Faculty Tribute: Jason VonWachenfeldt

Nichole Jin ’24 in Features | May 28, 2023

I remember my first time walking into Ethics class. I looked around the room with my hands in my pockets. I had a look of pure confusion plastered on my face. Yet my mind was filled to the brim with deep and intriguing questions (like the meaning of life and what it means to be a good person) on which I hoped to find some clarity. There he was, standing at the front of the room with a whiteboard marker in hand and a puzzled smile on his face. That was Dr. Von: friendly and slightly mysterious, always ready to open his mouth and say something so outrageous yet so sensible, so meaningful yet comedic, but without a doubt something that would expand the bounds of your thinking. Dr. Von was one big paradox, and that was what we appreciated most about him. 

With a smile on his face and his arms open, he would invite us to ponder interesting ethical questions, from the deontological perspectives of Kant to Bentham’s utilitarian calculus. There was never a second we spent in his class that we didn’t spend in deep thought. Even when it came to something as simple as choosing my outfits or getting a can of soda from the vending machine, Dr. Von always made me question the simple everyday tasks that I often overlooked. “But think about it…if you buy a Coke from a vending machine that only has Cokes, do you really have free will? Think about it,” he asked one afternoon. To this day, I still ponder that question and similar probing ideas that he would always ask us to consider. 

Though it was disheartening at times to see my essays marked up in black ink, his scribbled comments in the margins would never fail to take my thinking to a new level or challenge me to expand my perspective. “Interesting take…try considering this from the lens of the little girl next time instead of the father…or from a utilitarian standpoint,” he would write. He was supportive of his students while pushing the bounds of their thinking. If I’m ever sitting on the porch gazing at the sunset and contemplating life, human nature, and the limits of existence, I always give Dr. Von a silent thanks for inspiring me to face these bigger questions.