Want to learn first-hand about what it’s like to participate in an IHS Summer Seminar? We sat down with Dr. Chris Freiman, a Summer Seminar alumnus turned faculty leader, to discuss the moments that defined his seminar experience and how surreal it is to be leading the group of students he was once a part of.
INSIDE SUMMER SEMINARS: A Conversation with Dr. Chris Freiman
Hi Chris. Thanks for chatting with me today about IHS Summer Seminars. As an alum of the program, we’d love to get your perspective on the experience so that our incoming students know a bit about what to expect.
Of course. My pleasure.
To get us started, why don’t you tell us a bit about your background. What made you want to be a professor of philosophy?
I had an unusually straightforward path to academia, and to philosophy. I was interested in philosophy even before entering college. I’d read stuff about politics, philosophy, and economics in high school, and I discovered that the people writing these things were professors.
I was interested in the big questions – what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust – and so was naturally drawn to philosophy. I wrote a philosophy honors thesis as an undergrad and then went right on to graduate school at the University of Arizona. There, I had Dave Schmidtz as a mentor, and he was just terrific –as an academic mentor but also just an all-around great person. I wrote my dissertation under Dave and he’s been a big influence on my thinking and writing.
I was fortunate that my first job was a tenure-track one at William & Mary, and I’ve been there ever since. I focus on political philosophy and write on immigration, some public choice economics, and distributive justice. I’ve always been interested in other disciplines and I think they’re part of answering those big questions. They’re intrinsically rewarding to think about and read about, and I find that different fields illuminate each other. Empirical claims are relevant to philosophical questions and vice versa.
Absolutely. And how did you first hear about IHS and our Summer Seminars?
Looking back, I’d known about IHS and Summer Seminars when I was an undergraduate. A roommate of mine actually attended one of the seminars, though I never did as an undergrad. I attended a Summer Seminar my first year as a graduate student, and it was one of the things that Dave emphasized and recommended doing.
What were your first impressions of the Seminar you attended?
One thing that is really distinctive about Summer Seminars is that they’re really intense, really packed in a good way. If you’re the sort of person who’s taking a week out of your summer break to be immersed in politics, philosophy, and economics, and you’re the type of person who wants to discuss the morality or immorality of sweatshops at 8:00 AM, then seminars are for you. If you’re addicted to talking about ideas, Summer Seminars are a place to get your fill like nowhere else that I’ve encountered. I could talk about philosophy to my heart’s content.
I also noticed right away that the faculty were people I knew about and had, in some cases, read their books. It was gratifying to meet them in person, to hear them give talks and get the chance to chat with them afterwards.
What was the most meaningful part of the Seminar for you as a student?
The fact that I’ve met so many people and have stayed in touch with them over the years. I met people I would never have met otherwise. I have dozens of friends in academia that I wouldn’t have had were it not for the summer seminars. It’s important on a personal level, but also on a professional level. As a grad student, it was hard to meet people outside of your program, so Seminars were a great way to encounter people at other programs and hear about what questions they’re asking and what papers they’re writing.
Those friendships last too. I’m co-authoring a work with a friend I met at an IHS seminar. We’re still working on stuff together, and he and his family live nearby and our kids play together. Making friends that you’ll still have 15 years later – that’s an important part of the IHS experience.
That’s great. I’m always amazed by stories like that, and they’re really not that rare. Now, if you could describe IHS Summer Seminars in just three words, what would they be?
Rewarding. Eye-opening. Action-packed. I know two of those are hyphenated, so I hope they still count as three.
You told us a bit about your path to academia, but I’m curious if participating in IHS Summer Seminars has shaped your personal or career goals in any way.
Yes, in a couple of ways. One thing that I think is rightly emphasized at IHS events, particularly for graduate students, is focusing on publishing early and often. All of the IHS faculty, including those I met at Seminars, are on the same page on this. That was something that made an impression on me early on.
You also make these connections with students and faculty that are working in other disciplines. You kind of get this de-facto education in economics, political theory, and history. You soak up knowledge talking with people from other disciplines over lunch. I found myself writing papers that incorporated pieces of information I’d picked up in conversations with others or in lectures. Even interesting articles my Facebook friends share – “Hey, look at this” – have been inspiring.
You’ve talked a little bit about these great connections you made at Summer Seminars. Are you still in contact with anyone, fellow students or faculty?
Tons. So many. Both faculty and students. Now that I’m faculty, I’ll run into philosophers that I met through IHS as a student at meetings and academic conferences. Same thing with students that I’ve met, and now we’re off working in academia and we’re running into each other.
I’d say I’ve met dozens of people I’ve stayed in touch with. (Laughs) About half of my Facebook friends I probably met through IHS.
(Laughs) Excellent. To shift gears a little bit, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what kind of student should attend an IHS Summer Seminar. Who would enjoy the experience?
I’m not sure if it’s still a Seminar tagline, but “Sleep Less, Think More” is really accurate. The student who finds that idea attractive is the sort of student that should attend. Someone who can’t get enough of ideas, can’t get enough of hearing arguments and theories from other disciplines. Someone who is interested in hearing new topics and new viewpoints is the ideal student for a Seminar.
And what will students take away from a Seminar?
New friends, of course. More pragmatically, at least for graduate students, is that you will almost certainly come away from the experience with new research ideas. You’ll walk away with paper ideas from lectures and conservations you had. You’ll find inspiration for future research projects.
For undergraduates, something extremely valuable about IHS events is that you’ll get connected to this great network of faculty and students. It’s an important source of support if you’re thinking about a career in academia.
Last question. Now that you’re faculty, what brings you back as a Seminar speaker year after year?
I think I’m more or less the same person I was as a grad student. I still like to argue about politics, philosophy, and economics from 8:00 AM to midnight. The only opportunity I have to do that is IHS Summer Seminars.
Plus it’s a fun experience to be on the other side of things. I pinch myself that I’m the one up there, the one lecturing. It’s exciting. As faculty, I enjoy the same things I did as a student. I like meeting smart, motivated people that are just as geeky about the ideas as I am. I still get research ideas from the other faculty and students. I still love seminars for the same reasons.
Christopher Freiman is the Class of 1963 Distinguished Term Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William & Mary. He is the author of the book Unequivocal Justice and over two dozen articles and chapters on topics including democratic theory, distributive justice, and immigration. His work has appeared in venues such as the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. He first attended an IHS Summer Seminar in 2005, and he will be one of this year’s Summer Seminar speakers.
Claim your place among scholars like Dr. Freiman by applying for an IHS Summer Seminar today!