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Dickinson College Philosophy Major Shares Her Passion for Philosophy While Tackling Social Issues

Alison Bailey ’83

Blending her passions for philosophy and social issues, former philosophy major Alison Bailey ’83, author and professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Illinois State University, credits Dickinson for teaching her the importance and power of being a public intellectual. In her work, she tackles issues at the intersection of social epistemology, feminist theory and philosophy of race. Her new book, The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorance, was released in winter 2021. 

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?

I tell everyone this … I got a fantastic liberal-arts education at Dickinson. As a curious and highly motivated learner, it was the perfect place for me to be. I majored in philosophy and minored in art history. My undergraduate experience inspired me to continue my education in applied philosophy at Colorado State University. I took a year off after my M.A. to do social justice work in England. When I returned to the U.S., I decided to get a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, where I did graduate work in moral philosophy and epistemology. I eventually got an academic position in the philosophy department at Illinois State University, where I now direct the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Dickinson’s liberal-arts education remains the template for my definition of what counts as having a well-rounded education. I carry that model with me in my committee work on campus.

In the wake of COVID-19 and demographic downturns, many colleges and universities are choosing to sacrifice liberal-arts principles on the altar of austerity. Far too many universities are pivoting to sell prepacked sets of skills for the job market. I think there is a place for this kind of education, but our job is not to just produce workers for industry, and it’s a huge mistake to marginalize the humanities and arts. Higher education has a moral and civic obligation to produce kind and thoughtful human beings, who will be empathetic citizens, good environmental stewards, deep critical thinkers and joyous poets, artists and musicians. I’m grateful that Dickinson continues to center the value of a liberal-arts education, because I truly believe that a broad education is good for our planet and our collective being.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

I was very involved in the Hermitage Coffeehouse, which used to be in the basement of Adams Hall. It was one of the few alternative social spaces on campus. Every Friday night we’d gather to listen to first rate folk music, spoken word or student performances. I remember hearing Mike Seeger (Pete Seeger’s brother) there. He played for the entire evening with his dog by his side. I thought that was so cool. I was also involved in WDCV, the on-campus radio station, for three years. A few of us tried to start an on-campus feminist organization, but it didn’t quite gain the momentum we thought it would. I also did lots of hiking and camping. Pennsylvania is indeed a beautiful state, and I took advantage of the hiking trails in the area.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

I took at least three years of mandolin lessons and music instruction during my time on campus. One year, Dr. Cyril Dwiggins, head of the Department of Philosophy, and I did a comic duet performance for Alumni Weekend. We got lots of laughs, and it was a memorable event. I think there is a photo of us in one of the catalogues. I also remember going to Washington, D.C., to attend a labor rally. A group of Dickinson faculty had organized the bus trip, and we rode to the District in an old school bus with the Hershey’s chocolate workers’ union. It was my first time in the capital, and the event sparked my interest social justice work.

How do you stay involved with Dickinson? 

I’m in regular contact with friends from my time in Carlisle. I really enjoy keeping up with the news through Dickinson Magazine. Also, there are several Dickinson alumni among our ISU faculty. We often recall our time in Carlisle.

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?

Like most people, I stumbled into academic work. I never set out to be a university professor, but I knew that I absolutely loved philosophy. I took a moral theory course with Professor of Philosophy Susan Feldman during my sophomore year, and I was hooked. I went on to get an M.A. in applied ethics. My thesis, Posterity and Strategic Policy:  A Moral Assessment of Nuclear Weapons Policy, was published as a monograph. The applied dimensions of philosophy excite me the most. My recent book, The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorance (Lexington, 2021), is a sustained reflection of white privilege during these times. I can trace my passion for these ideas directly back to the energetic passion and curiosity the Dickinson professors modeled for me. They taught me the importance and power of being a public intellectual. My excitement for philosophy and social issues informs my teaching. I still really love teaching and mentoring our students.

What does your current work entail?

I’ve been working on issues at the intersections of social epistemology, feminist theory and philosophy of race for the past 10 years. My recent book, The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorancemade a timely entrance into the world. I was writing it in the midst of national discussions on race, police violence and public contestations over confederate monuments. So my book literally came into the world at a time when the weight of whiteness had come up to claim us as a nation…again. The book has strongly autobiographical chapters. Philosophy comes from our lives, but so few philosophers name and engage their personal histories. Doing this was new for me.

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

A few things come to mind.

Genealogy: My father, my partner and I spent several summers doing archival research on my paternal family line. My father did not know anything about his ancestry, and I wanted to gift him with the stories that had been lost. I wrote two books for him that resurrected our family history and made sense of the boxes of artifacts and papers he inherited and passed along to me. It was a wonderous adventure. You are never the same person once your ancestry comes into place. It’s humbling and exciting.

Hiking: About 10 years ago, I hiked across England with a group of friends including Gina Psaki ’80.

Sabbatical: I spent a yearlong sabbatical in Washington, D.C., two years ago, and I gave the distinguished faculty lecture on my campus that spring.

Started the Bloomington-Normal Clothesline Project: The Clothesline Project is a nationwide visual display of violence statistics that often go ignored. Each shirt is made by a survivor of violence or by someone who has lost a loved one to violence. The color of each shirt represents a different type of violence. These creations are then hung on a clothesline to make the violence visible. The purpose of the project is to increase awareness of the impact of violence and abuse, to honor a survivor’s strength to continue and to provide another avenue for them to courageously break the silence that often surrounds their experience. I first saw this display when I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I knew I had to bring this idea back to my community as both an educational and healing tool.

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Published March 26, 2021