Philosopher: Amy Leask

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Amy Leask received an MA in Philosophy from McMaster University and has taught philosophy at both the high school and college level. She is co-founder of the educational design company Enable Education and author of a series of children’s philosophy books which she publishes through her company Red T Media. In this interview she talks about the value of the MA, her reasons for not pursuing a PhD, writing philosophy for children, and the transition from teacher and to entrepreneur.

DEREK: According to the bio on your website, you were a voracious reader and a prolific writer from a young age. When did you first start reading philosophy?

AMY: Like a lot of people, I was probably doing philosophy from a young age without realizing it. However, I didn’t get to put a name or a process to it until my first year of university. Once I’d cracked the spine on my textbook, and I went to a few lectures, I was pretty much hooked. We had the most amazing instructor, Sami Najm. There were hundreds of us in that lecture hall, and he still had us hanging off his every word. I doubt Socrates himself was as funny and charming while being Socratic.

When I hear about all the opportunities there are to do pre-college philosophy now, I’m pretty envious. I find myself saying horrible, clichéd things like “Where was this when I was little?”

DEREK: For your bachelor’s degree you double majored in English and Philosophy. Did you plan to major in philosophy when you started college? What were your career plans – if any – at that time?

AMY: I had planned to major in English, and I did, but I deliberately chose a university that was flexible about double-majors. It wasn’t that I was fickle and unsure of what I wanted, but I craved space to explore human nature from a variety of different angles. Originally, I was going to pair English with anthropology. I did enjoy taking classes in the latter, but I found the questions posed by philosophy much more compelling, and learning to argue effectively was really empowering. The amount of overlap between English and philosophy made the combination work. I’m from a family of teachers, and I tutored and spent a semester as a teacher’s assistant in high school. My goal was to eventually teach and write, in some combination.

DEREK: Why did your decide to pursue an MA in philosophy? Why didn’t you decide to pursue a PhD, and has the lack of a PhD ever been a barrier in your subsequent careers?

AMY: At the end of 4 years, it felt as if I was still in what Whitehead would call the romantic phase of learning philosophy. I loved existentialist thinkers, probably because they had roots in literature, which was my other passion, but I’d only been able to take one course as an undergrad. Similarly, I was interested in ethics and gender politics, but had only had room for a couple of courses in my BA. I had done an entire undergraduate degree, and I was still busy gobbling it all up. Given that I planned to teach at some point, I was also intrigued at the prospect of being a TA (again, from a family of teachers). Simply put, I stayed to do an MA because I didn’t think I was done.

Doing my MA allowed me to sharpen my skills, and gave a great deal of direction as a thinker. It most definitely made be a better writer, and a more effective teacher. I didn’t, however, do a PhD. I thought about it, and was encouraged by my supervisors, but somewhere in the middle of my thesis, my desire to write kicked in again. What I wanted to write wasn’t academic, and I was ready to apply what I’d learned to other fields. I don’t think there’s really been a point when my lack of a PhD has kept me from getting where I wanted to go in my career.

DEREK: You taught philosophy and other humanities courses at the college level for several years before leaving to devote yourself full-time to your own business ventures. At what point did you decide to make that change, and how much freelancing or other non-academic work were you already doing?

AMY: Before I taught philosophy in colleges, I also taught it to high school students. For more than 10 years, I taught every age from 12 and up, in just about every subject area. By the time I decided to stop teaching, Enable Education, our educational design company, had already been up and running for a couple of years, and needed our full attention. We were bringing in some pretty exciting projects at that point, and I loved creating teaching materials. I also did freelance writing and editing for a number of years before we started Enable Education, while I was still teaching, and continued to do so until things got hectic.

DEREK: One of your businesses is Red T Media, which produces illustrated philosophy books for children. How did you become involved in writing children’s philosophy books, and how hard was it to find or create a distribution platform for your books (and apps!)?

AMY: Throughout my years of teaching, I was disappointed that very few students knew how to formulate an argument, and how often they relied on unsupported opinions. They were fascinated with the types of questions that philosophy posed and frustrated that they’d never been encouraged to discuss them. I did some research and found that I wasn’t alone in thinking that philosophical dialogue needed to start early. My goal was to produce something that children could read themselves, something that was fun and engaging, and related to their own experiences. I started writing the manuscript for the ThinkAboutIt series while I was still teaching college students. Philosophy isn’t typically a popular subject in mainstream publishing, and there never seemed to be a good fit. When the time was right, and Enable Education had sufficient talent in-house, we gave the project to our team and produced books and apps ourselves.

It’s a brave new world for media in general, and a lot of content creators are finding that they need to take production into their own hands. It’s both exciting and challenging to have this much creative freedom. We’re enjoying venturing deeper into interactive technology with our materials, using new tools to present very old questions and reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in philosophical dialogue.

DEREK: Do you follow a standard formula for translating the content of your books into electronic apps? Or have you found ways to use the interactive nature of apps to convey ideas that aren’t easily captured in traditional book form? 

AMY: The apps are based on a standard formula, but our programmers did work a fair bit of their own magic into them as well. I’m very lucky that I have talented people around me who know how to take something in my head and translate it into something interactive. We’re working on even more creative digital content, and I can’t wait until it’s ready for release.

Taking things beyond the printed page was something we decided to do for two reasons. First, children in our target age group still need manipulatives. That’s not to say that there aren’t an awful lot of kids who enjoy sitting down to read a good book, but there’s still the drive to touch things, move things around, and experiment. Second, 21st century learners are a discerning bunch, and they want more from their media. It’s not that they’re easily bored or unenthused, but rather that they want to be active participants in it. Interactive materials make philosophical questions into more of a dialogue. By asking them to click, swipe or tap, we’re inviting them into the conversation in a real, tangible way, and on familiar terms.

Going interactive has forced me to see philosophical questions with very different eyes, and I absolutely love the challenge of it.

DEREK: You’ve already mentioned your other business, Enable Education, which offers custom content and a digital platform for education and training. What kind of clients do you serve, and how does your platform (Thinkscape) differ from the kinds of Learning Management Systems that those of us still in the academy might be more familiar with (e.g. Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, Canvas)?

AMY: Enable Education creates rich, hands-on, interactive learning experiences materials for learners from preschool to industry. Typically, we work with other businesses who produce learning products, and who want to support them with online resources and activities, or who want to train their own employees and customers in a more engaging way. Thinkscape, our learning platform, works well with any other LMS and serves as a more engaging alternative to PDF instructions. Our platform supports the hands-on portion of learning with scaffolded learning experiences. We’re chiefly a services company, as we create custom courseware, but our platform is an important part of what we offer. We’re really fortunate to have a team that includes web and app developers, but also teachers and trainers, technical writers, graphic designers and audio/video editors.

DEREK: Speaking more generally, how difficult was it to start your own business? What are some of the risks and rewards that you’ve found in being your own boss?

AMY: “Entrepreneur” wasn’t on my list of aspirations when I graduated, but it’s easily the best job I’ve ever had. Our company was actually started during a teacher’s strike, when we were looking for something enterprising to do with our skills while we waited to get back to class. We juggled teaching and running the business for a couple of years, and the business grew organically until it was time to focus on it exclusively. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve become masters of bootstrapping, and we’ve been able to support ourselves for the most part. There have been periods of growth and shifts in focus, each with their own measure of risk. What we’ve found over the past 10 years is that being innovative and becoming recognized as a thought leader requires a little discomfort. One major shift for me has been learning to see my time as valuable in a different way.

The benefits of building something of one’s own are worth this discomfort. I feel like we produce things that are useful, helpful and important. I work with remarkable, creative people. I’ve traveled, and I’ve done talks and presentations. I’ve also had greater flexibility with respect to what I work on, when and where I work, and the time I spend with my family. When things are challenging, it’s on our shoulders, but when things go well, there’s incredible pride in our work and in the team we’ve put together.

DEREK: Can you say a little more about the difference between how you value your time as an entrepreneur and the way you valued it as a more traditional educator?  

AMY: Time seems to pass at a different rate when you’re an entrepreneur (how’s that for a lesson in metaphysics?). Instead of thinking of earning my living a semester at a time, I now have to think in terms of billable hours. When I was in school (both as a student and as an educator), I had a certain amount of work that needed to be done and a specific time frame in which to finish it. Now that I’m in business, my timelines and deadlines aren’t so consistent. Every project is a little different, and quite often we’ve got a number of them going at the same time. Make no mistake, I was (very) busy as a teacher, but there wasn’t the same pressure to speed up or to try and squeeze in a little extra work. Your circadian rhythms themselves seem to change when you leave an academic environment. It took me a long time to stop thinking in four-month chunks.

DEREK: Looking back on your career so far, would you recommend your own path to other philosophers who are considering non-academic employment? What advice would you offer to philosophers who are thinking about starting their own ed-tech businesses, or who hope to make a living producing educational content?

AMY: The beauty of being a philosopher (and maybe the hardest thing about it as well), is that there isn’t one clear path out of academia. There is a bit of stigma attached to being a philosopher in the private sector, and I think we have to work a little harder to prove our worth than someone with a different, more applied background. We also have a unique and varied way of seeing the world. As more and more emphasis is placed on innovation, philosophers are likely to have an advantage. I do what I do for a living because I truly believe that everyone needs to learn to think philosophically. My advice to recent philosophy grads is to get out there and spread it around, in any way that they can, even if they decide to go into something other than philosophy. Be a philosophical mechanic, a philosophical nurse, a philosophical pastry chef… My philosophy background has fed and enriched every job I’ve ever had, and every project I’ve ever worked on.

As far as philosophers getting into tech goes, why not? A number of years back, I did at TedX talk about the intersection of new technology and philosophy. Technology needs philosophers to help people think their way through the paradigm shift that’s happening, and philosophy needs technology in order to reinvent itself for the 21st century. As a culture, we’re still fumbling our way through emerging media, and we definitely still have a lot to learn about using it effectively, but when we do get a better grasp, it will serve as an amazing tool. There’s so much potential for creativity, collaboration and dialogue, and it seems a waste not to take advantage of it. I look forward to seeing philosophers put their own unique spin on things.

For any philosopher (or anyone else, really) who is contemplating starting their own business, I’d offer the following humble suggestions:

  • Try to focus, at least for a little while. It’s awfully tempting to take on any project that comes your way, both because you want breadth of experience, and because you want to keep the lights on. It’s fine to say no to projects that aren’t really a good fit, even if they’re lucrative. If you agree to do anything and everything, you’ll end up overextending yourself and potentially missing out on work that you’re actually good at.
  • Ask for help. Ask for all the help you need. People are surprisingly generous with making connections, giving advice, and sharing their own growth stories.
  • Partnerships are forged in unusual and unexpected places. Don’t turn down a phone call, an invitation for coffee, or a networking opportunity.

DEREK: While your children’s philosophy books focus mainly on the adventures of a philosophically minded girl named Sophia (or a philosophically minded robot named Phil), they also include information about historical philosophers and their theories. Do they ever feature contemporary philosophers, or are the questions and exercises otherwise influenced by contemporary academic philosophy?

AMY: When I wrote the ThinkAboutIt series, I was on a mission to introduce philosophers from a number of historical eras, including modern thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, Val Plumwood, John Rawls and Rachel Carson. I will, however, admit that I felt a little sheepish about featuring (and possibly offending) more recent, living philosophers. To be honest, I was much more concerned with providing a diverse range of famous minds, going outside of the Western canon and also writing in female philosophers. The parents who kindly agreed to read early versions of the books were very concerned with their kids being able to see themselves represented.

DEREK: How often do you read contemporary academic books or articles, either as part of your work or for your own education or enjoyment?

AMY: I do enjoy reading contemporary philosophy, but as my career has moved outside of the academic sphere, my reading habits have as well. I tend to dig for philosophical content in fiction, film, theatre, and even comedy. There are some wonderful philosophy magazines in publication, both in print and online, and I enjoy the discussions that are starting to happen online. What’s exciting about contemporary philosophy is that it’s becoming a multiplatform entity. There are so many opportunities to share and engage in dialogue.

DEREK: Do you get the chance to – or do you have any aspiration to – write philosophy aimed at an adult audience?

AMY: Presently, I don’t have plans to develop materials for adults. There are a number of wonderful authors who’ve created inviting and interesting books for mature thinkers, as well as some pretty interesting YouTube channels and other online platforms. Beyond that, P4C is still growing, and there’s an awful lot of work to do if we hope to get it adopted into schools and into the hands of parents. I’ve got a to-do list that’s a mile long. If I were to venture into projects for grown-ups, it would likely be through fiction writing, or creating multimedia experiences based on what’s already available.

Thanks to Amy for taking the time to share her thoughts and experiences. You can browse Amy’s series of children’s philosophy books and apps at Red T Kids. The site also offers teaching resources including a parents’ guide to doing philosophy with children. For more information about Amy, including a portfolio of her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction writing, visit her personal website