S.3 E.8 “Asking Questions We Don’t Quite Know How to Ask”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Lisa Heldke '82, professor of philosophy and director of the Nobel Conference.
Posted on September 10th, 2020 by

Professor Lisa Heldke of the Gustavus philosophy department on what philosophy entails, her research and teaching about the philosophy of food, and the College’s annual Nobel Conference which she directs and will focus this fall 2020 on Cancer in the Age of Biotechnology.

Season 3, Episode 8: “Asking Questions We Don’t Quite Know How to Ask”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Professor Lisa Heldke

We’re all familiar with the expression food for thought. For my colleague, Lisa Heldke of the Gustavus Philosophy Department, food is literally the focus of a good deal of her scholarly thinking and writing. Indeed, no one thinks more insightfully and creatively than Lisa about what she calls quote, the philosophical significance of food. Lisa’s interests as a philosopher also encompass questions about more familiar philosophical fair, like knowing truth and reality, as well as to quote her, about the nature of justice, about oppression and resistance and about human liberation particularly as they concern racism, sexism, heterosexism.

A graduate of Gustavus Class of 82, professor Heldke went on to earn her doctorate in philosophy from Northwestern University in 1986 and returned to Gustavus as a faculty member two years later, following a visiting stint at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Highly regarded by students, faculty, administrators, and staff alike at Gustavus for her intellect, wit and creativity, she was won both the college’s Edgar M. Carlson, an award for distinguished teaching and the Faculty Scholarship award. A quite prolific scholar, she has authored two books and co-edited three others along with a steady stream of articles, papers, presentations and keynote addresses both in the US and abroad. Her work on food, won the agriculture food and human values excellence scholarship award in 2017.

She wears many hats at Gustavus in addition to those of teacher and scholar, including to name just two, as pass holder of the Sponberg Chair in Ethics and currently as director of the college’s annual Nobel Conference each fall, for which Gustavus is well known near and far and about which we’ll talk in a bit. A wide ranging rigorous and always interesting thinker, Lisa is also a talented baker and I just learned a dog sledder. And while I wish we could literally break some of her delicious bread together, I’m delighted we can do so metaphorically on this podcast. So Lisa welcome. It’s great to have you from the wonderful state of Maine.

Lisa Heldke:

Well, thank you so much, Greg. And congratulations to you on this podcast. I’ve been listening to it avidly and I must say it’s so much fun to learn about so many of my colleagues through your work. Once we’ve known each other for 20 years, we don’t necessarily think there’s anything left to know and your podcast is really showing how wrong I was to think that. So thanks for your work.

Greg Kaster:

Well, my pleasure. And yeah, I appreciate that. And that is one of the joys of doing this for me. People I think I know well as you say and it turns out I don’t know a lot about them. Or people I had very little to do with, I’m learning a great deal about. You might see someone in a faculty meeting and that’s about it. So yeah, it’s been great fun. And I know you’re doing a podcast as well and we’ll get to that shortly. So I thought we’d begin with a discussion of the discipline of philosophy. I think for a lot of people, that is a scary word, kind of like physics maybe, philosophy, or also it’s one of these disciplines in the humanities also history that English easily made fun of as useless, et cetera. But what is it that philosophers do in a nutshell? What does it mean to be a philosopher?

Lisa Heldke:

Well, it’s a great question. And you’ve encapsulated the various ways that philosophy is regarded as a discipline very well. I mean, I never know whether people are going to grow or get all starry-eyed when I say that I’m a philosopher. And what I say the discipline of philosophy does is, it asks questions that we don’t quite yet know how to ask. I mean, I think it asks the questions that are at sort of the fringes of what humans are thinking about. What that means is that a lot of times as those questions get better formulated, they get calved off into being different studies. So you could say that at the beginning of it all for the Greeks, at the beginning of Western thought maybe, everything was philosophy and then we started calving off disciplines like astronomy.

And if you fast forward to the 18th century chemistry and physics and then we get biology and psychology. And so sometimes people say we don’t really need philosophy anymore because all those things are being done much better than when philosophers were just sort of gazing at their navels. But I actually think we always need philosophy because there are always questions we don’t yet quite know how to ask. And philosophers are really good at trying to ask them. When I talk with students, many of my students are going to take one, maybe two philosophy classes, which I think is a wonderful idea, right? I don’t care how much philosophy you take, I just hope you take some.

And what I say to them is, that what we’re really going to focus on in the class is learning how to ask questions well and to ask them in a way that leaves people thinking, “I would never have thought of asking it that way.” In fact, students will often laugh in my classes when they will come to the end of their rope and they will ask in sort of a desperate tone of voice. “Well, what about… I don’t…” And they’ll falteringly ask some question that they see as really ill formed. And I say, “Yes. Yes. Exactly.” And they’ll say, “No. No. No. That was a question. Now you’re supposed to answer it.” And I say, “No. What you have just achieved is what this class is about. It is about the asking of questions.”

So for me, that’s really what philosophy is for. Now, if you ask 10 philosophers, you would get 10 very different answers, which is frankly one of the frustrating things about the discipline. I never know if I’m doing it at any given time, but at my ripe old age, I’ve decided, well, I’ve been doing it this long. I’m going to just say that that’s one of the things that philosophy is. And also long windedness. That’s another thing

Greg Kaster:

That’s great, the point about questioning because that’s certainly true of history. I have a similar relationship at times with my students who want my answer. But no, the questions matter so deeply to learning generally. The way you got into philosophy is I think interesting. It would be interesting for listeners to know. But maybe first, why Gustavus? Let’s start there. You grew up, was it Rice Lake, Wisconsin where you grew up.

Lisa Heldke:

That’s right.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:

We both have talked about how we have dairy in our background but go ahead.

Lisa Heldke:

Yes. Indeed.

Greg Kaster:

How did you find your way to Gustavus and then from there to philosophy?

Lisa Heldke:

So I’m the youngest kid in a family where my sisters and my father all went to parts of the university of Wisconsin system. And I had this audacious idea to go to a liberal arts college. And my parents, they didn’t really approve and they didn’t understand this and they couldn’t imagine where the money was going to come from. And it was in the days when actually it was possible to get pretty generous scholarship money. So I visited a very dear friend who was going to go Gustavus and fell in love with the place and applied and was given mountains. It just felt like mountains of money so the education was really affordable. It ended up at that time being about like what going to the University of Wisconsin would have been. So I felt ridiculously grateful.

I mean, I went for the shallowest of reasons really. I was following a boy to be truthful about the matter. He is still my dear friend so that all came out okay but it was not a lofty reason. I was somehow intrigued with the idea of the liberal arts even though I had no idea what it was. Then I made the brilliant decision to wait until the absolute last possible day to register for classes. I went to Gustavus planning to be a music major, which I was, but sort of it ended up being sort of around the edges. I show up on registration day to find that there’s nothing, nothing that I needed for a music major open anymore. And instead I ended up in all these classes that I didn’t even know what the words meant.

And one of them was philosophy because it was being taught by… They didn’t even know who the professor was going to be yet. It was listed in the program or in the course catalog as staff. So I thought, whatever and drove home with my mother who was in her perky voice saying, “I think you’re going to like that.” And I rolled my eyes at her and went home to the Carnegie Library, to the card catalog and looked up the word philosophy. And of course there in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, surprisingly there wasn’t much in the card catalog under philosophy, but there was like Will and Ariel Durant’s, the story of civilization or something like that.

And I tried desperately to figure out what the hell was this thing. And a lot of years later, whatever, since 1978, I’m still trying to figure out what in the heck this thing is. So that’s my very inglorious story of becoming a philosopher. And then I was just hooked. The first day the professor said, “How do you know that the external world exists?” And I thought I have no idea. And I was completely hooked. I was also terrified. I mean, I couldn’t sleep for the first three months of college because I was so afraid.

Greg Kaster:

Well, that’s great. I just love that story because I mean, so often students, sometimes parents, they get so worked up about having to… They think they have to have the major all figured out their first semester. It’s just not true. And you’re another example of that, far from it. And also the role of historians, some of us anyway, I’m one of them love the role of contingency in history. And what if…

Lisa Heldke:

For once on the nail.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Exactly. What if those music courses had been availed, who knows? But that’s wonderful. How did you find your way to the philosophy of food or the philosophical significance of food?

Lisa Heldke:

That was a different path and frankly a risky path. I mean, looking back on it now, I think, wow, what a crazy thing. I wrote a dissertation on epistemology which is a fancy word for the theory of knowledge. And I was trying to think particularly about the question of objectivity, how do we know what we know? And why are we certain of it? So in the last chapter of my dissertation, I suggested that what I had offered in this dissertation wasn’t a demand or an absolute truth about the nature of objectivity but rather it was kind of like a recipe book. I was offering my readers some ideas about how things could go but just like a recipe, you need to sort of take them with the proverbial grain of salt and think about them for your context.

So I show this to a friend, another philosopher and they said, “This is kind of an interesting idea. You should think about that some more.” So I did and I wrote a paper. One of my first published papers was actually a piece called Recipes for Theory Making. I’m forever grateful to the feminist journal Hypatia for being willing to publish this crazy thing in the sort of mid, late 1980s. And I had the audacity to trot around the country using that as a job talk. When you’re going on the academic job market, you usually spend a couple of days at a potential employer and they make you give a talk to the audience of the professors and the students of the department.

So I gave this job talk and afterwards to a person, faculty members would come up and say something like “My, that was brave.” Translated as, “My, you are not going to get this job.” Because in 1987 or whenever this was, people were not thinking about food very seriously in academia and certainly not in philosophy. I mean, we barely knew we had bodies in philosophy in 1987. So the idea of paying attention to them was completely immaterial. But I just sort of kept going. And then as you said, I spent a couple years at Carleton. And then when I came back to Gustavus, my colleague Deane Curtin had independently started thinking about food. He’d spent a year in Japan and had become a vegetarian.

And we started thinking about this together and thought, “You know what? We want to get a book out about this right now, really fast before anybody else starts thinking about it.” Well, it turned out it was really a five-year project. But it was an anthology in which we tried to say, “Well, what if philosophers did take food seriously? What would it look like?” We published that book and I’m happy to report, I think it came out in 1990 or 92. And it is remarkably still in print, which is kind of an accomplishment. And in the interim, philosophy of food has become a real thing. I mean, I think there’s enough of us that we could fill a small minivan at least.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And of course it’s probably around, I don’t know, maybe over the same time span, the history of food and food [crosstalk 00:13:03] has boomed as you know. A couple of things, one, we should note that I think you edited Hypatia for a time, right? You went on to be editor of that journal?

Lisa Heldke:

I did not. I applied for it. I did not get that position but I did for a while edit the journal Food, Culture and Society, which was a great experience. And that is indeed one of those interdisciplinary journals that I just love because yeah, history is a huge part of that anthropology, sociology. It’s primarily a journal of the humanities and social sciences. But food studies is such an incredible discipline because food is just a great lens with which to look at human culture from all vantage points. And it quickly leads you to realize categories like history versus philosophy are just too narrow and tight.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I couldn’t agree more. And let’s use that as a springboard into talking a little bit more about what the philosophical significance of food is. And the book is terrific. The book, yes. It’s still in print. I think I still have a copy probably autographed by you and Deane. But highly recommend that to listeners, but go ahead. So what is the philosophical significance of food?

Lisa Heldke:

So one of the other ways to describe philosophy I guess is as the study of questions of meaning and value in human life. And really what is a more dense repository or locus for meaning and value in human life than food. It plays a role certainly in, well, starting with just basic nutrition, right? In order to live, we have to nourish bodies. It plays a huge role in family life. It plays a huge role in cultural and religious life and social life. Think about all the ways in which under the pandemic conditions, people are feeling just starved literally and emotionally for eating with each other. Why are people so eager to get into restaurants? Well, maybe it’s because they’re terrible cooks but it’s also because there’s something about joining others around the table, which is just… I mean, I’m finding myself just so sad about the lack of opportunity to do that.

I’ve started doing something I call Drink and Driveway here in Maine at my yurt. I have a large gravel driveway. And if I space people well, we can sit at 10 feet apart from each other and I can fit four other people. And mostly people bring their own food and drink and we just talk to each other while eating. And I don’t know what that is but I think the philosophy of food invites us to really take those things seriously. And then of course socio politically, food is the locus of relationships at the political, at the global level.

I know one of your colleagues teaches a course regularly on the history of China in which he explores the ways in which China was able to emerge as a population power, precisely because it cultivated rice and everything resulted from the capacity to cultivate rice. So food is just such an important locus of meaning and value that really when you think about it, it’s astonishing that there hasn’t always been a thing called philosophy of food. Philosophers have always studied food. We just haven’t sort of noticed the degree to which it’s central. So food and agriculture I bet.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You’re right about it. When one thinks about how it’s such a repository meaning in value, it almost makes me think it should be a requirement of any serious curriculum, right? Any serious liberal arts curriculum, you ought to study for the sake of the philosophical significance of food.

Lisa Heldke:

Right. In that regard, if I can just leap in there to say, I have occasionally as you know, you and I have been through a lot of curriculum revisions. And I always sort of nudge people in the direction of thinking about what would it mean to take seriously the cultivation of the palate, something I know you can get behind. I mean, we don’t think seriously about the fact that everyday we eat. And in France for instance, little children are taught about how to taste at a very young age. And we really in the liberal arts, that’s one real lack. I mean, other than the geologists who can identify certain rocks on the basis of licking them, we don’t pay any attention to that cultivation. And in fact, regarded as sort of a frivolous superfluous feature of human life. But my goodness, it’s a source of enormous pleasure and insight. And yeah.

Greg Kaster:

It is. These podcasts often do make me think back on aspects of my own life and thinking about growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my dad was Greek American. My mother was all American downstate Illinois farm girl. And food was such an important part. I mean, I still remember going to the farm for a farm lunch. My God, I’d never seen anything like that. My uncle came in from whatever he was doing out in the fields and just an absolute incredible feast. And then with my dad, going to a Greek town in Chicago, the family… And I mean, it was the food for sure but it was the smells, it was the conversation. It was all of the above including the conversation with my dad who didn’t attend college but was talking about the importance of what we were eating. And I wonder in your own case, do you think back to things in your own childhood or young teens that brought you or that you draw on as you think about your work around food?

Lisa Heldke:

Absolutely. And in many ways, it’s been an interesting kind of coming out to be a philosopher of food. So I went to graduate school, studied with a very esteemed philosopher of science named Arthur Fine for whom I have nothing but the most fond memories. But Arthur was a philosopher of science and he studied Einstein. And I was with all these people who were philosophers of science. And in the 1980s, when you said you were an epistemologist, people would say things like, “What kind of science are you interested in?” Epistemology had become philosophy of science.

And here I was, this kid from small town, rural Wisconsin whose background included being in 4-H, I took cooking as a project, right? I loved to cook. My family did indeed. My father’s family owned a creamery. My summer jobs were testing butter for its fat content. I’m not making that up. And I was sort of ashamed of that. I mean, people kind of made fun of the way I talked and they kind of didn’t know what to make of me because here I was this, well, hick frankly. And so for me coming to the study of food and saying that I wanted to think about knowing through the lens of eating and cooking was like being brave enough to say, “This is who I am and this is my heritage.”

And as I’ve gotten older and older, I’ve come to be more and more willing to just be out there about the fact that I’m a rural Midwesterner and there’s something to be learned from that heritage that I don’t have to sort of put in the closet anymore. So yeah, it’s shaped me very dramatically in ways that I now at 60, I’m finally willing to say out loud.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s so interesting. I know my own approach to food and eating out or dining out, dining out sounds pretentious to me, but is shaped by though those nights with my parents, my dad especially. I mean, some nights even just the excitement around getting dressed up a bit if we were going to a fancy restaurant downtown Chicago. It was an event. And it’s amazing how those things still shape you. In fact, I’m horrified at the thought of what might happen to the food industry in this country or elsewhere too as a result of the pandemic, fingers crossed. But the thought of-

Lisa Heldke:

That’s really true.

Greg Kaster:

… yeah, cities and small towns and… Just awful. What about in your [crosstalk 00:21:16].

Lisa Heldke:

Just for a minute to talk about the food system, it’s been really interesting to see the ways in which there’s been a little bit of a boost and I’m hoping it will strengthen for the transformation of the food system to move it away from a large scale global industrial system where spinach grown in California spreads itself across the country and suddenly everyone everywhere is getting… Shoot. No. I’ve suddenly forgotten the name of the disease that from feces on… It’s been a couple of years though.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. What is that called?

Lisa Heldke:

[crosstalk 00:21:52] I mean.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Basically feces of…

Lisa Heldke:

That one disease. Exactly. And when a food system has food spreading that quickly, that far, it’s really difficult to control any kind of disease outbreak, whereas a food system that’s localized and where maybe you don’t know your farmer personally, but you know the farm area from which that food came. What would it look like for us to really seriously think about re localizing the food economy? And a lot of people have been working on that for the last 20 or 25 years. And it will be very interesting to see how this pandemic enables that or will we just figure out a new way to do global differently?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I agree. It will be interesting. It’s important. And part of me is skeptical about how much will change being on that front and other fronts. But still there are definitely opportunities. I wanted to ask you about how food works a way into your teaching or philosophy of food. But before we do that, since you raised this issue of local production of food, you were involved, right? In the I think it was called, the garden on campus, Community Garden, the Gustavus garden. Can you talk about that.

Lisa Heldke:

Yeah. So yeah, the Saint Peter Community Garden. We also at Gustavus have the Big Hill Farm, which is a student run operation. Unfortunately this year, it had to put away a toast. But the Saint Peter Community Garden is going strong. And I think they’re in about their 15th year. As I always say, I put the community in community gardening that is… I’m a terrible gardener, and I actually don’t enjoy it at all. I raised squash and potatoes a couple of years but then started spending summers in Maine more regularly. And I gave away my plot. But to me it’s a wonderful community opportunity for people who wouldn’t necessarily run into each other to do so and to learn from each other.

I remember in early year, a group of very recent residents in the community were Somali. And they decided they were going to raise a certain kind of melon. And everyone in town was very skeptical about the possibility and also about the method that they were using. And there was much tut-tut tutting while they raised so many melons that they had to sell them to the same [inaudible 00:24:10] food co-op because they were just so successful. And although the Euro-Americans had to kind of say, “Well, maybe there’s something we can learn from these folks who have come from a subtropical growing season.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s so cool. Was the Big Hill Farm also supplying the Gustavus dining service with products and…

Lisa Heldke:

Yes. And for me, when we come back to school in the fall, we are always the beneficiaries of tomatoes and zucchini and a few other crops that the farm produces in abundance. And Steve Shotgun always has a little bit of a struggle to help the growers realize that no, you really need to be out there watching those zucchini because they will become too big for me to be willing to buy from you. But there’s a really wonderful hand and glove relationship between the farm and the dining service. We’re so lucky at Gustavus to have a dining service that we are self-feeding as they say in the biz that is our dining services owned by us. It’s not owned by a hotel chain which means that we can make our own decisions. And at Gustavus, those decisions are really rooted in ethical and social commitments to justice, which I just love.

So we have this committee called the Kitchen Cabinet. We meet once a month. And we have conversations about how should we make decisions that will benefit the educational mission of the school and really our five core values. So to me, that’s just a thrill of working at this place, is that the dining service is thinking about the core values of the institution and how can it embody them? We’re really lucky.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s great. And I want to interview Steve for this podcast. Interesting. Just an interesting guy. Kate and I, my wife Kate Wittenstein, who taught in the history department at Gustavus until she retired, Kate and I are part of a community garden up here in downtown Minneapolis. And while we don’t have the diversity we wish we had, it is amazing how much you can learn from one another. And then I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to go to the Good Counsel gardens in Mankato.

Lisa Heldke:

In Mankato.

Greg Kaster:

Basically run by the nuns there, the Sisters of Notre Dame or something like…

Lisa Heldke:

Yeah. the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Yeah. And my God that is just… One of the gardeners there gave me a tour. It is just spectacular. It’s a beautiful setting. And the diversity is just absolutely incredible. I mean, it’s not what people think of when they think of Minnesota, all kinds of people from Africa, from I think Ukraine, Russia-

Lisa Heldke:

Southeast Asia.

Greg Kaster:

… Southeast Asia. Yeah. It’s just, wow. It was really, really interesting to seeing all the different techniques. So how do you work food into your teaching aside from maybe occasionally. I know having literally breaking bread you’ve made or you and the students have been.

Lisa Heldke:

Yeah. Yeah. Great question. And as a small department in a small liberal arts college, we’re all of us generalist. But in recent years, I’ve started to be a little bit, I guess more aggressive in the ways in which I’m using food in my classes. Occasionally I used to teach a first term seminar called Good Food and I’ve taught a January term travel pro course called Just Food. And some things like that. I’ve taught advanced level seminars on eating. But those were always specialized one-off classes. And I’ve started in more recent years to think, how could I use food more frequently as an entry point into topics?

So last year or the year before I actually taught an aesthetics course where food came to be a focus of the class. And it did so in a really interesting way that also connects to the Nobel Conference. I set as the class project, the project of designing aesthetic dining experiences for the people who were going to Nobel Conference. And the Nobel Conference theme that following fall was the climate change conference. And so the idea was clearly the food at a climate change conference ought to reflect interest and concerns about climate change, food being one of the huge sources of greenhouse gases of course.

But what we didn’t want to do was create a whole bunch of meals that made people feel like they were doing a virtuous thing but not a particularly delicious thing. So the students in the class researched the role of food in climate change. And then also spent a lot of time researching the aesthetic sense of taste, the food aesthetic sense of taste. So it was a really fun project for me, partly because it first required students to take food seriously as a source of aesthetic value.

So this fall, for the first time I get to teach environmental philosophies. And a lot of times that course is taught us environmental ethics. I’m actually teaching it as environmental philosophy in sort of the full sense of that word. So we’re going to look at aesthetics. We’re going to look at epistemology, theory of knowledge. We’re also going to look at ethics. And food is one of the ways into the subject matter of the class. So we’re going to read a book that’s really rooted so to speak in philosophy of agriculture as a way to think into environment. Sometimes the environment comes to be this thing that they have in national parks or something like that or designated wildernesses.

Another of the books, Greg, you’ll love this, is called Thinking Like a Mall. It’s an environmental philosophy book that’s about look, the malls are also our environment. So really inviting people to think the parts of everyday life engage us with the environment. And one of the best ways to have students notice that is this thing they do three and usually more than that times a day, eat.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds like a great course. And that’s not going to be a first time center, that’s going to be a regular philosophy.

Lisa Heldke:

No. Yeah. And it’s of course that the environmental studies students take as part of their major. So I’m really looking forward to have some serious hardcore folks who have taken their geology and geography and biochem classes in my class.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I interviewed Jeff Jeremiason who’s one of the leaders of the environmental studies program at Gustavus, which is quite strong. And yes, I chuckled of course when you said it but when you made that point about the mall, because years ago, you and I talked about doing… I think we were joking or half joking about a January term at Gustavus called The Malling of America. And “Mauling” you could spell it however, both ways. So I think we were going to meet at the Mall of America, right?

Lisa Heldke:

The Mall of America.

Greg Kaster:

My God. Talk about intersectionality and interdisciplinarity and food and you name it, leisure.

Lisa Heldke:

No pudding.

Greg Kaster:

We should still do that at some point. Where did you go for the J Term on, was it called Just Food? Where would you go?

Lisa Heldke:

Just food. Yeah. We spent the month in Boston. And our biggest shock was that a group of students from Minnesota did not know how to dress for walking the streets of Boston. None of them brought an adequate jacket. They also didn’t understand that the streets of Boston are much narrower than the streets of a Minnesota town. And so there were many cultural learnings. But the students worked in three different, very different food and justice organizations. One of them this giant, giant homeless shelter called the Pine Street Inn. One of them worked in a Dorothy Day Center, and then one of them worked in a center that focused on-

Greg Kaster:

I think I’m losing you a little bit, Lisa.

Lisa Heldke:

… homeless women who were also employed full time in places where they needed to dress professionally among other things.

Greg Kaster:

You know what? Sorry, to interrupt.

Lisa Heldke:

So students had very interesting different experiences.

Greg Kaster:

Could you back up a bit because I lost just a bit of that when you were talking about, so the students… Tell us again what they were doing in Boston. They were working in groups.

Lisa Heldke:

Yeah. So they worked in groups. They spent I think three days a week volunteering in one of these different homeless organizations in Chicago. And they were very different in the kinds of services they offered and the philosophy under which they operated. So one of them, the Catholic worker movement at Dorothy Day Center, one of them was… I mean, I think it’s run by the city of Boston called the Pine Street Inn. And then another was a kind of a corporate funded organization that particularly focused on women. And the students had such dramatically different experiences in each of these places but it led them to think very deeply about hospitality and about expectation and about justice and who gets to expect that their sandwich will not have a thumb print on it. That was one of the riveting conversations we had.

This is just a quick anecdote. One day a student had the experience of one of the folks coming back and demanding a different sandwich because theirs had a thumbprint on it. And her first reaction was, “It’s free. You should be grateful.” And then horrified at what she had thought, like why should a homeless person have to eat a sandwich that has a giant thumbprint in it any more than I should? So we had a lot of moments like that where suddenly the world jostled on its axis for them. And they realized how privileged and how presumptuous their standpoints were.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds like a great course which I would love to have taken. Boston’s a great food city, even more so now. That’s where I discovered my love of oysters raw and in other forms and also calamari. The other thing, you mentioned Nobel and I thought maybe this would be a good point to pivot a little bit toward that, the annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus which you’ve now directed for at least a couple of years I think. Tell us a little bit about the conference sort of its history and what it’s about. Last year was on, as you mentioned already climate change, it was an incredible conference. And by the way, that is very interesting about the student project, I didn’t know that. The food was wonderful last year. There was information with the food too. I’m trying to remember at lunch. Anyway your students did a great job on that project for the Nobel-

Lisa Heldke:

Hello?

Greg Kaster:

… launch last year. Yes. Can you hear me? Can you hear me now, Lisa?

Lisa Heldke:

I can. Yes. I can. Can you hear me?

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I can hear you fine. So talk a little bit about Nobel. Go ahead.

Lisa Heldke:

Are you there?

Greg Kaster:

I’m here. Yes.

Lisa Heldke:

Okay. Good.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead. Tell me a little bit about Nobel and yeah.

Lisa Heldke:

Great. The library signal just faltered there for a moment I think. So the Nobel Conference brings this amazing audience of high schoolers through 89-year old folks to campus to explore questions of science and its ethical implications. And since its birth, more than 50 years ago, that’s what the Nobel Conference has been about is that intersection between science and ethics. It was born when the college launched, christened it’s old Nobel hall of science. We’re about to christen the new one. We had a gathering of Nobel laureates on campus and the Nobel laureates gave sort of a symposium. The people at the college had so much fun with all these folks that they said, “Hey, let’s do this every year.”

They went to the Nobel Foundation. The Nobel Foundation said, “Sure, you can do that every year.” Something they would not say now. They treasure that brand name and they would not hand out that privilege and honor. So we are very grateful that they allow us to continue to do so. So every year we bring, well, except this year, we bring something like 4,000 folks to campus to explore science and its ethical implications. Each year there’s a theme. We choose those themes. We try to have those themes announced three to five years in advance. Last year, as you mentioned, was climate change. All the past about 20 or 25 years are available in some form or other on the Gustavus webpage. You can go back and watch those talks. There’s such an archive there of talks by people like Jonas Salk and Will Steger. And really the economist who’s name I… Joseph Stiglitz.

Greg Kaster:

Stiglitz. Yeah. He was great.

Lisa Heldke:

Just an amazing repository. And it’s a great way that we bring together students, faculty, and staff to think together about how should we frame this topic. This fall’s topic is cancer in the age of biotechnology. So we’re looking at immunotherapy, gene therapies, all these amazing new cancer treatments that are coming out as a result of the biotech revolution. And it makes me think of that old philosophical canard, can God make a rock so large that he can’t lift it? The whole problem of like, which of God’s powers are constrained. And it feels like that with respect to these drugs, because we are creating drugs that are so perfect for 10 or 12 or 30% of our cancer population but they are so expensive that that ten or 12 or 30% cannot afford the treatment. So we have perfect treatments that are unattainable.

I just heard today that there’s a new treatment for epilepsy, no hemophilia, which will be the most expensive drug ever treated. They think it will be $6 million per patient. So this is the situation that we’re dealing with. So we’re bringing together a group of people, including researchers who came out with the first of these amazing wonder drugs, Carl June and Charles Sawyers will be among us. We’re also bringing people, including Catherine Schmitz and Suzanne Chambers, folks who are really saying, “Okay. Yes. The drugs are one thing but what else is going on in cancer treatment? So what role do physical exercise and diet for instance, play in cancer prevention and cancer treatment.”

And then also it turns out that when you have cancer, your whole family has cancer. So, yeah, Suzanne Chambers will be talking about the ways in which treating cancer means treating the emotional and psychological health of whole families as people face these really devastating diagnoses. So the framework of the conference, I’m really excited this year that although we’re going to be online, we are going to have just this wild array of things that support those six talks. So everything from cooking demonstration… And most of these are by our own faculty and students, cooking demonstrations, yoga for cancer demonstrations, a storytelling workshop, people doing spoken word performances of their own work and of sort of classic works about cancer from the history. We have a historian of science who’s going to do a three part series on the history of this concept of cancer, which is really thousands of diseases and yet we think of it as this one scary thing.

So it’s going to be a kind of a multilevel, multilayered conference that we’re going to release sort of gradually culminating on October 6th and 7th, these two days of live streamed events which will include our seven major speakers and some discussions that we hope will still be live. We’re still working out the kinks of all that time zones between Australia and Minnesota, and sort of all the bumps of that. But that’s the framework. And we’re really excited about exploring this online format, nobody’s choice. But given that it’s a necessity, it means we’re just experimenting with everything we can to find out what works, how can we use this format to include more people in this wonderful, wonderful event that we have every year?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The Nobel Conference is truly amazing. It’s one of the things I learned about, 30 some years ago when I was applying to Gustavus and came to Gustavus. And I remember it might’ve been my first semester at Gustavus, sitting in the library and discovering these… I guess I wasn’t sitting, I was browsing the shelves and then discovering these sort of pamphlets. They were publications of early Nobel Conference proceedings. There’s Stephen Jay Gould, I mean, on and on and on. It’s just incredible.

Lisa Heldke:

Lynn Margulis.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Right. Lynn Margulis. I mean, just an amazing, all these brilliant stimulating, interesting people who debate one another come to St. Peter and Gustavus each year. And then as you say, the ethical, the ethicist who’s part of the conference. The other thing is, I urge people to tune in to watch and look because for a lot of us, faculty included we’ll go to some of the live, we’ll go in person to some of the conference but often we’re back in our offices listening to it being streamed. And it’s just terrific. I mean, it’s really, really enriching and interesting. So, yeah. And congrats, I’ve seen a brochure that’s coming out. It looks really great. And the lineup that you just said, sounds fantastic. What about your podcast? You’re going to start or how scary, it sounds like a Nobel podcast related to Nobel Conference, which I think is a fantastic idea. Tell us a little bit about that.

Lisa Heldke:

Yeah. So it’s called Science Whys, W-H-Y-S.

Greg Kaster:

Great title.

Lisa Heldke:

Thank you. I can’t claim credit for it. Questions at the confluence of science and ethics. So it has sort of two prongs. One of them is to explore with researchers, whether they be social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, artists how is it that you have emerged to be asking the questions that you are. Something that I know you’re also really interested in. We have an audience, a Nobel Conference audience of many high school students and also high school teachers. I want all of those students to see themselves in the researchers, right? This could be used if you chose this path. And then the other thing I really want to explore in this podcast is how do you think from your vantage point about the ways in which science and ethics, taking that word in the broadest sense, ethics, politics, social thought, morality. How do you understand the relationship between those two ways of thinking about the world?

And for me, painful history of thinking that there’s a division between questions of fact and questions of value. And indeed the mid 20th century was really caught in the grips of, I would say caught in the grips of positivism saying that scientists are concerned with questions about fact and they will go astray if they concern themselves with questions of value. Well, the study of something like climate change just chose the… I’m sorry, the absurdity of that kind of way of thinking at the very heart of the questions of climate change are questions about what is human’s relationship to this planet and what ought it to be. It’s not that is questions automatically lead to ought answers, but is and ought questions as I think of it. What is the case and what ought to be the case. Those questions have to talk to each other.

So I’m a little trepidatious. I’m imagining that I will get pushback from various parties in various ways. That’s exciting as a philosopher of course. But what I want is to explore with those folks, how do you think about those is-ought relationships? So our goal is to have some seasons that are devoted to upcoming Nobel Conference topics. And then in the middle of January, you might find a talk, an interview with a philosopher who’s actually thinking about questions about the meaning of life, or maybe a polar explorer who is thinking about how ought we to think about our relationship to the rapidly melting Antarctic ice cap.

Greg Kaster:

It just sounds so great. And it’s already as I say dropped in the podcast world, the first episode?

Lisa Heldke:

No. No. No. No. The first episode, the interview happened just this week in mid July. And we’re going to put that one in the can for later. But I’m starting the serious interviews of the folks in connection with the cancer conference. Those interviews begin this week. Some of the folks that I’d love to interview I think are going to be too busy because frankly, one of the really interesting things that’s happening right now is the cancer and COVID research communities have a lot of overlap. So a lot of the people I’d love to interview, frankly, I’m not going to bother them because they have much more important things to be doing right now than to be talking to a philosophy professor. They are trying to figure out how cancer drugs can be repurposed for COVID. So hopefully I’ll be able to bother them at some future date when we have made some progress on the COVID front.

Greg Kaster:

But for your podcast, we could’ve had a vaccine against co… Yeah. No. [inaudible 00:45:05] say that. We look forward to that. I think again, the title is terrific and I know it will be really, really interesting and informative to listen to. Talk a little bit about another aspect of your thinking and teaching philosophically. And that quote I read in the intro where you’re interested in the nature of justice, oppression and resistance, human liberation, et cetera. Talk a little bit about how philosophy relates to those or illuminates those.

Lisa Heldke:

Great question. One of the really gratifying and sobering things about this time, these weeks following the murder of George Floyd for me has been to realize that that work I’ve been doing has been important for a community of students. I know you share with me Greg the gratified feeling of having a student come back and say, “Something that I thought about for the first time in one of your classes, is something I’m thinking about again now 10 or 15 or 30 years later.” And I’ve been teaching sporadically but pretty consistently throughout my career, I’ve been teaching a class. It was called Racism and Sexism in the early days, we’ve changed the title to Oppression, Privilege and Resistance.

And I’ve had a number of students come back and say, “I came from a small rural community where we were all white people in and we didn’t understand that that was a place from which one could think about white privilege. I came to your class, I started understanding the nature of racism and I started coming to understand the nature of my own privilege. And I’ve been doing that work consistently ever since.” So that’s a gratifying thing to realize that maybe those little three times a week classes sometimes plant a seed that continues to grow. What philosophers can do that’s pretty different I think from… We’re often not very good on the current events front. We’re not necessarily very good on saying this is the cutting edge research but we’re better again, coming back to where we began at asking the questions that say, “Well, how do we actually understand the nature of oppression? And how if we think about the nature of racism over against or in conversation with sexism, what do we notice about the nuances and subtleties of the ways in which those systems of oppression operate in people’s lives?

So in a way maybe it gives us a way to step back a little bit from the immediacy of a situation to say, “Wait, let’s think about this.” Well, I’m going to say it out loud because then I will make myself have it happen. I’ve actually been in conversation with a bunch of Gustavus philosophy alums. And this project I’m understanding very much as I am a philosophy alum of this department also that is I’m not coming to them as their former teacher, I’m coming to them as another Gusty saying, “What is it that we think philosophers could contribute to this moment, Given our particular scale or lack thereof?” And another alum said, “I think what we could do is write very short and dense pithy, approachable explanations of concepts that are being used in the news that come from philosophy but that maybe people don’t understand the origin of. So a concept like the veil of ignorance or helping people to think into the difference between abolish the police and defund the police.

So as I said, we’ve just started those conversations and frankly I’ve dropped the ball in the last month. But I think saying, “Let’s step back a moment and think about how that word is operating and where does it travel and what is its use and how does it help or hinder a conversation?” That’s one of the skills. We call it conceptual analysis in philosophy. I think it’s one of the things that we can offer to this moment. And then also, fiery rhetoric maybe. I mean, if I think about some of the philosophers that have influenced me a lot, someone like Cornel West or bell hooks, fiery rhetoric is also what we can offer to this moment.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds really neat, the project, if you want to call it a project with the alums. And you’re reminding me and we talked a little bit about this before we started recording that recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, which is Chris Hayes’, Why is This Happening? And he had on the former police chief of Burlington, Vermont, New Yorker who had worked for the NYPD and then became chief of police in Burlington, who went to Dartmouth and his BA was in philosophy. And then he has finished a PhD in philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. Yeah.

And I mean, his work is about, I guess, maybe political philosophy in the democratic state. But again, just everything you’re saying and what he was saying in the podcast gives the lie to this notion that philosophy just is as you said earlier, the stereotype of gazing at ones naval, far from it. In the time remaining, I want to come to dog sledding. I don’t [inaudible 00:50:24] what if anything that has to do with philosophy, but tell us a little bit about that, because I only just learned about that, about you. [inaudible 00:50:30] I didn’t know until we were again, chatting before we started recording.

Lisa Heldke:

So I’m a Husky person. I’ve had a Husky or a Husky mix in my life now for about 15 years or so, I guess, different dogs. And some years ago, my life was sort of in a crisis point. A lot of the wheels were falling off the bus let’s say. And in a moment of striving and grasping, I went on an outward bound trip to the boundary waters in January. And I did it. I’d always sort of been intrigued by dog sledding. And I thought, well, I’ll just do this and I’ll get it out of my system. Right? I’ll just go on this trip. And the trip was profound in every single way. Every outward bound trip is supposed to have that woe, that thing that you do that presses you to the limits.

And I said to the organizers one day, when is that moment? And they said, “Lisa, every single moment of every day here.” Because at every moment you have to concentrate on not dying because you could freeze to death very easily. We slept under these kind of I would call them parachutes actually, they weren’t tense. And one night the temperature went to 40 below, in the whole nine yards. And I was hooked. I loved it so much. And so every year now I go with, it’s an organization called Wintergreen, up in Northern Minnesota. It was founded by Paul Schurke, a good liberal arts college graduate. He was an English major. And we go out for a week in January. We sleep under the stars, literally on frozen lakes. And we travel with teams of six dogs and actually I ski.

So I’m usually a person who’s out in front breaking trail. I don’t need to be on the back of the sled. I like being with the dogs but I also love the physical exercise of skiing and kind of getting ahead of the pack and being out in this complete silence. So one of the things that I love about it is I do not take any devices to record anything or to write anything. And for a week I am, I guess, the Buddhist would call it the noble silence, right? I’m not reading or writing. I’m really just being with other people. We sit around the campfire at night, we try to stay awake until 9:00 at night. It’s usually a struggle.

But Paul will tell these amazing stories. He knows every story of every polar explorer that ever lived. He has his own amazing stories about the boundary waters, which he knows as if they were his backyard. It is this incredibly intense time. And as I get older, I must admit that I enjoy the fact that 30 somethings will sort of marvel at the fact that here they are being kind of spelled by this old crone who is skiing and out skiing them. So I will admit that I’m also a little bit vain about my aerobic capacity. So it’s just a tremendously fun activity.

Last year, I took my own dog and had the scare of a lifetime when he took off in the middle of the night. And we were skiing out in the darkness across a frozen lake trying to recover the damn dog, who of course came back of his own stupid accord. So it’s an amazing activity. And I know that it’s connected to philosophy. I just haven’t figured out how yet.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s like you’re taking the words out of my mouth. It sounds like it. I mean, talking about a chance to think about meaning and value in life. And is there an external reality?

Lisa Heldke:

Yes. Right. Right. And why is it so cold there?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Exactly. Right. Thank you so much. This has been so interesting and as always a real treat. The Nobel Conference coming up is going to be terrific. We all look forward to it as is your, your podcast.

Lisa Heldke:

October sixth and seventh. And it’s free. And you can just go to the Gustavus webpage and log on and it will take you there.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. And listeners who might be prospective students thinking about coming to Gustavus, think about minoring, majoring in philosophy or just taking a course or two with professor Heldke and all the other great profs in that department. So Lisa, thanks so much. Continue to enjoy Maine.

Lisa Heldke:

Thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. My pleasure. And we’ll talk soon. Take care. Bye-bye.

Lisa Heldke:

Good luck with your podcast.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.

Lisa Heldke:

Bye-bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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