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Student Reflections

Isabella Carlsson

Co-op at Carnegie Mellon University 

Fall 2017


In the fall of 2017, I was on co-op at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh under the supervision of Prof. Branden Fitelson (Northeastern) and Prof. Adam Bjorndahl (CMU). The contacts I made at a CMU summer school helped me arrange my co-op and my position as a Center for Formal Epistemology visiting scholar. The opportunity was, however, only possible because of the support provided by Northeastern University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion as well as CMU’s Philosophy Department.

CMU is known for being very formal. I learned firsthand that philosophy professors are not necessarily people who have a traditional background in philosophy. One of the professors who set up my co-op received his Ph.D. in mathematics, while another worked in statistics for his doctorate. Faculty in the philosophy department at CMU analyzes philosophical problems with tools not typically associated with philosophy – an area in which is they take great pride.

My typical week consisted of going to classes, doing independent research, and meeting one-on-one with professors. The classes I chose to audit were Hume, Formal Methods I, Formal Methods II, and Incommensurability: Ethics, and Philosophy of Science. The formal methods classes were helpful, because they taught me the basics of decision theory and exposed me to formal notation that I had not seen before in my undergraduate coursework. The incommensurability class was the most interesting to me; it related similar issues within two typically unrelated subfields of philosophy and attempted to solve the issues with formal frameworks.

Meetings usually helped me the most and led me to the next steps in my research. Working on several projects was stressful at times, but proved to be a very valuable experience.  It taught me that the life of an academic is not easy, but it can be very rewarding. I ended up presenting one of my projects, “The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives within a Bayesian Framework”, at the Northern New England Philosophical Association’s Annual Meeting halfway through the co-op. I am very grateful for the opportunities that were made possible by the support of the philosophy departments at Northeastern and at CMU.



Kaleem Ahmid

Northeast Regional Ethics Bowl

November 11, 2017


I was part of the Northeastern Ethics Debate team in the Fall semester of 2017.  On the weekend of November 10th, Professor Yelle drove our team, consisting of 10 undergrad students, to Poughkeepsie, NY, to participate in the Northeast Regional Ethics Bowl held at Marist College. It was a raucously good time  – definitely a highlight in my year!

Since this was the first year that Northeastern University attended this competition, the team entered the competition with an open mind-set, unsure of what to expect. We were eager to learn more about the ins-and-outs of the Ethics Bowl, in the hopes that we would be better prepared to be competitive in the future.

In preparation for the competition, our two teams of five students each met once a week for a couple of hours over great food, supplied by the Philosophy department, to discuss the ten cases that were to be argued by all participating colleges at the Ethics Bowl.  All of the cases were controversial in one way or another, and the first few discussions were certainly too heated for competition.

When we arrived at Marist College on the frigid morning of November 11th, we were briefed on how the competition would work –Northeastern University would debate against three different colleges, arguing two cases against other teams. If we scored high enough after those first rounds, we would make the ‘playoff rounds’. Our first opponent was Yale Univesity, which was quite the task for our debut appearance as a team, but we debated superbly. Eventually the panel of three independent judges decided that Yale University was the winner, but we lost by only two points (144 to 142)! The cases against Yale University involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and Fake News censorship.  In the latter rounds the judging was slightly less favorable with our teams arguably getting unjustly beaten by Sacred Heart University and Seton Hall University. Our debaters prepared great arguments on the ethics of ‘quarantining citizens’, Trump’s proposed ‘Muslim Ban’, ‘whether or not can be persons’, and the Goldwater ruling.  Although we had a 0-3 record after the initial rounds but a high accumulative score, we narrowly missed out on the 8th placed-position. We would not argue any further cases at this year’s Ethics Bowl.

The enduring memories of this experience are absolutely not ones of defeat or disappointment. Our team, including Prof. Yelle, all agreed that we performed admirably, remaining competitive at all times and never letting our inexperience show, even against seasoned debate teams. We took away valuable lessons and skills to use in future competitions and that experience could only be learned by diving in ‘head-first’. We met students from other universities and their debate teams, some of whom are still in touch with members of the NEU team and who we look forward to debating again in the future.

Participation in the Ethics Bowl and other debate meetings is a crucial part of what makes our Philosophy Department great – it provides our philosophy students the opportunity to exchange ideas from outside our usual academic space, meet new and interesting people with similar interests from NEU and other colleges, and challenges us to think practically in an open-minded way about arguments that are 100% too sensitive in normal conversation.

I am very excited to be part of the next Northeastern University Ethics Bowl team, which may be competing in the BioEthics Bowl taking place in Alabama in April 2018. I would strongly encourage those interested to come to try-outs during the Spring semester.

Isabella Carlsson

Northern New England Philosophical

Association Annual Conference

November 3-4, 2017


A few weeks ago, I presented one of my papers at the 2017 Northern New England Philosophical Association (NNEPA) conference. I originally wrote this paper on the problem of unconceived alternatives for a directed study on the philosophy of science with Professor Rory Smead. Inspired by one of the readings he had assigned, I explored scientific antirealism further and set out to determine whether such a view could be formalized under Bayesian conditionalization. My research led me to believe that the two schools of thought are incompatible. Presenting on this topic to a large audience allowed me to improve my work and consider other possible ways to further explore this topic.

Two other philosophy majors and good friends of mine, Aja Watkins and Devin Lane, also presented at this conference. Aja’s talk considered “Behavioral Limitations to School Choice”, and Devin’s discussed the “Taxonomy of Moral Autonomy”. I was happy to learn about their philosophical interests and where their research has brought them. The conference was, however, not limited to undergraduate presentations. Some graduate students presented their Masters or Ph.D. level work. A few professors discussed their current work. Lauren Ashwell’s talk called “Slurs and Groups” was particularly interesting. The talk itself was quite fascinating, and I could tell she had prepared a lot in advance. What struck me the most, however, was the professor’s composure during the Q&A session. She respected everyone’s questions and remarks despite the insensitivity that tinged some of them. Although I’ve often presented on topics that I care about deeply, I can only imagine what it must be like to give a presentation that is so deeply connected to everyone else in the room as well. Seeing Lauren Ashwell present on such an emotionally charged issue taught me that with enough preparation and respect any presentation can be a success.

There were a great variety of topics at the NNEPA conference, so I had the great opportunity of learning about things I haven’t encountered in the classroom. Presenting at the NNEPA was a wonderful experience overall. It gave me the opportunity to meet students and professors in philosophy from other institutions with similar interests while giving me the chance to get feedback on my own work.

Aja Watkins

Northern New England Philosophical

Association Annual Conference

November 3-4, 2017


I presented recently in the undergraduate portion of the Northern New England Philosophical Association (NNEPA) annual conference. My paper, “Behavioral Limitations of School Choice,” presented an interdisciplinary critique of school choice policies using relevant evidence from cognitive psychology. Whether or not to adopt school choice policies is an important application of concepts from the philosophy of education, to which balancing the authority of the state with the authority of parents is crucial. This was a very interdisciplinary project, and so I was originally uncertain how a primarily philosophy-oriented audience would receive it, but it ultimately went well. I am continuing this research into the current semester, as an Honors Interdisciplinary Thesis project. Two other Northeastern students participated as well.

After the undergraduate session, which was on Friday morning, we spent the rest of Friday and all day Saturday in sessions presented by graduate students and philosophy faculty at schools in the New England area. Topics ranged widely, from topics in logic to philosophy of language to metaethics. I was actually surprised by how well prepared I was by my Northeastern coursework to follow and mostly understand the content of the talks. Some of my favorite talks were an analysis of gendered slurs; an expansion of deontic logic to address concepts such as “the least you could do”; and an argument in favor of “if know P then you know that you know P” based on some undesirable consequences of the principle’s rejection. The keynote speech by Stephen Darwall was about the nature of moral reasons, and it was followed the next day by a plenary session of presentations concerning Darwall’s theory of the second-person perspective. I particularly enjoyed presentations on topics that tangentially related to my coursework at Northeastern, but that expanded upon the material or further developed it in a new direction.

Overall, it was a great experience for my first philosophy conference, a good culmination of my undergraduate coursework as I prepare to graduate. It was very enjoyable to meet other students working on similar or different topics, and I was exposed to many new ideas.

Devin Lane 2017

12th Annual Undergraduate Philosophy

Conference at Southern Illinois University

at Edwardsville

October 20-21, 2017


What was the conference you attended?
I attended the 12th annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which coincidentally is the institution where Professor Sandler taught before coming to Northeastern University.

What was the topic of the paper you presented?
The paper I presented was entitled “A Taxonomy of Moral Autonomy: Logical, Epistemological, and Metaphysical.” The paper presents three interpretations of the thesis that morality is autonomous from other disciplines or domains of inquiry. The first claims that one can never construct a valid argument that has all non-moral premises and a moral conclusion. The second claims that non-moral theses are irrelevant to the justification of fundamental moral principles. The third claims that no moral fact is grounded or explained solely by non-moral facts. The paper demonstrates some problems that come with each of these interpretations and ultimately concludes with the modest claim that we should maintain some doubt about the autonomy of morality.

What challenges came up while presenting?
The main challenge that came with presenting this paper was being able to clearly articulate each of the three theses. In a sense, they all say the same thing, just in different ways. So highlighting what made them distinct was difficult. They are also relatively complex, so presenting them succinctly added to the challenge. I found myself repeating a bit in my presentation, but I think that it was helpful for the audience; it helped them see which points I really wanted to emphasize. Nonetheless, this presentation showed me that going forward I need to focus on being able to clearly and succinctly present these topics without relying too much on repetition. Facing these challenges helped me better understand some of the nuances of the topic, and gave me a lot to consider with respect to revisions for the paper.

What were some other topics presented at the conference?
There was an amazingly wide range of topics presented at the conference. One student presented a paper on the criteria of personhood for artificial intelligence. Another defended logical pluralism, the view that there are multiple ‘correct’ logics. Other topics included Kant’s view of nature, the possibility of Marxist-feminist analysis, and a Heideggerian interpretation of Plato’s cave. All of the topics were incredibly interesting, and all of the presenters did a great job. It was an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience. I was introduced to a number of topics I had not considered before, and I was pushed to think more carefully on a number of topics that interest me.

In particular, there was one presentation on free will from which I learned a lot. The presenter argued that the libertarian view of free will can only be ruled out if we accept a certain theory of causation, which he then argued against. Some of the metaphysics was a bit over my head, but it got me thinking about different theories of causation. Causation is a topic that I haven’t studied much, but I’m definitely interested in learning more as a result of that presentation! This presentation also led to some discussion between myself, the presenter, and some professors in the audience about the phenomenology of free will – i.e. what it is like to experience free will. We ultimately got into a debate whether the feeling of free will counts as evidence of free will. It was a great conversation, and now I have a lot of new questions to consider about free will! I gained a lot of new ideas and interests from just this one presentation.

The keynote address was given by Professor Philip Kitcher from Columbia University, who has contributed greatly to the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, and the philosophy of biology. His talk was on the topic of “the human project” – essentially a pragmatist approach to the good life. Professor Kitcher’s talk was really interesting, and he provided great feedback to all of the presenters.

How does this experience relate to your academic/career goals?
I am currently in the process of applying to graduate school, with the hopes of pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. This experience was beneficial for me and my future career goals in a few ways. First, it is nice to talk about in my statement of purpose for my application. It may help my chances, if only a little bit! But, more importantly, it was great exposure to learn some of the responsibilities of a professional academic philosopher. Conferences are an important part of the job, and this experience gave me a taste of that aspect. It also provided me with an opportunity to get some solid feedback on this paper. The discussion that followed my presentation gave me some great new ideas, which will definitely be helpful if I decide to turn this into a bigger project.

Any last comments?

I want to give a big thank you to the Philosophy Department for supporting me in this endeavor!

The idea for the paper was a result of a reading group in which I participated this past summer. I want to give a special thanks to Professors John Basl, Branden Fitelson, and Ben Yelle, as well as Aja Watkins, Dan O’Leary, Trent White, and Sammy Hirshland who all participated in the reading group and contributed to the great discussion that led to this paper. The paper would not exist, and I never would have gone to this conference, if it were not for them!

Samantha Hirshland 2016

Madness, Disorder, and Society

International Graduate Conference in Philosophy

May 7 2016


After my first philosophy class in fall 2015, Moral and Social Problems in Healthcare, my professor encouraged me to submit an abstract of my final paper, which was about practical harms of so-called “disability-positive” positions in psychiatry, to a graduate conference at the University of Essex in Colchester, England. Since it was my first semester, I was barely aware of what an abstract was, let alone how to write one. I spent most of my winter break learning about what to include in an abstract and eventually submitted it in early January. About a month later, the conference organizers had notified me that my abstract had been selected as one of eight, out of fifty applicants. My professor suggested I practice the talk I would give at the conference by guest lecturing in another section of the class I had written the paper for. I also got feedback on a draft of my speech from my Business and Professional Speaking classmates and Professor.
I went into the experience without many expectations, since at that point; I did not know students who had done anything similar. My main purpose in attending was to learn more about what academic philosophy was like at the graduate level. The other participants were all masters and Ph.D. students in Philosophy, and many of them exposed me to new ideas that were useful when I went back to revise my paper when I returned to Boston.
Going to a conference so early in my college career was good preparation for writing long papers and participating in upper-level seminars. I am still using concepts that I’m learning in my current classes to refine my position on the topic. I am now able to understand what it’s like to work on a long-term academic project. I’m excited to see many other students in the department attending similar conferences.

Here is a link to the program and abstract from the conference: https://www1.essex.ac.uk/philosophy/documents/madness-disorder-society-programme.pdf