Profile with Serena Olsaretti

Serena Olsaretti (Italy & St John’s 1994) is a Professor in Political Philosophy at the ICREA - Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She was previously a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

 Rhodes Project: What is your favourite thing to do in Barcelona?

 Serena Olsaretti: There are many things I love doing here. But if I had to pick one, it is going up to the Carrettera de les Aigües, just a city train and a funicular train stop uphill from us. It is a long, 20 km path/road along the side of the large Collserola park that crowns the hilly party of the city. From up there, there are points from which you can take in the whole city. It is wonderful to see Barcelona laid out, all quiet, stretching from the high-rise buildings in Diagonal Forum, the Agbar tower, the Villa Olimpica high rises, the chequered pattern of Eixample, Montjuic...

 Rhodes Project: What is the last book you read for pleasure?

 Serena Olsaretti: Nice Work by David Lodge. I was always curious about his portrayal of academics and the dynamics of the academic world. Looking forward to some sheer good fun reading, I only recently read his Deaf Sentence and then, in sequel, Nice Work. Now that I am no longer in a British university, it's been especially entertaining to enter again that familiar world. At points Lodge describes that world so well, in such detail, and what he described seemed so familiar, that I had the feeling he had intruded into my own past! I also found Lodge's optimism uplifting.

 I am now reading The Children of Men by P.D. James, a dystopian novel set in a world in which human beings have become been struck by global infertility and the human race is headed for extinction. I can't say it is proving a pleasure to read - both because of the bleakness it conveys, and because it is not very well written. But I am working on questions about family justice and demographic change, so I wanted to see how the prospect of global childlessness is portrayed.

 Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

 Serena Olsaretti: My first paid job was as a nanny for three children, aged 5 months, 4 years and 6 years, the summer before starting my degree in Oxford, in a seaside village - just outside Barcelona! At the time it was unusual in Italy for teenagers en route to university to work, and to dissuade me my father proposed to offer me double the wage I would be earning - to do nothing. I turned the offer down. I was glad to earn myself the (scanty) money this month involved, although I was shocked to see so close up how some domestic workers were treated in Spain 25 years ago. Although my employers treated me with all due respect because I was the odd nanny on her way to a good university, they and other employers did not display the same attitude towards the cleaning worker who worked alongside me, and the other, mostly Central and South American, nannies in the neighborhood. 

Rhodes Project: What motivated you to enter your current field of work?

 Serena Olsaretti: When I first studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and in particular political philosophy, I thought I would go on to work in an NGO. I had been to Atlantic College in Wales before going up to Oxford and thought it was both a privilege and a responsibility to go on to do something socially valuable later on. 

 But by the time I did my master’s thesis I started thinking it would be wonderful to be able to continue doing this - to be able to continue engaging with philosophical questions, to address these questions and see where that would take you. The turning point came when I completed the MPhil thesis. I had made unsteady progress with it, and had produced early incomplete drafts of it that were...suboptimal. But when I submitted a complete draft of it to my supervisor, G.A. Cohen, one evening I came back to my room and found a message by him on my answering machine. He said that he had now read the draft, and that it was excellent. I was overjoyed, and thought: "I can do it!" I had also started teaching undergraduates already during the second year of my MPhil and knew I liked that aspect of academia, too. 

 So by the time I started the D.Phil., I was confident I knew what I'd like to do, and that I had a good chance at doing it. I also thought that academic work also has a socially valuable function, so I was not betraying my earlier commitments.

Rhodes Project: What do you most enjoy about your job now?

 Serena Olsaretti: I keep enjoying what I have always enjoyed most about it: the joy and the thrill of addressing questions about issues that seem important, of going below the surface to discover complexities that were at first invisible, and of the open-endedness of the process - you really do not know where embarking on a new research project will take it. A jolly part of this process is also sharing ideas with colleagues and students. Sometimes it is so much fun it does not feel like work...and as soon as I think this, I then ask myself why I assume that work must be unpleasant toil, and am reminded that much work for many people is unpleasant toil, and that creating true equality of opportunity requires giving everyone opportunity for meaningful work...and off I go thinking about what true equality of opportunity requires. 

 Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment?

 Serena Olsaretti: I have had some extremely bright students over the years and the moments that stand out in my mind are ones - there have been more than one - when some student developed arguments (this was in the context of one-to-one supervisions) that made me see things from a new perspective. I also remember one supervision with an excellent third year philosophy student on a topic that was quite removed from my main areas of expertise, where I sat tensely on the edge of the armchair during the entire supervision. When the supervision ended I was happy I thought I had managed to keep up well!

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

 Serena Olsaretti: I have two children aged 5 and 7, and I like to spend as much time as possible outside of work with them, and doing things with them. Now that we live in Barcelona, this almost always means spending time outdoors and in public spaces, which I love. We spend hours in the local square, where my children play with familiar friends from the Italian school, which is in our neighborhood, or strike new friendships with other local children. Or we go to the coast for a picnic on the beach; or we visit the many museums with the many children's activities dotted around the city...the natural science museum, Caixa Forum, the Olympic museum, the MNAC (from which there are other amazing views of the city), the Miro foundation...

 Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be with and why?

 Serena Olsaretti: Does it have to be just one? Maybe Johannes Vermeer, if I could see him at work on his paintings. If not, then Marcel Proust, though I would prefer going for a walk with him and have him talk to me about what he sees around him, and compare that with what I see. 

 Rhodes Project: What advice would you give your sixteen-year-old self?

 Serena Olsaretti: "Worry less." But that is the same advice I would give myself now! I do not think I have not changed very much. And the respects in which I have changed, I think, are respects in which it was appropriate to be as I was as a 16 year old -  more frightened of solitude, and more worried about the future. (I have just realised, thinking about this question, that I am on balance satisfied with all my earlier life phases. That is a very nice discovery.)

Rhodes Project: What inspires you, and why?

Serena Olsaretti: What inspires in the sense of giving me driven motivation at work is to read great work by other philosophers. When I read work that is insightful, rigorous, clear-headed, that makes me see things in a new light, I feel renewed urge to do my own work, and to aim to do it well. But what inspires me in general - in the sense that it fills me with a sense of uplifting purposefulness - are certain pieces of art, paintings and sculpture, those that elicit deep emotions. It seems amazing, and wonderful, that other persons could create these things, and move other persons with them, persons so different and distant in time and space from them.

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