Math, metaphysics, love and fiction — Dr. Carrie Jenkins marries academia and creativity

When Carrie Jenkins applied to Cambridge University for their undergraduate degree in philosophy, they were called in for an interview with one of the faculty’s professors. He asked them what kind of career they hoped to achieve with a philosophy degree. Jenkins thought for a moment, and then said, “You know, I quite fancy your job.”

From then on, Jenkins’s path was clear. Throwing herself into the academic lifestyle, she achieved her BA, MA and eventually their PhD in philosophy at Cambridge. Now they teach philosophy at UBC, with an emphasis on the intersection between philosophy and the creative arts.  

Their research covers a broad range of subjects, from mathematics and metaphysics to the philosophy of love and fiction. They’ve also written a novel and co-authored a book of poetry with fellow academic and author Carla Nappi. But their plans weren’t always so diverse.

“My vision was very clear [in the early stages] of my life,” said Jenkins. “[It was] to become a philosopher and academic … I started to diversify what I do only when I was pretty far in.”

Philosophy is non-prescriptive — it flows through and underlies nearly every other field of study, and Jenkins said this freedom was one of the main factors that attracted her to the discipline in the first place. 

But as they moved through Cambridge’s academic apparatus, accumulating experience, degrees and no doubt a few late-night stress headaches along the way, they noticed an ever-growing pressure to cut down the scope of their focus.

“Going through the early process of training and professionalizing, especially during the PhD and the first few years after that, you really are forced to specialize, to narrow your interests. This is still true, so that was what I did.”

Jenkins chose to focus on the philosophy of mathematics early in her career in order to take advantage of her place at one of the world’s most esteemed mathematical institutions, but she could feel her other interests — creative writing, feminist philosophy, critical theory — falling to the wayside and pulling at the back of her mind.

“It was really only once I was already fairly well established that I realized, ‘I am no longer so beholden to other people’s settings of the agenda for philosophical discussions,’” they said.

This wasn’t the result of some grand determination on their part: The academic landscape was changing as a result of pressure towards inclusion from activists and professionals. More room was being made for marginalized voices speaking on long ignored topics.

Jenkins took advantage of the changing academic climate and their newfound career security to branch out into the metaphysics of love, writing a paper on the philosophy of flirting in 2010. 

Around this time, they became a Canadian Research Chair. This allowed Jenkins to devote even more of their time to developing and expanding their interests. Before long, her focus included fields like gender, social epistemology and the construction of romantic attraction.

Jenkins said this foray into new fields also led them into new forms, encouraging them to diversify the channels they used to communicate with readers.

“I realized around that time that if I wanted to have a real conversation about this stuff that was going to be of interest to more than four or five people in the world, I would need to write about it in a way that was accessible and interesting to people who are not philosophy PhDs.”

By this point, Jenkins had been hired by UBC. The institution offers a set of fee waivers to faculty members on the tuition payments for courses and degree programs, so Jenkins decided to enroll in the MFA creative writing program in hopes of, as they put it, “relearning how to talk like a normal person” after years of rigorous and formal academic training.

Jenkins cited British philosopher Mary Midgley and her efforts to bring philosophical discussion to the mainstream as an early influence in their decision to reach outside of the academy.

“The more I've interacted over time with people within academia, the more I realized that they're not deserving of more respect than everybody else,” Jenkins said. 

“The worst kind of academic is someone who switches off all their jargon [when communicating outside of academic settings] but immediately starts dumbing it down for the ‘hoi polloi.’ That’s insulting.”

Jenkins said making their fields of study accessible while avoiding this sort of “dumbing down” takes work and has been a gradual process. Since expanding their focus from the philosophy of mathematics, Jenkins has made several appearances on podcasts and television news discussing love, polyamory, relationships and philosophy.

Now Jenkins has found herself back in academic mode, but she see something superficial in the boundaries that critics and intellectuals have long erected between the creative arts and high philosophy.

“One thing I’m interested in centring right now is the idea that you don’t necessarily choose one or the other, but [instead] pursue the traditionally scholarly work and [creative] forms of work alongside one another, feeding into each other.”

In addition to their work on journal articles concerning monogamy and collective identity, Jenkins is in the early planning stages of a new creative fiction book with UBC School of Economics professor Marina Adshade. The book will be a fictionalized exploration of academic misconduct at post-secondary institutions.

Jenkins is also working to support UBC Arts’ new “Place and Power” degree requirement by developing a version of Intro to Philosophy that centres philosophical discussions of colonialism and Indigeneity in a local context. 

“I had and still have massive amounts to learn in order to be competent to teach this material,” said Jenkins, “but I'm working in that direction.”