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Curating for the Public Philosophy Journal

This week I was the guest curator-at-large for the Public Philosophy Journal.  The Public Philosophy Journal is a website and blog that aims to facilitate public philosophy in the many ways that term could be understood.  One way we understand public philosophy is that public issues and concerns can be served by philosophy’s input and analysis.  Part of that work is bringing content of note to the attention of both philosophers and public servants or others who are working on these issues. I understood such content to concern public issues that philosophy can and does address such as an article in The Globe and Mail about a new study that locates the causes of anorexia nervosa in the passions and suggests a passion-based cure.  The Greeks were themselves very interested in how the care of self was a matter of fostering the passions in the right way, so this convergence of old philosophical ideas and health seemed a good example of public philosophy.  This content also includes references to issues or events that have had influence on philosophy, like Alison Bechdel winning a MacArthur genius award for the Bechdel Test  she invented as a standard to expose how films rarely depict women as characters in themselves unrelated to the men their roles support.  Not only was that important in its own right as a provocative strategy for raising feminist concerns, but Bechdel also influenced the field of philosophy itself, prompting Helen de Cruz to suggest a Bechdel test for philosophy papers.  Another kind of notable content includes philosophers and theorists discussing public issues, such as Avi Alpert’s interview with Gabe Rockhill and Nato Thompson about art and politics and Lisa Guenther on television discussing protests against prisons and the death penalty in Tennessee.  Finally, there is the discussion of public issues within the field of philosophy, issues like being differently-abled in the field or the persistence of rape culture in philosophy departments.  Sometimes public philosophy can even be philosophers taking their work to more public arenas or philosophers being discussed in those arenas, as when Gregory Fried wrote about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks in the LA Times.  I wasn’t focusing on any one of these in particular, but all of them together.

To collect the many instances of this kind of work, the PPJ developed a platform so that curators (you can become a general curator who just posts when you feel moved or a guest curator-at-large who focuses on curating for a week) can nominate content, which is then approved, formatted and posted by a member of the editorial staff; currently, a philosophy graduate student atPenn State is doing that job).  PPJ is also trying to address other senses of public philosophy, like benefiting from doing philosophy in a public way by posting work-in-progress and getting feedback directly into a manuscript as an online journal that both publishes online and reviews online.  I know that plans are underway to develop “a collegiality index” to help make that a collegial experience, though some concerns have already been raised about how that will work given the growing concern about how standards of civility are often invoked by those who are in power against those who are not — actually two articles about civility went up at PPJ last week so go read more about it there.ppj

Curating for PPJ prompted two questions for me that I found worthwhile.  The team at PPJ have composed a list of questions it wants people curating to consider, but I kept finding myself thinking: a) is this really philosophical? and b) is this worth sharing with this community?  I think both questions open up something about what the PPJ is doing.  The question “Is this really philosophical?” is often used to limit the borders of philosophy.  Yet I think PPJ is invoking that question while expanding the meaning of what we mean by philosophical in a productive way that encourages us to think about how many of our public concerns invoke or recall philosophical questions and problems.  So I tried to consider this question in a broad and inclusive way, one that might push our preconceptions about what philosophy means, rather than as the voice of a superego.  But I still found that the knowledge that it was public and that people would know that I had suggested whatever I was nominating to be posted affected what and whether I posted.  It forced me to answer the question, what is philosophical about this, broadly construed?  And even if I didn’t communicate that to anyone else, the value-added for me was that I had considered it.

The second question is something I’ve been thinking about often as I have been blogging regularly myself.  Bloggers have to develop a certain amount of daring-do, the sense that of course, people want to read these things.  Or at least, a resigned sense that it doesn’t matter if they read, I know it’s worth saying!   I have found the publicness of blogging to sharpen my own thinking as I discussed in my reflections on blogging my trip to Greece.  The PPJ curating was slightly different, because I wasn’t sharing my own thoughts, but my sense of what people would and should want to read.  Of course, there is a certain kind of exposure in this kind of process as well as neoliberal anxiety about whether this reflects well on me and improves my standing as someone who reads the right things before anyone else, a good warning to us that public philosophy and digital humanities should not just become yet another way we can make ourselves better commodities in a precarious labor market.  But there is also a communal thinking that is operative here.  Because I am curating, I read and think with a concern for the public philosophy community.  To further that kind of thinking, I’d like to see the PPJ become a place where there could be more exchange about what is posted.

Since the PPJ is still in relatively early stages, discussions are still underway about how to make it the best kind of resource it can be.  I learned some things in the process of figuring out the technology.  For example, I appreciate that PPJ wants to link to original sources to raise their traffic and encourage conversations happening in those places.  But I still have some questions about curating — on one or two occasions, I changed the title of the article that I was posting in an effort to explain something of why I thought it was of interest to the world of public philosophy.  Sometimes that change went through to what got posted, and sometimes it was reverted back to the original title.  One thing I like very much about how posting works on Facebook is that the poster can add key content quotes or her editorial spin or her TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”) when posting.  PPJ might consider making the interface of submitting for review clearer, or the directions about it clearer, so that curators could feel more like curators in a robust sense who are offering something value added and not just contributing links.

I am taken by the idea of the PPJ, but I don’t yet treat it as a resource.  I find most of the things I read on Facebook or Twitter.  I am pretty happy with my discipline-diverse Facebook feed and my attentive friends who post from their own blogs as well as from some pretty far-flung web sources.  So what would it take, I began asking myself as I curated for PPJ, to treat it as the same kind of resource that I treat Facebook as?  One concern is that it is too discipline specific.  I’m glad to have friends in political theory and friends who work in diversity training, for example, on Facebook.  I think that adds to the richness of what is shared, and I think part of the task will be to attract a broad readership to the PPJ.   I’d like to be able to “Like” posts without having to click through.  I don’t think you can “Like” at all as it stands.  I would also like to be able to comment without having to click through, or to read comments without having to click through to the dedicated page of a particular post.  I think Facebook is the place where I have the most robust public philosophical conversations.  One reason is that I can see the conversations that are going on just as I scroll through, so I can see what I want to engage in.  I don’t have that same sense on PPJ, so I don’t see it as a site that is gathering and encouraging that conversation yet.  But it could be, and I think this might be one way to get there.

Perhaps the most convincing reason I can offer people to curate is that it will get you familiar with the site.  I have to say that I did not find it the easiest site to navigate through.  I still cannot find a page that allows you to see everything that has been curated chronologically.  If I could, I would make that my home page for the PPJ.  When you navigate to, you find six categories with the three most recent links in each.  I think that at this stage, those are the only categories that are active.  Sometimes, it took me a little while to find what I had curated, and not just waiting for it to go up, but when I knew it was up.

I would like to see more people curating.  I think it’s an opportunity at these growing stages to give PPJ more feedback, and I think it needs to reach a critical mass before it will be able to become the kind of vehicle that it seeks to be.  I should say that I remain concerned that all the philosophers on the editorial staff are men — there are women on staff, but they are either on the tech side or the digital humanities side, not the philosophy side.  Finally, I think the neoliberal drive to form ourselves as the best kinds of workers who are accruing skills and thereby better able to market ourselves is real and fraught, and that new tools like this in a neoliberal age can become burdens of responsibility.  Chris Long, one of the co-editors of PPJ, reminds us that since Prometheus stole fire, technology can be used for good or for ill, to lighten our loads or add new work.  So I encourage the public philosophy community to give their input on how to make the PPJ more the former than the latter.

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