One of the newest faculty faces on campus, Qrescent Mali Mason is making Haver-history as the philosophy department’s first female professor of color. It’s a role that she’s acutely conscious of—if the fact that she was wearing a shirt that read “Decolonize Your Syllabus” when I arrived to interview her was anything to go by, at least.
“Philosophy has historically been a discipline that is very narrow in who is considered a part of the discipline itself,” she said. “One of the things I think I bring to the table is just being embodied as a black woman in a philosophy class. I think that’s really important for students [of color] to see and think, ‘Maybe philosophy is not what I thought it was, maybe it can have a place for me.’”
That’s one of Mason’s professional goals in a nutshell: to shatter people’s preconceived notions of philosophy, both what it is and who it can be taught by. To her, philosophy is not something “contained in some dusty books on a shelf”—it’s alive, dynamic, durable. Mason, for one, believes that it has played an invaluable part in how she “navigates and knows” the world.
“People are searching for meaning,” she said. “For me, philosophy really helps to refine that, providing a set of questions that you can use as a guide. Philosophy can help the world in general by giving people the tools to think through their own lives.”
She hopes her students will come to feel the same way.
“One of the things that we’re doing in the class I’m teaching this fall [“20th-Century Continental Philosophy”] is what I call a “Self and Existence” project,” she explained. “I’m asking students to choose some kind of existential dilemma or question they’re having in their personal lives, and use it as a way to ground their engagement with the readings. At the end of the semester, I’ll be interested to see how their reading has affected their thinking of themselves.”
Grading papers and evaluating presentations represents a sharp departure from the sort of career Mason, who had her heart set on becoming a therapist for most of her time in college, originally envisioned for herself. She enrolled in her first philosophy class only to fulfill a major requirement, expecting to be “bored out of her mind.” Instead, she ended up studying that same subject for the remainder of her time in school. Eight years of classes on subjects as intellectually demanding as existentialism and phenomenology, however, have not made her any less down-to-earth.
“What I try to do,” she said, “is just be a regular black woman living in the world who reads these philosophy books and tries to see how we can combine and put in dialogue different concepts and ideas that are not typically put in dialogue.”