Dr Mahlet Zimeta attended Somerville at a unique point in the College’s history. 1997, the year she matriculated, saw the final year of Somerville’s transition from an all women’s college to a mixed college — with only one all female fourth year left.
“I feel I had the best of both experiences because there was a very strong feminist culture and it was very politically conscious at that time. There were a lot of queer politics as well as quite Marxist politics.”
Known then as Mahlete-Tsige Getachew or Milly for short, she was taught Economics by Dr Judith Heyer; Philosophy by Dr Lesley Brown and Dr James Logue; and Politics by Professor Lois McNay. Alongside her studies, she was also an editor of the Oxford University Alternative Prospectus.
“The other editors were also Somervillians — we were the alternative population. I remember interviewing people at other colleges and thinking, I’m so glad I’m at Somerville. It was very socially diverse —I think we were responsible for the greatest social diversity in Oxford.”
After graduating from Somerville, Mahlet went on to do a MPhil in Philosophy at Cambridge, next did a Phd at York and then moved backed to London working part time as a lecturer at Roehampton University, where she worked until last year. Alongside her teaching she worked part time in civil society organisations and as a free-lance journalist — writing for the Paris Review and the London Review of Books blog, among others.
As a writer, Mahlet had never considered broadcast before, but was contacted last August to be part of a BBC Radio 4 programme. Not having had many philosophers contribute to talk shows before, they decided this unique view point would be beneficial for future programmes — particularly because Mahlet specialises in aesthetics, which includes linguistics psychology and art history. Since then, she has taken part in two more programmes, which tackle the topic of appearances, and spoken alongside television presenter, Katie Piper, and reality television star turned business woman, Amy Childs.
“Broadcast feels a lot like teaching because you’re speaking, listening and discussing. Saying that, teaching culture is so different to what I see as broadcast culture. In broadcast you are expressing your own views, or you should be, so it’s not necessarily an ethical space. It could be a competitive space or an adversarial space. Additionally, there isn’t an accountability if there are inaccuracies.
“I didn’t really speak about my own opinions with the students because the point was for them to work out their own ideas. Often, when I was presenting them with an idea, I was doing it with devils advocate. I was presenting a view that they had to respond like a sparring partner training experience against a rival view.
“Working with students is a collaborative environment and you have to make a safe space where they can collaborate ideas without fear of getting shot down. You’ve got to think about how you’re using you’re power. Are you trying to persuade people to have a point of view? Are you giving them enough space to develop their own ideas? How much should you reveal about what you think?”
Mahlet was born in Ethiopia and moved to London when she was a young child. Growing up she was inspired by children’s authors of the 1970s and aspired to become a writer. Mahlet says she had dreams of studying at Oxford from the time she was first made aware of the University.
“I read a lot of Diana Wynne Jones, Nina Bawden, and other very feminist and fiercely intelligent female writers who were able to communicate in a simple way writing thoughtful books for children that were imaginative and politically informed. One thing a lot of these authors had in common was they were all Oxbridge graduates, and would have gone to the women’s only colleges.”
Despite loving literature, she chose to study Science, Economics and Maths at A level at Maria Fidelis Roman Catholic Convent School near King’s Cross in London. “It wasn’t a compromise because I always genuinely felt that I loved the work I was doing and I’ve always felt to be a writer you don’t need to study English or literature you just need to read book. Just love what you do and keep trying to get better at it.”
Mahlet’s radio broadcasts are still available to listen to on the iPlayer: