David Kolb

Ask Me Anything ?

Philosophical communication today

My Philosophy Salon series on art (at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Oregon) featured a guest appearance by Robert Paul Wolff. He led a discussion on art and politics with connections to Herbert Marcuse. We were grateful to Prof. Wolff for his insights and effective teaching presence. Before the session he and I were talking about problems of quality and focus in blog comments. Mark Bernstein argued years ago that “The right way to respond to a weblog is to write on your own weblog.” Don’t put comments on my blog but have a blog of your own and link your statements to mine so conversation could develop as a series of linked postings. But individual blogs have been overtaken by bulletin boards such as Facebook and Twitter which use algorithms to decide who sees what. This does not make for carefully considered discussion.

Recently Prof. Wolff decided to ask his readers for questions or topics on which he might write — this reverses the usual dynamic of a blog, but has had good results.

This resembles a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session where a central figure faces inquiries from participants. Any question is fair to ask, though the speaker may decline to answer some. (https://www.bu.edu/prsocial/best-practices/social-media/guide-to-reddit-amas/) Or an AMA may be a chance for a celebrity to satisfy fan curiosity (https://www.therichest.com/entertainment/the-best-celebrity-amas-ask-me-anything/). At his commentary newsletter Slow Boring Matt Yglesias has started “mailbox” postings where he answers questions from subscribers. This week he answered questions about Joe Biden’s 2024 prospects, the efficiency of the Chicago transit system, and his favorite flavor of Oreo cookies.

Might an AMA be useful in philosophy, at least as part of a mix of discussions? On his excellent YouTube channel Milwaukee Prof. Gregory Sadler includes monthly live-streamed AMA sessions among his more focused philosophy videos. He takes questions as they come, answering some at length and passing more briefly over others.

I worry that the spectacle of an AMA sells out philosophy to the attention economy of sound bites. Doesn’t philosophy require long-form attention? Yes, it does. But while a single AMA might be a stunt or advertisement or market research, regular linked AMAs might be more like a serial bull sessions with recurring themes. And moderns who are attacked for the short attention span do manage to play immensely long complex computer games and follow dramas where episodes over many months handle complex story arcs. Long-form attention is available. AMA sessions could function as advertisements, audience recruitment, and topic suggestion boxes.

This is relevant to my current dilemma: Another teacher and I started the philosophy salon ten years ago. After my colleague’s death the salon has been directed by a shared group. Over the last few years I have prepared and led three to eight sessions each year. Others leaders used Great Courses lectures and led discussions. Now our leader group has shrunk to just myself. Given other projects, I can’t take on the burden of preparing a session every two weeks indefinitely. Nor do I want to host discussions from the Great Courses. What I wonder is whether in my circumstance as a retired professor without obligation to cover any particular syllabus, some AMA sessions might be a way for the senior audience at OLLI to benefit from my experience and accumulated background in ways that I might not think of when trying to plan on my own.

Socrates paraded his ignorance not his knowledge, but the Athenians saw he was showing off his expertise when he asked everybody everything. There is an attractive bravado in standing up as the target of an AMA; it resembles the medieval practice of posting theses and offering to defend them against all comers. I think I’ll schedule one soon.

1 thought on “Ask Me Anything ?”

  1. Eugene Kupper

    We have written several posts to each other, but these have seemed to be private topics and their treatment is in attempting to clarify positions. An open forum of discussion invites questions and tests limits for an audience/community.
    Briefly, our topics have been “architecture” and “urbanism”, seen from a “philosophical” perspective. – – – short on specific details or examples. We architects and artists tend to live in a world of concrete events and practices in a material medium.
    “Anything” is the environment of our thinking, such as Vitruvius, Book One, Chapter One. He recommends “The Project” as the site of anything. So does Sartre or Merleau- Ponty, and Herbert Marcuse, who stresses the “problematic” of being-in-the-world. My question asks how our work can negotiate all the rhetorical devices and assumptions of such a project. Since my medium is physical and especially visual, I can only respond here in words, i.e. verbally. Can we present to each other in other media – hyper or localized?

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