Dr. Stephanie Jenkins talks freedom of philosophy, work in disability studies, and more

Stephanie Jenkins

Dr. Stephanie Jenkins

By Zeva Rosenbaum, CLA Student Writer - March 1, 2024

Before Dr. Stephanie C. Jenkins had a Ph.D, she was introduced to philosophy via competitive debate in high school. While majoring in philosophy at Emory University, Jenkins found favorite philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault, among others. 

“I loved the experience of learning about new ideas so powerful that they changed the world and my perception of it,” Jenkins recalled. “Late in my undergraduate studies, Butler and Beauvoir introduced me to the idea that gender is a social construct, and I realized that I had been testing gender norms throughout my life.”

Eschewing the need to choose between disciplines and hoping to further study gender, Jenkins opted to get a dual Ph.D in philosophy and women’s studies from Pennsylvania State University. According to Jenkins, the thing she loves most about philosophy is that “you can do philosophy of anything.” 

“There’s something for everybody. In fact, I think everyone does philosophy; thinking about the meaning of existence is part of what it means to be human,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a matter of learning new ideas and improving one’s critical thinking skills.”

Now an associate professor, in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University,  Jenkins says the concept of moral considerability is the organizing theme of her work across interdisciplinary studies.

Jenkins said that the extensive range of philosophical topics comes through in her classes at OSU, such as The Meaning of Existence (PHL 203), Intro to Disability Studies (PHL 275), Critics of Religion (PHL 310), among others.

“I love philosophy at OSU,” Jenkins said. “We all share a commitment to engaged philosophy, to the idea that philosophy isn’t confined to the ivory tower but should do something in the world, ideally to make it a better place.”

Across her broad field of interests, Jenkins uses disability studies to explore why hierarchies exist between abled and disabled people thanks to ableism, the “moral other” of non-human animals through critical animal studies; and examines gendered moral others through feminist philosophy.

"I'm interested in how we draw the boundaries of the moral community," Jenkins explained. "The boundaries of moral citizenship are contingent and shifting, and have profound effects on what sorts of actions are recognized as violence and harm."

In other words, she investigates moral others. "To be Other is to be marked as excluded from or not fully a member of the moral community," said Jenkins. "It's a term used to describe beings we devalue because they are judged to be abnormal in some way."

In the process of otherization, we objectify others, treat them as inessential, and even dehumanize them. "I look at the historical process through which othering comes about and its ethical implications in my research," Jenkins explained.

With her interest in disability studies and the Other,  Jenkins is a great advocate for Disability Access Services (DAS) and encourages qualifying students to seek formal accommodations.

“Disability Access Services has the important responsibility of ensuring that OSU follows the law and provides access for students with disabilities,” Jenkins explained. “Seeking accommodations is a political act and can make courses more accessible for other students by increasing awareness of, and engagement with, disability identity and access at OSU.”

DAS can be contacted through their OSU website, where they have detailed instructions about how to seek out resources about accommodations, housing, temporary injury, guides for parents, and more.

People with disabilities often find themselves on the receiving end of Othering and, according to Jenkins' own research, many universities aren’t doing enough to counter the problem.

Alongside DAS Director Martha Smith, Jenkins wrote a paper much along these lines: “Universal Design for Instruction and Institutional Change: A Case Study”. Jenkins said they “dream” of higher education, including OSU, being propelled by Universal Design for Instruction. Named for the architectural term, UDI focuses on “barrier-free design” from the ground up, rather than altering existing projects for accessibility.

“UDI applies the seven principles of UD to education and adds two additional principles to ensure that learning environments promote communication and inclusion,”  Jenkins explained. “Courses designed according to UDI principles would be as accessible as possible from the beginning, rather than retrofitting accommodations on a case-by-case basis. There are lots of ideas about things you can do to make education more accessible in our article.”

When Jenkins isn’t breaking down barriers in disability studies, she’s a huge fan of Phish, a rock band out of Vermont. She even uses the band as a case study “to make abstract concepts concrete” for her class on the Philosophy of Art and Music (PHL 360) alongside figures like Tolstoy, Kant, and Nietzsche; Jenkins also took students on field trips to Phish concerts in venues like The Gorge Amphitheater and the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

“At the Gorge, I hosted a symposium of six scholars on the campground and opened it to the public,” Jenkins reminisced. “In 2019, I organized the first Phish Studies Conference, hosted at OSU."

According to Jenkins, the Phish Studies Conference drew around 200 attendees including fans and scholars from across the country, and featured 50+ presenters. The second Phish conference at OSU is coming up soon, May 17-19, 2024, and will host art exhibits and three nights of live music in addition to the academic programming. Jenkins is also co-editing a book based on “curated and extended presentations” from the conference.

“I love teaching at OSU and living in Oregon,” Jenkins said. “My colleagues are brilliant, and the university has been very supportive of me and my research. It’s a privilege to be a part of an institution that is doing cutting-edge work across so many fields. Our students are engaged, ask tough questions, and challenge our texts in the classroom; they bring ideas to life! Go Beavs!”