‘The ‘no bullshit’ attitude is nice’

American academics Veronica and Mark Alfano recently started as assistant and associate professors respectively of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology in TU Delft’s Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.

Delta had a chat with them about Dutch students, their pet rabbit, and why philosophy and literature are important to
TU Delft.

How are you finding the Netherlands so far?
Veronica: “There was a certain amount of red tape to cut through but it’s not as much of a culture shock as we thought. We are from the East coast, so culturally in many ways it feels closer to what we are used to.”

How did you both end up here at TU Delft?
Veronica: “We’ve been on the market for a while, but had the luxury of making it clear we are a ‘package deal’. We did lots of very broad applying, and this was the place that was welcoming to both of us as a pair.”

How has your first semester been? What have you been doing?
Veronica: “Lots of teaching for me. I have a joint appointment both in philosophy and language and academic skills, so different kinds of teaching. It has been fun, we really like the students here. They are incredibly hard working, motivated, interested in learning, and intellectually invested in the material. It has been an adjustment for us, but everything to do with the students has been really a joy.”

Mark: “My appointment is only in philosophy. I am working on a climate ethics class which is obviously very important right now with recent conference in Paris, as well as ethics for aerospace engineering. On top of that I have got a lot of research projects going.”

Have you noticed a difference in university culture between here and the USA?
Veronica: “We have experienced quite a wide variety of university cultures even within the States; we have been at Ivy League schools, a community college and bigger state schools, so there was a lot of variation there. What we like here is that people are genuinely invested in their subject matter, and already a bit more specialised early on. They are very self-regulating. Here you can say go off on your own and prepare this presentation, have it done in two weeks, and they will actually have done it.”

Mark: “Here I think they view it in a traditional way, in that the teacher is there because they have expertise and I should take advantage of that. If I don’t take advantage of that, it’s my fault. I think they are very self-reliant and academically serious here.”

Does this attitude make your jobs easier?
Mark: “A lot!”

Have you noticed a difference in teaching at a technical university compared with other institutions?
Mark: “Most of my students have usually been philosophy majors, or general education students, not in hard sciences or engineering. What I find really impressive about engineering students is that they are very attentive to detail, and whether the evidence supports the conclusion. They don’t just say things that sound nice. That sort of ‘no bullshit’ attitude is a really nice thing to have in philosophy.”

Veronica: “My background is in literature, and teaching in the States I was always really impressed with the STEM people I came across because, as Mark said, they really understood the concept of evidence. They are really rigorous in their thought. Even at a non-technical university I noticed these patterns. Here almost all the students think like that, and that’s been really wonderful.”

What is the importance of less technical subjects, like literature and philosophy, at TU Delft?
Mark: “There are a lot of big answers to that… in engineering you want to understand things so you can make them better. That means you need to have some kind of understanding of what it means for something to be good, bad, better or worse. And that, I think, is the perfect place for philosophy to come in, especially ethics. While there are parts of philosophy that are esoteric and difficult to get your head around these sorts of value areas are really useful, and directly applicable to that part of the field.”

Veronica: “I am teaching a variety of classes, some to do with communication. The relevance there is pretty clear. You can have all sorts of brilliant ideas, theories and results, but if you can’t communicate them you are in trouble. It is important to understand the role that technology has played in the imagination of a culture, and that’s something literary analysis can show us; how science functions in the cultural conscious. Literature also teaches us habits of careful analysis and textual analysis, which can be generalised to careful thought and careful critical thinking.”

Mark, can you tell us a little about you research on Nietzsche and on obituaries?
Mark: “Unfortunately I first read Nietzsche when I was a teenage boy, which should not be allowed. I took a break from that and came back to reading him in the past few years. What I find interesting about him is he is completely unconstrained by social norms. He can be very insightful, which means when he is right he is right about something no one else thought about. When he is wrong he is so wildly wrong you can just move on. As for the obituary project, I was teaching a graduate seminar in Oregon and we were reading a book called Virtues of the Mind. In it the author mentions ‘you can tell what counts as a virtue or vice in a particular culture, or a particular type of person by what they are willing to say about someone after they are dead’, but she didn’t actually look into obituaries. I started reading a few, and after a few months passed I had read about 1,000 obituaries from different parts of the States, and extracted the character talk in them (e.g. calling someone hard working or honest). I teamed up with some people in digital humanities, psychology and personality psychology to analyse this data looking at patterns or currents. If someone is described as having a good sense of humour are they also described as honest or hardworking? We are also looking at various demographic categories like gender, age and location to predict what is said about people. On the one hand, this helps us identify virtues and values that are currently un-theorised or under-theorised in philosophical literature. On the other hand, we don’t assume just because a trait showed up in obituaries, it really is a virtue.”

Veronica: “My role in the project has more to do with the literary technique of close reading. I’m going to check results by carefully analysing certain obituaries. We are also going to add another component by pairing the kinds of virtues and values you find in modern American obituaries to the kinds found in poetic elegies. What does that artistic context change about how we want to remember people? Do the same sorts of gender imbalances and patterns, or friend and family relations keep showing up?”

Veronica, can you talk about your research on Lyrics and Victorian literature?
Veronica: “It’s about 19th century British poetry. By lyrics I mean essentially relatively short poems. It’s a contested term, one that I think is still useful, and I am basically interested in the theme of memory. Short poems either try to recapture or hang onto a certain past moment of impression or feeling. At the same time, as it is obsessively focusing on certain limited aspect of the past, there is also a kind of elision, vagueness of forgetting in that. I am interested in this combination of memory, or commemoration, interlaced with forgetting or amnesia.”

Is it hard to keep a work life separation, working and living together?
Veronica: “In the past we always had a shared workspace with two desks, but my workspace now is a tiny room. The physical layout of our apartment, the fact that my workspace is upstairs with a closed door and Mark is downstairs means we can work at home without distracting each other. Then we leave our workspaces and come to the dinner table, or watch Netflix. Also the fact that it is a moderate trip from The Hague to Delft helps. I think the layout of our living space, and living in The Hague has helped make that healthy.”

Mark: “Having the small commute is useful. I made a point of taking all of my books to the office, so half the time even if I want to work at home I can’t. That has really improved my work life balance.”

We hear you have a very cute rabbit – can you tell us about her?
Veronica: “I love that the word on the rabbit has gotten out! Her name is Nori, named after one of the dwarves in ‘The Hobbit’. A lot of people think she is named after the seaweed but she is named after the dwarf because she is a dwarf rabbit. She weighs three pounds, she is tiny and adorable. We have had her since 2009 and she has moved with us several times. She is extremely cute and a great stress reliever. I recommend rabbits.”

Mark: “And she charmed her way across the border.”

Veronica: “Yes! Us getting into the country was actually laughably easy, but the rabbit was more complicated. We had to go through ‘Something to Declare’ with a live animal. We had the paperwork, but it was clear the gentleman at customs that day had no idea what to do with the rabbit. He was asking strange questions; ‘so is she nice? Is she easy going?’

I knew how to circumvent this. I took her out of her carrier and asked ‘Can you say no to this face?’ and – this is literally what he said word for word – ‘No, I cannot. I melt’. So the rabbit was our kind of calling card, charming her way across the border.”

Mark: “Only a few days later we realised a mascot for the Netherlands is Nijntje, or Miffy.”



Mark Alfano received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2011, going on to be a postdoctoral fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Academic Study and at Princeton University. He then spent several years as Associate Professor at the University of Oregon before accepting his current position at TU Delft. He is writing a research monograph on Nietzsche and data-mining obituaries.

Veronica Alfano received her PhD in English literature from Princeton University in 2011. Since then she has taught at a number of institutions in the USA; Indiana University, City University of New York and the University of Oregon. She splits her time at TU Delft between Ethics and Philosophy of Technology, the Centre for Languages and Academic Skills, and her book is titled The Lyric in Victorian Memory.

Editor Redactie

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.