Philosophy undergraduates tackle heaven and hell, humans and time, discourse and Title IX

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Kierra Hammons

Kierra Hammons takes questions on an applied ethics paper she wrote about how philosophy concepts championed by the German philosopher Habermas could assist in UAA's Title XI process. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

This time of year on a university campus-just three weeks short of finals-a stack of aromatic pizza boxes in the back of a classroom can mean only one thing: the culmination and presentation of student work.

Another way to describe it is higher education's version of show and tell.

Thursday afternoon, the discipline was philosophy and the venue was The Den on the ground floor of UAA's Student Union building as undergraduates presented and defended their research. This was day two of UAA's 10th annual undergraduate philosophy conference. Day one showcased the keynote address of a philosophy professor from Western Michigan University who happens to be working this year as a judicial clerk for the Alaska Supreme Court.

But Thursday afternoon, eight undergraduates were in the academic hot seat. Fortified by pizza, bananas and oranges, cookies and coffee, their topics roamed to heaven and hell, evil and otherness, humans and time, and Title IX.

Nicole Deren

Senior and philosophy and journalism double major Nicole Deren delivers her paper on three views of hell. (Photo by Kathleen McCoy/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Here is a snapshot of three of those students, what they wrote about, and their assessment of how earning a philosophy degree changed them.

The concept of hell

Nicole Deren will graduate May 3 with dual degrees in journalism and philosophy. A product of Service High School's seminar program, she headed to college to become a pharmacist like her mom. When she struggled with math, she fell back to an old favorite interest, philosophy. A self-proclaimed atheist, she pursued a philosophy of religion class this semester to better understand people with faith.

Kristin Helweg Janson

Philosophy professor Kristin Helweg Hanson offers feedback on an undergraduate research paper a the philosophy conference. (Photo by Christina Talbott Clark/University of Alaska Anchorage)

"I was jealous of people who have it," she said. "I never understood it...why do they like it so much, I have got to know."

Her research outlined three traditional theories of hell-universalist (everybody ends up in heaven); retributive (the unjust get punished in hell); and free will (we choose heaven or hell by our own actions). Then she described detailed arguments against each theory.

One of the biggest benefits of her philosophy degree, Deren said, was learning to be open-minded. "That was huge for me. I was a very opinionated person. Philosophy teaches you to open up and look at things in 10 different ways before making up your mind."

Deren says she'll use those skills throughout life, including in her dream job marketing and managing heavy metal music talent. After taking a year off from school and living in Portland, she's headed to business school for an M.B.A.

Kierra Hammons

December philosophy graduate Kierra Hammons delivers a paper on how the German philosopher Habermas' theories of discourse might influence UAA's current Title IX process. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Applied ethics

Kierra Hammons graduated in December with a philosophy degree, but thanks to some unspent scholarship money, she's still here, adding an English degree and managing The Northern Light, UAA's student newspaper.

For her research in applied ethics, Hammons decided to layer German philosopher Jurgen Habermas' "discourse ethics" and "rational reconstruction" on UAA's federal Title IX process. This 1972 law says that an individual's sex cannot exclude him or her from full participation in any educational program. Officials from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights visited the campus in fall of 2014 to determine how UAA handled complaints of sexual assault and harassment and to assess the campus climate.

Stephanie Bauer

Philosophy chair Stephanie Bauer offers feedback on an undergraduate research paper during the philosophy conference. (Photo by Christina Talbott Clark/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Applying Habermas' view that morality requires fair and open dialogue, Hammons proposed in her paper that the best opportunity for well-informed students and a healthy reporting climate at UAA could mean allowing students to discuss their concerns without fear of escalation.

"There was a problem with student involvement because of their insecurities about where the information would go, or how it might affect them," Hammons said. She plans to work with UAA's compliance officials to add this opportunity.

"I was excited to do something that actually mattered," Hammons said. "It consumed my entire university career: What am I doing that matters? I got good grades, my GPA was high, I finished my B.A. at age 20, but what did it matter? There are ways to matter outside of an economic lens. There are ways to matter between people."

Theory of time

Tyler Gawley

Senior philosophy major Tyler Gawley discusses time as an erroneous concept. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Tyler Gawley arrived as a freshman from Wasilla, thinking he'd study to be a journalist. Now he's in his final semester of college, ready to graduate with a philosophy degree. But he might disagree, at least philosophically, with the notion that time has passed since he arrived at UAA.

His paper on Thursday was called "Content and Time." He's been obsessed with the psychological idea of time, or the notion that time does not exist. Expressions like, "The time flew by," or "Time really slowed down," intrigue him.

Metaphysics has changed him forever, he says. He finds himself watching rain drip from a roof, and wondering, "Is there really motion?" His ideal path is research and teaching. But next year, he's taking a break from academics. He plans to work in a nonprofit before gearing up for the intensity of graduate school, either in the Lower 48 or Europe.

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Sunday, April 5, 2015

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