Philosophy professor to retire after 37 years at U

Naomi Scheman helped launch the U’s gender, women and sexuality studies department.

Naomi Scheman, a professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies, poses in a conference room in Ford Hall on Tuesday. Scheman has served as both the chair of the Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies department and as the Director of Graduate Studies, and will be retiring at the end of Spring semester.

Kathryn Chlystek

Naomi Scheman, a professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, poses in a conference room in Ford Hall on Tuesday. Scheman has served as both the chair of the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies department and as the Director of Graduate Studies, and will be retiring at the end of Spring semester.

David Minor

A soon-to-retire professor will be remembered for her sneaky tactics, an inclusive demeanor and a propensity to snooze during presentations.
 
 
University of Minnesota philosophy professor Naomi Scheman is retiring after 37 years of teaching at the school. Her colleagues say she’ll be best known for her work to establish the department of gender, women and sexuality studies and her dedication to faculty governance at the school.
 
 
Scheman completed her undergraduate education at Barnard College in New York, where she took her first philosophy class.
 
 
“It felt like hearing my native language for the first time,” she said.
 
 
In 1971, Scheman graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in philosophy. After a four-year stint as a lecturer and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa — she also earned her doctorate in philosophy at Harvard in 1978 — Scheman arrived at the University of Minnesota.
 
 
She said she quickly became involved in what was then the women’s studies program and helped it evolve into the department of gender, women and sexuality studies.
Scheman said she helped turn the program to a full department in a “stealth way.”
 
 
Instead of going through all the official steps, she ordered new stationary that read “Women’s Studies Department” instead of women’s studies program. She also began correcting people when they said “program.” 
 
 
“Eventually, everybody just called it a department,” Scheman said. There is no official record of the change, she said.
 
 
“I think in some ways she is a superhero because she’s never willing to stop,” said Jigna Desai, the chair of the gender, women and sexuality studies department. 
She asks the hard questions and goes places where people might not want to go, Desai said.
 
 
Scheman will sometimes doze off during presentations, Desai said, but she always wakes up and asks “the most brilliant question.”
 
 
“She’s present. Even when you don’t think she’s present, she’s always engaged,” Desai said. “She’s a philosopher on the ground.” 
 
 
Scheman said she would describe her research method as “hangout and schmooze,” which doesn’t work very well when applying for research grants. Her method only works when people want to hang out and have fun, she said. 
 
 
“What’s really excited me about being here is all of the wandering I get to do,” Scheman said.
 
 
While at the University of Minnesota, she has concentrated on defining the purpose of the University, Scheman said, and has spent a lot of her time exploring the trust between community and a university. 
 
 
Scheman is has also been a member of the University of Minnesota’s Faculty Senate for more than 30 years. She will receive an awardThursday for outstanding service to University of Minnesota governance.
 
 
She was nominated by Desai and Teri Caraway, a political science professor who served on the faculty affairs committee this year.
 
 
“She makes such thoughtful and incisive contributions to the discussions we have in governance,” Caraway said. “Even people who disagree with her have an enormous amount of respect for her because of the way she is able to engage others.” 
 
 
Scheman said she likes to talk about stones and sand as metaphors for uniting a community of voices into one.
 
 
“If I throw a pile of sand at the window, nothing’s going to happen,” Scheman said. “If I throw a stone at the window, I might actually break it.”
 
 
After her retirement from the University of Minnesota, she said she plans to move to Boston, where many of her philosophy colleagues live.
 
 
She also hinted at the possibility of writing a book that explores the idea of stones, what makes something a “thing” and connecting that to the purpose of universities.
 
 
She also plans on returning to Umea, Sweden, where she taught as a guest professor, she said, and didn’t rule out giving talks at varying spots around the world. 
 
 
In the end, Scheman said she hopes her contributions at the University of Minnesota have made a difference for those she has interacted with.
 
 
“I can say I have absolutely loved it. I can hope that it’s also helped to make this small corner of the world a better place,” she said.