When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?
Art history or psychology, I think. I took a class that was called philosophy in high school, but it was a psychology class with a bit of existentialism. Like Lionel McPherson, I read William Barrett's Irrational Man. I found it transfixing, but I don't think philosophy seemed like a live major to me. (I have no idea why art history did. I didn't--and don't--know anything about art.)
What made you decide to major in Philosophy?
I became quite interested in literary theory during my freshman year and took more and more classes in comp lit. My sophomore year, I took my first philosophy class, John Cooper's ancient philosophy class, and really enjoyed it and was interested in taking more philosophy, but, even so, I was mostly interested in comp lit and literary theory. So I was excited about a class called Philosophy of Language. I thought it would be philosophy combined with literary theory. It wasn't that. At all. I still remember how confused I was when Scott Soames, the professor, started putting quantifiers on the board: What is the matter with this man?, I thought, Why are those letters upside down? But the class was amazing, an experience of the type of philosophy John Campbell has in mind when he says, Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed - to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible. I kept taking comp lit classes and literary theory classes but decided to major in philosophy. It didn't hurt that Soames would assign 30 pages of reading per week whereas my comp lit seminar that semester assigned a thousand-page novel one week.
Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?
As I said, Philosophy of Language was amazing. However, I was terrible at it. I got a D on the first assignment. Then I got a D on the second assignment and realized I needed to drop the class. But I kept going to it. Soames kept meeting--very patiently--with me. I improved. Soames and then later my thesis advisor, Delia Graff Fara, got me to see that anyone can make philosophical progress if that person works hard enough and carefully enough. Soames's and Graff Fara's attitudes were energizing. Especially for a 20 year-old who actually can put in hours and hours and hours of intellectual work.
What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?
I was a primary school teacher in London for a year. Mostly, I was the assistant primary school computer teacher, but once a week, I taught a second grade philosophy class. I started graduate school in philosophy the following year.
What do you do now?
I am a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont. I am working on series of projects on food ethics, an interest I picked up in Gilbert Harman's ethics class my junior year, put down for a long time, and then picked up again a few years ago. [This interview was conducted in February 2015]
My students now often ask What can I do with a philosophy major? It would be a tactical mistake for me to say, You can be an assistant primary school computer teacher--that's what I was. But the skills I learned in the philosophy department did make me a good primary school teacher. Obviously, they help me in my job now. And there's a lot more to my life than my job, and philosophy has improved my life. It has made me more inquisitive, more thoughtful, better at listening, and better at expressing myself. This'll sound odd and naive and won't be true of everyone, but philosophy has also made me, on balance, more relaxed and more hopeful.