Claire Field (@fieldclaire) and Ethan Landes are PhD students in Philosophy on the University of St Andrews and University of Stirling joint programme. This workshop series was made possible by funding from SGSAH. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/publicphilnetwork/
It’s never been a better time to be a philosopher. At least, a cursory glance at a newspaper provides a cornucopia of philosophical questions can make it seem that way. Here we find journalists grappling with various philosophical sub-disciplines: “The Death of Truth: How We Gave Up On Facts and Ended Up with Trump” (Guardian, 14th July 2018), which is really epistemology and metaphysics; “Whom Should Driverless Cars Protect in an Accident?” (The Economist, 27th October 2018), unambiguously a question of ethics; and “Yes, the UN has a duty to intervene. But when, where, and how?” (The Observer, 4th May 2018), which expresses a substantive position in political philosophy.
If we are to make progress on these issues, philosophers will need to be involved. However, this is sometimes easier said than done. “Public Engagement” is not for the faint hearted – it requires skills, expertise, and support structures that are not necessarily the same as those involved in doing a PhD, and it can be hard to know how to get involved.
In Summer 2018 a group of PhD students in Philosophy organised a series of workshops aimed at training ourselves and other PhD students in doing philosophy with the public. The aim was to build skills, confidence, and enthusiasm among PhD students in philosophy, enabling them to go out into the world and start interacting with the public about the questions that matter. Since then, we have teamed up with Open Scotland, a network of public philosophers in Scotland, and plan to start organising a series of fun, interactive philosophy events in public spaces in 2019.
Each of the three workshops identified a specific difficulty related to public philosophy, and were open to all PhDs in philosophy in Scotland:
- Interacting with the public. The first workshop focussed on the practical matter of doing philosophy with members of the public. Peter Worley, co-founder of the Philosophy Foundation, came to teach us some essential techniques for communicating complex philosophical ideas in accessible and engaging ways, and devising innovative events aimed at the public. Drawing upon his 16 years of experience teaching philosophy to children, he taught his tried and tested ways to lead philosophical discussion using closed questions to anchor discussion followed by open questions to generate challenging and rewarding conversations.
- Designing content for public consumption. The second workshop focussed on how to design content for interacting with the public. The first half of the workshop was led by Katherine Hawley, Professor of Philosophy at St Andrews. Prof. Hawley has an impressive record of communicating with the public on philosophical topics. She has written on the nature of objects, trust, skills, sense-perception, and even been interviewed by Cosmopolitan about She told us about how she adapts philosophical content for these diverse audiences, and gave us some useful tips for writing public philosophy. We learned some of the ways that this is a very different skill to writing for an academic audience. Writing for the public requires, for example, clarity and big, key, points that people can understand without much background. Precision and nuance, essential in academic writing, are much less important. That, of course, does not mean that writing for the public is easy – anything but – but Prof. Hawley gave us some very helpful tips to get started.
The second half of the workshop focused on public philosophy done in person. This portion was run by Susan Collins, who has taught philosophy in Scottish schools for over a decade and designed the National 5 and Higher Philosophy curriculum in Scotland. Now she is a Public Engagement Assistant at the Arche Philosophical Research Centre. She told us about her experiences designing content for Scottish school children, and the particular value of teaching philosophy for Scottish schoolchildren, especially those from low-income communities. She also shared with us some of her experiences designing fun activities for interacting with the public as part of a joint project with Edinburgh Zoo.
- Reaching the Public. The final workshop focused on the, perhaps most important task, of putting the skills of the first two workshops into practice, and enable us to actually do some philosophy in public. First, we heard from Carley Hollis, then director of digital communications at the University of St Andrews, who spoke to us about best practices for communicating with the public online. She taught us ways to maximize the impact of online communication by keeping everything clean, concise, and front-loaded. Then, we heard from Alina Loth, the Public Engagement Officer at St Andrews. She shared with us various insights on how to go about acquiring funding for public outreach projects. We ended the final workshop by dividing into groups and pooling our ideas for new ways to engage the public with philosophy. Amazingly, in just half an hour we came up with five new ideas! These included a PhD student support network for developing written works of public philosophy, and an escape-room like scenario simulating philosophical dilemmas. Various members of the group took responsibility for making those ideas happen, and we are excited to see them realised.
Next steps. We quickly realised that we are not the only group of philosophers in Scotland interested in engaging with the public. We teamed up with Open Scotland, who are focussed on bringing together philosophers involved in public philosophy from across Scotland, so that they can collaborate on projects. In 2019 we plan to collaborate with them to run a series of philosophy events for the public in non-academic settings. On January 11th 2019 there will be a launch event for the Open Scotland Network, so do come along if you are interested in getting involved!
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