Photo credit: Arthur White.

Meet the Carleton University Philosophy Society (CUPS), the department’s student led society!  

A conversation between the Chair of the Department, Professor Annie Larivée, and the members of the CUPS executive committee: Clara Potworowski, Emily Carr, Emily Fallows, Tina Cain, and Kay Wagg.

Professor Annie Larivée: We are very lucky to have an active student philosophy society at Carleton. What motivated each of you initially to become a part of the CUPS executive team? 

Clara Potworowski: I was looking for a way to connect more to people in the philosophy program, especially since I – along with almost everyone else – was feeling the sting of loneliness from online schooling.  

Emily Carr: I always wanted to take part in the department in some way, but COVID and social isolation made it a priority for me to get involved as soon as I could and contribute to the social aspects of university. 

Emily Fallows: I wanted to have a more active role in my philosophy degree outside of classes, and I wanted to help contribute to the philosophy community here at Carleton.  

Tina Cain: It seemed so daunting trying to make friends within my program online after just switching programs (from computer science!) and was sure my classmates felt the same. I wanted to make it easier for everyone to connect!   

Kay Wagg: During the isolation period I really felt disconnected and knew a lot of my friends did as well, so I figured it would be a good way to try and help fix that in some small way. 

AL: In my experience CUPS is traditionally led by undergraduates. I’m curious, are graduate students involved at all in the Society? And can students who are not pursuing majors or minors in philosophy join CUPS? 

CP:  We’ve had incredible discussion groups led by Grad students, notably Ian, Liam, and Gage, that led to fruitful discussion. While positions on the executive committee are limited to Phil majors, any event we host is completely open.  

EF: I started off in CUPS as an undergrad, and I am happy to continue working as an executive member as a graduate student! Even though there are only a few executive members of CUPS, that does not mean there are not many  other people that are involved and an integral part of the CUPS community! Just by attending our events, engaging in discussion groups, or even popping into the philosophy lounge and chatting with your classmates, is enough to be a part of the CUPS community.  

AL: Who created that awesome logo of yours, the Rodin thinker with the raven on the head? It’s really neat. 

CUPS logo

TC: I did! I thought it would be really neat to include the thinker since, as philosophy students, we are all deep thinkers at heart. Along the way, I wanted to personalize it for our school. So, I added the raven on his shoulder with lines to illustrate the raven talking to the thinker. To me the raven represents the students talking and sharing their wonderful ideas to the thinker to give him even more to think about! I love to think everyone within our philosophy community will go out to the world, share their ideas, and have people think.

AL: In a recent exchange, Clara mentioned to me that “it really, really matters to her to create a philosophical community”. Can you explain why it is so important to you? Also, how would you define a “philosophical community”? 

CP: I think my desire for a philosophical community first started when I met two people in my class with whom I would discuss whatever it is we learnt that day. We would take breaks together, and chat between classes about philosophy, politics, culture, anything. Learning alongside people and being able to dig into our studies together helped me tremendously in staying on track in the class, and gave me a more rigorous understanding of the topics discussed in class. It also helped a lot to have someone to call when I was panicking about final papers! 

I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to say that students who study philosophy are seeking truth. In my mind, this can never be done in isolation. Even with all the books in the world, if one doesn’t engage in the life they are philosophizing about, including the lives of the people around them, they are doomed to miss the mark. Being able to contrast and compare experiences with those closest to you increases understanding, and makes the intellectual pursuit alive. Who better to go into the depths of any question with than the people right next to you, namely your classmates?  

My definition of community is highly romanticized, so I would describe it as a sharing of life through conversation, understanding, and a willingness to help and be helped. Don’t tell the OED please! 

AL: I’m not sure I should say what I’m about to say… but, here we go! At the department photoshoot a couple of weeks ago, one of you said you were really hoping that faculty would attend the CUPS-organized party and joked “it would be fun to drink with some profs!”. This got me thinking. When I was a student and even when I started as a faculty, there was a tradition, in academia, of profs and students meeting in informal settings, like pubs, and doing stuff together in non-academic contexts. I wouldn’t say that this is not done at all anymore, but obviously, something has changed in the cultural climate over the past ten years or so. Perhaps there has been a growing fear of improprieties? Or perhaps faculty have gradually become more mindful of the requirements of that very special relationship?  I did read several interesting pieces on the specificity and complexity of the student/prof relationship over the past decade. Do you agree that keeping a distance is necessary? Or do you feel that something important is lost if we go too far in the direction of caution? 

CUPS Exec. Team: Of course caution should always be exercised when the basis of a relationship involves a power-imbalance. We would not want to facilitate improper relationships.  

EC: I think closing the excessive gap of formality between professors and students has been a priority for CUPS from the beginning. This is why we love when Profs show up to the events and discussion nights that we host. I found a wine opener in the philosophy lounge recently and was informed that, years ago, professors would have some wine with students on the final day of a seminar to celebrate and discuss. These kinds of stories from the past inspired CUPS to organise “coffeehouses” for each upper year class to hang out with their profs after the final class discussion. They were a huge success!!! 

EF: Getting to know my professors here at Carleton, and forming good relationships with them, has quite literally changed my entire life. All of the professors actually do genuinely care about my success. I’ve felt comfortable enough with some professors to even ask them personal life advice. Which grad school should I pick? What should I be doing to make my life better as a philosophy student?  This has helped me succeed in my life. When I was deciding where to go for my masters, the simple overwhelmingly helpful response I got back from the professors here at Carleton was largely the reason that I chose to stay at Carleton. 

TC: All students long to have good relationships with their professors. After this year, I’m lucky enough to say I have started forming those relationships! It has had a huge impact on my experience at Carleton. I think one of my favourite experiences so far has been getting to walk to the bus with one of my professors, (so small and silly, but incredible)! We chatted about philosophy, school in general, and just life. Having these conversations and mentorship has been so useful at school and it’s nice to know that our professors care! I hope more professors work equally as hard to build those relationships with us. 

CP: Every single time a professor has shown that they have genuine concern regarding my well-being has had a profound impact on me. When profs have reached out, or taken the time to talk to me when I was struggling, I was reminded that I was not alone, that I could be helped, and the people who were teaching my class were real, concerned, and had endless amounts of understanding and compassion. Those gratuitous acts are small examples of how stronger relationships with faculty can be profitable to students. I believe professors would suffer a lot more in their jobs if they didn’t care about those to whom they were teaching! 

KW: Especially because the department is on the smaller side and we end up seeing most professors multiple times throughout our degrees, I think being able to connect on more of a casual human level also really helps student confidence. Being able to have conversations with professors that aren’t centred around their course content helps assuage doubts I had about doing a philosophy degree, since it sort of legitimizes to me that it isn’t actually a useless degree.  

AL: What do you think students at Carleton can gain from attending the discussion groups run by CUPS that they perhaps wouldn’t get from a structured classroom experience? Can you remember having a philosophy “aha moment”—no matter how big or small—during one of these discussions or another unstructured, informal CUPS events? 

TC: I think our biggest “aha moment” came from a small unstructured study session. Clara, Emily C, and I headed to Art House Cafe to work on a paper. It seemed silly at the time, but it helped so much! We completely broke down one of Berkeley’s arguments, then went back and forth asking questions to try and fully understand it. In the end we not only fully understood his argument, but we had a “full circle moment” and connected it to one of Kant’s arguments in a different class! We were completely mind blown and definitely killed our papers. For anyone reading you are welcome to reach out and study with me!  

CP: Discussion groups have introduced me to ideas I might never have encountered otherwise. That alone is worthy of being characterized as an “aha moment”.  

CET: Discussion groups also give people a chance to engage in learning without the pressure that comes from being tested on it. It’s short term and contemporary, and allows you to meet people outside of class or in different programs. 

AL: When I was a student, I did not get involved in any student society type of stuff. I was a horribly depressed misanthropist at the time, and getting good grades left little time for anything else. Academic life can be very unhealthy, very unbalanced. Was I right to think that academic work and involvement in students club are difficult to reconcile? Would you say that your involvement in the Society affected your academic performance? Or was I completely mistaken, and did being involved in CUPS positively affect it? 

From left to right: Clara, Tina and Emily F. Photo credit: Arthur White.

EF: Before I joined CUPS, I was not doing any extracurriculars at all. I was deeply absorbed in my classes, and my grades were, and still are, usually my top priority. As COVID continued, I really started to feel a lack in my philosophical learning from zoom. That was part of the reason why I joined and have stayed. I was terrified that doing extracurriculars would take up too much of my time, and that my grades would suffer. I have to give a lot of credit to CUPS for my success. Without joining CUPS, I would not have been where I am today. Through CUPS, more professors learned who I was, and what kind of person I was. And through those relationships with professors through CUPS, I was able to successfully get into grad school and land a SSHRC award.

KW: I am not sure if it was just a confidence sort of placebo effect from entrenching myself in a philosophy-specific extracurricular or if attending all the CUPS events and our tendency to get distracted during exec meetings actually improved my ability to engage with philosophy, but after joining CUPS my GPA actually increased. I was definitely in the ”horribly depressed misanthropist” party when I joined CUPS, so I had a lot of doubts about how my involvement with CUPS was going to go. But I was extremely happy to be proven wrong! 

EC: I gained a lot of confidence in my knowledge and the material I was learning after discussing it with my peers. Being involved in philosophy in an extracurricular way made it easier to be challenged by philosophy in my academics because I went about it with a better attitude. The confidence that came with a sense of community made the responsibilities worth it.  

AL: In the past, CUPS has been largely male-dominated, which was a bit impoverishing. Compared to prior years, this has not been as much the case. Do you hope that the increased gender-diversity in CUPS team will have any positive impacts on the life of the department? 

TC: I often forget that philosophy in general is a male-dominated field, especially because of the environment at Carleton. We have a really good staff ratio within our department and every female philosophy professor I’ve had at Carleton is bad-ass! If I’m allowed to say that, haha. However, I think that fact alone has helped all women within and outside of our program feel more comfortable to participate within the classroom, and outside of it. I would like to think that it’s fostered CUPS to become more diverse. This diversity within CUPS has helped different types of people to become involved in philosophy, which is extremely personal. It can be hard sharing your ideas and when you enter a room full of people where no one looks like you! Representation matters. 

KW: Yeah, I think there’s a kind of dual existence that the world of capital-p Philosophy has in my brain. One version is true because I glance through the canon I’ve been studying and see mostly men. But then I also have an image of philosophy that’s been directly inspired by my experience in Carleton’s department. Carleton professors have countered the first experience by being representative of a slow reshaping or by actively highlighting the discrepancies that exist in academia by adjusting their syllabus or ideas. I definitely hope that CUPS can work similarly to that in some way, even if it is just adding to students’ understanding of what a philosophy student might look like. But I also think for the most part, the diversity of CUPS really is more a symptom of the department itself and the success it has with gender diversity than it is something that will create its own impacts.   

EC: I truly believe that the strong, intelligent, successful, opinionated, and powerful women who lead the department make it possible for CUPS to become the diverse group that it is. At Carleton, I think all genders feel invited to the discussion, which is so important and valuable to me.  

AL: We’re approaching convocation season, and this is an emotional time of year in Academia. I want to talk about the future. Our Comms’ team has recently launched a new initiative called ‘Alumni Wednesday’. Every month, we feature one alumnus/a and I suspect that people will be amazed when they discover the diversity and downright awesomeness of many of our alumni’s current professions. Unsurprisingly, most did not become ‘professional philosophers’ (and most probably had no desire to!). But I wonder if philosophy is still part of their life, somehow. What do you think your relationship to philosophy will become once you complete your degree? Will it remain a part of your daily life? Of your identity even? Do you think you will identify as philosophers for the rest of your life regardless of what you end up doing? 

CET: I think students tend to choose a philosophy degree because they already recognize philosophy as something that is (or can be) part of their daily lives, so it probably will continue to be so. But the question of being a philosopher is a bit more complex. What does it mean to be a philosopher in the first place? As philosophy students, we have heard hundreds of times: A philosopher is simply a lover of wisdom. A degree or society doesn’t make a philosopher. Whether we, or anyone, sees themselves as a philosopher is a complicated question, but I think we at very least all aspire to be good philosophers.  

AL: CUPS has been part of my life for fifteen years, now. My first big administrative responsibility at the department was undergraduate supervisor, back in 2010. I remember finding it very scary at the time! The society was not thriving back then, and I had made it my goal to help revive it a bit. Just like departments, student societies go through phases of ups and downs, periods of ebullition and dormancy. How to ensure the long-term stability of collective initiatives and maintain the life of ‘collective animals’, like a department, over time is a thing I’ve been thinking more and more about in my capacity as chair. What about you, is the perennity of CUPS something that matters to you? What if the next cohort, or the next after the next, were to let CUPS wither and die… Do you care what will happen to the CUPS once you leave university? And do you have a legacy, or some piece of institutional wisdom that you’d like to pass on? What piece of advice you would give to future exec members of CUPS? 

CET: If Julia (the previous CUPS president) had not been as passionate and caring  about CUPS, Clara would likely not have continued it. It is crucial to show other people how much we care and that we don’t let the fire die. Julia kept it fun, interesting, and effective. That is what made it what it is, what made us want to carry it on and to inspire future students. 

KW: Because we all try to emphasize care and passion in the things we do as a club, we do not have a genuine concern about whether CUPS will wither away: there’s always going to be at least one student who wants the community and connection that CUPS stands for. I recently got the chance to reach out to a member of CUPS from before I attended Carleton for some help. If 5 years down the road an undergrad student reaches out to me looking for CUPS help, I would be excited and ready to do so. But I would be equally psyched if future students were still reaching out and connecting with one another through philosophical discussion, even without CUPS. Whether accompanied by our silly little acronym or not, we all mostly just hope that we help instil a sense of community within the philosophy department that gives it room to continue to grow. 

CP: I do hope CUPS continues to exist in some form or another for years to come. We actively try to host events that have the potential to be recreated, and aren’t just single use ideas. Part of my dream as CUPS president is to extend the community that we have seen grow at Carleton to the rest of Ottawa, either through monthly meetings or other events. But as Kay mentioned, even if students get together without being formally associated with the CUPS name, I will be happy. What matters is that the compassionate environment that existed at Carleton before us, and that we contributed to, remains. 

AL: Finally, I want to thank you for the work that you’ve done and the life you infused in the Society in circumstances that were less than ideal. I always thought it could be nice to have a kind of shrine in the lounge with pictures of all exec committees over the years! Perhaps we’ll start this tradition this year? Or perhaps this article is better than a shrine! In any case, thank you CUPS, and fair wind! 

You can find more about CUPS on their website, and you can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Keep an eye out for our next Spotlight in July 2022! 

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