Prometheus, the university's new student journal of philosophy, is proof that sometimes the lofty musings of coffee talk actually do come to pass.
In fact, after a few years of talk about creating such a journal, it was a kick of caffeine at a meeting between two undergraduates named Dave that finally got Prometheus off the ground.
"Basically, I was having coffee one day with Dave [Harris] in August 2001 when we started talking about it again," said editor in chief Dave Kotlyar, a senior majoring in philosophy and biology. "And Dave said we should talk to John [Odito], who was interested in the idea, too."
Thirteen months and who knows how many jolts of java later, the first issue of Prometheus is available online at www.jhu.edu/prometheus.
The journal will be available in paper form in early October. After all the late-night debates over which pieces to select, design sessions, and learning Pagemaker to lay out the finished product, the editorial board is in awe of what it has accomplished.
"This was a very interesting journey and a great learning experience," Kotlyar said. "It was a huge amount of work, and I personally love it and that's why we did it. I'm amazed at what we achieved."
The students received initial financial support from the Provost's Office and the Krieger School's Philosophy Department and will receive additional funding from the Student Activities Commission.
Prometheus' defined mission is "to challenge academic boundaries, and to publish student work on controversial and unconventional ideas in the realm of philosophy." Papers can be submitted by students anywhere on any subject, as long as the approach is philosophical.
The inaugural issue collects five papers by undergraduates at five universities. It also includes a transcript of a two-hour interview with retiring Hopkins philosophy professors Stephen Barker and Jerome Schneewind.
With the help of a free ad on the American Philosophical Association's Web site and a mailing to 80 campuses across the country, a total of 35 pieces were received for review. From there, the lot was narrowed to 10 submissions that satisfied both the standard writing style and multidisciplinary content for which Prometheus was striving. In the end, entries from undergraduates at Villanova University, Stanford University, Trinity University, University of Dallas and Ramapo College made the final cut. Prometheus' creators say that their eagerness to explore a range of topics makes Hopkins' journal different from those at Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Brigham Young universities.
"We were looking for pieces that exemplify writers' curiosity and their range of vision. We didn't want it to be all about bioethics or aesthetics," said Dave Harris, a senior majoring in Near Eastern studies. "We have two pieces on Plato, but they are not simply reports about an ancient philosopher. There's another article about friendship, one about Heidegger and Nazism, and another about metaphysical rebellion."
Along the way, the editorial board solicited the help of graduate students and philosophy professors. Richard Bett, one of the professors, refereed three of the submitted papers and was pleased to find that two were included in the finished journal.
"The department wasn't in a position to give them all that much support, but they took on the project by themselves and really ran with it," Bett said. "They showed a lot of determination and persuasive power in getting all of us to read these papers and write reports on them; most of us have more than enough of that kind of thing to do already. I wasn't thrilled to be asked to do this, but they put it in such a way that I didn't see how I could reasonably refuse. That's definitely one mark of good managerial skills."
Girard Brenneman, a graduate student in the Philosophy Department, was also a reviewer for the first edition of Prometheus, as well as the editorial board's graduate student representative. He said two things about these students stand out most of all.
"The first is their enthusiasm," Brenneman said. "They held numerous meetings with many different faculty members in order to secure funding and gain departmental approval. I am sure they endured a lot of bureaucratic nightmares while organizing the journal. Second, and most striking, is the affinity for philosophy that [the students] have. This seems to be what motivates them to endure the long meetings, paper reviews and other time commitments that go with creating a journal from scratch."
As the first volume of Prometheus goes to press, board members are already looking toward the next edition. They hope to attract a greater number of submissions from Hopkins students next time. The goal is to have a 50/50 split between pieces from Hopkins and other universities. In an effort to attract greater participation, the students plan to start a philosophical forum this semester. The idea is to keep alive the Socratic style of oral debate in addition to the written criticism found in the journal, said managing editor Joseph Gorodenker, a senior majoring in biophysics.
"Not everyone wants to write a paper, or they get turned off by the prospect of reading them," Gorodenker said. "But we do see an increased interest in debate on campus."
A newcomer to the group this year, sophomore Haley Morrisson, a philosophy major, said it was exciting to be a part of planning Prometheus.
"Going to the meetings was a lot of fun," said Morrisson, an editorial board member who is also in charge of publicity. "When we discussed the papers, it brought up more philosophical points, so it was this really creative process. Eventually we had to set time limits on our debates."
The first issue of Prometheus is dedicated to Ralph Kuncl, a former vice provost for undergraduate education who in June became provost and professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College and adjunct professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
"We e-mailed 15 deans [and administrators] at the beginning, and he was the one who said it looks like you are on your way," Kotlyar said. "Through it all, he kept us motivated to do this. He was totally key to our success."
Last week, Kuncl said he had no idea the students had bestowed the honor upon him. He said he counts his time working with Kotlyar as "an important part of my memory of Hopkins."
"I have never worked with undergraduates as visionary as the editors and founders of Prometheus," Kuncl said. "Few if any of our visions ever become realities, as it is so much easier to plan than to implement. This group's persistence is remarkable, and I am proud to have been there as mentor and friend. I still use my Prometheus story as an example that anything is possible for undergraduates when the inspiration and mentoring are right. Now let's see about the real test: volume two!"