Saturday, April 16, 2011

Public Philosophy Workshops

March 19, 2011 (photo: K. Pierce)

In January of this year, I started a series of public philosophy workshops; each two hour session is / was led by a local philosophy professor:

Feb 5: "Applied Ethics Workshop"
Feb 26: "Medical Ethics 101"
Mar 19: "Consequentialism, Duty, and Virtue Ethics"
Apr 9: "The Problem of Evil"

In June, we'll begin the second round; I'm gathering speakers / facilitators now. There are around 3+ philosophy departments in the area; ultimately I'd also like to bring in speakers from outside the area. After I secure funding! (Keeping my fingers crossed!) Next I'll say a little more about the series, in case you're interested in starting something like this in your area...and I hope you are! :)

Name. For now I'm calling the series Jacksonville Public Philosophy Workshops.  
  • Jacksonville because that's where we are (in Florida).  
  • Public because they're held in public, for the public. The first 4 sessions were held in a wonderful used bookstore / coffee shop downtown, after hours. Though we may have to move, because we've quickly outgrown that location.  
  • Workshop because my aim is to offer events that highlight philosophy as an activity. More about that in a bit.

    "What makes it a workshop?" A workshop is, basically, a "seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.: a theater workshop; opera workshop" (

    What makes this a workshop series then, is that each session basically goes down like this:

    1. Facilitator introduces topic, outlines conceptual framework(s), poses questions and/or case, etc.
    2. Facilitator has participants count off into small groups of 3 or 4, OR prompts participants turn to several people next to them to form small group.
    3. Small groups discuss posed questions, and/or apply conceptual framework(s) to posed case.
    4. After 10 minutes or so, the facilitator calls on groups to share the results of their discussion.
    5. Facilitator then opens the discussion to the entire group.
    6. Facilitator repeats this process, as time allows.

    What I request from presenters. When I invite presenters on board, I request that they tailor whatever topic they wish to present to a more public, non-professional philosophers crowd; I request that they keep the scope a little more basic, practical, applied. I relay that the basic outline highlighted above is what we're aiming for. In other words, they should only come on board if they can get on board with those basic requests.

    I also request that they offer some sort of worksheet or handout, something that features principles, frameworks, definitions, and/or concept maps, etc. I offer to help produce this, if they want. I've also secured a white board, which they're encouraged to use. Anything we can do to help make the topics a little more visual, the sessions more active, etc. All in keeping with the "Workshop" theme.

    RSVP / Attendance. I track RSVPs through (36 bucks a year, I think). I track these in the first place because ultimately I'd like to get the series sponsored, secure a grant even; if I can demonstrate consistent and increased attendance over time, I'll better make my case I think.

    Plus, the Meetup portal features several tools that come in quite handy for this sort of thing: feedback is automatically solicited from attendees, about each event, and the group in general, once each session has closed. Plus, the site provides message boards, automatic meeting reminders, member profiles (folks can say as little or as much about themselves as they like), etc.

    Not everyone signs up through the Meetup portal, as requested. There are probably several reasons for why this is the case. Anyway, including the 3 or 4 individuals each time who've NOT confirmed attendance (or even signed up) through the Meetup portal, attendance has been as follows:

    20 > 22 > 30 > 32

    Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, you can read their comments over at the site.

    Other, similar, groups. The only other group that I am aware of, that's doing something similar to this, AND tracking attendance and RSVPs through Meetup, is a group in Portland: Philosophy Workshop. I recently joined, because my folks live out that way, and I'll be traveling there this summer.

    What do you think...can you imagine starting something like this in your city? Why/not? If yes, what would you do differently? Why? Do you think there's enough interest, from your larger community, to sustain something like this?

    Other questions? Comments? Constructive criticism?

    (Cross posted at


    1. How have you marketed the workshops? I run a philosophy reading group and am interested in experimenting with the workshop format (it might attract a different audience) but I'm unsure of how to reach the critical mass necessary to get something like this off the ground.

    2. Hi Jose,

      Thanks for your question. For now, I've just posted fliers here and there, asked colleagues to share the schedule, told people I meet here and there, etc. Since the space we've been holding them in only holds about 30, and we've now been filling that, I've not marketed further.

      I'd like to take it to a bigger space, though, so we can accommodate more people; RSVP rates suggest it could easily rise to around 40 or so in the near future.

      I think calling it "public philosophy workshop" from the start has tended to attract folks already on Meetup, who might be a little more intimidated by a discussion group.

      If you don't mind sharing it, what city are you located in?


    3. Karla, this is great stuff. I wonder if you have some sense of how this differs from Socrates Cafe events. I've been to one Socrates Cafe, and though I appreciate the efforts made by the organizers, my sense was that it was frustrating, instead of enlightening, for the audience, largely because of the lack of structure. Your workshops seem to remedy that problem. Do you have some thoughts on that particular question?

    4. Hi Michael,

      Good question. I did attend one of those...but it was a super long time ago. I honestly do not remember how it was set up. Are they all set up the same? What were the ones you've been to like?

      Funny you mention it, he's (Phillips) actually going to be here in Jacksonville tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it.

    5. I'm in New York.

      I'd like to try and reach a different audience with a workshop structure. Would you mind if I emailed you some questions after talking to a few of my members?

    6. Jose,

      Sure! My email is on my blog; feel free to contact me with questions. :) Karla

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