Convocation '19: PhD candidate took 'left-hand' turn to philosophy

Joshua St. Pierre is a scholar and disability rights activist challenging old notions about speech and communication - but his career might have followed a very different trajectory

Caitlin Crawshaw - 11 June 2019

Growing up in a religious household in Rocky Mountain House, Joshua St. Pierre ('11 MA, '19 PhD) was a devout Christian who planned to become a pastor. But during his first term at Briercrest College - a small, evangelical institution in Saskatchewan - his worldview changed radically.

"I just happened to take a philosophy class and got hooked into this whole world I didn't have any idea existed," he says. Despite the fact that the discipline was frowned upon by many around him, St. Pierre quickly switched into the college's humanities program to take more philosophy classes. "It was about as hard of a left-hand turn as you can imagine," he laughs.

Despite its religious focus, Briercrest College provided St. Pierre a well-rounded education and solid foundation for graduate studies. In 2009, he arrived at the University of Alberta to earn a Master of Arts in philosophy and, early into his degree, felt his perspective change yet again.

"I happened to take a feminist philosophy course, which wasn't anything I'd ever encountered," he says. "Again, I got sucked into this whole world I'd never thought of." St. Pierre also became acquainted with disabilities studies through an internship with a five-year research project called The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada. This national project based at the U of A examined the 20th-century ideas and practices aimed at 'improving' the population by eradicating certain kinds of people (especially racialized groups and those with disabilities).

That summer, St. Pierre experienced what he describes as "a consciousness raising." As someone who stutters - a kind of invisible disability - he began to see his own story in the history of eugenics. "I'd become accustomed to the idea that it was my problem to fix and if there was a so-called 'breakdown in communication,' it was solely because of me," he says. "It was my burden to try to fix this and make myself as acceptable as possible to other people."

But in the context of systems of oppression, St. Pierre began to see his stuttering very differently.

"Where before I felt shame, now I started to burn with a passion. Why should how I speak, or how anyone else speaks, have any difference for how we're understood or aren't understood, how we're ignored or taken seriously?" he says. "Why should our participation within society, and all of these other realms, hang upon how we sound?"

St. Pierre channeled his passion into action, co-founding the Did I Stutter project - an online knowledge-translation and activist community for stutterers - and pursuing a PhD in Philosophy under the supervision of Dr. Cressida Heyes.

St. Pierre's dissertation tackled complex questions about speech and communication - including how it is constructed within and necessary for capitalism - in the context of contemporary political philosophy. His work bridges neo-Marxist theory on communication and disability studies scholarship - a novel area of study, he explains.

This week, he convocates after six years of intense study, during which he received numerous awards and scholarships, including: an Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, the President's Doctoral Prize of Distinction, and a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

As a newly minted PhD, St. Pierre is embarking on the next chapter of his journey: a career in academia. He's not sure yet where he'll end up, but in the meantime, he's enjoying teaching as a sessional and working on a book version of his dissertation. "There's a line in the play Hamilton that goes, 'How do you write like you're running out of time?'" he says. "I never anticipated that I'd find a deep passion for [writing] and I never expected to be skilled at it, but I just can't stop."