Empowering the next generation of philosophers through diversity and inclusion

Held annually at MIT, PIKSI-Boston brings together students from groups underrepresented in the field of philosophy 

Karolina Nixon, a recent graduate of Columbia University, attended PIKSI-Boston earlier this summer. Photo by Allegra Boverman.

"PIKSI-Boston provides a space where fellows can experience the joy of doing philosophy in a supportive environment and gain the confidence to persist even under more difficult conditions." - MIT Professor Sally Haslanger

As a rising senior studying philosophy and neuroscience at Boston University, Dee Everett saw attending PIKSI-Boston at MIT as an opportunity to connect with philosophy students who, like her, are members of underrepresented groups.

"Philosophy and academia as a whole still remains predominantly white and upper class, which means finding literature and information from perspectives outside of that mold is fairly difficult,” she says.

Everett spent a week at MIT this summer attending PIKSI-Boston, where she got to meet fellow philosophy undergraduates from around the world. She says the experience exceeded her expectations in many ways. 

"Each student in our cohort had a unique array of both philosophical and personal interests that always had me fully engrossed in every conversation,” she says. “During and outside of our scheduled seminars, new ideas were constantly being sprung and stronger bonds between us were being built.”

PIKSI-Boston (Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute in Boston) was launched in 2015, and is organized annually through a collaboration between MIT, the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and Harvard University. Its goal is to encourage students from groups underrepresented in philosophy to pursue advanced studies and continue professionally in the field.

Sally Haslanger, MIT Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies, spearheaded the creation of PIKSI-Boston, working with a group of MIT philosophy graduate students. She says that while much of professional philosophy is intellectually stimulating, it can be socially alienating for members of underrepresented groups.

"No one does their best in an environment they find alienating, and this results in a sense of inadequacy. Who would plan to pursue an advanced degree in a discipline that makes them feel inadequate? PIKSI-Boston provides a space where fellows can experience the joy of doing philosophy in a supportive environment and gain the confidence to persist even under more difficult conditions,” she says.” We also teach skills for combating alienation and changing the environment. And the relationships formed at PIKSI are a resource in times of doubt."

'Mentoring happens for everyone'

Fellows at a graduate teaching fellow seminar during PIKSI-Boston held at MIT earlier this summer. Photo by Allegra Boverman.

Days at PIKSI-Boston include hearing from visiting faculty, mentor/mentee meetings, and graduate teaching fellow seminars. The visiting faculty at this year’s summer institute included: Johnathan Flowers, CSUN; Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner, Georgetown University; Ernesto Garcia, UMass Amherst; Ishani Maitra, University of Michigan; José Jorge Mendoza, University of Washington; and Ayanna Spencer, University of Connecticut.

Fellows at this year’s PIKSI-Boston were mostly from schools in the Northeast, but there were some who traveled to MIT from across the country and also internationally. Panel discussions focused on topics like applying to graduate school and the experiences of faculty minorities in academia. A crucial part of the program’s success is creating supportive networks at every level and across levels, says Haslanger. The program is designed to be valuable for all participants.

"Mentoring happens for everyone,” Haslanger says. “The visiting faculty and faculty directors mentor the graduate teaching fellows and the graduate teaching fellows mentor the undergraduates. This means that PIKSI-Boston is not just a one-time event in which you are fed new information; it creates an ongoing set of relationships. And these relationships become models of how to build networks with others.”

The program is getting results. Since its launch, there have been 160 Alain Locke Fellows. Haslanger says their survey data shows just over half of participants identify as LGBTQ and half have been first-generation college students. Of the survey respondents, 37 percent identify as Black/African American, and 12 percent identify as white.

Many past attendees are currently enrolled in philosophy graduate programs or pursuing advanced degrees. One PIKSI-Boston alum from 2015 is now a faculty member at the University of Houston.

Dana Miranda is an assistant professor of philosophy at UMass-Boston. His involvement with PIKSI-Boston began in 2016, when he served as a graduate Teaching Fellow. He taught his own interdisciplinary seminar, while also mentoring students through the admissions process.

"These personal connections allowed me to not only support others, but also locked me into networks that saw the value of me and the philosophical topics I wanted to pursue. This positive experience has only continued,” he says.

Now as a faculty co-director of PIKSI-Boston, Miranda says he’s seen students grapple with the full diversity of philosophy, oftentimes being exposed to topics and thinkers unavailable at their home institution, all while supported by graduate students and faculty members across the world.

"It is through this work that PIKSI-Boston contributes to the future of philosophy and its betterment,” he says. 

Support for PIKSI-Boston comes from the partner institutions, the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the Mellon Foundation, the American Philosophical Association, and from staff support from MIT Philosophy.

Bulding a network of support

Yunqing/Isaac Han from Claremont McKenna College (third from the right) was one of the Alain Locke Fellows who attended PIKSI-Boston earlier this summer. Photo by Allegra Boverman.

James Maciel-Andrews is a rising junior studying political science major at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He didn’t know about PIKSI-Boston until one of his friends at Trinity mentioned the program would be a good opportunity to pursue his interests in philosophy.

"I am well aware that I am always one of the only African-American students in any of the philosophy courses that I take while at Trinity, so I greatly appreciated the idea of engaging in thoughtful discussions with current undergraduate and graduate students whose philosophical beliefs might be rooted in more similar socio-political circumstances to my own,” he says.

Maciel-Andrews says he appreciated both the in-classroom lectures of PIKSI-Boston led by experienced philosophers, as well as the more relaxed conversations he had with the other participants in the dorm’s common room.

By attending PIKSI-Boston this summer, Maciel-Andrews says he gained a better understanding of core philosophical texts and how to engage with them, but also learned more about himself and being a philosopher.

"With the help of my graduate student mentors, I was able to identify Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a master’s degree that I might want to pursue, something that I had not previously known about, and recognize my underlying fascination with current debates around the ethics of implementing AI in our modern world,” he said.

For Karli Walsh, a rising senior at Ohio Wesleyan University double majoring in philosophy and politics and government, attending PIKSI-Boston was a step toward building a strong professional network and achieving her goal of pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and ultimately becoming a professor.

"PIKSI was a wonderful experience that introduced me to so many amazing people working in the field of philosophy,” says Walsh. “The highlights for me were definitely my experiences with the graduate student mentors. Hearing their perspectives and getting to know them as people has made me feel much more comfortable pursuing my goals.”

Boston University's Dee Everett recalled one of the most important things she gained from PIKSI-Boston was an affirmation that philosophy can be done in any way by anyone.

"There is passion and inquiry to be found in any topic if you are willing to look and put in the work to see a project through,” says Everett. “PIKSI showed me in real time how philosophers from all kinds of backgrounds can collaborate and learn from each other, not only within the realm of philosophy, but as young professionals and academics moving towards their future.”

Michael Brindley | MIT Philosophy