In this interview, Rebecca Tuvel, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College, talks about her favorite episodes of the Simpsons, Super Mario 3, questioning religious dietary restrictions, how the experiences of her family during the Holocaust influenced her philosophical outlook, Sartre, being an extroverted philosopher, Singer, Spinoza and feminism, being considered a ‘feminist killjoy’, grad school, procrastination, perfectionism, impostor syndrome, the benefits of a pluralist program, participating in a reading group at Riverbed Penitentiary, teaching persona free, the treatment of Rachel Dolezal on social media and the origin of her transracialism article, how her paper was received at the APA before it was published, the Hypatia Controversy, what the critics got right, how philosophers ought to treat each other, how the controversy affected her emotionally, Black Mirror, Wall-E, Fight Club, and her favorite joke…
So, where are you from? What did your parents do for a living?
I grew up in Toronto, Ontario. My mother is a pharmacist and my father is a dentist.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
I spent most of my time hanging out with friends, reading Nancy Drew novels, watching the Simpsons, and playing Nintendo. When I was a bit older I became interested in the dramatic arts. I was on the improv team in junior high and enjoyed acting in plays.
Favorite Simpsons episode?
My favorite video game was Super Mario 3.
One of the best videogames ever made! In high school, did you get into any trouble?
I didn’t get into too much trouble in high school, no. All I can remember is taking my mom’s car out with some friends before I had a license.
What music were you into?
Growing up I listened to a wide variety of nineties music (e.g. Green Day, Nirvana, Alanis Morrissette, Lauryn Hill, Pearl Jam, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child, No Doubt). I also listened to a lot of classic rock.
Proud to say I saw Destiny’s Child perform live. Was your family or were you religious?
My family is Jewish, but more culturally than religiously so. I had a pretty standard Jewish upbringing – went to Hebrew school as a child, had a bat mitzvah, and attended Shabbat dinner every Friday night at my maternal grandparents’ house.
Any indication you were going to be a philosopher?
Perhaps my skepticism about various elements of my Jewish upbringing signaled the first indications of my interest in philosophy. For instance, I remember questioning the Jewish rules of our home, such as having separate plates in the house for meat and milk. I also questioned what I learned in Hebrew school, including the existence of God.
Do you think your philosophical interests later on in life were shaped by your childhood?
Yes, I think so. For instance when I was young I was affected by my family’s stories about the Holocaust. Both my grandfathers were survivors, and we lost many family members on both sides. I think I was partly drawn to justice issues because of these stories, since it always disturbed me to think that ordinary people can actively ignore and become complicit in horrible suffering.
Did your grandparents share any of their stories with you?
I remember my maternal grandfather telling me about the day the Nazis took him away from his small town of Krzepice, Poland. My grandfather was hiding from the Nazis when they came looking for him. They couldn't find him so they took his sister instead. When my grandfather was told of the situation, he presented himself to the Germans and they let his sister go, only to arrest her days later. The next morning, my great grandfather came to the station to say goodbye to his son. My grandfather told me that his father had become grey overnight, and he said to his son '"I don't know if we will see each other again.” His words were prophetic. Some time later, my great grandfather (who was 42 years old at the time) was taken with his wife and parents to Auschwitz and murdered there.
Favorite book or books in high school?
My favorite book in high school was probably Catcher in the Rye. I was also in French immersion and one of my favorite teachers was really into French philosophy. We read Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) in high school, which was another favorite of mine.
Love Salinger and Sartre. Did you start thinking about what you were going to study in college?
I was interested in a lot of different subjects. When it came time to go to university, I couldn’t even decide if I would go into the arts or sciences. In any case, I knew I wanted to go to McGill University and they only accepted me into the Arts track, so the decision was made for me. When I went there I had no idea what I wanted to study. I changed my major path several times. I was set on a major in French at one point and Psychology at another until I finally settled on an Honors degree in Philosophy and a minor in Hispanic Studies.
Was college what you expected? Did you party?
I don’t remember what I expected from college, but I loved it. My friends and I went out every week. Montreal is a vibrant city and we took full advantage of it. Actually I remember a fellow member of the McGill Philosophy Students’ Association telling me that I didn’t seem fit for philosophy because I was “too social.” I remember feeling insecure for a while after that comment. If I didn’t fit the stereotype of the Cartesian meditator, was I a “real” philosopher? Of course I would come to learn that academic philosophy is an incredibly social world where you are constantly interacting with other people in the exchange of ideas.
Do you not think philosophers in general are less social than other academics? It seems most philosophers who go to a conference are holed up in their hotel rooms after 8PM.
I don’t know if philosophers are less social than other academics. I don’t have a big enough sample size from other disciplines to answer that question! It is also possible that some of the people holed up in their hotel rooms after 8 pm are anxiously preparing their presentations!
Fair enough! Favorite instructors? Classes? When exactly did you decide to major in philosophy?
I loved any class taught by Hasana Sharp, but her Spinoza course was my favorite. After reading the Appendix to Part 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics I quickly became fascinated with his ideas and life as a Jewish heretic. (As a bit of an aside, I highly recommend Matthew Stewart’s book The Courtier and the Heretic, which is an account of Spinoza and Leibniz’ secret correspondence. It talks about how Leibniz publicly described Spinoza’s work as “horrible” and “terrifying,” but privately addressed him as “celebrated doctor and profound philosopher.”) I eventually visited Spinoza’s house in Amsterdam, which was very cool.
Spinoza rules. Any other inspirational teachers?
I also loved Storrs McCall’s Introduction to Philosophy course, Ian Gold’s Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind courses, and Alia Al-Saji’s Existentialism course. I actually remember exiting one of Al-Saji’s classes and looking at the world differently. I hadn’t had that experience from a class before and I believe that’s around the time I decided to major in philosophy.
Overall how would you say college changed your worldview?
I changed my worldview in many ways during university. First and foremost, I stopped eating meat. In my Ethics seminar I participated in a debate about meat eating and was deeply impacted by Singer’s argument in “All Animals are Equal.” I also grew a feminist consciousness in university, which profoundly affected the way I came to view the world. My education in Spinoza also had a lasting impact on my worldview and the way I try to approach others, as much as possible. My favorite line of his: “I have taken great care not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand them.”
That’s part of the idea behind these interviews. You did an honors thesis on Spinoza and feminist theories of psychological oppression. Could you explain the relationship a bit?
According to Spinoza, the ideal state is one that encourages the exercise of our rational capacities. But depending on the non-ideal conditions of a given society, citizens will be more or less inclined to rely on their imaginative as opposed to their rational powers. In conversation with feminist theorists of psychological oppression, my undergraduate thesis explored how hidden oppressive structures can thwart women’s abilities to exercise our rational capacities, thus inhibiting self-development. To take one example, dangerously thin ideals of femininity still dominate the media, leading many women to develop eating disorders. Although some of these women claim to be advancing their own self-development, attending to the wider social structure alerts us to the causal nexus that brings about such “choices.” I used Spinoza’s framework in the Ethics to diagnose barriers imposed on women’s rational abilities to perceive the true causes of some of our more self-defeating behaviors. The goal was to encourage an adequate understanding of practices that subjugate more than they liberate.
Interesting stuff! Were you still involved in the dramatic arts?
I was in one play in university, written by another McGill student. I forget the name of it!
When did you decide you wanted to go to grad school? Who guided you through the process?
I took a year off after university. I worked as an administrative assistant at the Canadian Institute for Health Information in Toronto. During my time there I began to miss the university environment, so I decided to take the GRE and apply to grad school. Hasana Sharp and Chloë Taylor, who is a feminist philosopher at the University of Alberta, helped me through the process. They both encouraged me to apply to Vanderbilt because of its strengths in feminist philosophy.
What did you miss about philosophy?
I missed the dialogue about important social and political issues. Outside of the discipline, people often tire of philosophical discussion. Caring about social and political issues can also make one into a “feminist killjoy,” to borrow from Sarah Ahmed, which is not well received. Feminist killjoys are people who “kill joy” by drawing attention to various injustices. I think ethical vegans are people whose presence alone is sometimes experienced as killing the joy of meat eating, for instance. I was glad to return to an environment where people see the value of social and political critique, even if it can be depressing!
Was grad school what you expected? Was it a supportive atmosphere? Challenging?
Grad school was not quite what I expected, but in a good way. I expected an extremely intimidating environment where everyone would try to use their philosophical chops to one up each other. Thankfully I found grad school to be a welcoming and friendly environment, for the most part at least. I do recall one or two classes my first year where I felt I was being tested and condescended to by fellow grad students. Add that to the impostor syndrome that so many grad students, including myself, tend to experience, and the result can be detrimental. So although I wouldn’t say grad school was objectively hard, there were some forces that clouded my ability to do the work as well as I would have liked. I think students would benefit enormously from grad programs that encourage open and honest discussion about impostor syndrome, procrastination, perfectionism, etc. right off the bat. I think that would go a long way toward alleviating the anxiety that besets so many students and prevents them from performing at their best. In general, I think mental health is a growing concern in need of attention in higher education.
Have you gotten over your anxiety?
You know, I would love to share about how I “got over" my anxiety as a grad student, but it would be kind of disingenuous. Frankly I still struggle with anxiety!
haha…Grad school: Not as fun as college?
I don’t think anything in my life has been as fun as college. But I did have a lot of fun in grad school and made several profound friendships.
Biggest influences on you in grad school?
I was greatly influenced by my adviser, Kelly Oliver, and also by José Medina. Kelly is an incredibly supportive mentor and brilliant feminist thinker. She is genuinely open-minded, thoughtful and great at supporting students’ independent projects and ideas. José is a talented teacher who is able to clarify difficult texts and offer challenging yet encouraging critical feedback. The pragmatism class I took with Rob Talisse also influenced me, and taught me how to engage with interlocutors charitably but rigorously. I have also learned from the clear writing style of all three of these professors.
Did you get a chance to teach?
Yes, Vanderbilt’s philosophy department allows their grad students to teach nearly every semester. It is a real benefit of our program. After serving as a teaching assistant, I was fortunate to teach a variety of independent classes at Vanderbilt, including Intro to Philosophy, Intro to Ethics, The Meaning of Life, Intro to Logic and a self-designed upper-level seminar on the Philosophy of Consumption.
What was your first class like?
My first teaching experience was a weekly seminar on animal ethics, which was part of the larger Ethics class for which I was a TA. I was absolutely terrified and remember being intimidated by the fact that I was younger than one of the students in my class. It was a great experience, though, and I immediately fell in love with teaching.
What did you learn about teaching? How have you developed as a teacher?
Back in grad school, I received the sound advice to be myself and play to my personality in the classroom - what works for another teacher is different from what will work for me, and if you try to imitate someone else’s approach, you will fail. After that I owned my personality in the classroom. I also resisted general advice I received, such as “never apologize!” because it will undermine your authority. Sometimes I find it appropriate to apologize, and I haven’t found it undermines my authority. To the contrary I think students should be able to expect their professors to own up to their errors, since that models good behavior.
In the past few years I have become more relaxed in the classroom, which has been helpful for the conversational dynamic with students. I used to try to memorize my lectures and practice my exact language in advance. I don’t do that anymore. I also think I’ve struck a better balance between lecture and discussion time.
How would you say you played to your personality in the classroom?
I guess I mean I try to just be myself in the classroom. I don’t put on a particular persona. I try to be as transparent as possible with students. I joke around with them. I try to get to know them. I guess that’s what I mean.
Same here. Who did you work with on the dissertation? Was writing the dissertation challenging?
I worked with Kelly Oliver on the dissertation. José Medina, Lisa Guenther, David Wood, Charles Scott, and Lori Gruen were all members on my committee. Yes, I found writing the dissertation challenging because of anxiety I struggled with as a grad student. I procrastinated because of it and especially on the dissertation.
How did grad school make you a better philosopher?
I think grad school made me a better philosopher by exposing me to a wide variety of philosophical methods and approaches. I recommend attending a pluralist program for this reason. So often different philosophical approaches are caricatured or uncharitably interpreted. For that reason I think it’s important to read for oneself and take courses across the philosophical spectrum. I think attending a pluralist program taught me not to be hostile to a particular text based on its methodology, but to consider its content on its own merits.
In grad school, what were you doing outside of the classroom?
Outside of the classroom I spent the vast majority of my time hanging out with friends in the program. I also participated in a philosophy reading group at Riverbend Penitentiary, organized by Lisa Guenther.
When you started looking for a job, what did the market look like? Any horror stories?
When I went on the market, I was fortunate that many of the job ads were in social-political philosophy and ethics (although I realize the dominance of these areas on the market poses problems for other philosophers). Several were in feminist philosophy. I think I applied to about 20 jobs total. No horror stories, thankfully.
How did it feel to land your first gig?
I felt very lucky to land my job at Rhodes. My department is incredibly supportive and the students at Rhodes are committed and tend to care about justice issues. The small class sizes also make it possible to get to know your students, which is great.
Any advice for job seekers?
Try not to let the process affect your confidence too much.
Tell me a little bit about the origins and evolution of the article you wrote on transracialism.
My thinking on transracialism began when I was discussing the topic with some people in Toronto shortly after the Rachel Dolezal story hit. At that point I was feeling frustrated with the social media treatment of Dolezal. People showed absolutely no sympathy toward her as a human being. I understand that people were upset by her actions, but it was not okay for people to slash, ridicule, and mock her the way many were doing. In addition to that, though, I thought Dolezal posed very difficult questions for race scholars. As you know from my article, I also noticed that many of the attacks against Dolezal were similar in nature to attacks against transgender people, which made me question their validity. Finally, I had just come off a semester of teaching philosophy of race, so I was thinking a lot about the questions Dolezal raises with respect to racial categorization and racial essentialism. For instance, what does it mean to be a member of race X? Do you have to have the relevant ancestry? Do you have to be treated as a member of that race by your particular society? Etc. After several conversations on the topic, I was sufficiently invested to keep working on it.
Presumably, there are many ways to do good philosophy. Russell once suggested that a good philosophical argument has premises most people will agree are true or probably true that support a conclusion which most people would find very surprising. I'm sure you thought the conclusion of your article was noteworthy, but did you have any idea it was going to be so controversial?
I did not expect my article would be so controversial. I did worry that people might find some of my claims difficult or even offensive, but often arguments cause offense, especially if they challenge our deeply held views. Some people found my comparison of transrace to transgender offensive. However, moral arguments and social movements are sometimes built this way. For instance, the same-sex marriage movement drew comparison to society’s opposition to interracial marriage. I should add that other folks in trans theory have invoked comparisons between gender transitions and other types of transitions, such as changes in nationality or religion, that could also potentially be perceived as offensive.
Did the critics get anything right?
I think the critics have several good suggestions as far as the paper itself is concerned. For example, I could have provided more examples from the literature on passing. The history of racial passing is very relevant to an analysis of transracialism. I also could have provided more examples of transracial individuals in general. As far as engaging with other people’s work is concerned, I could have discussed more of the philosophical work on identity, both racial and trans. I also could have spent more time grappling with the criticisms of Haslanger’s view. In my article, I have just one footnote on these criticisms. Yet I am still very much trying to sort through which account of race and gender we ought to adopt and I could have done more justice to the competing positions out there, which include positions in trans theory.
Which criticisms of the article have been unfair you think?
I think the criticisms that focused on my use of particular terms were not framed in helpful ways. Some of that criticism felt like a policing of behavior. I also experienced some of the critique as gendered. As a feminist philosopher, I was particularly disappointed when some critics spoke down to me with a condescending tone with which many women will be familiar. The number of respected feminist colleagues who called me a “Becky” also disturbed me, since Becky is a highly gendered insult.
In general, did you think the letter was an appropriate response to your article?
I don’t think an open letter in response to a published article is an appropriate way to deal with anyone making a good faith effort to do anti-oppression work. An appropriate response, in my view, might have been to acknowledge that people were upset but to suggest that we slow down and revisit appropriate responses later when we are less heated. The open letter and apology were issued with remarkable speed. Many people who signed the letter and commented on the paper admitted to not having even read it. Moreover, I think a call for retraction is strategically unwise since it feeds into the increasingly prevalent media stereotype of the political left as censorial and intolerant of dissent.
I also think the obligation to voice worries in advance falls particularly on those signatories and critics who had opportunities to hear, read, or comment on the paper, yet said not one word about any of the concerns raised in the open letter. This includes colleagues who attended my talk at the APA, where I presented an earlier version of this paper, one of the scholars who was invited to respond to my work at the APA but could not attend, and those colleagues who read my paper earlier this year—these individuals had plenty of time to register concerns before the controversy broke out. These critics in particular could – and should – have expressed their concerns to me when they had the opportunity; otherwise we set a very bad precedent for how to treat each other in this discipline and the academy more broadly. This obligation also falls especially on those senior colleagues who should take a mentoring role toward junior scholars, as well as model collegiality and respectful engagement.
Right. How did all of this affect you emotionally?
People were absolutely vicious toward me online. I won’t describe in detail the emotional and psychological distress this experience caused me. Suffice it to say that a social media pile-on is an awful thing to experience. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is worth a read. The philosopher Kate Norlock has important things to say on this topic. Her excellent paper “Online Shaming” talks about how people engaged in online shaming grossly underestimate the amount of harm they do to victims, which shows we need to think much more carefully about what online responsibility looks like in the Internet age. For instance, many people probably imagined that I didn’t see their posts. Responsible online behavior demands, minimally, that we act as if the actual people we are talking about are reading our words. We have ways of modeling thoughtful discursive engagement that need to inform our online interactions.
Agreed. You’ve also received a ton of support.
Yes, I was very grateful for the support I received. I think I probably received around 1000 emails. I especially appreciated the support I received from people who disagreed with my argument, as well as from trans individuals and people of color.
Cynical question, I know, but do you think the controversy has helped or harmed your career overall?
I think it’s too early to tell.
Any words of wisdom for folks working on stuff where the conclusions are potentially incendiary, especially untenured folks such as ourselves?
I would like to shift the question away from advice to the people writing controversial conclusions to those engaging them. I would advise those engaging controversial ideas to do so charitably. We philosophers teach our students to engage their interlocutors charitably. It will be depressing if our internal discourse cannot instantiate that practice. I think part of charitable reading involves not jumping to the conclusion that the person who wrote the controversial argument could only have had nefarious motives, which various people accused me of.
In my interview with Peter Singer, he suggested that it might be a good idea to create a journal where academics can submit articles anonymously. Thoughts?
I think an anonymous journal would be terribly sad because it could really help legitimize the behavior of people who are acting badly. We should target the behavior, not the people or journals forwarding the ideas.
So, any interesting upcoming projects?
One good thing that I hope comes out of this is that the topic of transracialism gets more philosophical attention. I look forward to participating in an upcoming symposium in response to critics of my article in Philosophy Today. I’ll also be continuing my work on this topic more generally.
Interesting stuff. How do you see the future of philosophy?
I think social media is going to affect drastically the future of philosophy. So many philosophical interactions take place in this world and younger generations of philosophers will only increase that trend. I think it will be important to develop norms for responsible interaction in this space. As far as the content of philosophy is concerned, I hope work in social-political philosophy continues to expand. I am also excited by the growing tendency to place different areas of philosophy in conversation with one another, as well as with other disciplines.
Trends in philosophy you find exciting?
I think the growth of attention to social epistemology is exciting. I also think feminist philosophy’s focus on how to parse the categories of sex and gender, especially when taking transgender identity into account, is important current work that’s being done. Similarly I am excited by ongoing efforts in philosophy of race to understand what the category of race consists in and whether or how best to conserve it.
What are you watching and listening to nowadays?
I regularly watch shows like Black Mirror (which I think is brilliant), Handmaid’s Tale, Shameless, The Affair, Stranger Things. I also enjoy watching documentaries. As for music, I mostly listen to indie music, e.g. Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Hey Rosetta!
Excellent. Favorite movies?
Slide! Queen of the world, what's your first move?
Eliminate the extreme suffering that billions of animals endure every year in industrial factory farms, laboratories etc.
Probably a meal from this great vegan restaurant in Philadelphia called Vedge.
I have one but it’s vulgar so I won’t write it here! ;)
Thanks for your time Rebecca, it’s been fun!