Ask her anything: Philosophy professor connects with online community

Samantha Brennan, who teaches in the departments of Philosophy, Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and Political Science, recently hosted an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session. Her AMA generated more than 526 comments in two hours and yielded more than 500 up-votes, landing the post a coveted third place spot on the front page of /r/philosophy.

Special to Western NewsSamantha Brennan, who teaches in the departments of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, Philosophy, and Political Science, recently hosted an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session. Her AMA generated more than 526 comments in two hours and yielded more than 500 up-votes, landing the post a coveted third place spot on the front page of /r/philosophy.

The questions came in “fast and furious” for Samantha Brennan.

When the Western Philosophy professor set out to host an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session on Reddit last month, she was amused by the range and the amount of questions, and how fast they came in. In an online community sometimes criticized for less-than-thoughtful commentary, Brennan saw the opposite. She fielded thoughtful questions and found an opportunity to connect.

“It’s important for all academics to engage with the public about our work and our ideas, not just philosophers. But I do think philosophers have both a special obligation and a special ability to engage with the public since we are concerned with issues everyone thinks about to some degree: the nature of love, how death affects the kinds of lives we lead, what’s right and wrong, how should we treat other people,” she said.

“I think people enjoy talking to philosophers. These are big questions and lots of people don’t know where to start. You hear so much small talk about the weather and about celebrity gossip, and there aren’t always opportunities to ask about things like death and the meaning of life, without feeling ridiculous,” added Brennan, who also teaches in the departments of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and Political Science.

It’s important to provide accessible avenues to what philosophers study and what they do in an academic setting. The Department of Philosophy at Western has public lectures at the London Public Library and they’re always a big hit, she added.

Brennan’s Reddit AMA, which saw questions related to her research in feminist theory and ethics, social and political philosophy, children’s rights and family justice, gender and sexuality, in addition to general questions about the Western Experience, certainly was a hit.

Unlike social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, where an algorithm decides which content appears at the top of a newsfeed, Reddit members (totaling more than 234 million users) vote content “up” or “down,” which influences where content appears on the site. The most popular content – be it a breaking news story or a cat meme – rises to the site’s front page.

Reddit’s AMA sessions allow members to ask questions for a limited period of time, while hosts try to answer as many questions as possible. Hosts include celebrities, politicians, scientists, and subject matter experts, ranging from Madonna and Neil deGrasse Tyson, to former U.S. President Barack Obama. Brennan’s AMA generated more than 526 comments in two hours and yielded more than 500 up-votes, landing the post a coveted third place spot on the front page of /r/philosophy.

Highlighted below is a small sample of Brennan’s questions and answers from the AMA. A full transcript can be found on Reddit.

Can you give a reasonable explanation of privilege, with examples?

I attended a women’s march last weekend and the police smiled at me. They came over and talked to me about my dog. I was happy to chat with them. Not once did I worry the police might do me harm or arrest me. That’s a kind of privilege. Last week I got on the train and someone was in my seat. The ticket taker came over and looked at my ticket and said I had bought the ticket for the wrong day. She asked if I was a professor at Western. I said, yes. We laughed and she found me another seat. She didn’t charge me for a new ticket. She just shook her head. That’s privilege, too.

You have any thoughts on what constitutes a “family” or what its “essence” is? Or, like, is there something in particular that distinguishes the family from an incredibly close-knit tribe, or community in general?

Frankly I’m not sure why we are so fussed about who counts as family. I was chatting with a friend yesterday and she co-parents her kids with two men, so there are three parents total. We were wondering why we accept what people say about gender identity and sexual identity, but we think it’s okay to question who counts as family. I think I’d identify family not by biological ties, not by who sleeps with whom, or what they do in bed, but rather by relationships of dependency. Who does the work of parenting?

I recently applied to Western, to the Arts and Humanities faculty, with my major of choice being Philosophy. […] What is the philosophy department like at Western? I know this is a bit of an ambiguous question, but it’s mostly rooted in the fact that philosophy is sometimes not taken very seriously within the academic world, and whether or not this is the case at (Western). Thank you very much, and I look forward to reading more about your work!

Philosophy is taken very seriously at Western University. The department has strengths in the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, in ethics, and in feminist philosophy. I’ve never had the sense that Philosophy isn’t respected at Western. It’s a large department and there’s a lot going on. Come join in.