Professor Spotlight: Amy McKiernan



After spending five years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Professor Amy McKiernan is nearly halfway through her second semester teaching “Moral Problems” and “Biomedical Ethics” at Dickinson College.

McKiernan joined the Dickinson community this year as the newest philosophy professor, after being intrigued and impressed by Dickinson’s “commitment to the combination of ethics and civic engagement.”

McKiernan’s time as an undergraduate, along with her passion for learning, sparked her interest in becoming a college professor. “I wanted to work on a college campus devoted to the kind of learning that sticks with students long after graduation,” she said. “Also, the classroom offers time and space to engage in dialogue and debate about what matters most and what we owe to each other. I can’t imagine a better way to spend each day.”

McKiernan studied philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Scranton, although she began college planning to major in counseling and human services. “The University of Scranton…requires students to take ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ and ‘Ethics’,” she said. “Once I started studying philosophy, I didn’t want to stop…It was challenging and empowering, which is a great combination!” She also graduated with a concentration in women’s studies, which paired nicely with her interest in oppression and social justice.

After graduating from The University of Scranton, McKiernan remained on campus working as the program coordinator of the women’s center. She spent two years helping her alma mater cultivate a safe environment to learn before moving to Washington D.C. to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy and social policy at American University. “I knew that I wanted to focus on ethics and spent a good amount of my time in D.C. learning about bioethics and feminist ethics,” said McKiernan. In addition, she worked as “an adjunct instructor” teaching an “Introduction to Philosophy” course at American University. McKiernan eventually realized that while she enjoyed her job, she preferred working alongside students in a classroom environment.

McKiernan’s passion for philosophy extends into her everyday life, even with something as trivial as a squabble with a bat in her first apartment. “One night when I came home from work, a bat flew directly at my face from out of the kitchen, got stuck in my hair and then flew back into the kitchen once we got untangled. Eventually the bat flew outside and never returned again. Later, I came across philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ and wondered about how the bat experienced the situation,” she explained.

After completing her Ph.D. in philosophy at Vanderbilt University, McKiernan remained on campus for an additional five years teaching philosophy courses. During her time at Vanderbilt, McKiernan also took part as a volunteer on death row at a Nashville maximum-security prison, which piqued her interest in the study of the ethics of blame and self-blame, the topic she did her dissertation on. “I continue to be interested in questions about the ethics of blame and punishment, especially as these questions relate to mass incarceration in the U.S. I’m also interested in how emotions like empathy, anger, sadness and regret impact our blaming practices,” said McKiernan.

While teaching ethics can be a difficult subject to breech, McKiernan finds the positive side of her challenging role as a philosophy professor. “I see this as an opportunity to learn how to take on challenging social and political problems in rigorous and respectful ways,” she said. McKiernan also feels that working with her students is the more rewarding part about being a professor. “I learn so much from students and appreciate opportunities to engage in reciprocal education.”