St. Lawrence’s philosophy honorary society, Phi Sigma Tau, presented an undergraduate philosophy conference last weekend. The conference drew panelists and audience members from four local universities in addition to St. Lawrence, and presented those involved with the opportunity to share and discuss their research.
“I think that the students found it very empowering,” said Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. Laura Rediehs. She said that the conference gave students confidence about presenting their own work and about engaging in higher-level philosophical dialogs. Professors and students who attended the conference were able to ask questions and learn from one another through their discussions.
“I think it went really well,” said Mandy Lafond ’12, president of Phi Sigma Tau. “Way more people showed up than we expected.” The organizers didn’t encounter any logistical issues with regards to participants or audience members, and the conference ran smoothly.
“My favorite part was just seeing our efforts realized,” said Sarah Baver ’12, vice president of Phi Sigma Tau. Lafond originally had the idea to host a philosophy conference last year after attending a similar event at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She and Baver have been planning the conference since last October. “They did a really great job of organizing it,” said Rediehs, who had explained in her opening remarks how difficult the process of organizing a conference was.
According to Lafond, at times the planning was difficult, and she was surprised by the “overwhelming response” she received after contacting philosophy departments at all of the colleges within five hours of St. Lawrence. “We were really surprised by the number of students from other schools who submitted proposals,” said Baver. Five colleges including St. Lawrence were represented by student presenters at the conference. “I was really glad that there were people from other schools,” said Rediehs. “They seemed to really enjoy their experience here.”
“I feel like I made a lot of friends there,” said Lafond. She also said that the conference was beneficial in that it afforded students the opportunity to network and make contacts with philosophy students and professors outside of St. Lawrence. Since the conference included both undergraduate and graduate students, a variety of perspectives, experiences and goals were brought to the table.
In her opening remarks on Saturday morning, Dean Valerie Lehr expressed the benefits to students of participating in academic conferences such as this one. Though the academic deans office often provides funding for students to travel to research conferences, Baver said, “This was also one of the first student conferences on campus, so that was a big thing.”
The keynote speaker was Dr. Paul Forster, who is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Ottawa. The focus of the talk was the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine and included discussion of two important critics of his work. The implications of Quine’s controversial opinion that philosophy should be like a science generated lively discussions during the question and answer period of the lecture. Audience members asked Forster about the critic Rorty’s motivations and potential biases, linguistics in Quine’s work and about the debate about if philosophers are becoming scientists, among other things.
“It was really great to see the dialog between the speaker and the faculty,” said Baver. Though the atmosphere of the conference was casual, the discussions were highly intellectual and provided the student presenters with an opportunity to get constructive feedback on their work. For the students in Redieh’s seminar, the conference gave them an opportunity to discuss their theses with an outside audience.
“I thought that it was a really great lecture,” said Rediehs of the keynote address. “It was a good type for a conference like this because it’s a reflection of what philosophy is.” According to Rediehs, experimental philosophy is a branch of study that attempts to test philosophical ideas in a more scientific way. Some philosophers are critical of this, since they feel that philosophy is separate from science and ought to remain that way. The diverse topics discussed throughout the conference all related to the question of what philosophy should be.
In addition to the keynote speaker, there were three panel sessions held in the Skyes Formal Lounge and the Hannon Room in the student center. The panels were loosely grouped by topic. Each student read from his or her research and the sessions ended with question and answer sessions. The questions often involved comparisons of the students’ research and further connected their work.
Students from Redieh’s senior seminar “Metaphilosophy” presented their individual theses at the conference. The title of the class means “the philosophy of philosophy” according to Rediehs, and the goal of the course is to rethink what philosophy is and how it relates to other interests and fields of study. Involved students have explored possible answers to this question by spending this semester working collaboratively on various readings and individually on their theses. Six students took the class: Nicole Carnevale ‘12, John Gatti ’12, Tony Wilkey ’12, Matt Darcy ’12, Sarah Baver ’12, and Mandy Lafond ’12.
Presenting at the conference gave the students the opportunity to share their work and receive feedback on it from the students and professors that attended the conference. They were also able to listen to the keynote speaker and connect their work to his ideas. “They found it to be a great experience,” said Rediehs, who cited the challenge of preparing material to be presented and the opportunity to learn from other students outside of St. Lawrence as valuable opportunities for her students.
“The general consensus among everyone in Phi Sigma Tau is that we definitely want to do it next year,” said Lafond. The possibility of collaborating with SUNY Potsdam on a future conference also exists, and the members of Phi Sigma Tau plan to meet with Potsdam students before the end of this academic year to discuss it. “We made a conscious decision to call it the first annual conference,” said Baver, who explained that the group hopes to make it a yearly tradition. This year, the Academic Dean’s Office and the philosophy department sponsored the conference.