Loyola University Chicago

Department of Philosophy

An Interview with Merritt Rehn-DeBraal

A photo of PhD graduate Merrit Rehn-DeBraal on graduation day, holding her daughter Mila, who is also wearing a PhD graduation cap.
Merritt Rehn-DeBraal with her child, Mila.

Merritt Rehn-DeBraal graduated from our PhD in Philosophy program in 2015. Dr. Rehn-DeBraal's dissertation title was "Surviving History of Sexuality: A Feminist-Foucauldian Approach to Sexual Violence and Survival." Read more about Dr. Rehn-DeBraal's work on Foucault and feminist philosophy in this interview, conducted by Ciaran Rhys, PhD graduate student. 

What initially interested you about philosophy? What inclined you to pursue graduate work in the field?

In high school I had the opportunity to study philosophy as part of a humanities class. I mainly remember reading Plato and Nietzsche—I don’t think we even read any women. But I was hooked. I connected with the questions they were asking and appreciated that philosophy gave me a new set of concepts and language for making sense of things.

In undergrad I took a class on Foucault, feminist philosophy, and queer theory, where I started asking some of the questions that would end up forming the basis of my dissertation. Those questions were still gnawing at me a few years after undergrad while I was doing data editing for a company that published alumni directories (just as exciting as it sounds!). I decided that wherever I ended up professionally, I needed to at least follow those questions through and see where they led. They ended up leading me to Loyola and to discovering my love of teaching!

Your dissertation was entitled “Surviving History of Sexuality: A Feminist-Foucauldian Approach to Sexual Violence and Survival”. This is both timely and significant given recent efforts to support survivors of sexual assault and the ongoing struggle to end gender based violence. How did you decide on your dissertation topic? What was the writing process like?

It seems to always be a timely topic, unfortunately. In part this is encouraging because it means people are paying attention and trying to change things, but it’s sometimes discouraging to see how far we still have to go. It’s also a difficult topic to spend so much time researching and writing on. But sexual violence is a topic that is close to me and many people I know, and there is a lot of important work to be done on it.

For me, the writing process was slow, and it took me a long time to finish. Oddly enough, I ended up writing the majority of my dissertation in a three-month period not long after my daughter was born. Uninterrupted work time suddenly became very precious, and this was apparently the push I needed to finish. I remember spending many hours writing at Coffee Studio in Andersonville. Some days my husband would bring my daughter there so I could nurse and then keep working. It was a seriously chaotic time, but at the end of it, I had a completed dissertation! I’m also grateful to have had such a supportive dissertation director, Andrew Cutrofello, who would turn drafts of chapters around to me very quickly with lots of focused helpful feedback.

Speaking more generally, which arguments of Foucault’s do you see as most relevant for feminist philosophy currently? Are there any ideas of Foucault’s which present particular problems for gender justice in your view?

A lot of Foucault’s work is relevant to feminist philosophy, but I’ve been most interested in his critique of “sex” and “sexuality” and its implications for feminist approaches to sexual violence. Until more recently, Foucault has been largely overlooked as a resource in this area in part because the few times he did explicitly address issues related to sexual violence he didn’t do the best job of it. I do think that some of his comments on sexual violence have been misunderstood or taken out of context, but feminists are nonetheless right to be critical here. And in general, I don’t find many of his actual comments on sexual violence that helpful.

That said, what Foucault is doing in texts like History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 is really important for philosophical and political work on sexual violence, perhaps in ways that Foucault himself did not fully anticipate. In giving us “a history of the present,” Foucault helps us to see what is unique or taken for granted in modern conceptions of sex and sexuality so we can then ask what these concepts are doing for us.

For his part, Foucault sees contradictions and limits in our thinking about sexuality that are experienced most palpably by those marked as deviating from the “norm.” Though Foucault doesn’t take his analysis in this direction, these limits and contradictions are also experienced quite acutely by victims and survivors of sexual violence (whether or not we want to say—given the pervasiveness of sexual violence—that their experience actually deviates from the norm.)

Foucault’s work can thus help us examine how modern thinking about sex and sexuality is (and is not) working for victims/survivors so that we can come up with healthier conceptions of sex and sexuality that better serve survivors. In addition, where there are misconceptions (or harmful assumptions) about what constitutes sexual violence or what it means to be a victim, survivor, or perpetrator of sexual violence, Foucault’s work can help us to identify and grapple with the foundation of these misconceptions/assumptions.

As a PhD student at Loyola, what learning experiences most contributed to your development as a philosophy professor?

There are so many I could talk about! Since I’m primarily teaching focused, I’ll focus on that here.

I really learned the most about teaching from TAing for Jackie Scott and from her continued mentorship over the years. In the beginning I had so much anxiety about being in front of the classroom. Aside from Jackie’s pedagogical skill and knowledge, she was endlessly patient with me and so generous and encouraging in the feedback she gave me. It’s hard to really convey how much Jackie helped to shape the teacher I am now, but I still use strategies I learned from her with my students every day.

The philosophy department also hosted an American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) workshop while I was there that had a profound impact on my teaching and course design. I’ve stayed involved with the AAPT since then, which has connected me with an amazing community of philosophers committed to engaged teaching.

You design some very innovative assignments for your philosophy students. I believe you recently asked them to write about themselves as though they were characters in the Symposium, Plato’s dialogue on love, desire and friendship? Can you tell us a little about the course, the assignment instructions, and perhaps share a few examples of the assignments your students wrote?

Yes, this was a lot of fun! I’m currently teaching intro courses at an institution where I’m the only full-time philosophy instructor, and for the vast majority of my students this course is the first and only exposure to philosophy that they will ever get. That’s a lot of responsibility! So I’m always trying to think of new ways to get them engaged and make the course as relevant to them as possible.

For the first paper assignment in my Intro to Philosophy courses this past Spring, I asked students to write themselves into Plato’s Symposium. The only requirements were that they identify the point in the text where they were entering the conversation, include some description of themselves as a character, and demonstrate understanding of at least one of the speakers who came before them. The rest was entirely up to them! Students then shared their papers in small groups and had their own mini-symposiums.

My main goal with this early assignment was to set the course up as a dialogue where they all have something valuable to contribute. I’m at a Hispanic serving institution made up largely of first generation college students, and it’s important to me that they’re all able to see themselves as having a place in philosophy. I wasn’t sure how the assignment was going to go, but they totally ran with it in such creative and interesting ways. And so many of them demonstrated that they GOT the text. I also learned a ton about my students from this assignment, and it was encouraging to see them engaging Plato while also bringing their whole selves and a critical lens to the text.

Some examples: An artist student used a palette metaphor to explain love. A female student corrected Aristophanes when he assumed she was a servant. A student of color wrote himself into the dialogue as a slave. A wheelchair got written into the text as a golden horseless chariot descending from the heavens. One of my quiet students spent the majority of the paper hiding in the corner, and I got to cheer her on in the margins when her character finally got up to speak. A handful of students looked up or invented Greek versions of their names. Some of them researched historical information about battles or prophets or their own religion or the distance from Athens to (what will one day be) Hawaii so that they could include this in their dialogue. And then there were the many wonderful representations of Socrates and interactions with him! So many students who struggle with the mechanics of writing still managed to get Socrates’ tone and the kinds of questions he would ask just right. Other students turned the tables on Socrates and asked him tons of their own excellent questions. One student even punched Socrates in the face (haven’t we all been there?)!

What philosophical concepts or theories are among your favorites to teach? Which do you think have the greatest impact on your students?

I love talking to my students about the ethics of eating meat, in part because student engagement is so high when bacon is at stake! Mainly though, so many of the popular arguments for eating meat are just so poorly thought out that when I mirror the arguments back to students the conversations become really absurd and silly and we end up laughing a lot. Being able to laugh together builds community in the classroom and tends to cut through some of students’ nervousness about speaking in class or talking about certain subjects. One has to be very careful with this, of course, but in this context, I’ve found that laughter helps to disarm some students’ defensiveness about eating meat and open up cognitive space for them to do the more serious work of critically examining assumptions or gaps in their reasoning. In the end, my goal isn’t to convince students that they should or shouldn’t be eating meat, but to help them be more intentional about the choices they’re making and demonstrate to them that philosophy can help them do this.

Regarding what has the greatest impact on students, I think it’s Daniel Dennett’s/Anatol Rapoport’s rules for charitable criticism. The rules are as follows:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.[1]

In my ethics/moral issues classes, I’ve had students apply these rules by interviewing someone who disagrees with them on a controversial issue (e.g., abortion, the border wall, kneeling during the National Anthem). Their assignment is to learn as much about their interviewee’s position as possible without arguing against them and then write a paper following the first three steps only. More recently, I’ve had students then revise this paper into a letter to their interviewee where they include Step 4.

Over and over students report that this was the most valuable assignment for them. Often they end up being surprised to realize that they were able to learn something from their interviewee or even have these kinds of conversations at all. Some students end up connecting with people in their lives in a new way. Many students tell me that they have always tended to avoid political conversations but that this experience has given them the tools to have these conversations in productive ways. At the end of the day, students are having philosophical conversations with all kinds of people about all kinds of difficult topics without screaming at each other, and I count that as a win.

[1] Dennett, Daniel C., Intuition Pumps & Other Tools for Thinking (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 33-34. Cited in Maria Popova. “How to Criticize with Kindness.” Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/28/daniel-dennett-rapoport-rules-criticism/