It was a scholarship – and not a burning desire to become an academic – that brought Cressida Heyes to Canada in the early 1990s.
Although she had studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford in England, she hadn’t thought about a life of scholarship at all. “It’s the degree people do if they want to go into public life,” says Heyes, who considered careers in political journalism, party politics or civil service.
Then, graduate school in Montreal changed everything. “I really loved it and I was a much better graduate than undergraduate student. And I realized there were lots of questions I hadn’t ever asked, let alone answered,” she says.
A master’s degree at McGill dovetailed into a PhD and a career as a feminist philosopher. In 1999, Heyes arrived at the University of Alberta – one of the university’s first “third wave” feminist scholars and one of the first generation to draw on queer theory, an approach to the critical study of sexuality that emerged in the early ‘90s.
Now, Heyes is a full professor in the departments of Philosophy and Political Science, and the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality. She focuses on the politics and philosophy of the body, and the politics and philosophy of health and illness, especially as it relates to gender and sexuality.
One of Heyes’ recent research collaborations involved interviewing queer women in Halifax and Vancouver about their experiences with their primary health care providers. Study participants in Halifax reported significantly more sexual conservatism among nurses and doctors than their peers in Vancouver (which didn’t come as a surprise). But in both cities, there were patients who reported difficulty having their needs met.
While Canadian medical schools now provide “cultural competency” training to new doctors, it’s often inadequate, says Heyes: “When it actually comes to the encounter…they can often come across as a bit clumsy.”
As this project comes to a close, Heyes is beginning a new health-related project: a book about sleep with Australian cultural studies scholar Dr. Meredith Jones. “A lot of people think there’s a crisis of sleep in our culture,” she says. “It’s amazing, that for an activity that takes up probably 30% of our lives, we don’t pay more attention to it.”
While medicine still has many questions to answer, there is even less scholarship that takes a philosophical or feminist perspective on the meaning of sleep. The book will include chapters on the role mothers are expected to play in managing their children’s sleep, and the philosophical question of what happens to the self while we are asleep, among other themes. Although the book will be scholarly, Heyes hopes that it will attract a popular audience — and be good bedtime reading.
“A lot of people think there’s a crisis of sleep in our culture. It’s amazing, that for an activity that takes up probably 30% of our lives, we don’t pay more attention to it.”
This will be the sixth book Heyes has authored or edited. In addition to papers, papers and conference talks, Heyes makes a conscious effort to disseminate her work beyond the ivory tower. She’s often interviewed by the media and speaks at the university’s Philosopher’s Cafes, as well as to alumni groups and other organizations.
The recipient of several teaching awards, Heyes is also a celebrated teacher whose students sing her praises online: “The best teacher I’ve ever had,” writes one student; “She is an inspiration and an once-in-a-lifetime kind of teacher,” writes another.
The feeling is mutual. “We have some fantastic students at the U of A,” says Heyes. “They’re competitive with the best students I’ve known anywhere, like Oxford or McGill.”
Cressida Heyes’ website: