A Look Back on Forty Years at Oxford

Kent Linville in a photo from the 1970s (above) and in his Seney Hall office (below), where behind him can be seen a charcoal drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of his dissertation and later academic research.

Kent Linville, professor of philosophy, dean of academic affairs, and chief academic officer, will retire in May 2012. Here he looks back on his academic life and forty 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 a tour of duty in Greenland, and because I could type, I was assigned to the headquarters company, where I was surrounded by officers and others with 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 the University of California, Santa Barbara (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. How did you wind up at Oxford?

As I was finishing my PhD at UCSB in 1972, Emory College was looking for a one-year sabbatical replacement in philosophy. I got the position and moved with my young family to Atlanta. In the meantime, an 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 taught 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 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 the classroom. It is fun to teach philosophy to eighteen-year-olds. Philosophy helps give them analytical skills. It demands clear 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—the stage of life is the same—eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. 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 liberal arts institution.

What are your plans for retirement?

I have not decided exactly what the next project will be. But my wife Mary Ann and I will remain in Oxford, our home now for nearly forty years. I will certainly continue to be interested in following and helping in any way possible the progress of Oxford College.

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