When it came to writing my questions for Marianne Talbot, it’s safe to say I didn’t know where to start. Director of Studies at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, finding time in her busy schedule of lectures, planning and writing was no mean feat. When we did talk, Marianne was every bit the philosophy expert we were looking for. Having published several books on critical thinking I was keen to find out more about Marianne’s journey, and the advice she would give those hoping to follow in her footsteps. Friendly, passionate and dedicated, Marianne proves that with drive, determination and a love of what you do, anything is possible.
First things first, how did you get to where you are today - have you always been interested in philosophy?
I was thrown out of school at 15 (for truancy and disruption). At 25, having travelled to Australia through Europe and Asia (hippy trail days!) and back to the UK through Africa, I started a course with the Open University. It was an Arts Foundation course and in the middle was a week of philosophy. In those days they did logic. I stayed up all night and found it the hardest thing I had ever done, but also the most enjoyable. I did well on that unit and started reading more and soon I was completely hooked. I applied to the University of London to do philosophy full time and they let me in! I spent the three years of my undergraduate degree walking on air! I absolutely adored it.
That sounds like a very happy accident! What qualifications did you need?
I got into the University of London on the basis of success in the Open University Arts Foundation course. I had no other qualifications at all.
I then took a first class honours degree in philosophy from the University of London, and then a B.Phil (and M.Phil level degree) from the University of Oxford. These days you would also need a PhD. I haven’t got one because I got a job before finishing my D.Phil (Oxford’s PhD) and didn’t finish it.
What is it like working as a philosopher at Oxford?
I am not a typical Oxford philosopher these days because I no longer teach undergraduates (I did this for 20 years). As Director of Studies at the Department for Continuing Education, I teach older students who can study only part time. I enjoy this enormously because they are very committed. We have a Philosophical Society (open to the public) that has nearly 400 members. I find the amount of energy and thought these students put into philosophy very life-enhancing.
I like being at Oxford in particular, however, because the atmosphere is hugely conducive to intellectual enquiry. This is one of the largest philosophy departments in the world. This means that there are lectures on every aspect of philosophy under the sun, and myriad discussion and reading groups. I don’t have time for most of the things I would love to do, but the mere fact they are there is exciting.
Can you describe a typical day in your working life?
Not really. One of the things I love about my job is the variety. I might spend the day reading and thinking in preparation for giving a lecture series (or a one off lecture), or I might spend the day writing, either a book, or an article for a popular philosophy journal, or inviting speakers for one of our very popular Weekend Schools, or allocating tutors to the weekly class series that we run in both Oxford and Reading. I might go to London to deliver lectures to students at ICL, or travel somewhere to talk to some Philosophy Society or to a school. I might also do any combination of these things. No two days are alike except when I really have my head down either reading or writing. I particular love these days because then I am really doing philosophy.
In your experience, what concept is the most difficult for students to get their head around?
Generally I find that many students try too hard to please their tutor, when they should be trying to understand what the problem is. So the question they are trying to answer is ‘what does Marianne want me to do?’ rather than ‘what is the problem these philosophers were trying to solve and why is it of interest?’
The other thing I should perhaps mention is that students can give up too easily. Philosophy is difficult and it is abstract, there is no substitute for disciplining your thoughts and not everyone is prepared to do that. Every intelligent, rational being has intuitions (‘there is something wrong with that argument’) but fewer are prepared to put in the intellectual spadework needed to pin down those intuitions and make them into arguments (to be able to explicate what is wrong with the argument).
Good answer! Can you sum up what philosophy brings to your life?
A HUGE amount. I adore philosophy as much now as I did 30 years ago. I love the way it puts demands on me – that I cannot be intellectually lazy and that I apply rigour to my thinking in every aspect of my life, personal as well as professional.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Intellectually, it is trying to understand whatever it is I am trying to understand at the moment. In other ways, it is the huge amount of admin I have to do - I find that I have to apply huge discipline to get round to it.On the other hand it is sometimes useful for the purposes of procrastination!
Do you think attitudes towards philosophy are changing - is it becoming a more popular subject to study?
I think it has always been a popular subject to study. Perhaps it is getting more popular. If so I might speculate this is because so much work at school these days is a matter of learning facts, whereas in philosophy you get to think for yourself.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Make sure it is really the thing you want to do.
What is your favourite philosophy quote/question?
I am not sure I have one. But perhaps I can appeal to Socrates’ saying, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ (Plato’s Apology). This is certainly true for me, though it clearly doesn’t work for everyone!
If Marianne has inspired you to start asking questions and looking for the answers, why not take a look at the philosophy courses listed on Hotcourses? With plenty of options available, you’ll be as profound as Plato in no time! To find out more about Marianne’s work, take a look at her Facebook page or get in touch on Twitter.