The Columns

In Depth: The Mudd Undergraduate Ethics Conference Seniors Teddy Corcoran and Stephanie Foster get students from around the country talking about ethics.

— by on September 5th, 2016

The Mudd Undergraduate Ethics Conference

“We’ve just both always had a passion for ethics and thought it was something everyone should be cognizant of.” – Stephanie Foster ’16

Papers had been peer-reviewed for the inaugural Mudd Journal of Ethics, and presenters had been chosen for the accompanying Mudd Undergraduate Ethics Conference. As the date approached for the two-day symposium, student editors could only hope their guests would get as much out of it as they had contributed.

They needn’t have worried. By all accounts, the first annual conference was a great success and will be the first of many to come at Washington and Lee.

“Not only was it interesting academically and intellectually, but it was also a lot of fun,” said Teddy Corcoran ’16, editor-in-chief of the journal. “My concern was that the discussion wouldn’t be good or that there’d be a feeling of a lack of interest, but it was better than what I was hoping for in terms of the enthusiasm and response to papers.”

During the March 5 and 6 conference at Hillel House, eight students from eight different colleges and universities across the country presented the papers they’d written for publication in the journal. Presenters included Shaun Soman ‘17 and Maura Carey, of the University of Virginia, but others traveled from as far away as Washington and California.

Matthew Talbert, associate professor of philosophy and chair of the Philosophy Department at West Virginia University, delivered the keynote address on Saturday night. He also attended each student presentation and provided valuable feedback, Corcoran said.

“I think he really connected with the students,” said Angela Smith, director of the Mudd Center for Ethics. “He had a text but he didn’t just read from it. He talked very naturally and addressed a very interesting question of the nature of historical blame.”

According to Smith, credit for the journal and the conference belongs entirely to students. Corcoran, who is vice president of the W&L chapter of Phi Sigma Tau, the philosophy honor society, said the initial idea was to create a publication for the Mudd Center. He said Dr. Daniel Wubah, senior advisor to the president, suggested pairing the annual journal with a conference featuring the selected papers.

Corcoran and Stephanie Foster ’16, associate editor of the journal and president of Phi Sigma Tau, liked the idea of pairing the two, because while there are a number of philosophy conferences, the presentations do not always get published in a journal. The thought of an undergraduate-only conference also appealed to them as a great opportunity for younger students.

“We’ve just both always had a passion for ethics and thought it was something everyone should be cognizant of,” said Foster, who is double-majoring in philosophy and French.

The editing team was rounded out by five assistant editors: William Brown ’16, Austin Piatt ’17, Spencer Payne ’17, Zachary Taylor ’17 and Parker Butler ’18.

With help from professors, the editors put out a nationwide call for journal entries. They said a dozen entries would have made them happy, so they were delighted to get 23 (they really flowed in on the last day, Corcoran said). Each paper was blind-reviewed by two different editors using a checklist that included questions such as, “Would a smart person with no prior knowledge of this subject be able to follow this?” and “Do you think this paper would generate a good discussion?”

In the final stages of the review process, the editors sought variety in subject matter, gender and location of authors, and asked the authors for minor edits. Nine papers made the final cut (one will be published in the journal, but the writer was unable to attend the conference).

The student editors were “fantastic,” Smith said. “I gave them a lot of autonomy and a lot of responsibility in this, and they pulled it all off. They did the majority of the work. The students who were here, several said they had been to other undergraduate conferences and this had been the best one they had been to.”

Corcoran was gratified to hear robust conversation both during and after the presentations and noted that, while lively, the debates never turned nasty or disrespectful.

“A pleasant surprise was that a lot of students were interested in pursuing graduate studies, so they were able to dip their toes into presenting a paper at a conference and getting that feedback,” he said. “The fact that they were so interested in philosophy was great for the discussion, as was the fact that everybody was so interested in everybody’s work.”

The W&L students even offered to host any guest students who couldn’t stay in a hotel, and four young men ended up crashing at Corcoran’s place. He said the group “clicked right away,” and philosophical discussions continued into the evening on Saturday.

The next step in the process will be to publish The Mudd Journal of Ethics, which the students hope will come out in April or May. Each author/presenter will get two copies, and journals will be available around campus. The editing staff plans to put all of the papers online for future applicants to read.

Corcoran said they will also send a survey to editors and participants to find out how the conference could be improved in coming years. As Corcoran, Foster and Brown approach graduation, several new editors will need to be chosen, Smith said.

For now, the entire team can bask in the knowledge that they helped to create a new tradition at Washington and Lee — one that Smith said will further the Mudd Center’s mission to involve students in conversations about ethics.

“I was really pleased with how it all went and, I guess, mostly pleased with what a warm, encouraging environment it was,” Smith said. “Sometimes philosophy can be a little bit antagonistic, but the whole environment at this conference was just super supportive, and people were just really interested in the issues and not interested in scoring points.

“I honestly think that was a tone that was set by the editors at the top.”

The nine papers selected for the journal: