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Postdoc Fellows

Fellowship Experience

Our fellows are involved in teaching, interacting with undergraduates in the Ethics in Society Honors Program, and helping to develop an interdisciplinary ethics community across the campus.

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Q&A Interview with Sarah Hannan

Ethics Center: Tell me broadly about your academic background and your current academic interests.

Sarah: I did my undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario in Canada in double honors in Politics and Philosophy. I also did my masters at the same school in political theory. I went to do my Ph.D., which is called the DPhil in Oxford, also in political theory. So I was there for four years and wrote my dissertation, and then I came for two years to the Center for Ethics as a postdoc.

I’m interested in moral and political philosophy generally speaking. So I really like to read and talk and think about issues broadly related to moral and political philosophy. My dissertation work was on the rights of children and how to understand the rights and entitlements of parents and children in particular, so what to do when parental rights seem like they conflict with children rights. I think about what the background or the justification is for the rights themselves, which is more abstractly philosophical: So, why is it that parents have any authority over their children? I tend to look also at more specific cases: like can parents do x or y or can children do x or y. So, starting broad and narrowing in on different topics. 

Ethics Center: What philosophical question has flummoxed you the most?

Sarah: The question of “what if anything justifies parental authority?” is a really interesting question. Political philosophers have spent a lot of time since the beginning of political philosophy essentially, asking what, if anything, justifies state authority. So, why is it that the state can tax us, or conscript us, or do anything that state can do. Political philosophers have tried to think about this. They think: “well, yeah it is kind of mysterious that this can hold so much power over you and what can be the source of this power?” But political philosophers have been much less inclined to ask about other types of authority. So I’m interested in how questions that we ask ourselves about how state authority might apply to other types of authority, mainly the authority that parents have over children. What, if anything, can justify that authority? I think that’s an interesting question because it’s something that people really assume there must be an answer to, like it must be justified for parents to have certain control over children—this is just how the world works. But then when you look at it philosophically, it’s actually quite a troubling question because it's not clear what the answer to the question is.

Ethics Center: How would you describe the intellectual community at the Ethics Center?

Sarah: It’s great being able to interact with so many other postdocs. We spend a lot of time together, both formally and informally, in workshop settings, reading each other’s work and talking about it. Informally, just being surrounded by other people who are passionate about philosophy and who are interested in the sorts of questions you are interested in, you can just run into them in the hall and have a discussion, and get excited about their work, and think about things that you might not have thought about because other people around here are studying them.

There are also great faculty, mentors, and members of the Ethics Center as well who lead us through different projects and work with us. The staff are really friendly. That helps make the environment generally more pleasant but I think it helps academically as well because it helps reduce stress and allow you to focus on your work, and everyone seems to get along. Because the Ethics Center is interdisciplinary, I also think it’s a really good opportunity to meet people in other faculties. So I’ve been able to have involvement with the philosophy department—I co-organized an ethics reading group with a professor in the philosophy department so that’s been a great way to meet other graduate students and faculty in philosophy. And alternatively, participating in the political theory workshop in the politics department allows you access there, and there are people from all different departments involved with the ethics center so it’s a really rich environment in that respect.

Ethics Center: So what’s your day to day like?

Sarah: Usually I come in in the latish morning. Some days differ from others because there are set activities on certain days. On Thursdays we have the postdoc workshop and Fridays we have the political theory workshops. On Wednesdays I do the ethics reading group. But then setting those regularly scheduled things aside, most days consist of coming in and doing some reading and writing in my office, usually thinking about different problems, working on things like that, sometimes talking to other postdocs about them maybe over tea or something, going for lunch, coming back, doing the same just working in my office trying to write papers or think through different problems, and then as I said going to those certain activities that are set each week. In addition to that, some days, usually at least once a week but often times more, I’m meeting some students who are in the Undergraduate Honors Program in Ethics in Society and I’m helping them as an advisor on their dissertation. I have three students and I usually meet them every week or every other week. So interspersed with my own work is meeting with students.

Ethics Center: What advice would you give to a prospective candidate for one of the postdoc fellowships?

Sarah: I would encourage them to apply. I would also encourage people to think about what they want to get out of the program, so what types of projects they want to work on while they’re here. In order to apply you have to write some statement of research or give some account of the kinds of stuff you are interested in. I think one of the great things about doing a postdoc is you have time to explore your interests and think about where you want your research to take you. And that’s sort of a luxury compared to taking up most other academic positions that are heavily teaching focused or getting a tenure-track job, which is great in and of itself, but you sort of have to dive into work in this particular type of way. Whereas the postdoc is a time of exploration, which I think is great, but then I think, on the other hand, it’s also important to think about what you want to get out of the postdoc, because although it's great to have so much freedom, it can also be a hindrance if you don’t have a clear idea of,  “well I want to write papers on this” or “I want to think about this topic." I would advise people to put time into thinking about what they want to get out of it because it goes by so quickly and you don’t want to miss the opportunity. So thinking about the people you want to work with, in terms of who you would like to have meetings with at the university—the Center has been really good at facilitating meetings. Basically, I would encourage people to think about how to make the best use of the resources that the center and Stanford has to offer more generally, and to share that enthusiasm in the application in terms of what do they want to get out of the program. I think the clearer you can be about that, the greater your chance is of being successful, both in terms of being an applicant and,  if you are here, the greater chance of being successful in terms of using your time well.

Ethics Center: You’ve been quite successful during your time here, what are you looking to do post Stanford?

Sarah: Thanks. I am going to a tenure-track position at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in Canada, which is where I’m from. I’ve been really fortunate to get that job and I’m excited to start there in the summer. I’m also sad to leave here because it’s been a great time. It feels like it's gone so quickly.