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A life of the mind: Philosophy conference inspires undergraduates

  • Philosophy at W&M
    Philosophy at W&M  Keynote speaker Kelly Trogdon of Virginia Tech presenting at the close of the 2016 Undergraduate Philosophy Conference.  Photo courtesy Max Miroff
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For some W&M undergraduate students, a weekend contemplating Kant, Descartes, Aristotle, Hume and Rawls is one well spent.

The William & Mary Philosophy Club hosted the fifth annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference in James Blair last weekend. The conference has become a spring tradition for the kind of die-hard philosophy students to whom presentations like “Problems with Contemporary Compatibilism” make sense.

The conference is organized by undergraduate philosophy students for undergraduate philosophy students. Mimicking professional academic conferences, it was originally envisioned as a regional conference, but has grown in the students it attracts.

“We’ve had one attendee from as far as California, so now we can say it’s a national conference,” Philosophy Club President Max Miroff ’16 said. “We actually received some submissions from India, although I’m not sure logistically how they’d be able to come.”

Miroff said the club sponsors the conference as an academic exercise and a way to build community among philosophy students. “There’s a narrative about William & Mary emphasizing undergraduate research, and I see this as one of the ways in which it really uniquely facilitates a learning experience and a process that helps undergraduate academics,” Miroff said.

Hengrui Ruan ’16 presented at the conference in 2014 and credits the experience with convincing him to pursue graduate school.

Ruan is a history major and though he had taken a number of philosophy classes, he considered himself “a philosophical layman.” The paper he submitted for the 2014 conference (“Exploring Arendtian Freedom and Action in Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’”) was originally written for a political theory course, so he was surprised when it was accepted.

“It actually went very well,” he said. “That was the first time I ever got an opportunity to participate in a semi-professional setting. It gives you a wonderful opportunity to present your academic work and hear from your peers. It definitely gave me a boost of confidence. Being accepted into the conference was an endorsement of the quality of my work and whether I’ll be able to, at least on a minimal level, operate in an academic environment.”

The conference also provides William & Mary students a chance to network with philosophy majors from other institutions and to interact with the keynote speaker, an invited faculty member from another institution. This year’s keynote speaker was Virginia Tech Philosophy Professor Kelly Trogdon, who presented “Wherefore Fundamentality?”

To organize the conference, Miroff issued a call for papers and prepared the roughly two dozen entries for blind review. Faculty advisors Chris Freiman and Aaron Griffith culled the top nine papers before a panel of philosophy students chose the top two to award cash prizes.

Even with the prizes, the two-day conference is run on a shoe-string budget, Miroff said, costing less than $2,000, paid for with a Community of Scholars Fund mini-grant through the Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence. The fund encourages intellectual interaction between faculty and students outside the classroom. The Philosophy Department also helps offset conference costs, this year giving $1,000, and in the past the Dean’s Office has helped fund the conference.

 “The conference reflects the department’s and the university’s commitment to teaching excellence,” Griffith said. “Planning a conference takes time and energy. That the students, department and university are willing to put the time and energy into the conference shows that it prioritizes undergraduate research and takes seriously the task of preparing students for the profession.

“Students from all around the country had to compete to get a speaking spot at the conference. I think this indicates that the philosophy department at William & Mary is seen as a place where philosophy is thriving and students are being well trained.”