Love in the Liberal Arts: Three Professors Weigh in on Love across Academic Disciplines
Professors Carolyn Dever, Esther Rosario and Mark Thornton discuss their academic encounters with love.
Carolyn Dever is a professor of English and served as Dartmouth’s provost from 2014 to 2017. She specializes in 1800s British literature and gender studies.
As an English professor, how do you see your academic interests as involving interpersonal love?
CD: My research right now is focused on an author named Michael Field, who was actually two women who were lovers and a single poet. And they kept a diary for 30 years. They often write to each other and they’re often writing against one another. Perhaps most memorably they write a sonnet sequence, a book of poems to their deceased dog. It’s called “Whym Chow Flame of Love.” And all of these incredibly sad poems are dedicated to the dog. My academic interests are entirely interested in human relationships. Theoretically, I tend to take a psychoanalytic approach, which is all about the formation of human sexuality and human identity from our very first relationships, with our parents and early caretakers. I’m also a feminist and queer critic. And those theoretical perspectives are also deeply interested in power, representation, difference.
If you were to give a definition of love as you see it today, what would you say? What’s a new aspect of love you’ve learned?
CD: I’ll just point to the title of a book that I published a few months ago. It’s called “Chains of Love and Beauty.” The chains part is a quotation from Michael Field. The chains part is real. Love is simultaneously what bonds and oppresses them. Beauty and love are all mixed together for them. And the sense in which an emotion like love can be simultaneously a form of imprisonment and a form of freedom and liberation. That’s my new insight.
Do we need to see love in more of a duality, where we may talk about it as only positive?
CD: In some ways. So thinking about, what if you’re chained to another person? This could be that you are very intensely present. It also could mean that you're in some sort of captivity.
Do you think love plays a role in teaching effectively, or has a past mentor’s love influenced your life in a meaningful way?
CD: Yes to both. The best, earliest, serious mentor I ever had did me the good deed of simply taking me seriously. As a form of transformative love, that was incredible. She was my senior thesis advisor in college. With regard to teaching, I always approach teaching from a place of joy. I try to build trust with my students and think of them as human beings that are developing.
Based on your research, what are the best sources of knowledge on love and human relationships?
CD: We learn a lot by thinking really hard about the different types of it: The love you have for a friend or a pet or your grandmother, your partner or your mom. Pooling the insights that we get from these comparisons can be a profound and clarifying effort. There’s always that prepositional phrase there with love, right? Love of. Love for. Pay attention to the way in which the grammar of that phrase can change. And what our experiences have in common.
Any particular opinion on Valentine’s Day?
CD: I do have an opinion on it, largely a coincidence. My son's birthday is February 15, so Valentine’s is the eve of him. Every year it’s a celebration of him.
Esther Rosario is a lecturer in the philosophy department. She specializes in the philosophy of biology, gender, race and science.
How do your academic interests involve the concept of interpersonal love?
ER: Last year, I taught PHIL 50.32, “Love and Respect” and I am teaching PHIL 40, “Race, Gender, Sexuality” in the spring. I teach love — the metaphysics and ethics of it. Simone de Beauvoir’s chapter “Women in Love” in “The Second Sex” and Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” are some of my favorite texts.
While studying philosophy, how has your definition and understanding of love changed?
ER: In teaching “Love and Respect” last year in the philosophy department, my working concept of love has changed. Thinking about theories of love, we start with it as an emotion. That permits degrees. You can love someone a little bit or a lot, or you can love someone rationally or irrationally. I taught bell hooks, who argues that love is an action and actually involves five composites: trust, responsibility, commitment, care, affection. Thinking about love as an action resonated with me in terms of the way that I view the significance of friendship in life.
What are some of the best sources of knowledge about love, for you or your students?
ER: As a philosopher, I tend to look to philosophical texts, but I am also empirically oriented. I’m interested in the overlap between moral philosophy and the cognitive sciences. But our biological states are only one feature of loving relationships. Fundamentally, what is it about being human that allows us to love? Beauvoir suggests that love is a reciprocal relation that honors two freedoms.
What’s one of the most useful ways of understanding love you’ve heard in your lifetime?
ER: You have to honor your boundaries. Useful, but brutal. Whether child to parent, teacher to student, romantic relationship, friends. It’s central to the longevity and substance of any relationship.
Has a past mentor’s love shaped your life in a substantial way?
ER: I don't think that I’d be here — with my Ph.D. and as a lecturer — without my undergraduate mentors. I still keep in contact with them now. Friendship-based love is hugely important to the mentor-mentee relationship. With the right amount of care and trust and commitment to pursuing knowledge, a strong professional bond is very feasible between professors and students. College is a very stressful period of one’s life. I think being able to have that strong connection is important to nourishing a student’s capabilities.
What’s your opinion on Valentine’s Day?
ER: I see Valentine’s Day more as a day for friendship. I usually get my students a Valentine’s Day gift. I guess the surprise will be ruined! V-Day seems more important here in the U.S. than in Canada, where I lived before.
Mark Thornton is a professor in the psychological and brain sciences department. His research involves human navigation of the social world.
How does your and your colleagues’ academic work intersect with love?
MT: My lab focuses on how people navigate the social world and how they anticipate thoughts, feelings and behaviors. My colleague and collaborator Thalia Wheatley works even more closely on love — specifically, the intersection between psychology and love. Practically, they’re interrelated. Let’s say you’re trying to set up two of your friends. You do some mental calculus about whether these people will actually get along. You’re making those decisions not in a database way, but by evaluating people in a predictive exercise.
How do you measure your observations about the social world?
MT: We are increasingly moving towards deep learning tools that annotate people’s behavior. For example, with our lab members, we tracked their movements during a game of mafia and the cues associated with group activity.
What’s the main clinical usage of your research?
MT: We have some clinical relevance to this research. Notably, when people try to anticipate other people's feelings, they’re using themselves as a model. And that puts people who have atypical emotional experiences, like mood disorders, at higher risk because they aren’t a good model for others. My graduate student, Lindsay Tepp, is also trying to understand how people collaborate to understand each other’s minds. When someone comes up to talk to you and a friend, when they go away and you ask “Was that weird? Why’d they do that?” We are calling that process “collaborative theory of mind.”
How has clinical psychology studied romantic relationships?
MT: I’ll speak broadly to how people have studied romantic relationships in the field. We’re not very good, either as academics or in industry, at figuring out who is actually compatible, which is critical. Especially with dating apps, the older ones — OK Cupid, Match.com, EHarmony — made a lot of promises about their algorithm measuring “compatibility.” If you look at the current ecosystem of dating apps, they don’t make those promises. They rely on much more picture-focused, quick-decision-based things. That reflects the fact that all these companies thought they could actually predict compatibility and couldn’t. There’s a lot of “dark matter” when it comes to compatibility — things we don’t understand.
What are some changes in friendship and love trends?
MT: Predictors like proximity have changed over time with mediatized dating — it’s becoming a weaker factor. Positively, dating apps seem to be breaking some racial dating barriers. The rate of interracial relationships started on dating apps is climbing. There’s a movement away from only pairing with people who share a racial category with you.
Are there strong social predictors of positive emotion and love?
MT: Another big topic in clinical psychology is emotional regulation. For a long time, there was a strong focus on the individual level. Engaging in strategies like cognitive reappraisal and “reframing.” We’ve come to appreciate that social emotional regulation is also huge. It’s a major part of our emotional resilience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.