Naomi Scheman: The Study of Trust
Naomi Scheman centers her work, research, and engagement on how knowledge is acquired and shared. Her research on the concept of trust mirrors this. Trustworthiness is a consideration that needs to be used when evaluating a source of knowledge. What is trust and what is considered trustworthy? How do communities, including diverse student communities, decide whom to trust and how to become trustworthy themselves?
Scheman is retiring this spring after 37 years as a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. As she looks back on her career, she says that she knew she wanted to be a philosopher as soon as she took her very first undergraduate philosophy class. “I felt like I was hearing my native language spoken for the first time,” Scheman recalls.
She graduated in 1968 during the height of student activism, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and later, with the rise of second wave feminism, became aware of sexism. “My ignorance of sexism—especially in a fiercely academic women’s college, Barnard—actually empowered me to become a philosopher, with interests centrally in epistemology and metaphysics,” Scheman says. “I didn’t study political philosophy and only slowly overcame my ignorance and came to realize that epistemology, and even metaphysics, are political.”
As an epistemologist, she asks herself what it means to be a part of the university and what her involvement with students and the communities from which they come means to her work. Scheman’s current research evaluates the concept of trustworthiness, and she has found the understandings of trustworthiness are different between various communities at and beyond the U.
“College communities have to accept complexities and learn to deal with the tensions that diversity brings,” Scheman says. “Those tensions are what counts, and dealing with them responsibly is the source of trustworthiness.” Scheman brings her expertise on this topic as an affiliate faculty member of the University’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) and the Nibi (water) Manoomin (wild rice) Bridging Worldviews committee. Both groups aim to respectfully engage diverse cultural ways of living in relation to university knowledge and research.
Throughout her time at the University of Minnesota, Scheman has been committed to learning from those whose work brings together academia and activism. Her passion was inspired especially by working alongside two women: Susan Gust, a community activist, and Cathy Jordan, an associate professor of pediatrics and extension specialist in the U’s Center for Community Vitality. The two of them had been core members of the Phillips Healthy Housing Collaborative, a community-based participatory research project on childhood lead poisoning.
In 2001, Scheman co-founded with Gust and Jordan an organization that worked to bridge University researchers and diverse communities called GRASS Routes: Grass Roots Activism, Sciences, and Scholarship. GRASS Routes aimed to build bridges of trust by encouraging collaboration and communication between diverse and often conflicting communities. Scheman uses philosophical methods to question how trustworthiness manifests: what makes university work trustworthy, beyond those discipline-related criteria involved in peer review? How do broader individual and institutional commitments to social justice (or the lack of such commitments) ground (or undermine) the trustworthiness of university research?
In April 2016, Scheman celebrated her retirement with an event sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study. Scheman partnered with Kristie Dotson, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University, to speak about their conflicted passions for epistemology, why philosophy is so resistant to diversity, and why, despite that resistance, philosophy, and especially epistemology, is a useful site for thinking about institutional transformation.