Philosophy was always part of her academic plans, but interest became infatuation when she found philosophy of science. She says, “this careful, analytical approach to foundational questions drew me in—I realized that I just wanted to keep studying philosophy.” She came to Michigan with two undergraduate degrees: one in Philosophy and another, self-designed baccalaureate in Logic, Philosophy of Science, and History of Science. Cat recalls, “I fell in love with the formal side of the field, and saw that U-M would be absolutely wonderful for that. I feel so fortunate to be given the opportunity to study with such brilliant people, both among the faculty and the graduate students. It was incredible to imagine working with professors whose papers I'd read as an undergraduate.” It was very clear that Michigan was the place to go.
Once at Michigan, she gravitated toward epistemology, the study of knowledge, belief, and justification, which became her primary research focus. Cat explains, “I’m working on reconciling two very different approaches to epistemology, the formal and the traditional. There are certain topics (justification, for example) that they handle very differently, and many cases in which the intuitions that drive adherents of one approach seem alien to followers of the other. At the same time, both approaches are fruitful, so there's a real need to understand how they can and should interact.”
In her third year, Cat had the wonderful experience of taking part in Athena in Action, a workshop aimed at improving the notable gender diversity issues found in academic philosophy. “The program’s goal was retaining women in the discipline by providing mentors, conference experience, and a chance to meet other women in the field. The gender disparity is overwhelming in philosophy—as an undergraduate, while there were a few wonderful women in my department, I was one of a very small group of women across faculty, graduate students and undergrad majors, perhaps three that I knew, focusing on the formal end of the field. I thrived in that environment, largely because of Minnesota’s wonderful faculty, but that disparity can be isolating and discouraging for many. Before the workshop, I didn’t have a clear understanding of how pervasive and pernicious philosophy's gender gap has been. I learned a lot from Athena in Action. I also met friends and mentors there—in particular, my co-author for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender award, Robin Dembroff. We connected right away, chatting about philosophy some, but everything else more. A few months later, we ended up on this social identity concept, and our work together evolved from there.”
“I went down the rabbit hole on the social identity project,” she explains. “I got really involved in working on social ontology and feminist philosophy, both in my coursework and my extra-curricular academic pursuits. I found myself filling all of my free time with books and papers, just trying to catch up to this whole new field I'd been so drawn to… and now I have two disparate research areas, formal epistemology and social ontology, that I’m hoping to knit together.”
Cat’s experience with Athena in Action also fueled her interest in co-founding Michigan's Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) chapter, a program that has been a really fulfilling part of graduate school for her. She describes, “MAP is a venue for promoting cultural, racial, and gender diversity in philosophy. We’ve held talks and other types of events each semester over the last couple of years, and have had the fortune of a really positive reception across Michigan's philosophy department. I’m excited about our next major project—with the department's support, we’ll be hosting a workshop next year that’s aimed at encouraging undergraduates and Master’s students from underrepresented groups to stay in philosophy (and come to Michigan, if we're lucky!). We want our participants to feel like they have a community in philosophy, to feel welcome here, to feel like they can thrive.”
The philosophy department at U-M has radically changed over the years. She states, “Here at least, philosophy is a place for women. My cohort of six is evenly split between men and women, and the cohort after mine is all women. That sense of gendered isolation just isn't a part of the department culture. I also find myself surrounded by incredibly supportive people here. Faculty like Jamie Tappenden, Maria Lasonen-Aarnio, and Ishani Maitra have been thoughtful and understanding, alongside being wonderful academic mentors—the sort of people who can nurture ideas as you explore them.”
Currently, Cat is doggedly working on the three papers that comprise her dissertation and is now in the throes of a paper dealing with connections between what she calls ‘white tie’ (super formal), ‘black tie’ (slightly less formal), and ‘cocktail’ (non-formal) epistemologies. She describes, “There’s a sense in which our theories about things like justification and constraints on rational believers can be grouped in terms of levels of formality, and one of the really interesting differences between those approaches is the intuitions they speak to. Right now, I'm looking at one particular constraint as it appears in these types of epistemology and trying to clarify why and how our intuitions differ from one approach to another.”
Her upcoming research takes her back to the social identity project, this time focusing on the semantics of social group terms. Cat explains, “A framework for understanding how we talk about social groups is essential for understanding how we interact with them. Existing accounts tend to be somewhat coarse-grained, missing a lot of the ways a term like ‘woman’ can differ in meaning and neglecting the role of linguistic sub-communities. Eventually, I'd like to begin to get a sense of the dynamics of social group terms—how their meaning changes over time.”
When asked about how eclectic her research interests are, she points to connections. She explains, “There’s a lot of really important work out there dealing with things like the connection between epistemology and testimony. Groups that suffer from systemic oppressions, such as women, African Americans, and trans* persons, are also often subjected to certain epistemic injustices. Credibility deficit, wherein hearers unreasonably limit or lower the value of an individual's testimony, is a primary example, especially where it arises from prejudice against the social role or identity of the speaker. I think there are valuable connections to be made there between a more robust theory of social identity and our understanding and management of testimonial injustice.”
In the future, Cat hopes to stay in academia and do research. She’s got a leg up on many students with a rare opportunity to teach her own class on social ontology next fall. She describes, “A lot of these topics, things like the reality and impact of race and gender, are hard to talk about and scary to talk about. I’m looking forward to putting together a class with a syllabus that is approachable, diverse, thought-provoking and exciting for students. Especially because these topics are important to them and relevant to their everyday lives. This is a class I’d love to teach anywhere I go.”
When asked about life as a graduate student, Cat gives pause, and justifiably so. These years are formative for everyone going through the rigors of advanced scholarly training, and significant life changes on top of that can be really defining. “I came out here. Ann Arbor and Ypsi have been supportive and wonderful communities, not least because it’s almost ordinary here. I’ve never felt intimidated or afraid walking hand-in-hand, I haven’t felt a need to hide. I couldn't imagine a better place to come to terms with this part of myself or a better group of people to meet along the way.”
You are warned by others about the pressures of being a grad student: you’ll fall prey to impostor syndrome, worry about whether you’re good enough, and never give yourself time to create balance. Cat says, “It's been incredibly freeing to talk about those experiences with friends. Once you realize that people around you, even (especially!) the grad students you admire most are having the same fears and anxieties, those worries recede a little, they begin to lose their grip. Finding a balance between school and say, climbing or cycling has been essential, too.” Wanting something that she could practice and improve on day-to-day, Cat recently picked up the violin. “I needed something new and different that I could see myself progress with. As a grad student, I’ve been confronting this shift from lots of rapid, frequent, positive academic feedback to a much more self-driven structure that doesn’t lend itself to that sort of external validation in the same way. This (almost) daily practice and play provides that structure and progress,” she asserts. It also serves as a reminder that what's serious, rigorous, and precise might be beautiful, too.