Features

Let’s Talk About Minds: An Interview with Robin Zebrowski

IMAGE BY ERIK MAGNUSON

By Matthew Prosser
CONTRIBUTOR

Robin Zebrowski has taught at Beloit College since 2008.  Her work spans the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, the three comprehensive areas of the human mind, brain and nervous system.  She began her education at Rutgers University, a school that, initially unbeknownst to her, was a worldwide leader in Cognitive Neuroscience.  After earning her degree in psychology and English, she began studying at Binghamton University, where she would earn her master’s degree.  She then attended University of Oregon, finally receiving another master’s in philosophy and her Ph.D.  Zebrowski currently teaches classes in all three of her areas of expertise, where she enjoys working with students who are passionate about the study of the mind, the nervous system and everything they encompass.  Along with teaching, she does research and theory work, working on embodiment theory and the role the body plays in cognition.

Why did you decide to teach at Beloit?

When I was in the job market, I didn’t know whether I wanted to work as a cognitive scientist or as a philosopher, since I had been in a philosophy department most recently.  I actually ended up applying to jobs in both fields.  The places that I interviewed for philosophy, when I went to them the students were there as a stepping-stone.  And when I visited Beloit, the students were incredible and the students were all interested.  They all wanted to know what I did, and they actually wanted to talk about minds with me. So the fact that both Beloit wanted me to do cognitive science specifically, work across all of these departments I was trained in, as well as the awesome students, made me decide that Beloit was the right place.

What do you like most about teaching?

A lot of the time, one of my favorite things about teaching is simply that when I show up to the classroom, people have questions.  They’ve read the material and either disagree with it, or have something interesting to say about it — we get to have a conversation.  If I was at the kind of place where I just lecture about the material, I’d be a lot less happy about it.  But just being able to show up and have a conversation with people is probably my favorite thing about teaching.

What is your favorite book?

“Distress” by Greg Egan is probably up there.  Also, “The Einstein Intersection” by Samuel Delany or almost anything by Philip K. Dick.  They’re all science fiction writers.  And, if you asked me tomorrow, I’m sure I would have different answers.  Right now I’m reading something wonderful by Michael Chabon — he’s a contemporary fiction writer.  I’m also a big fan of comic books.  So in that case I would probably say that something by Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison would be high on my list. Philosophy, neuroscience and psychology are very similar, but also very different subjects.

In general, and in your classes, how do the three tend to overlap?

When I was an undergrad, all of the cognitive psychology professors were affiliated with this center for cognition, and all of the philosophers of mind were also affiliated with this center.  And what this meant was I couldn’t take a class in cognitive psychology that wasn’t infused with the discussions those professors were having with philosophers, and I could not take a philosophy of mind class that wasn’t infused with the discussions they had been having with the psychologists.  They leaked into each other  so obviously, that I never knew how to separate them.  I left that institution convinced that you couldn’t talk about philosophy of mind without seriously talking about psychology as well, and vice-versa.  And so I’ve never really know them as separate disciplines.  Even if you’re asking metaphysical questions, like philosophy is, you have to look at what the world is offering us to rule out some of the questions.

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