Kelly Heuer received her PhD in philosophy from Georgetown University. She then held a postdoc at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics, and from there she transitioned into a permanent position as the Head of Communications and Project Development. In this interview she discusses this transition, talks about her academic experience and her previous work as a freelance designer, and explains how her current position allows her to combine both of her passions as a philosopher-designer.
DEREK: What are your primary duties as Head of Communications and Project Development for the Kennedy Institute?
KELLY: I direct most internal and external communications for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, overseeing content generation and distribution (print, digital, social) for Institute channels as well as working with the Director on strategic communications and development. A significant portion of my time is dedicated to the Institute’s design lab, of which I am a founding member.
DEREK: The bio on your website makes the move from a traditional postdoc to your current position seem very serendipitous. Did you go into the postdoc planning to apply for tenure-track positions at the end? Had you given any previous thought to alternative career plans?
KELLY: At the end of grad school, I was facing a pretty significant fork in the road. I had an offer from a design consultancy I’d done some work for as an independent contractor to abandon academia and join the team full-time with an eye to eventually becoming a partner — and I was very seriously considering it. The postdoctoral fellowship opportunity at the KIE was, to mix some metaphors, the perfect chance to kick the can down the road while having my cake and eating it, too. I’d get to do curricular and digital experience design on philosophical topics I was passionate about, remaining in the academy but collaborating closely with other designers. I hoped that more time with one foot in each stream would help me figure out which one I wanted to dive into fully once the postdoc term was up — but what I found was that I really loved doing exactly what I was doing. The opportunity to broaden the role and make it a semipermanent part of the Institute’s operations was a tremendous stroke of luck.
DEREK: How does your academic training affect your ability to work with and relate to the academics and nonacademics that you work with? Could someone without a PhD do the work you do?
KELLY: My academic credentials are useful but I think not strictly essential to the communications portion of my portfolio. Everything would take more time and require more oversight from the Director if I didn’t have the content knowledge and (academic) cultural competence that come from the PhD training, and I wouldn’t be able to take as much ownership as I have in helping to develop and strategically brand and communicate about new initiatives. But someone with a similar skillset and some subject area knowledge would be able to discharge many of those responsibilities. My philosophy background is, I think, far more essential to the role I have in Ethics Lab, the design lab I mentioned above. Ethics Lab is an incubator for projects that aim to make a difference in areas of tremendous social and moral complexity, where other innovation labs (rightly) do not dare to tread: conducting clinical research on vulnerable populations, managing the childbirth experience for victims of sexual trauma, using partially-anonymized big data for social good, exploring authentic clinician apology after medical error. Our method brings together experienced designers, formally-trained ethicists, and people on the front lines of moral complexity — those directly experiencing a complex challenge, who have the experience, interest, and power to effect real change — to collaborate on issues like these.
DEREK: Are there ways for people outside of the Kennedy Institute to propose or contribute to projects at the Ethics Lab?
KELLY: Yes! Just get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org). Our method is built on collaboration with people outside the academy (or at least outside our lab ecosystem), who are on the front lines of some complex problem. If you feel like you’re at the heart of some overlap of social and ethical complexity with an issue that hasn’t been resolved by existing systems and structures — that’s what we want to hear about, to see if together we can do something to move things forward. If you’re just interested in learning what we’re up to or collaborating more broadly, you should also get in touch. The team is busy, but never too busy to set up an informational interview (internally, we call these “playdates,” since there are usually some markers and play-doh involved). We’re always looking to grow our network, and there are lots of low-stakes ways to get involved, especially with student-led projects.
DEREK: Is it difficult to convince decision makers facing ethical challenges to trust the judgment or input of philosophically trained ethicists? Is there ever a tension between the academic ethicists’ concern with nuance and objections and the decision makers’ need to settle on a definite procedure or course of action?
KELLY: You’re naming a really interesting set of tensions here.
The first kind of challenge — why listen to philosophers? — is something that we tend to screen for when we select project partners. Most of the people and groups we’ve partnered with on projects so far have sought us out precisely because they want to partner with (and be guided by) people with philosophical training and practical experience in ethics. So when tensions of this kind arise, they tend to be smaller-scale.
The second kind of challenge — okay, but at the end of the day we have to do something, dammit! — is in a way exactly the kind of productive tension the lab is founded upon. That gap between pristine theory and the inevitable messiness of implementation is also something that’s quite familiar to policy-oriented ethicists, and is something that many of our scholars have grappled with since the Institute was founded back in the 70s, from drafting federal regulations for the protection of human subjects to writing an algorithm to govern donated organ allocation. Our hope with the lab is that we can bump up the inventiveness factor even more by deliberately adding professional designers to the mix, to help unstick assumptions and create new options in the face of only bad and worse ones.
There is great value to the work that ethicists and social theorists do when they call out moral and social injustice in the world — what our director calls offering a “moral complaint” — and give us the tools to help understand what is wrong and why. But the lab takes off from the idea that there’s also tremendous value in people with formal philosophical training getting their hands dirty, when they have the right tools and collaborators. It’s not a new idea — actually, it’s sort of one of the oldest in philosophy — and we see the lab as another effort in this tradition.
DEREK: In addition to your academic training, you also had prior experience as a freelance designer. What kind of freelance work did you do, and how were you able to integrate it with the demands of graduate study?
KELLY: Through all six years of graduate school, I worked side jobs outside of the teaching and research responsibilities associated with the PhD program — as a freelance graphic and web designer and as a barre (ballet-based fitness) instructor.
This work was important to my sanity in four very specific ways. First, it gave my days structure, smaller slots of time before or after class or client meetings to fill with specific scholarly activity. Second, it gave my days actual, dischargeable tasks and concrete projects on which to make progress, in the shadow of the vast and shapeless monster of my dissertation. (Less facetiously: it was a pleasure to do something that felt like it had an actual impact on actual people in real time, but was also just enough of a drag to make reading and writing philosophy feel like the unique luxury that it is.) Third, it connected me with local people and communities I never would have encountered otherwise. Don’t get me wrong — I love the philosophy department at Georgetown and its quirky, brilliant, heterogeneous graduate population — but getting outside the bubble is a good thing. Barre, in particular, thrust me into a community of strong women and small business owners whose friendship was a beautiful counterbalance to the very male space of professional philosophy. Fourth, finally, and perhaps most obviously: it earned me a bit of extra money, which I alternately funneled into savings, donated to charity, and spent on craft kombucha.
DEREK: Yours seems like a very rare career path, depending both on your own combined interests in philosophy and design and the unique opportunities available at the Kennedy Institute. What, if anything, do you think graduate programs can do to better prepare students for non-traditional career paths like yours? What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs with similar interests in philosophy and design?
KELLY: These are tough questions, and I’m not sure I’m well-qualified to answer them. My own career path is (as you note!) pretty idiosyncratic, and I haven’t made much of a study of other so-called alt-ac career paths, so I don’t think I have a lot to add to this particular discussion. I think projects like this one are a great step in advancing the conversation.
Certainly, the kind of thinking that is honed and refined in most philosophy PhD programs would be an asset in a wide variety of professional settings, and the privilege of taking five to seven years to examine some of the most profound human questions might have, at least ideally, some salutary effects on one’s character and perspective. But jobs are scarce, and the world of philosophy can still be (sadly, but frankly) an unsafe space for those who don’t fit the weedy beardy white cis-man profile. And that’s exactly what I said to the two students who’ve come to me for advice about pursuing a PhD in philosophy. One wound up going to law school and the other pursuing her passion for human rights advocacy, and both seem very satisfied with those choices.
I’d also add that from what I can tell, most of the higher-caliber programs are still culturally oriented around an expectation that you’re being groomed to do exactly what your faculty mentors do, e.g. teach and research at an R1 school. Even if you go to graduate school knowing that you want to use the PhD to do something outside of the academy, I think it can be hard to resist that cultural sway. It’s difficult not to admire the brilliant people who lovingly tear your papers to shreds, write exquisitely moving pieces on subjects that fascinate you, and help you hammer your dissertation project into reasonable shape — all of whom have dedicated their lives to careers in academic philosophy. Admiring them, it’s hard not to on some level want to be them. More pointedly, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re letting them all down when you choose to do something else.
DEREK: On your website you describe yourself as a “philosopher-designer.” What are some examples of your job or daily activity that you think of as distinctively philosophical? Do you think of them as philosophical in the same sense as the work you did as part of your graduate education?
KELLY: As I mentioned above, the most philosophically fulfilling aspects of my current role have to do with the work I do in our design lab. Whether it’s bringing some of the literature on the therapeutic misconception to bear on a challenging project, pushing someone to refine the moral language they’re using to frame a problem, or just working with the other members of the founding team to think through the deep and complementary ontological differences between design and philosophy and how they can be made to impact areas of real-world social and ethical complexity — there’s plenty happening that draws on the skills, perspective, and knowledge I got from the PhD. Of these, two conversations hold special interest for me.
First, ‘design’ and ‘philosophy,’ as human enterprises, have interesting resonances and clashes that crop up all the time in our work. Both can be conceived of as ‘problem-solving’ enterprises, both involve substantive critique as core method for collaborative progress, both seek to reframe familiar issues and to challenge starting assumptions. But there are core distinctions, too. To me, the most fundamental is that designers seek to expose complexity and understand a problem in order to create something (tangible) that solves or dissolves it, whereas philosophers create (a bit of theory) primarily in service of understanding the world or ourselves. Understanding the ways these enterprises overlap and intertwine is essential to making the most of our work at the lab. And, as a philosopher with a design background married to a designer with a philosophy background, understanding these differences is personal, too.
Second, the lab is involved in delivering some courses to Georgetown undergraduate and graduate students, incubating some student projects consonant with the lab’s general orientation, and bringing some students to work on lab-directed projects. No matter what shape this student contact takes, I want our team to, at a minimum, avoid doing harm by instilling problematic attitudes about the role of moral theorizing in real life, and, ideally, do something that helps to cultivate actual moral wisdom and ethical bravery. Like others, I worry that a good deal of traditional undergraduate ethics education runs the risk of what we call, internally, “un-teaching ethics” — and I now believe some of the classes I myself was lucky enough to design and teach at Georgetown fall squarely in this trap. I truly believe that the lab’s real-world orientation, hands-on methods, and commitment to leaning into moral complexity holds real promise as an environment where some real phronesis might develop.
DEREK: Do you think there’s an important difference between being a “philosopher with a design background” and a “designer with a philosophy background,” or does that way of putting it just represent a difference in the educational paths taken by you and your spouse?
Oh, there is definitely a profound difference between the two.
In my experience — which is of course, limited, so please excuse the sweeping generalizations — philosophy and design both tend to attract and to foster a certain kind of orientation towards the world: a relentlessly critical and questioning approach to received wisdom and existing conditions, and an unusual comfort with abandoning them when the situation seems to call for it — a kind of admixture of idealism and cynicism. Moreover, the work of at least some philosophers, like the work of most designers, consists of asking what could be as well as trying to understand what is.
But there are at least two major differences.
The first fundamental difference is action orientation. You know that old chestnut (from Marx?) about philosophers wanting to interpret the world, instead of change it — or the Wittgenstinian idea that philosophy “leaves everything as it is”? Not only are designers precisely concerned with changing the status quo (even in a small way, say, by creating a new building or app or brand identity), but the degree of understanding of the world they seek in their work, as well as the way that understanding is acquired, also come from being oriented toward creation rather than toward knowledge. A responsible designer seeks a robust enough conception of the space she’s working in to serve as a fertile ground for the creative process to get going. And the creative process is itself a tool for learning — experimenting with potential directions, building prototypes, testing and iterating and seeking critical feedback — this teaches you more about the world in which you’re trying to create something new than any amount of armchair reflection is ever going to get you.
The second is what I think of as service orientation. Designers have clients, and philosophers, in at least one important sense, work for themselves. However much philosophers are beholden to institutional forces, to demanding students and tenure clocks and professional publishing standards and academic trends and all manner of bureaucratic nonsense — all of these very real forces — they are not being paid on a per-project basis to create something for someone else. Designers are not artists, who create new things as a means of self-expression. Designers work to shepherd the vision of someone else (a person, a group, a collection of end-users) into being. Even with the big caveat about tenure clocks and academic trends and whatnot above, I think it’s clear that on a fundamental level, philosophers are expected to determine their research agenda in large part by inquiring about things they individually find meaningful and important and/or useful.
The upshot of all this is that philosophers and designers can often find each other more puzzling than you might expect. Because the commonalities are so great, it’s easy to feel like the other group is totally speaking your language. Then you get to work on the project, and the philosophers can’t believe how impetuous and analytically sloppy the designers are being, and the designers are baffled by the hair-splitting self-indulgence of the philosophers. I’m exaggerating here, but you get the idea.
One of the funniest things, to me, is how directly these tensions trace back to my erstwhile philosophical research. Most of my theoretical work was dedicated to exploring standard theories of rational choice, with an eye to the stories they told (or failed to tell) about what choice looks like in when “reasons run out,” due to equally reasonable, incomparable, or otherwise indeterminate or underdetermined choice contexts. What, if anything, can be fashioned from the ordinary materials of rational choice (reasons) to fill the normative silence that results when existing reasons fail to univocally favor a single option? I wrestled with this question for years in graduate school, and concluded my dissertation with the thought that perhaps the underdetermined choices we make become tangled up in the normative structure of our individual personal identity — though I couldn’t at the time see my way to a satisfactory theory of how that might work.
The irony that, facing a choice between (arguably) incomparable career options manifesting (arguably) incommensurable life goods, I chucked them both and struck out on a newly-invented career path — a path that is pretty literally concerned with negotiating this tension between rational deliberation and creative leaps on a daily basis — is not lost on me.
DEREK: One project you’ve worked on at the Kennedy Institute was a pioneering Bioethics MOOC, with an associated undergraduate course at Georgetown. MOOCs present a possible way of making philosophical education widely available, but there are also worries about ways in which they might be inferior to a more traditional classroom-based education. What advantages did the Georgetown students receive over and above the educational experience available to a remote user of the MOOC, and what did the MOOC add to the traditional classroom experience?
KELLY: I can’t speak directly to the in-class experience that students had using segments of the MOOC we developed for an international audience, as I wasn’t directly involved in the delivery of that course. But I can speak to some of our questions (and ambitions) for the project as a whole. At Georgetown, just like at many peer institutions, the leadership is thinking very creatively about where higher education is going — not just in five years, but in ten or twenty or fifty. Suppose that everything that can be taught effectively in a MOOC or online tutorial, is. That’s going to include a lot of traditional “sage on the stage” style learning, which translates well to a record-and-broadcast model, and plenty of problem-set-style independent work, much of which can arguably be done in more sophisticated ways in a digital setting. What’s left, when you strip that learning out of the equation? Critical thinking and writing skills, maybe, or the kind of resilience and emotional intelligence that can be the byproducts of having to do your learning collaboratively or in a public space. At Georgetown right now, the leadership is examining the kind of “self-formation” that typically occurs over the four-year arc of a traditional residential experience, which includes what goes on outside the classroom as much as what goes on inside it — community service, activism, dating, etc. And they are asking: when online learning has absorbed as much as it is going to absorb of the higher ed experience, what can we do to continue to make space at Georgetown for the critical process of self-formation that right now is still so intertwined with traditional learning?
DEREK: In addition to writing a dissertation you also made a number of conference presentations during your time as a graduate student. Are you still doing any philosophical writing, and if not, is that something you plan to return to? Do you have plans to publish or otherwise return to any of the material from your dissertation?
KELLY: I am not doing any philosophical writing at present! I truly adored writing my dissertation (I did!), and was and am passionate about the ideas I had the privilege of kicking around there and in various conference presentations. But right now the creative–theoretical work I do in the lab lets me do as much philosophy as my brain still craves, and I also recently had a baby, so my life is pretty full. I loved my research — but much to my surprise, I don’t miss it.
Thanks to Kelly for taking the time to share her reflections and experiences. You can find more information about her research, design portfolio, and current projects on her website. You can also visit her latest project, the Kennedy Institute’s Ethics Lab, on the web. For philosophers interested in learning more about design, Kelly recommends The Design Way by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman (soon to enter a third edition), and for those interested in underdetermined choice contexts, virtually anything by the incomparable (!) Ruth Chang.