Senior Swatlight: Linnet Davis-Stermitz

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I sat down with Linnet Davis-Stermitz (for the record, “Linnet” rhymes with “minute”) to discuss life, plans for the future, philosophy, and being a senior. Far from being a “utility-maximizing, ethical robot” as she fears, her thoughtful answers offer powerful insights into the biggest challenges facing not only seniors, but anyone trying to figure out what to do with their life. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

How was your day? What have you been up to?
Well, today was the first day in a while that I haven’t been obsessively thinking about and searching for jobs, which was a bit of a relief.

Where have you been looking?
Right now, I’ve headed off in the direction of law, because I feel like I have some qualifications there, and I have a little bit of experience doing legal research, and I’ve taken some classes that deal in legal issues. But I’ve also heard that a lot of the entry-level legal jobs can be very tedious, and so I want to find jobs that have me doing some sort of political role of ethical value.

Interesting. What’s your major?
I could give you the strict, by-the-book answer, which is that I’m an Honors Political Science major with an Honors minor in Economics and a regular minor in Philosophy, but that’s not really the way that I think about my academic program here. I’ve tried really hard to take classes that touch on similar themes in different subjects. If I could call my academic program anything I wanted, I’d say it’s a PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) program where I’ve taken the economics classes that relate to my interests in politics, and philosophy classes that provide the philosophical background for other things I’m interested in.

So is this what you wanted to do when you came to Swat? Or was this something you realized after you got here?
After coming here, I’m not sure that anything that I did that I didn’t plan to do couldn’t have been predicted by some kind of bird’s-eye view. Like the philosophy component, for example, is something that I had always told myself I would never study, because my mother is a philosopher, and I didn’t want to do what she did, but the first time I took a philosophy class I realized that the kind of questions we were being asked and thinking about were the same questions I had grown up with at the dinner table. When I was little, when I would do something wrong or protest that something wasn’t my own fault, my mother would always sort of ask me or tell me that fault was beside the point, that it wasn’t the issue that mattered.

So do you have any stories of growing up with your mom? I mean, in that kind of house, you must have some goofy stories – not everyone has a philosopher mother.
I wish I could think of one that’s particularly telling. If I had a problem at school, or with a friend, the way that she would help me through that problem was informed by her really careful way of thinking about the world and pushing me to explain myself or think about why something was upsetting me and sort of walking backwards in that way.

So do you still talk with your mom about the things you’ve been studying here?
This might happen to more Swatties than I know of, but it’s sort of my little secret… I’m doing the Honors program, and whenever I’m writing an Honors or seminar paper, if I’m struggling I call my mom up and talk her through my argument. And sometimes, you know, if it’s an economics paper or something, she doesn’t really know what to say, but for some of my politics and philosophy papers, it’s been really instrumental. It’s like being able to go to your professor’s office hours at midnight.

You also talked about your interest in debate, and law, and politics. Where does that come from? Is that from your mother as well? Or is that just something you found for yourself? In high school? How did that happen?
I think the interest in debate and politics come from different places. I wonder if this happens for other people, where when you’re asked about the things that you’ve done for a really long time, or that are just a huge part of who you are, you can’t exactly figure out where they started. I have very strong memories of when I first got involved in debate in high school, and just being absolutely petrified to speak in front of other people, so while I’d love to say that I diagnosed myself and said, “I need to go into debate and learn how to articulate my ideas in front of other people!” I don’t think it was anything that deliberate.

Do you have any stories from that?
Nothing so particular. I went to a really big high school, and they started off with the training process, and wanted everyone to give a speech on an issue, and I remember hiding at the back, and being the last person to do it, and feeling that crushing anxiety, when you’re standing at the podium, and your knee starts shaking, and you can’t stop it from shaking, and then your voice wavers with your knee…(laughs)

So what are some of your favorite debates that you’ve been a part of?
I wish I could remember some from high school. I remember doing some really funny things.

Do they get more serious as you get into college?
It’s just a very different kind of debate. I think the kind of debate we do here is a dramatic improvement over anything I’d done before.

What kind of debate do you do?
We do two different forms, and I think they’re both great for really different reasons. The fundamental idea behind them is that debate is not about having tons and tons of evidence, and memorizing all this research. It’s about learning how to tackle a really wide range of issues, using all the knowledge you would have from reading The New York Times occasionally rather than having spent your entire life focusing on that.

So I’ve heard that you are the number one ranked female debater in America?
I don’t think that’s true anymore…

Not true anymore? Okay, I also heard that you guys went to the Philippines, so what was that like?
It was outstanding. I mean, the whole idea of a world debating championships is just incredible. The way that it’s set up, people from all over come. This past year, a friend of mine and I were debating a western Australian team on mining contracts that multinational companies get in their part of Australia, and how perverse they are, how challenging it is for the government to ensure that the companies continue to give back to the communities that spring up in the desert surrounding these mining operations, which is not something I really knew much about.

Doesn’t make the news here.
No. But these guys had so many details about it.

You said earlier that you want to go into law, and that you have a preference for things that have, I guess, ethical gravity to them. Has that come from your experience in debate? Or at Swarthmore? What does that mean to you? Are you a person of faith? Why that in particular?
It would be hard for me to give a concise answer to that, because it’s probably the biggest intellectual and personal challenge that I’ve grappled with over the course of my life. I basically, for reasons I couldn’t explain to you, grew up really wanting to spend my life doing something to give back to the world. It was always what motivated me. I spent the majority of my time in high school running around volunteering on different political campaigns and doing things like that.
I actually think that, unintentionally, it stems from a really utilitarian perspective. At least, that’s how it’s always operated for me, where I’ve thought about “what are all the things that I could do in the world, and which of them would provide the most good for other people.” And I’ve sort of chased that kind of crude standard, to become determined to do things to fight for, like, anti-genocide intervention efforts, say, or other things that strike me as “the most ethically significant thing I can possibly think about.” And it’s taken some time, and some serious conversations with other people here to make me think about whether that’s the right way to approach what I want to spend my life doing.
I don’t want to be a utility-maximizing, ethical robot. Instead of “what could I do that would bring the most good ever to the world,” I’ve started thinking, “what could I do with the skills and talents and interests that I have that would also improve other peoples’ lives?” I’ve started to try to find ways to temper this sort of weird motive with something that I think would be more meaningful for me personally and more possible to do for any extended period.

We didn’t really talk about high school, but I know that often, coming out of high school to Swat, there are massive changes for people. I don’t know if, for you, that was an experience you found, that who you were in high school, or what your reputation was, or what you cared about, shifted. But now that you’re a senior in college, and you’re thinking towards your next year as well, what stage are you in right now compared to where you were?
I know there are people at Swarthmore, I’ve met them, those mythical beings that had good experiences in high school and middle school, but I certainly wouldn’t put myself in that category. It would be very interesting to have an encounter with my 16-year-old self. I don’t think I had nearly the same sort of pure appreciation for really good conversation, or life of the mind, or especially (or most of all maybe) loving to get my opinions challenged. That was not something I was good at in high school. I was really involved in my local democratic party and a lot of other political organizations, and I did not take well to people who didn’t meet a very strict set of ethical standards that I had.

And it took coming to Swarthmore to change that?
Everyone talks about how Swarthmore is so homogenous. But I’ve found that students here force you to challenge your opinions even when they have the exact same opinions you do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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