainants. More generally, treat people with respect and encourage respectful discourse. Bullies do what they do because we allow bullying to pay. But we don’t have to.
Did you manage to make any friends in Michigan?
I made good friends at both Michigan and Pitt. I don't want anyone to assume that all of the folks I interacted with in those days were bad people. Many of them are very good people. I met the best man who has ever walked the face of this good earth my first year in grad school: David Sobel. We’ve been together since then—about 27 years. I am quite sure I would not have survived as a philosopher, or, honestly, survived at all, if it weren’t for his love and support. Also, he makes me laugh. In a good way.
How did you guys meet?
We met at Michigan; he was a year ahead of me and we were in a few classes together. I noticed from our first conversations that he actually seemed to listen to what I was saying and treated me like a person. Plus, he looked like Clark Kent.
Were things a bit better at Pitt?
Pitt was a bit better, but, honestly, it was pretty unhealthy, too, just in a somewhat different way.
Given the circumstances, as a grad student, how did you manage to keep working?
Just gutting it out, like most grad students, I suppose. I worked a lot on my own. It was a good skill to develop, actually. I've switched projects and subfields several times since. I'm not sure I would have done that if I didn't already have a track record of teaching myself how to get oriented in a new literature.
What was your dissertation on? Who did you work with? As a philosopher, how did you evolve in grad school?
My dissertation was on the theory of content. Bob Brandom was my chair. There was a lot of discussion then about the metaphysical status of content--realism or anti-realism? Naturalism or non-naturalism? These two debates were linked with each other and with the issue of reduction. A common thought was that if we don't know how facts about representation are reducible to natural facts, we should worry about skepticism about content. My idea was that these issues are orthogonal to one another; we can rationally be realists absent knowing what a reduction would look like.
In the end, though, I decided that I didn't much like that literature--except for Ruth Millikan, of course, who is fantastic. It's a shame she isn't read more; this may partly be because her work has been badly misrepresented in print by some of her ‘peers’. I suspect also, though, that this is because her non-readers find her work too hard to understand or they aren't willing to take the time needed to appreciate it. (She is a deeply original thinker.) A surprising number of philosophers, I've noticed, tend to be a bit lazy and more interested in publishing than reading. Well.....we seem to be stuck in a bit of a publishing arms race that rewards publishing more than reading, so perhaps it's not surprising.
What was the job market like when you were finished?
I heard the usual crap about how women always clean up on the job market. Unfortunately, that turned out to be not true in my case. Fortunately, you only need one job offer and I was offered a job at Bowling Green State University, where my husband was on the faculty. I couldn't believe we solved our two body problem on our first attempt. We were very, very lucky.
Definitely. Was changing research direction challenging?
Initially I had trouble finding journals for my papers after switching from my dissertation project to working on physicalism and methodology. I didn't know how to properly frame a paper and, even independent of that problem, it just takes journals a long time to make a decision on a paper. Add to that a few rejections and you've got a pretty thin CV third year review time. I really started to think I needed to do something else with my life.
What was Bowling Green like? Why didn’t you stay?
The administration there at the time really did not support the research-active 'wing' of the department. It was really unfortunate. A number of the fantastic folks who were there at the time--Steve Wall, Jeff Moriarty, Dan Jacobson, and David Shoemaker--are no longer there. We weren't looking to leave; Nebraska just invited us to apply at a time when leaving was a good idea.
Before you ended up at Syracuse, you spent a few years at Nebraska-Lincoln. Do you miss it?
We love the Nebraska department and Lincoln, too. But there wasn't much philosophy of language happening around there (my current subfield). Our first two departments were strong in ethics, which was good for Dave. We decided that it was my 'turn' to be someplace where there were more opportunities for me to engage my interests. I'm lucky to have Mike Rieppel as a colleague. Cornell, Buffalo, and Rochester are nearby. And there is a ton of stuff in the NYC area, not *too* far away. The overall balance favored moving for this reason, though, I should add that the best philosophical interlocutor I have ever had, Aaron Bronfman is still at Nebraska. Aaron is just the best.
Married to a philosopher? Sounds like a nightmare!
Ha! We just had a short chat about expressivism while cleaning up the kitchen together. What could beat that? Some philosophers are really competitive; they treat discussions more like pissing contests than an attempt to become jointly opinionated about a question of common concern. Neither of us is competitive. This makes the dual philosopher thing really fantastic as opposed to truly awful. We share a deep interest in something that is hard to share with many people.
Why do you think philosophers are so competitive?
I wish I knew. Some of them care about professional recognition more than they do about philosophy? It's a puzzle.
Do you read each other’s work? For you, is it all philosophy all the time, then?
We don't read each other's work much these days, too little time and too much else to read. But we do talk a fair bit about what each of us is working on, over dinner or dog walks. For fun--playing with Ella, the Best Dog Ever! When I have time, I also like to run and read fiction. I harbor a fantasy that I will one day learn how to play the drums. (Right now, that fantasy includes a time-expansion fantasy.) I also enjoy spending time with my colleagues. We've got a good crowd!
In retrospect, how do you feel about your career so far?
Like a lot of women philosophers, I’m sometimes disappointed that my papers aren’t read more. I don’t have a lot of papers, but I like most of what I’ve got. Most of them are worth reading and, I think, make a contribution to the debates worth engaging with. Sometimes I feel a bit like I’m spitting into the wind. Then I sometimes think it would have been better if I’d become a public interest lawyer. But, other than those moments, I feel extremely lucky. I love my job. Our students are fantastic and I feel appreciated by my colleagues, who are good people. And, of course, having a job in the same department as my husband is certainly much, much better than I hoped for when I was a grad student.
High point of your career?
I should say 'getting tenure', but since I expected to, that was more a relief, than a peak. If I were to pick a high point based on level of pure euphoria induced, it would have to be winning the Marc Sanders prize in metaethics. I had to go lie down for awhile when I heard--I was so astonished I couldn't quite stand anymore. For several days afterwards, I couldn't quite believe it. And then I remembered a professor early in my grad career who told me that he doubted whether I was cut out for analytic philosophy, given that I was interested in feminist philosophy. Winning that prize was somehow proof to myself that he was wrong.
Any interesting upcoming projects?
I'm currently working on a book on deontic modals. I'm defending a canonical, Kratzer-style, contextualist semantics against a number of the challenges to her view we've seen over the last several years. The book will also include some work on epistemic modals, since these two flavors of modality are thought to need to 'play well together'. The basic idea is that the apparent force of the challenge cases rests on the assumption that our judgments about those cases are ones any semantic hypothesis needs to vindicate. (So, for example, if we judge an utterance "true", a semantic theory needs to make it come out true at the stipulated point of evaluation.) The challenges cases are defective, though, so our judgments about them can't play that evidential role.
That said, another problem with those challenge cases is that their proponents are often wrong about what our judgments are. Knobe and Yalcin have some nice data showing this for the famous eavesdropper cases involving epistemic modals; I've just got my raw data back for a study on eavesdropper cases involving deontic modals and, though I haven't finished the statistical analysis, an early look suggests that that data, too, isn't going McFarlane's way.
As a woman, do you face any unique challenges when teaching?
Oh, probably. The kind of problems I've had have been with overconfident male students. You can never clearly trace the cause of these interactions. Is this guy just a stupid jerk? Or is he especially a stupid jerk to women? I feel more confident saying that we know that there is a problem for women academics in general from looking at the recent data on bias in teaching evaluations. Those teaching evaluations, in turn, play a non-trivial role in retention, promotion, and pay raise decisions. It's a shame universities still treat those evaluations as a good source of comparative data. (I should also add that I have no doubt faculty of color face similar issues, whether they are male or female.)
How do we fix the diversity problem in philosophy?
No doubt this is a very complicated problem. The underrepresention of philosophers of color in our field is especially alarming. I'm beginning to think that the short term solution is that departments just need to start hiring more philosophers of color. I know some of your readers are going to say "easier said than done" given the underrepresentation of philosophers of color among PhD holders, but it’s absolute, not relative numbers that matter here. There are a number of truly excellent philosophers of color out there. Departments just need to be better at finding them. They could start with the APA's Directory of Philosophers from Underrepresented Groups. Also, the APA's Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers found that more Black philosophy PhDs working in the US work in philosophy of race than any other subfield. The good news is that there are good, independent reasons why departments should have someone who works in that subfield. Addressing the diversity issue just makes hiring in philosophy of race a no-brainer.
How would you explain what we do to a 5 year-old?
We get paid to think about questions that need answers in order to have definitive answers to any question worth answering (roughly).
Favorite TV shows or movies?
Obviously, The Wire is the best TV show ever. There are too many good movies to have a favorite. But, off the top of my head, I can't recommend The Class highly enough. I missed one of Scanlon's Locke Lectures to watch it on the big screen when it first came out and, as much as I love Scanlon's work, I have no regrets. The ending will give you chills.
Favorite curse word(s)?
See "Elm Club", above.
Cruz, Trump, Bernie, or Hillary?
Bernie or Hillary, whoever can best keep the apocalypse at bay.
A nice pinot noir, a really good, really stinky french goat cheese, roasted brussel sprouts, and Italian gelato for afters (dark chocolate with nuts?). Oh, poop, now I'm hungry.