By Sanjana Rajagopal
Any night that an inspirational philosopher like Sally Haslanger tells me I belong in philosophy is a good one in my book. A starry-eyed individual hoping to go to graduate school, the first night of PIKSI will forever be embedded in my memory.
I was one of twenty lucky students selected for this summer’s Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI). I listened with tears forming in my eyes as Sally spoke at the opening dinner. She encouraged our cohort to cultivate a space within ourselves where the knowledge of our potential could reside. She told us to carry the talisman of that space with us no matter where we end up going. Finally, she reminded us that there are no limits to the kind of philosophy we can and should be doing regardless of our backgrounds.
This set the tone for the entire week at MIT. Sally was one prominent voice among many encouraging my new friends and I to embrace our passion for philosophy despite any barriers.
PIKSI is one of a few new summer diversity institutes created for this purpose, with others hosted at Brown, Rutgers, and UC San Diego.
The program directors of PIKSI define their vision and specific purpose as follows:
“Philosophy is one of the least diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences; its lack of diversity even rivals the least diverse STEM fields. PIKSI-Boston’s mission is to help ameliorate this problem: we hold an intensive, week-long summer course for undergraduates from underrepresented groups who are interested in graduate study.
Our undergraduate fellows face arbitrary obstacles to an academic career. Some are dissuaded by their solo status within their departments, experiences of biased treatment, and messages that they do not belong in philosophy. Others come from departments that lack the resources to shepherd them through the graduate admissions process.
PIKSI-Boston is designed to addresses these obstacles. All of our fellows, speakers, graduate student seminar-leaders, and panelists are from groups underrepresented in philosophy, giving our fellows a community in which they can feel comfortable, and a chance to see philosophy being done by peers, graduate students, and professors with whom they can identify. In our panels, we cover the challenges faced by those with minority status, the benefits of diversity to philosophy itself, graduate admissions, and philosophy as a career. Finally, we provide ongoing mentoring for our fellows — both from our graduate student seminar-leaders and from faculty at various institutions.”
There is no doubt that students came away from PIKSI feeling empowered and better prepared to take on the challenges of professional philosophy.
All twenty PIKSI fellows arrived at the Ray and Maria Stata Center on June 20th, with our own expectations of what we would get out of the program. We had come from all over the country, one fellow was even flown out from Bolivia for the program. PIKSI covers all transportation costs and all other expenses– one less burden on the shoulders of broke undergraduates!
However, not all of us were undergraduates, some students came from less traditional backgrounds—there were a few fellows who had already graduated, or who had taken a longer time to complete their first degree. PIKSI made sure that the fellows selected for the program were representative of a vast spread of experiences and identities.
This, to me, was integral—it was important to see that there is not just one path to getting a doctorate, and that philosophy does not have to be an echo chamber full of straight white men. In my PIKSI application, I highlighted the fact that I’ve always been one of two or three non-white female students in any philosophy class, and that I wanted more exposure to varied, intersectional perspectives!
The other fellows felt similarly. One of my friends in the program, Jada Wiggleton-Little, noted that “There is a fundamental difference between hearing a person like you belongs in philosophy and actually seeing it. It is too easy to dismiss words as merely sweet sentiments, but when you are truly in a space, surrounded by brilliant faculty and students who are of color, who are women, the value of the words shift. They feel real. They feel achievable.”
Another friend, Gabriella Hulsey, called PIKSI one of the top ten best experiences of her life, and spoke for the women among us, saying, “As a woman, it was hugely reassuring to meet other women who have been to graduate school, got PhD’s, and didn’t find the experience so overwhelmingly unpleasant on account of their gender that they would discourage other women to pursue a PhD!”
As an Asian American (and specifically an Indian) woman, one of the most unforgettable days for me was when one of the program directors, Keota Fields, gave a presentation on diversity in philosophy. He presented a chart detailing the demographic layout of the field. In 2003, the presence of Asian, Native American, Hispanic and Black women in philosophy was so negligible among 13,000 full and part time instructors nationwide…that they were not even represented visually. Of course, it is now 2017, so there is no doubt that progress has been made–but I am willing to bet that the status of women of color in philosophy isn’t that much better than in 2003.
To these ends, PIKSI brought in instructors from a number of subfields in philosophy, all of whom were from some kind of minority group themselves. Public talks were given by Sally Haslanger and Lionel McPherson, while daily seminars were given by professors like Avery Archer, Michaela McSweeney, Dilip Ninan, Jennifer Morton, Tamar Schapiro, and Quayshawn Spencer. Each one of us was also assigned an individual graduate student mentor from the three present, Marion Boulicault, Manuel Barrantes, and Jonathon Kwan.
Instructors broached all orders of subjects: inclinations and the will, an introduction to comparative philosophy through the similarities between Hume and Buddha’s views on the Self, the value of logic, education and issues of representation, the problem of foreknowledge, and even the ethical implications of advances in neuroscience technology.
After every presentation, we were encouraged to ask questions and engage in discussion. Often, these discussions were spirited and carried on into our lunch breaks. One of the most controversial talks was Lionel McPherson’s on black social identity and the (perceived) value of race as a construct. This sparked a lot of conversation as we related his talk to concerns that have cropped up recently in the field regarding figures like Rachel Dolezal and Rebecca Tuvel. Though at times fellows disagreed, there was never any sustained animosity—civil but passionate discourse remained the standard throughout the program.
PIKSI also held a number of panels on graduate work in philosophy, drawing in students from MIT and other schools in the area. We were given a realistic picture of what writing a dissertation looks like, what applications entail, and what to expect in terms of work-life balance.
Another thing PIKSI did exceptionally well was to expand fellows’ network of academic philosophers. I attend Fordham University, which has a larger philosophy department than some of the other fellows’ schools. I have been extremely lucky to receive personal mentorship and attention from professors. However, for fellows coming from smaller departments in more remote locations, meeting new mentors was an invaluable resource. There were fellows from departments with as little as five professors, so it was a great opportunity for them to branch out beyond their schools.
Even though I have access to guidance at my home institution, I found it incredibly helpful to be put in contact with a number of philosophers who offered me advice on my writing sample. I also met someone at the closing night party who put me in touch with some of the most important figures in the subfield of contemporary philosophy of religion.
The program was not ‘all work and no play’ — we went out for ice cream, an improv comedy show, and even a fancy dinner at L’Osteria. Some of us used our free time to explore MIT’s expansive campus and the surrounding area in Cambridge. I delighted in the philosophy section at Harvard’s famous book-store, and perused the lovely art at the Koch Center for Cancer Research with other fellows.
On our last night, all of us were gifted PIKSI bags and shirts, as well as mugs adorned with the adorable tagline, “Philosophy at MI-Tea,” which I have proudly used countless times since June.
The true gift of this sort of program, though, is not the “free swag.” It is the inspired attitude that we came away with, the new friendships made, and the knowledge that we all have unique voices that have a place in philosophy. I will always cherish the connections I made at PIKSI, and the kind words and laughter I shared with other fellows, graduate student leaders, and professors. I now have new friends I can rely on and struggle through the graduate school application season with, as well as a wealth of new mentors to reach out to as I make my way in academia.
I should add that going to PIKSI doesn’t strip away every last hint of impostor syndrome (that would be too much to ask of any program). However, it did a pretty good job of reminding me that I can handle the rigors of the examined life despite any barriers that stand in my way.
PIKSI was also eye opening to me in the sense that my passion for philosophy was strengthened by a healthy dose of do-good spirit: perhaps best described as a desire to champion Marx’s eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The other PIKSI fellows and I will be the future of philosophy, and it falls to us to make sure that those who follow in our footsteps have access to at least the opportunities and resources that were made available to us. Many of us left PIKSI with the desire to shake up deep rooted biases and unfair structural issues in the discipline– in our home departments and beyond.
When I am a professor, I will reach out to students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds and encourage them if they show interest and aptitude in philosophy. I’d like to model for my students the incredible patience, kindness, and support that I have received from my own mentor at Fordham as well as by my mentors at PIKSI. I think this is especially important in order to broaden the circle of philosophy, as dropoff in philosophy begins very early on—usually after an intro course or two.
If my mentor at Fordham had not indulged my out of class fascination with the work of Plantinga and C Stephan Evans during her (often extended) office hours and taken me along with her to my first conference at Rutgers, it is quite quite possible that I would not be on the path that I am on. Personal commitment to good pedagogy, I believe, is one of the best ways I can make a difference in the field.
I nothing but praise for PIKSI and everything it gave me, and I encourage interested students to apply–you have nothing to lose! I cannot wait to take academia by storm with my future colleagues and beloved PIKSI friends.
You can find out more about PIKSI here, and learn about other Summer diversity institutes here. If you are a faculty member or graduate student interested in mentoring at PIKSI, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sanjana Rajagopal is a philosophy student at Fordham University.