Newsletter | The Rational Enquirer Issue #3

Rational Enquirer banner

Issue 3 | Winter 2017

Inside this issue


A Bit of Bragging

We hope readers will forgive us for a bit of bragging if we start by listing some departmental accomplishments.

Department gets laudatory review

Let’s start with something achieved by the Department as a whole. Every seven years, academic programs at Ontario universities undergo a Program Review, which involves producing a rather monumental written report, and a visit from disciplinary experts from other universities who evaluate the program based on what they have seen and read. The Department’s graduate and undergraduate programs were reviewed in 2016-17. While the evaluators’ report as a whole is confidential, we are allowed to quote bits from it, and this year there is lots that we’re happy to quote.

The reviewers noted that “Research in the Department is internationally recognized and contributes new content and methodology to the discipline. It is clear that the innovative research of the faculty is behind many of the creative, high quality program offerings and pedagogical approaches in the Department.” They also note that “The Department policy of requiring that all faculty regularly teach first year classes ensures that a wide range of students have exposure to research faculty. This contributes to the overall intellectual experience of students.”

With respect to teaching, the reviewers lauded the “good leadership and the formative peer review of teaching offered within the department are likely reasons for the Department’s sustained attention to progressive curriculum development,” the “strong model for online course development and maintenance,” and the “supportive culture for teaching excellence,” which lead them to conclude that “the trajectory of creative pedagogy in the Department suggests that this Department may well become a disciplinary leader in philosophy pedagogy.” 

In general, they praised the Department’s spirit of innovation and willingness to experiment, and our interdisciplinary character. “The Department is uniquely position to put the A in “STEM” and already offers many advantages to students across campus via its innovative courses in philosophy of math, science, and technology”;  The Department may also be on the cusp of greater innovations in experiential learning at the undergraduate level”; “The Department has been very proactive in response to the various threats to humanities-based education, and has re-envisioned its program in accordance with evidence about the needs and interests of students in today’s economic and political climate—and has done so without sacrificing academic strength … Philosophy at Waterloo may well be on the right side of history here.”

Heather Douglas named AAAS Fellow

Heather Douglas, the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, officially receiving the award at a ceremony in Boston in February.

Douglas is only the third University of Waterloo researcher to receive this honour, and the first from the Faculty of Arts. The award is in recognition of her “distinguished contributions to philosophy of science, particularly to the analysis of science policy, science in a democratic society, and values in science.” While she is a prolific publisher in the academic literature and is frequently sought out as a keynote speaker for academic audiences, she is also frequently interviewed in the media because of her ability to discuss formidably complicated scientific and policy matters in an engaging, comprehensible way. She is also involved in many collaborative projects intended to have a direct impact on public policy, and more generally on how public policy is made.

The AAAS describes itself as the “world’s largest general scientific society,” and is the organization behind what is probably the world’s most prestigious general science journal, Science, and a number of similarly prestigious, more specialized journals. Each year the society elects Fellows from among those who have been members of the organization for at least four years “whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished.”

John Turri elected a member of Royal Society College of New Scholars

Since the previous Rational Enquirer, John Turri has received one of Canada’s highest academic honours: induction into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. The honour is intended as “recognition for the emerging generation of Canadian intellectual leadership,” and is open to scholars within fifteen years of completing their doctorates who have demonstrated “a high level of achievement.” In Turri’s case, “high level of achievement” is a considerable understatement. People asked to evaluate his research record often say things like “Turri has set a record for productivity for the discipline.” Turri had already established himself as one of the world’s leading researchers in epistemology when he turned his hand to the emerging field of Experimental Philosophy, where he is also (already) recognized as one of the top researchers in the world. His work is consistently praised for its insight, depth, and its rare combination of both experimental and philosophical sophistication.

Chris Eliasmith and John Turri awarded prestigious research chairs

Also since the previous edition of the Enquirer, two department members have taken up new research chairs in the department. John Turri has been appointed to a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Tier 2 CRC’s are  awarded to “exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their fields.” The appointment is for five years, and is renewable once. Chris Eliasmith, who just completed his second five-year term as a Tier 2 CRC, has been appointed to a Tier 1 CRC in Theoretical Neuroscience. The Tier 1 Chairs are “for outstanding researchers acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields.”

These awards represent an honour, but they are also a bet made by the University and the country. CRC’s are a large investment of resources, both in terms of dollars and in terms of directing some of the efforts of excellent professors away from teaching and towards research. The bet is that the incremental increase in new knowledge these scholars will be able to produce with the additional time and support will more than repay the investment. If Eliasmith’s and Turri’s track records tell us anything, it’s that in these cases the University of Waterloo, and Canada, are smart gamblers.

Philosophy blog

Did you know the Department of Philosophy has a blog ? Find out more about our presentations, publications, events and other news of all kinds.

What's new with us?

Welcome to the third edition of The Rational Enquirer, the Department of Philosophy's alumni newsletter.

What's new with you?

It's always great to hear from alumni. We'd love to know what you are up to, so please send an email to Tawnessa Carter.


April 12, 2017: Philosophy Awards Ceremony
For the past several years, Philosophy has had a ceremony to celebrate outstanding performance by our students. Prizes are awarded, mingling happens, fun is had, and alumni are invited.  Current students love to meet people who have gone before them. Here are some pictures from the 2016 event.

If you’d like to receive details about these events as they’re confirmed, get on our mailing list! Contact our administrator for alumni relations, Tawnessa Carter, and she’ll be sure you’re added to our list.

Read the previous issue of the Rational Enquirer.


Meet the newest addition to our department: Interview with Dr. Katy Fulfer

Katy FulferDr. Fulfer earned her PhD at Western University and comes to the University of Waterloo from Hood College where she held the Sophia M. Libman NEH Professor of the Humanities.  Her research and teaching focus on feminist philosophy, reproductive ethics, and environmental and animal ethics.

Dr. Fulfer earned her PhD at Western University and comes to the University of Waterloo from Hood College where she held the Sophia M. Libman NEH Professor of the Humanities.  Her research and teaching focus on feminist philosophy, reproductive ethics, and environmental and animal ethics.

Rational Enquirer: What made you decide to become a philosopher?

Fulfer: Star Trek. Growing up, I was fascinated with Star Trek's presentation of questions about the human condition. Data and the Borg have been among my greatest intellectual influences! When I read Plato and Sartre in grade 12 English, I realized that studying philosophy enabled me to explore these kinds of questions about being human and about political community. Ultimately I chose to become a professor because I want to inspire students to think philosophically. That being said, if Elon Musk makes it to Mars, I'll be tempted to submit an application for "Ship's philosopher."

Rational Enquirer: What do you like about being a professor?

Fulfer: Exploring questions in community, with colleagues and with students. I learn every semester, even when teaching courses I've taught for years, or working with papers that I've read dozens of times. I also value the opportunity to help students' shape their own philosophical interests. Whether they become professional philosophers or not, they'll be using philosophical skills in their everyday lives. That's an incredible impact on the world.

No matter what career I would have pursued, philosophical thinking would have been part of it. But being a professor enables an incredible amount of freedom pursue whatever catches my curiosity, and to encourage students to do the same.

Read the rest of the interview

Our Graduate Student Association hosted a very successful conference, attended by students from 10 universities in Canada and the US

by Andria Bianchi

Catherine Klausen presenting

The 24th Annual Philosophy Graduate Student Association (PGSA) conference took place on March 9-10, 2017. For the first time ever, the conference kicked off with an inspiring performance by the Aboriginal Education Centre at an opening ceremony.

The PGSA conference at the University of Waterloo has gained a remarkable reputation over the past 24 years, attracting a wide range of graduate student submissions from across North America and beyond! This year, the PGSA offered nine graduate students from the United States and Canada the opportunity to present their work. These presentations covered a wide range of topics, from Hume's moral philosophy to the silencing effect of reactionary rhetoric for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Given the significance of this event, the Philosophy Department has committed to contributing an income each year from an endowed “Visiting Speaker Fund.” This fund allows the PGSA to bring in a high profile researcher for the keynote presentation. The keynote presenter often spends the full two days at the conference, attending talks, providing feedback to speakers, chatting about philosophy during breaks, etc. This provides members of the PGSA (as well as undergraduate students) with the opportunity to network with esteemed professionals outside of the department at the University of Waterloo. This year, the keynote presenter was Dr. Mazviita Chirimuuta from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Chirimuuta's talk was intriguingly titled "Why do Birds Migrate, Why do Nerves Fire Action Potentials, and Why do Neuroscientists Talk about Representations?" Her talk was thought-provoking and well attended by faculty and students from both in and outside of the department. The final conference dinner took place at nearby restaurant, giving participants and attendees a chance to discuss some of the themes from the conference and to network with our keynote.

The University of Waterloo PGSA conference continues to be a great success and we look forward to the 25th Annual conference next year!


Our two Undergraduate Student Societies are larger and more active than ever before

The Philosophy Department has long had an undergraduate Philosophy Society, PhilSoc. Now that Philosophy is also the administrative home of the Women’s Studies program, it is the home of the Women’s Studies Student Society (WSSoc), as well. When WS joined the Department, it was able to secure non-terrible office space for the two student groups to share in Hagey Hall, and neither group has probably been so healthy or active for a long time.

PhilSoc and WSSoc held some very successful joint events. For instance, two “pizza socials” aimed mostly at students each attracted more than 50 attendees, while the presence of faculty members at a couple of “meet the profs” events depressed attendance only slightly, to somewhere in the 30s. But each Society was also busy on projects of its own. Among other things, PhilSoc is hoping to launch an undergraduate philosophy journal. WSSoc, which was completely moribund last year, has been recruiting members, writing a new constitution, and held a very successful “meet the author” event with noted Canadian feminist scholar Erin Wunker when her book tour brought her to this region.

Student societies can make a strongly positive contribution to the experience of undergraduate students at university.  Sometimes the contribution is a deep one: as Nicole Sandford, this year’s WSSoc President said, “The existence of WSSoc improves the experience of being an undergraduate student in the Department because it provides students with a sense of belonging .... WSSoc gives students a social context where they can openly discuss the relationship between their academic and their non-academic lives.” For other students, society events can simply be a place for “finding your people.” How often can you be sure to find like-minded students who are as interested as you are in interpretations of quantum physics, the metaphysics of morals, the construction of gender, etc.? It can be a real pleasure to find a place where the people you are talking to won’t dampen your enthusiasm for talking about such topics by trying to change the subject.

The Department has made the success of these Societies a priority. One change, which has benefits in both directions, is involving the Societies more directly in the operation of the Department. In the past year or so this has included having PhilSoc help out with gathering input from students for the recent philosophy Program Review, and for the first time inviting representatives of both societies to Department meetings. Such student involvement provides the Department with timely feedback, while students get some influence and some experience with how things really run in a large organization like a university.  More generally, the Department is working to give the groups the capacity to pursue worthwhile projects of their own choosing by providing the support of enthusiastic faculty liaisons and, when appropriate, resources to make things happen.  Emma Pindera, a member of the WSSoc executive, hopes to see more of this in the coming year: “more events, more outreach to students … things that allow WS students to participate and be part of the community. Empowering the students [should be the department’s goal].”

In the opinion of Greg Andres, the Philsoc faculty liaison for the past few years, the approach seems to be working. “Transition from one year to the next has always been a problem. If your executive all graduated at once, you had a real risk losing momentum. We now have students who have been involved and who are keen to carry on.” If next year’s Societies do as good a job as this year’s of making involvement fun and rewarding, maybe problems with transition can be put permanently in the past.


Dr. Heidi Grasswick enlivens feminist philosophy at Waterloo

Heidi Grasswick and Skeena

Heidi Grasswick is always on the move.  Lucky for us, her travels brought her up to the University of Waterloo to be the 2017 Humphrey Professor in Feminist Philosophy. She spent the semester lecturing, teaching, and talking shop around the department, generally giving all of us a chance to learn about her research in feminist epistemology and philosophy of science.

Her path through philosophy has always taken her back and forth across the continent—she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, a Master's degree from the University of Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and PhD from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her travels from East to West did not end in Minnesota.

After grad school Dr. Grasswick took a job as a faculty member at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she now holds the George Nye and Anne Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science. And, every summer, she treks back to her native British Columbia to spend a few months writing philosophy, hiking, and dog training.

Her peregrinations are not only for school or work.  She’s explored the icefields of Patagonia and the Canadian arctic, trekked in Nepal, sailed the shores of British Columbia, and paddled though the Caribbean. With those sorts of adventures under her belt you might wonder what could induce her to stay put in Southern Ontario for a whole semester. The Humphrey Professorship has been a boon for Philosophy at Waterloo because it draws scholars like Dr. Grasswick to share their expertise in, and passion for, feminist philosophical research with our community.

Dr. Grasswick's love of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science goes back to her student days.  She says feminist philosophy grabbed her "because it was a way to do philosophy that engages real world problems and has the potential to make the world a better place."

The phrase "Power in Knowledge," the title of her 2011 book and of the class she taught at UWaterloo this past semester, captures the essence of her research.  She wants to know how people and scientific institutions gain the power to produce knowledge, and what it means for them to be trustworthy and wield that power responsibly. With this goal in mind she turns her attention to topics ranging from climate science, to gender and biology, to scientific interactions with traditional ecological knowledge.

The fact that universities are powerful knowledge producing institutions is not lost on Grasswick, and this is another place where she puts her philosophical commitments to work in the world. In addition to teaching and conducting research, professors spend long hours doing work that keeps our universities and philosophy itself functioning and healthy. Dr. Grasswick is an eminent philosopher, and she also devotes her know-how and energy to making sure that her university and our discipline are fair, efficient, and trustworthy. You can see this in the careful and generous work she’s done as Chair of the Middlebury College Philosophy Department, coordinator of the Board of Associate Editors of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, President of the Society for Analytical Feminism, and President of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy.

Dr. Grasswick enlivened the philosophy department during her time at the University of Waterloo, and we wish her many more happy adventures.


Successful businessman, entrepreneur, and alumnus, Gerry Remers, talks to graduate students about networking

by Janet Michaud

Portrait of Gerry RemersThis past February, the department hosted a networking luncheon for graduate students with alumnus and friend, Gerry Remers. This lunch is part of the department's efforts to support pluralistic career preparation for graduate students, which includes increasing awareness of alt-ac careers for philosophers. Gerry earned both a B.A. (Wilfrid Laurier University) and an M.A. (University of Waterloo) in Philosophy. He also earned an MBA from York University. Post grad school, he translated his philosophical skills and training into a successful career that led to his position as President and COO of Christie Digital Canada (which he retired from in April of last year).

Over lunch, Gerry shared his success story with current graduate students and highlighted some of his interesting experiences with Christie Digital. He offered some helpful networking advice for philosophers hoping to make the transition from philosophy to business, focusing on ways to gain credibility with people in business and how to make valuable connections while coming from very different professional backgrounds. (Advice that is useful no matter what our career goals are!) Gerry provided graduate students with a much needed perspective on the connections between philosophy and business by explaining the value of philosophical skills to the business world. His advice moved the discussion beyond philosophers as business ethicists and emphasized our skills in project management and planning. We'd like to thank Gerry for his advice and for a great conversation about the value of philosophy!