Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Maeve O’Donovan

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-eighth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy in particular and in academia more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states.

My guest today is Maeve M. O’Donovan. Maeve is a philosopher and artist, who recently resigned from her position as department chair and associate professor of philosophy (tenured) at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she taught courses in philosophy of ignorance, autism and bioethics, philosophy of mind and cognitive disability, feminist philosophy, and the history of philosophy. She remains active in the profession as a member of the APA Committee on the Status of Disabled People in the Profession. Maeve is a member of an emerging group of artists studying under Laura Shabott of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Alana C. Barrett of Miami, Florida.  

*Content Warning: This interview includes discusion of suicide.*

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Maeve! You did a Dialogues on Disability interview with me in July 2015 in which you discussed, among other things, your motivation to do graduate work in philosophy and become a philosophy professor. You recently resigned your tenured position but have stayed connected to the profession; for example, you will be presenting at the Philosophy, Disability, and Social Change 2 online conference in December. Why did you enter philosophy and why do you continue to do it, even after quitting a permanent job in it?

First, thank you, Shelley, for inviting me to share my thoughts and for encouraging me to do so when I objected that I haven’t done any new scholarship in years. It’s nice to know you think that I have something worth saying about philosophy and disability.

When asked why I chose philosophy, I often answer that it’s due to how I was raised. My parents were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, sharing common values while disagreeing about how those values should be put into action. That alone taught me to see that there are many ways to a single truth. In addition, my parents insisted on family dinners as often as possible, even when my dad—former president of the University College Cork Philosophical Society—couldn’t get home from work before 9 or 10 at night. Those dinners were their own philosophical society. My mother, a politically active, moderate Democrat, and my father, a moderate Republican, engaged in lengthy debate over current issues in the news, with all four kids jumping in whenever we could—we had to speak quickly; it was the only way to get heard! The conversations were heated and by my teenage years my dad and I were citing sources at each other, him, The Economist; me, The New York Times.

My first big high-school crush carried around Walter Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche and introduced me to philosophy as a body of literature. But it wasn’t until I read Simone De Beauvoir, in an upper-level course taught by a woman graduate student, that I began seeing it as a career path. I had been a philosophy major since my first semester, but it took seeing myself in the bodies of these two philosophers, reading about the ways that masculinity has shaped much of Western thought at the expense of women’s well-being, and recognizing many of the criticisms that had been leveled against me at those dinner-table debates (too sensitive, too emotional, not adequately educated in the topic, not objective) as among the criticisms that, as Beauvoir points out, are often used to discredit women, that I began to think I could actually BE a philosopher, not just study it.

As you mentioned, I am no longer employed as a professional philosopher. The reasons for that are many and I will talk about them a little later in the interview. I still do philosophy in a variety of different ways. I serve on a critically important committee of the American Philosophical Association, I am working on a conference paper and book chapter, and I am integrating philosophy into my art.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this, as it has been one of the topics most on my mind since I left my job. Am I still a philosopher if I am not doing it full time? Do I want to return to academia if I can? What role will my philosophical training and experience play in the new life that I am crafting? I have some musings to share, but no definitive answer. My hope is that, in publicly addressing these questions, my remarks will resonate with other philosophers who have left academia, willingly or otherwise, and are wondering the same things.

Philosophy matters more than ever. Universities across my country, the United States, are doing their best to eliminate philosophy departments and course requirements. Philosophy has never been a money maker for universities, it doesn’t have a clear career path, and students who love it often have a fight on their hands in trying to declare it as their major. It is regularly described as impractical, perhaps the most impractical of the disciplines. But it is not impractical. It is the only field that makes learning to think its number one priority.

As Hannah Arendt famously argues in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which is her account of the trial of a Nazi responsible for mass deportations of Jewish people, evil is often the result of a failure to think. Rejecting the idea that Eichmann was intellectually incapable of understanding his actions, Arendt notes that intelligence is not the issue. Eichmann refused to take any responsibility for the immorality of his actions, all the while praising himself as the most ethical of all actors for doing his duty and following the law. Had he known how to think critically, had he actually understood what Kant meant by moral duty and the categorical imperative and still vowed to live by it, he would have had to refuse the murderous choices he and other Nazis were making. Given the unthinking times we live in and the consequent widespread harm living creatures are enduring, we need to get better at critical thinking. We need philosophy.

But do we need me? I am not sure. I left my department in very good hands, with three excellent professors, Jessica Davis, Jina Fast, and chair Nancy Tarr Hart, whose commitment to philosophy and to its central role in human life is deep and unwavering. The curricular changes that I oversaw are well supported by them, as are the students. So, NDMU doesn’t need me. Plenty of talented philosophers exist and are doing fabulous work; so, the field won’t die off without my presence. At most, what the field may need from me is my particular combination of expertise and experience, and my willingness to share both of them with others.

Do I need philosophy? Probably. I like to think that I am a critical thinker, but I know enough to know that I need to keep working at it, for a lifetime. Engaging with philosophy, the discipline, will push me to do so more carefully and extensively than I might on my own and to provide a community in which that undertaking is valued. I am fortunate that three of my best girlfriends are professional philosophers (we call ourselves the “quadfecta”) and we meet almost weekly, via Zoom. Much of our conversation is about, informed by, or entangled with philosophy. Our weekly Zoom chats are as much a celebration of friendship as they are a revelling in a form of community critical thinking.

Why do things like serve on philosophy committees when I don’t have a job that requires it? I still do that because my commitment to transforming the profession has not wavered and the need for transformation has not diminished. That is my duty to future generations of philosophers.

How have ableism and inaccessibility interfered with your scholarship? Did ableism and inaccessibility contribute to your decision to resign? If so, how?

As I discuss at length in our first interview, being a woman with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) usually comes with a very specific set of challenges. Those challenges, when lived in the context of serving as department chair without support staff, teaching a 3/3 load, earning a salary that made saving adequately for retirement impossible, having pre-pandemic requests to work remotely rejected, and being solely responsible for my household were the “perfect storm” that led to my leaving the position. I miss it, or at least parts of it, every day.

For those unfamiliar with ADD, it is a cognitive disability that involves attention dysregulation, not deficit. Among its challenges are time management, organization, decision making, attention to detail, emotional regulation, and sensitivity to touch and sound. Among its advantages are hyper focus (the ability to have laser focus on a single task for extended periods of time), a gift for seeing connections where others see none, and great problem-solving skills.

Keeping that in mind, think of the typical philosophy professor. The typical philosophy professor is someone whose job is 40 percent teaching, including grading, course preparation, and student meetings; 20 percent service; and 40 percent scholarship, without which there can be no promotions in a field that is “up or out”. They work quietly for extended periods of time, often can work from home as easily as from their office, control their schedule to a large extent; and spend their time problem-solving big picture issues rather than dealing with minutiae. It is ideal for someone with ADD. Make that person a department chair under the conditions that I mention above, and everything changes. Had I taught at an R1 university, I would have had the pay, support staff, and decreased teaching load, but my scholarship expectations would have been significantly greater and equally unmeetable. That is ableism and inaccessibility.

The new job responsibilities are largely the ones with which an ADD-er struggles: managing schedules; overseeing assessment; engaging in short and long-term planning; handling crises; answering email and being available to faculty and students throughout the day and on weekends; managing a budget; filling out weekly and monthly paperwork, in addition to annual reports. Simultaneously, there is less alone/quiet time in which to do the work; a decreased ability to work remotely, which provides quiet; a decreased ability to set one’s own schedule and deadlines; and more demands on one’s social and emotional skills due to increased meetings and phone calls. Furthermore, the old job responsibilities don’t go away; there is simply less time to complete all of them. The teaching demands drop a little, while the service demands increase significantly, something like 30 percent teaching, 60 percent service, and 10 percent left for scholarship.

Because the new service demands are especially taxing for ADD-ers, they will need more time to complete those tasks and be left more depleted that non-ADD-ers afterwards. That is why, at the end of my second term as department chair, including a year in which I chaired two departments, I was exhausted, depleted, and hadn’t done any new scholarship (or had much of a social life). I did have student assistants some years, a few of whom were excellent, but the tasks they could assist with were limited because of confidentiality. The dean was extremely supportive in advocating for me and my department, even offering me some of her assistant’s time on occasion. I might have continued, depleted or not, had my personal-support system been nearby, but my partner lived out of state—which meant that I was solely responsible for the household, any social life, and all of my expenses—and my best friend and colleague took a job out of state.

It was not all negative as my creativity and talents at problem-solving combined with my ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated things helped me create and bring to fruition a vision for a 21st century philosophy department. I led an initiative to update our curriculum to match the needs of the present and make it clearer to students and my colleagues how philosophy can and should play a role in their everyday lives.

For example, a course on existentialism became “Philosophy of Suicide.” Camus, a famous existentialist, begins his Myth of Sisyphus with the declaration “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Lots of existentialist courses read this work, but how many explicitly tie this mid 20th-century claim to the epidemic of suicide and suicidal ideation among today’s college students? By making it clear that this course would provide a chance to think clearly and carefully about something that few of us want to even raise as a question with our students, we made a connection that truly might be saving lives, all while continuing to teach some of the classics of the Western canon. The NDMU philosophy department now embraces critical reflection on mental illness as a legitimate topic of philosophical concern. That is a legacy of me but also of my ADD ways of thinking. This course on philosophy of suicide is not the only course in the NDMU department that has been reworked in ways that make it no longer ableist, but that is a conversation for another day.

In the 6 years since your previous Dialogues on Disability interview, there has arguably been an upsurge in discourse about ableism and inaccessibility; for example, on social media, in the utterances of politicians, in feminist theory, and even in philosophy. What insights about ableism and internalized ableism have you yourself gained since your last interview?

Writing and teaching about the inability of feminist philosophers to grasp the significance of disability did not protect me, as a feminist philosopher, from ignoring the significance of my own disabilities. In making public with this interview the reasons that I left my job, I am telling a story about ableism and internalized ableism. I am trying to be as honest as I can in the hopes that it inspires others to be honest with themselves—not necessarily publicly—about their own internalized ableism.

I have spent many years teaching the epistemology of ignorance, much of which is informed by the work of Charles W. Mills, Linda Martín Alcoff, Nancy Tuana, and Kristie Dotson. There is an excellent introduction to the topic called Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, where the term agnotology can be defined in this way: a” for not, “gnosis” for knowledge, and “ology” for subject of study). One of the terms philosophers are most familiar with in this work is “willful ignorance,” a couplet that indicates ignorance is frequently a choice, not an accident. Much of American racism is willful ignorance, when it is not intentional cruelty, and so, too, is much ableism. American whites who want to be less racist are engaged in a communal project of identifying and coming to terms with our willfully ignorant racial biases, and it is long past time for our culture to do the same with ableist biases. Since we last spoke, I have been much more consciously engaged in both activities, and in doing so am surprised to find in myself the very things against which I have been arguing. My undertaking has been a success of sorts, although a depressing one.

I think the fact that I assumed that I could be department chair, without any structured support, without giving up much of my scholarship, while living alone, without it taking a toll on me personally, is the result of internalized ableism. I have never asked for any official accommodations in my life, not when I was first diagnosed as a doctoral student, not when I was hired, not when I was seeking promotion or tenure, and not when I became department chair. Why not? I continued to act as though it was a private, individual matter that had minimal bearing on my work even though I was writing and teaching about the important role ADD has played in my life, how it is as much a product of environment as biology, how it is a social not individual phenomenon, and while demanding that others take disability into account. How does anyone make any sense of that?

I married my college sweetheart at age 23, a person with the same background, religion, and race as me, in a big Catholic wedding, even though I vowed as a teenager that I would never get married and never have children. I did that because I had internalized the social mores of my culture and society. I became convinced that I wanted to be married even though I didn’t want to be married. Internalization is becoming convinced that something that is not true is in fact true, that something you know is false is not something that is false. It is Sartrean bad faith. It is powerful. Internalization is an endlessly fascinating, and frequently harm-producing, phenomenon. And, to make a horribly broad generalization, I am pretty convinced that it is inescapable—inescapable does not mean acceptable.

Loving the Black women in my life and actively resisting the presidency of Donald Trump and the rise (continuity) of White Nationalism in America has led me to see my own internalized racism more clearly. As a feminist educated mostly by second-wave feminists, it took teaching at a women’s college whose student population was less than 50 percent white, to see how white and heterosexual feminism usually is, and my feminism was. As a philosopher of disability, it took stepping away from philosophy to begin to realize that I stepped away from philosophy because of my disability, to recognize that I have internalized ableism. I thought that I identified as disabled, even proudly, but unless it was self-sabotage, it seems that I did not really see myself as disabled or in need of accommodations. Clearly lived experience and loving relationships play a much larger role than I have understood in recognizing and overcoming internalized biases. The fact that I have some cognitively disabled friends but my relationships with physically disabled people are quite limited suggests that there are huge gaps in my understanding of disability, gaps that need to be addressed. This realization makes me want to start over in my study of agnotology.

Maeve, what do you perceive as the most significant sources of the exclusion and inequity that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy?

I serve on the American Philosophical Association’s (APA’s) inaugural Committee on the Status of Disabled People in the Profession. Part of that work includes surveying professional philosophers on exactly this question. Our initial survey, undertaken while we were still a task force, was used to provide evidence backing up calls for an APA committee on disabled persons. We are now one year into being a committee and a lot of what we have done has been internal to the APA purposes, mainly weighing in on statements and policies from the perspective of disabled persons. We are beginning to generate forums for conversation about disability and philosophy. I am responsible for an upcoming session at the Eastern APA meeting in Baltimore, in January 2022, as part of the “Teaching Hub.” The session is designed to make philosophy teachers more aware of how ableism functions in the philosophy classroom and provide concrete steps for making philosophy classrooms more accessible. Our first official report is due at the end of this year, and my hope is that in years to come this committee will play a vital role in highlighting exclusionary practices in the field and increasing equity.

There is a lot to be done and said in answer to this question, and I would point readers to every single interview Shelley Tremain has done in this series as a better way to answer the question than to listen to me. What I can add to the conversation is this: a field that has long defined itself as the “queen of the sciences,” whose majors, many of whom subsequently become its professors, are often among a school’s honors students with the highest standardized testing scores and GPAs, is a field that will continue to struggle to include the cognitively disabled among its members, and, as a result, the perspectives of the cognitively disabled in its research and pedagogy.

A few years after my mom was diagnosed with a terminal neurological illness, I took a leave of absence from philosophy, so frustrated was I with the intellectual snobbery and inability of philosophers to see life as meaningful when cognitive capacities were limited, that I had to step away. For those two years, I worked as a rehabilitation assistant for a neuro-rehabilitation inpatient and outpatient company, a job that was all about finding ways to make life meaningful and enjoyable, and do-able, after cognitive injuries such as tumors, strokes, episodes of anoxia, traumatic brain injuries from car accidents and shootings, etc. I did everything from helping people with what are called ADLs—activities of daily living such as bathing, shopping, cooking, and medication management—to assisting in physical and occupational therapy sessions and working with clients at job sites. What I loved about the job was that our clients, with the help of our team, were successful in rewriting their life scripts. The former CEO found out that he loved, and was good at, cooking; the chef who lost his sense of smell found out he had friends and family who wanted the time with him that the restaurant life meant that he didn’t previously have; the high-school kid who lost all impulse control discovered that a well-trained dog could not only warn him when he was being unsafe, but give him huge amounts of joy as well; and the woman who could no longer walk developed a passion for all things computer-based.

What didn’t matter, in any of the cases that I just described, was who was the smartest person in the room. What did matter, in graduate school, was who was the smartest person in the room. I am so grateful that I got a chance to see, early on in my career, that more was possible, that IQ scores don’t determine success or happiness. That was when I first got interested in cognitive disability and going places with my mom once she was using a wheelchair was my first introduction to how pervasive ableism is (hint: a short staircase into a restaurant or theater means it does not qualify as accessible, despite managers on the phone claiming that it is).

Tell us about your current research projects, including your artwork and its connections to your philosophical endeavours.

Back in 2014, a book editor reached out asking me to submit a proposal based on my 2013 article “Feminism, Disability, and Evolutionary Psychology: What’s Missing?” which appeared in the special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly that you guest edited. Despite my best efforts, and for all the reasons that led me to resign, I was unable to complete that project. Now that I, once again, have mental space and physical time in which to work, I am beginning some new projects. I will be chairing the upcoming teaching hub panel with presentations by Amadine Catala, Rachel Levit Ades, Devonya Havis, and Jennifer Scuro. I am working on a book chapter on cognitive disability and philosophy for your forthcoming anthology on philosophy of disability, and I will be presenting an early version of that chapter at the upcoming Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 2 conference that you and Jonathan Wolff are co-organizing.

Mainly, I spend my time learning about and making art. I have always taken art classes when I had the chance, but never did more than that. During my second sabbatical, not long after my father passed away, I was able to take a semester-long life-drawing course with Paul Goodnight at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Goodnight had PTSD and was, at one time, nonverbal due to military service in Vietnam. Art and drawing became his language, enabling him to process the horrors that he experienced and subsequently communicate verbally again. His courses are masterworks in classical drawing, starting with the forms, and building to the skeleton and musculature. The realization that art can heal, bring life back, celebrate the human figure, and be an inclusive, accessible place in an ableist world is what turned my former pastime into a passion. I have been drawing almost daily since the pandemic began; it has been my source of life and community, and my means of expression amidst a very different set of horrors.

[Description of image below: A charcoal drawing, which is an example of the kind of work that Goodnight taught Maeve to do. The drawing depicts a sitting pregnant woman with her right arm extended and her chin resting on the closed hand.]

My work is largely figurative, with some experimentation in landscape and abstraction. I am drawn to the physicality of the human being, the flesh filled out, rounded, dimpled, and proudly on display. Most of my drawings are made during live life-drawing sessions, with models who are nondisabled. On occasion, I have had the good fortune to work with pregnant models, but so far none of the models has been obviously disabled. That is why I also do collage.

My collage work intends to make visible and desirable bodily diversity. The creatures that I create are part human, part cyborg, some with amputated limbs or appendages, others with canes, swords, or fancy hats. My favorite piece, “Maeve’s Army,” included with this interview, was born of desperation and hopelessness.

The creatures are set in a Wolf Khan-like magical forest, in the midst of a battle against white supremacy. The “otherness” of their bodies, and likely of their minds, is the very reason that they will succeed where no neurotypical, able-bodied person has. The piece is a call to recognize the critical role that disabled people can and have played in rooting out internalized biases and bad faith. It is an imaginary scene because our society has yet to fully recognize and put into practice these valuable contributions. As Kym Oliver of “The Triple Cripples” pointed out at Healing Justice London’s recent “Liberation Through the Lens of Disability Justice” forum, disabled people are always there, in every struggle (and, she added, their outcomes are often worse).

[Description of image below: the watercolour collage depicts a coloured forest scene with hills and water, tree trunks, and fields of groundcover and includes five collaged creatures, three standing with one arm raised, and one of which has an amputated lower leg and a sword; and two flying creatures, one with wings, a head and torso, and a left thigh.]

I wouldn’t be doing this much art were it not for the vibrant, nurturing, boundary-pushing community founded by artists Laura Shabott and Alana Barrett. There are about 45 of us studying with Shabott and Barrett, all via Zoom, and we are about to have our fourth art show as a collective, through Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Being part of a community is a form of accessibility. Having regular access to a group of people who share common interests and goals and who actively support each other makes my work possible. The institutions hosting our online classes are similarly engaged in increasing accessibility. Like many people, I have medical conditions that put me at high risk for severe COVID and my partner is in a high-risk age group. Returning to face-to-face learning would literally risk both of our lives and at least some institutions are recognizing that. Online classes are also a form of economic accessibility.

There is also a connection between my art and my other disability. In addition to ADD, I have an auditory-processing disorder, a condition which impacts my interpretation of sounds, especially speech. What that means is that when people are talking to me, I have to work very very hard to listen and pay attention, I can’t just assume that what I “heard” is what the person said or meant to communicate. Over time, I learned that repeating back to students and colleagues the questions they had asked, helped me correct any errors in my processing; but this is a practice with limits. A person can’t repeat back every utterance made at a conference, in a meeting, in a classroom, on a phone call, or in an online chat. The cognitive demands on me in all those situations are significantly higher than they are for neurotypicals.

Those who are used to hearing me talk are often surprised at how different I sound in my written communications. In writing, my words have a flow, a formality, and a precision to them that they don’t have when I talk—unless I am furious, somehow the rage makes me focus like nothing else can and my writing voice is able to do the talking. Imagine needing to stop and take your time when articulating something in speech at those dinner-table debates mentioned earlier; and you might be able to imagine how frustrating those experiences were for me. Then think about the informal ways that people get hired and move ahead in philosophy and other fields, so-called “networking,” a mainly spoken-word phenomenon that can occur at any moment and in which a person has only one chance to sound “smart” and capable before losing the potential colleague or employer’s interest. The idea that people can and should be able to give an “elevator speech” at a moment’s notice is yet another form of unacknowledged ableism.

How does this connect to art? Art is gloriously non-verbal, at least the kind of art that I make. Instead of depleting me, it enlivens me; it gives me a “voice” that doesn’t require words; it is a way of problem solving and making connections that doesn’t rely on my weaknesses but on my strengths.  You can find more examples of my work on my website.

Maeve, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed or anything that you would like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon? Do you want to recommend any articles or other materials related to something you’ve mentioned in this interview?

Shelley, I won’t add anything here for now. Thank you again for asking me what I think and giving me a chance to tell others what it is like to be a cognitively disabled philosopher. I am happy to say more in the comments section and answer any questions about this interview there. As for articles and other materials, I have tried to link to a number of resources throughout the interview. Rather than give a list of additional items here, I will respond to requests for materials in the comments section.

Maeve, thanks so much for sharing your art and for your insightful comments about how ableism is embedded within the structures and mechanisms of philosophy as a discipline and a practice. I look forward to learning more from you in the presentation that you give in December and your contribution to the forthcoming Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Maeve O’Donovan’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, October 20th for the seventy-ninth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

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