Linville Looks Back on 40 Years at Oxford
May 08, 2012
Kent Linville, professor of philosophy and dean of academic affairs and chief academic officer of Oxford College, will retire following Oxford Commencement 2012. In this interview, he looks back on his academic life and 40 years at Oxford
Let's start with the question most philosophers are asked. Why and how did you choose philosophy for your course of study and life's work?
Well, it is an unusual route that starts with my being a high school dropout. Not knowing what I wanted to do, I quit high school and joined the Army. I wound up with an 18-month tour of duty in Greenland. Because I had taken typing in high school, they assigned me to the headquarters company, where I was surrounded by officers and others who had college degrees. It was my introduction to a broader world of ideas. When I finished my stint in the military, I enrolled in what is now California State University Northridge with every intention of transferring to an engineering program at UCLA. I had taken a philosophy elective, and it happened that just before I was to go to UCLA, I visited a friend who was working on a PhD in philosophy at UCSB. That visit influenced me so much, I changed my mind at the last moment and switched to a philosophy major.
What was your subject of concentration in philosophy?
I did my dissertation on Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his thought has remained a focus of my research.
You are a native Californian, and you did all of your undergraduate and graduate work there. How did you wind up at Oxford?
As I was finishing my PhD in 1972, Emory College was looking for someone to teach philosophy as a one-year sabbatical replacement. I interviewed and got the position and moved with my young family to Atlanta. In the meantime, a tenure-track opening became available at Oxford, and I was hired by Dean Bond Fleming, who had been the sole professor of philosophy here. Oxford College and the city of Oxford have been my home ever since.
You became Oxford's first dean for academic affairs in 1991 and continued also to teach until 2001. How do you feel about your dual roles?
I had never aspired to be an administrator; this role was serendipitous. But it has been a privilege to lead the Oxford College faculty and to have the opportunity to help make Oxford a better version of itself.
As for teaching, quite simply I love it. In some ways I am bashful, but I feel at home on the stage of teaching. It is fun to teach philosophy to 18-year-olds. Philosophy helps give them analytical skills, and it demands clarity of communication. It confronts them with real questions that have no pat answers, and I believe it helps prepare them for adulthood.
How would you characterize Oxford then and now?
Compared to when I came in 1973, of course , Oxford is bigger and more diverse in every way. But students themselves have not changed all that much-they are still at the same stage of life as freshmen and sophomores. Still, I feel that Oxford now has a clarity and acceptance of its teaching mission as never before, and it rewards good teaching. Our physical plant is greatly improved, and we have strengthened our ties to the University yet kept our ethos as a free-standing liberal-arts institution.
What are your plans for retirement?
I have not decided exactly what the next project after retirement will be. But my wife Mary Ann and I will remain in Oxford, our home now for 40 years. I'll certainly continue to be interested in following and helping in any way possible the progress of Oxford College.