Public Philosophy and Me

Over the weekend I attended the Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference in Washington, D.C. Thanks to my involvement with the Rock Ethics Institute and the Public Philosophy Network over the past year, I have already met a number of people who have been helpful and supportive of my interests in philosophy. This weekend, however, came with many very pleasant and very unexpected surprises.

The two weeks leading up to the conference left me feeling reluctant to go anywhere and do anything at all related to philosophy. I was feeling exceptionally overwhelmed, very emotional, and like a breakdown could happen at any minute. After a death in my family and feeling far, far away from my loved ones, forgetting my phone charger in another city, the breaking of my laptop screen without a replacement in stock anywhere across the country, and realizing (yet again) that whatever progress I thought I had made on my prospectus was not really progress at all…avenues for communication and connection were not working. The last thing I felt prepared to do was drive myself to another city, attend sessions and present my own at a conference, talk with lots of other philosophers, be engaged and thoughtful at all times, and stay positive about the current relationship I was having with my work. So when I set out to DC on Thursday afternoon and the barista at Starbucks made me the wrong drink that cost nearly $6, I sort of started to tear up over it. I knew it was ridiculous, but I was just that emotionally spent.

It didn’t end there. Once I made it through DC traffic and finally collapsed on my bed in the hotel, I read an email from my advisor about our need to set up a meeting to re-frame my dissertation topic. Feeling like I am already pushing my time limit and that this turn in the project (although very necessary) is already months too late…I broke. I cried. I panicked. And, unfortunately, that crack was enough to sufficiently prime me for the rest of the night. An hour later, when I went to the first plenary session of the conference and gave my initial “hello, good to see you again!”s and people asked, “How are you doing?” I couldn’t hold the tears back anymore. They had gained their own momentum, so I would say, “I’m doing okay” and try to leave the conversation before any more questions were asked. Yes, to answer any doubt, it was very awkward. I was extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable.

I wasn’t so much uncomfortable with the fact that I was emotional though, because I knew multiple reasons as to why I was especially sensitive that day (I was stressed, but it also had a lot do with the abruptly increased levels of synthetic hormone that were coursing through my body). I think I was also uncomfortable because over the previous two weeks the worrying that I have done for years about what to do after grad school dramatically increased. After my second year of grad school I tried to keep the worrying at bay by simply deciding to only focus on one short term goal: get the PhD. But now, as that gets closer and closer, I have started to freak out about the next step. Do I go on the job market next year? What if I’m not sure about how I fit into academia (it’s been painfully evident for so long that if I fit into it, I do so very unconventionally at best)? What other options are there? I don’t know!!! And what about other important things in life, like nurturing relationships and pursuing other passions. What if I don’t want to do a long-distance relationship for years on end and what if I really enjoy talking to people while cutting their hair all day long?! But at the present moment in DC, an equally pressing lurking concern was probably that of  “What if they’re on to me?”

My session with Chris Long on Philosophy and the Digital Public

The amazing thing about this conference though is that it is perhaps one of the most appropriate places for me to have a break down of this sort. One of the main theoretical themes of the conference was to ask, “What is publicly engaged philosophy?”, and while perhaps the majority of people there would answer in terms of forming public policy, there were also a handful who share my values in doing philosophy more publicly. If there were to be a place where academic philosophers would be sympathetic to wanting to make philosophy accessible and relevant for people outside of the academy, this was probably as good as it could get. Fortunately, that meant that when I would start feeling really frustrated because people started to talk about philosophy in ways that made it sound like either an exclusive club for only the most arrogant of experts or a mere luxury that we do simply for our enjoyment, there was probably another person in the room who shared my sentiments.

Thank goodness I found them.

I was encouraged to hear comments from people whose departments automatically begin with questions of social justice and where one can equally identify as an academic AND an activist. I appreciated the questions from tenured faculty members who willingly challenged a defensiveness about maintaining certain “standards” for scholarship if/when that defensiveness stems from an unwillingness to change with the social climate. And I was intrigued to hear about academics who are planning on leaving academia, even after getting tenure and becoming chairs of their departments.

Dinner with Rock Ethics Institute and Public Philosophy Network folks

In addition to meeting plenty of new, sympathetic, and supportive folks, I was relieved to actually have honest conversations about my academic and professional queries with the people with whom I work most closely. Rather than hiding the fact that I am curious about what other options really are out there for people with PhD’s in philosophy, I noted my concerns and was met with great support. Of course people are still pushing me towards taking an academic position when that time comes, and that is greatly appreciated because I am certainly not opposed to the idea of being in academia. What I am concerned about, however, is how to be in academia and still be able to do the kind of work that I want to do, how I want to do it.  To that, the best response I got over the weekend was, “We’ll do what we have to do, even if that means putting together a resume for you instead of a CV.” Okay. Wonderful. Thank you.

What I could not have anticipated is the terrifically positive, understanding, and warm response I got from people at this conference. I didn’t know that I would leave feeling so encouraged, but thanks to the conversations and the connections that I actually did end up having, that was exactly how I felt when I left DC. I felt excited, relieved, and motivated. This wasn’t the sort of conference experience that was all about networking and rubbing elbows (though I always resist doing that in these situations anyway), instead it was an opportunity to openly and genuinely discuss questions about philosophy and what it means to be a philosopher today. And it felt good to passionately talk to people about the things that I am passionate about. It also was very rewarding to think that I actually have a voice that can contribute to those conversations in meaningful ways.

Despite my shift in emotional valence, I know that nothing has really changed after the conference. While I have been assigned a new research project for my work on the Public Philosophy Network, which is finding out what people have done outside of academia after earning PhD’s in philosophy, I’m still a graduate student with a terribly uncooperative prospectus to write. I still have no clear direction for what happens after graduation, and in many ways I have very little control over that in the near future. People still expect for philosophy to be done in a certain way in order to “pay one’s dues.” I get it. I know. And the people who are wonderfully supportive of me are speaking from their tenured positions with job security and good salaries. They know that I know that, too. So, my position still feels tenuously underdetermined and overdetermined at the same time. But at least I was able to do one thing. At least I was able to be honest.

Being pretty blunt and upfront is my M.O.  Most importantly, though, I was reminded again of why it’s important to be forthcoming: so that you give others the opportunity to respond to you. They may not like what you show them or they might surprise you and become one of your biggest advocates. People might disappoint or pleasantly surprise you. But you have to give them the fair chance at doing one or the other…or something completely unexpected.

I know that my future does not depend solely on me and my actions. I can be a good, diligent, passionate, and honest hard worker, but others are and always have been involved in terms of blazing paths, opening doors, and presenting me with new opportunities. For those people in my life, I am grateful. And I’m thankful for things like academic professional philosophy conferences that are part of the whole process. 🙂

You can listen to an engaging and wonderfully supportive conversation that I had with Christopher Long, Mark Fisher, Ronald Sundstrom, Jessica Harper, and Vance Ricks on Chris’s Digital Dialogue podcast here:

You can see a picture of it here.

Notes from Noelle McAfee’s blog:

Chris and I also had a previous conversation last year about the Public Philosophy Network, which you can find here:


3 thoughts on “Public Philosophy and Me

  1. my pleasure I'm a fan of the work we need reflection in a world ruled by the tyranny of the means (and sometimes of the just plain mean), "meaningful" is lovely but like catharsis doesn't directly translate into a capacity to do better and if academic philosophy/humanities are merely aesthetic than they will only survive as luxury items. The danger of social media is that it feeds directly into what Heidegger called the gossip-world which tends to be very conservative (even for those with a liberal bias) and talking-heady, feels good to share/vent/be-recognized b/c it relieves anxiety and establishes our place in the pack/herd but anxiety/discomfort is the spur to action, but to be spurred without a means of making change is just to experience a pain in the rear. keep at it, dirk.

  2. Hello, Dirk! Thanks for the note. I agree that there has to be some evidence to show how taking our philosophical training outside of the classroom is not only valuable, but also possible. I think many people hope that they make a difference by affecting their students, who they hope will in turn affect their friends, and on and on. I think that social media is especially helpful, too, because there are numbers and personal messages that help indicate that some message are meaningful to people. I appreciate your comments and how involved you are with Chris's work and my own. Thanks for the support!Cori

  3. hi Cori, enjoyed the works up on Dean Long's site, I think that the only way to really demonstrate that academic philosophy has some public value is to make an intervention outside of the lecture hall and report on the results. If you can clearly connect your education/practices with the resulting benefit/change than you will be offering people what they desperately want which is a way to make a difference. this would be a kind of pioneering/experimental effort so good luck if you take the risk, John Dewey's life might offer something of a prototype. peace, dirkusa

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