Katie Brennan received her PhD in Philosophy from Temple in 2019, then went on to be an Associate Professor in the department from 2021 until 2023. She's since been selected as a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Canadian Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy. In January, she'll begin an Associate Professor position at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. Read on to learn more about her current work and how her time at Temple positioned her for success.
Can you tell me anything about your research as a philosophy PhD here?
My dissertation is on Nietzsche, focusing on his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. The dissertation tackles a question that philosophers sometimes call the paradox of tragedy. It's really just the simple question of why we enjoy tragedy. Why do we venerate tragedy? Why would we put ourselves through that? Why has it become so popular a genre?
The dissertation uses Nietzsche to answer that question. He says, more than just our ability to tolerate it or that it entertains us, that tragedy allows us to affirm life. It allows us to find meaning in suffering and find ways to deal with the more unsavory aspects of life—which are things that we need to acknowledge in order to live a full life.
In answering that question, and exploring how life-affirmation happens through tragedy, I also explored Nietzsche's views on Shakespeare. In The Birth of Tragedy, it's clear that Nietzsche initially meant to write a whole section on Shakespeare, but he left it out. Nietzsche's commentary about Shakespeare is tied up in this really interesting German reception of Shakespeare—the Germans loved him. I look at the way Nietzsche uses Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, as an important part of thinking through how tragedy works and how it has evolved beyond an ancient context.
Currently, you're a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Canadian Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy, focusing on the work of Hedwig Dohm. Tell us a little more about the organization and your research.
After I graduated with my PhD from Temple, I had this urge to tackle more social justice-minded issues. I wanted to be able to address that in my philosophy, but I didn't want to lose all the time that I spent learning about 19th-century German philosophy. So, Hedwig Dohm was a natural pivot for me.
Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy's goal is to look for figures in the history of philosophy who have been overlooked. Philosophy is notoriously male-and-European-dominated, and this organization advocates for all of the women and people of differing identities who haven't been given attention because of who they are.
Hedwig Dohm is one of those people. She's really fun to read and actually quite hilarious. She was one of the first women in Germany to ask for and demand women's suffrage as a solution to "the women problem." She writes these political essays where she looks at the opponents of women's suffrage—she often calls them the anti-feminists—and shows how their arguments are logically inconsistent. Her work is really interesting.
What does your day-to-day look like as a Postdoctoral Fellow?
I'm living my best life. It's one of these rare times in an academic career where I don't have any teaching obligations, so I'm spending a lot of time writing and going to conferences. I just got back from a Nietzsche conference yesterday.
I got to spend some time in Europe for the postdoc. I went to Switzerland for the Friedrich Nietzsche Society Conference, which was gorgeous, and it was nice to network and see old friends. Then, I spent a couple of weeks in Germany working with a scholar who's familiar with my women in 19th-century philosophy project. That was wonderful.
Normally though, I like to write in the morning for a couple of hours, then I'll do some bit of exercise midday, then I write until 5:00 or 6:00 and then I have my evening to myself. It's been great. I've had a heavy teaching load for a while, and having this time, I'm able to crank out a lot of work without distractions.
After you complete your fellowship, you'll be starting a position as an Associate Professor at Salve Regina University. How are you feeling going into your new position?
I'm excited. It's a small liberal arts school. It was founded by women. It's a Catholic school that was founded by the Sisters of Mercy. It's no longer an all-woman school, but it's still majority women. For starters, I will be teaching a course on feminism and one of their gen eds called Quest for the Good Life. I feel super prepared because of all the teaching I was able to do at Temple.
They were looking for a passionate teacher who could speak to a variety of social justice issues in their teaching. I found the students at Temple to be interested in these types of social justice issues. Whenever I would incorporate them into my teaching, the students lit up a little at applying philosophy to these types of questions. I think the students being as wonderful as they were at Temple prepared me to take on a teaching job at Salve.
In what other ways has Temple prepared you for this stage in your career?
As far as teaching is concerned, the way that Temple is structured for funding graduate students requires you to teach a lot. In some senses, this can be difficult, but the upshot is that you come out with a ton of teaching experience. That really helped me to get a job. I am able to walk in anywhere and feel confident teaching.
I also took a class during my graduate work called Teaching in Higher Ed. There's a graduate certificate you can get as well. It transformed the way that I taught. It taught me how to do active learning and utilize a lot more in-class activities.
As research goes, I had the opportunity to be a fellow at CHAT, the Center for Humanities at Temple, for two years. They have interdisciplinary meetings with other fellows where you get to read and workshop each other's papers from other disciplines. My work engages not only philosophy but also literature and art, so being able to chat with people from other disciplines was very valuable and gave me some great insights. I'm a big fan of what they're doing there.
In the field of philosophy, some departments are less open to work that blends the study of philosophy with things like literature and art. Temple's Department of Philosophy has a long history of supporting projects in aesthetics. I felt like the department really had my back. My advisor, Kristin Gjesdal, went above and beyond and trained me very well. I learned a lot through both coursework and the community there.
I also learned a ton from informally hanging out with other grad students and chatting about their work. The department has a colloquia series where we get to meet other scholars working in the field. That process of professionalization is integral to understanding how the field of philosophy works and understanding what people are doing outside of our own little research bubbles.
Did you have any favorite courses in your time at Temple?
I took one with Kristin Gjesdal on Nietzsche, and I ended up writing a paper for her on Nietzsche and Shakespeare, and she was like, "This is really great. You should do this for your dissertation." I was like, "Okay, great." That got me going on the work that I'm doing now.
I also took Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science with Miriam Solomon. This one helped set me up for my work today—I'm working on a paper on Hedwig Dohm's feminist epistemology. Feminist epistemology is the study of how gender impacts knowledge. Miriam's class explored the effects of gender on knowledge in general and science in particular.
In my work on Dohm, I am particularly interested in feminist philosophy that looks at epistemic injustice—injustice that comes from one's capacity as a knower. That means things like examining how women think about knowledge and the way that knowledge, or access to knowledge, is carved along gendered lines. Of course, I'm simplifying all of this before I get too far in the weeds.
Do you have any advice for incoming or aspiring grad students?
Show up to events and get embedded in the community. I learned just as much, if not more, about the field and what I'm doing by chatting with folks after colloquia or in the halls and asking questions as I did in my actual courses. Having those relationships, both with faculty and your colleagues, and building community is really important as a graduate student.
Be kind to yourself and have a growth mindset. I think a lot of people—particularly in philosophy—think either you have it or you don't. I didn't think I "had it," but I worked at it, and I didn't give up. That's really it. I just didn't stop. I kept going.
Take care of yourself, too. I made the mistake of putting a little bit too much time into my work and not devoting enough time to taking care of myself. I've figured it out, but it's easy to get sucked into being obsessed with the work, particularly if you're kind of a nerd like I am about this stuff. Have a life, but still work hard and show up to all the events!