Shay Welch

APA Member Interview: Shay Welch

Shay Welch is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Spelman College.  She specializes in Native American Philosophy, Feminist Ethics, and Social/Political Philosophy.

What excites you about philosophy?

What excites me most about philosophy is the actual journey and excruciating intellectual labor of doing philosophy.  I have never been much of a brainiac or traditional academic.  I had never really done well in school historically because I was just bored by literally everything.  All of that changed when I encountered philosophy.  There is a thrill and a passion, for me, that comes from sitting down and exploring my ideas about the world as I experience it and then being able to hash them out and articulate them for others who may not have had such experiences or who have never considered such ideas in the way that I do.  I’ve always felt that when I put my philosophy out into the world that, in effect, I’ve served up a little slice of my soul to share with others who take a similar interest in the world as I see it.  That’s pretty damn exciting.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

So far my favorite piece is my Existential Eroticism book.  I had literally wanted to write that book since day one (ok, like day 9).  I grew up in a world quite different than many academics I’ve encountered and so my perspective on life and my view of the world has always seemed to be in tension with a lot of what I read.  I was always confused by why much of academic feminism portrayed lives of women that were already much more safe and healthy than most of what I experienced.  When I wrote the book, some feminist philosophers perceived my project as taking shots at them.  But that wasn’t my intention.  Rather my goal was to introduce and incorporate marginalized experiences into their conversations—conversations that I clearly thought were important or else I would not be a feminist philosopher or have read all their work.  I had thought that since most of what I had read hadn’t addressed such ways of life that it would be helpful to put forward the kinds of narratives and theorizing about said narratives so that they may be situated as equally deserving meat and potatoes, as it were, of philosophical attention rather than as footnote exceptions and pity-inducing stipulations.  It’s not particularly uncommon but I still find it rather curious that when marginalized women walk up and sit down at the table without asking for permission that they are perceived as trying to knock someone else out of their chair.  I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from women I don’t know, even some outside of academia, thanking me for writing about their experiences and how my book has helped them to think about their abuse and choices.  That’s all I really want philosophers, as a peer group, to do—to listen to and then directly and thoughtfully think about others unlike themselves without recentering themselves.

What are you most proud of in your professional life?

Honestly, the thing I’m most proud of is the thing I’m most ashamed of—how I’ve struggled with and continue to (barely) survive my mental illness.  I have severe Borderline Personality Disorder as a result of trauma and the only way I can describe it is that it makes me quite bonkers; I’ve always felt like I’ve lived in a state of unbridled madness that imbues me with debilitating anxiety and insecurity in the world, which in turn forces me to act out in ways that I know are going to be destructive but that I can’t seem to control.  This is especially true when I engage in professional philosophy contexts because I feel so out of place and constantly judged as not being the “proper” kind of scholar.  I know a lot of people have seen me turn into a shit show but I also know a lot of people have seen me slowly and painfully manage my symptoms as I try to train myself to function in healthy ways.  That I have accomplished so much in light of my mental illness gives me much to be proud of.  I’m always terrified that it will be the ultimate undoing of my professional reputation and career but I know I have much more to say and so I will continue my fight.  Being able to produce philosophy makes me feel real, alive, valuable as a thinking being, and worthy even as a damaged person.  If it weren’t for philosophy, I probably wouldn’t have survived this long.  It literally gives me something to live for; and for that, I am proud to be the messy philosopher that I am.

What are you working on right now?

Jesus mercy.  I’m working on a beast.  At the core, I’m working on generating a fully fleshed out analytic articulation of Native American epistemology.  But to do so, it’s leading me to cultivate a partner project in the philosophy of dance and embodied cognition.  As of right now, I am reading: Native philosophy, Native Studies, Dance Theory, Philosophy of Dance, Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Cognition, Philosophy of Language, mainstream Epistemology, Phenomenology, and I’m sniffing around Heidegger but I still cry every time I tried to read anything by or about him.  This project is going to take me years but I expect I’ll be publishing a number of varying and interdisciplinary pieces on the way to finally bringing it all together in a way that will yield a full account of Native epistemology.  But yo, this is much harder and bigger than I thought it was going to be.  But it’s also a blast.  I can feel my brain flexing in order to accommodate all the new material and quake in its attempt to synthesize so many distinct and seemingly unrelated ideas.  For me, philosophy has always been an experience similar to building with legos—throw any number of concepts and ideas in front of me and I will make something new and pretty from them.  Only this project feels like someone has thrown lincoln logs and nuts and washers and a kitchen sink into my pile and then dared me to try.

Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.


Actually, I think most people know about my talent but I always like to remind people because it’s so super cool.  I am an aerialist.  Like, of the circus sort.  I specialize in sling, I do some lyra, and I’ll be learning rope this summer.  I’ve had a lot of people think that I do aerial because it is the opposite of philosophy; that is, people have suggested that I must like aerial because it is entirely physical and must give me a mental break.  This could not be more of a misunderstanding of what I do and why I do it.  What immediately drew me to aerial is that it is an embodied way of doing conceptual analysis (while doing the splits in the air, of course).  I have physical disability in my legs, which means they’ve often been sort of useless for me. They prevent me from doing 99% of sports and 20% of basic movements but they also prevent me from doing 50% of aerial even though it’s not on the ground.  So what I do is study all the different kinds of aerial and apparatuses and then deconstruct them and reformulate them into new moves that didn’t already exist (as far as I can tell).  I then focus on stringing those moves together in unique sequences that exist fully to confuse and surprise my circus friends.  It’s the same lego analogy that I think of when I do philosophy.  I see my work in aerial as creating new concepts and arguments by ordering and reordering the embodied ideas of others in order to construct my own embodied schemas.  I spend at least half of my time in the aerial studio sitting on a mat thinking about how to create.  It’s pretty magical for me.

The other thing that everyone would be surprised about if I left it out is my love for my motorcycle.  I can’t believe I actually spent most of my life on four wheels rather than two * shiver *.  My other project this summer, in addition to all my research and aerial training, is to enroll in a motorcycle mechanic certification program and to take as many advanced precision riding classes as are available.  I might also make it to the race track.

What’s your top advice for APA members reading this?

I always direct my advice towards the young grasshoppers of marginalized groups in philosophy because they’re the ones who need it most.  The way I see it, there will always be people who think you don’t belong, there will always be people who think you don’t do real philosophy, there will always be people who hate what you do—regardless of what that is.  Most of us hate ourselves enough as it is.  So ultimately, my advice boils down to the following: YOU. DO. YOU.  Go rogue intellectually.  Run wild with your ideas.  Be fierce in your work and in your presence.  And more importantly, be fierce in your soul.  There is a place for you in philosophy.  Sometimes someone will invite you and sometimes you have to kick in the door.  But you belong.  Your work matters to more people than you know.  So don’t give up…but never give in.

As for those who are more established in philosophy, I advise that y’all uphold the commitments to diversity and inclusion that are so often articulated in job announcements.  Moreover, while I do believe that some policing of the discipline is important for differentiating what it is that we do from other disciplines, those boundaries need to be questioned, expanded, and constantly pushed against.  Philosophy is about the questions of life and not everyone’s life has brought them to nitty gritty technical debates.  Philosophical work done to flesh out and articulate experience is no less philosophical than conceptual work regarding the content of mental states and such.  And, surprise surprise, sometimes the best philosophical analysis must and should draw from other disciplines to be accurate. We often hear the phrase “strong is the new skinny”; well, by analogy I say “robust is the new parsimony”.  As is true with most things, less is very rarely more.  Meaty philosophy, my dear colleagues, is good philosophy.

Find out more about Shay here.

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