A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

Turgenev’s Hamlet And Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man

This semester, I’m running an independent study on existentialism with a pair of students from the English department here at Brooklyn College. Our reading list includes seven novels, four plays, and extracts from several philosophical texts. We kicked off our readings two weeks ago with Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground. Because my students had purchased the Norton Critical Edition (second edition) of Notes from Underground, I did so as well. This Critical Edition–like others on Norton’s list–includes some background and sources, examples of work that are inspired by, or are imitations of the novel under study, and finally some critical notes. While reading it, I found a fascinating foreshadowing of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Turgenev.

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches includes the story ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District,’ in which “the narrator spends the evening at a party of a landowner.” His roommate for the night considers himself cursed by his lack of “originality” even as he is considered an “original” by his contemporaries:

“My dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I’m off the opinion that life on earth’s worth living only for originals: only they have the right to live. Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre [My glass isn’t large but still I drink from it], someone said. You see” he added in a whisper, how good my French pronunciation is. What does it matter to me if your head’s large and capacious, and if a person understands everything, knows a great deal, keeps up with things–but knows nothing of his own particular individual self! There’s one more storeroom for leftover luggage in the world–what good’s that to anybody? No, it’s better to be stupid, at least in one’s own way! Have your smell, your own smell, that’s what! And don’t think my demands are too great…God forbid! There’s no end to such originals: wherever you look–there’s an original; every living person’s an original, but I have yet to be counted in that number!

Underground man, of course, considers himself just such an ‘original,’ a fact he sets out to establish in excruciating and agonizing detail, much to the discomfiture of not just his fictional companions, but also his readers. Turgenev’s character, like him, has made introspective self-knowledge central to his life’s projects, acknowledging in his case that all the worldly knowledge of libraries and the commerce of men will be of little use if this self-knowledge is lacking. (A classic Stoic, Buddhist, and existentialist dictum.) If the ‘facts’ uncovered in this inwardly directed journey of exploration turn out to be unpleasant, well then, so be it. Better the ‘originality’ of the odious than the inauthenticity of the ostensibly socially desirable.

Crucially, Turgenev’s character points out that the fact of this ‘originality’ is already manifest “wherever [we] look”: we cannot help but be ourselves, even as we struggle, under the misapprehended weight of social expectation, to be someone else. This conflict, this discordance, cannot but be destructive.  The price for this discordance, as the underground man’s companions find out, is shared with others.

Teaching Self-Evaluation For The Semester That Was (Almost)

Classes for the fall semester ended last week; finals and grading lie ahead of me. It’s time for another self-evaluation of my teaching. As usual, I find myself earning a mixed grade for my efforts.

This semester I taught three classes: Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, and Introduction to Philosophy. (Interestingly enough, this is the first time in my thirteen years at Brooklyn College that I’ve taught Introduction to Philosophy.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way. I do not think I did a good job in my Philosophy of Law. I was unable to make headway on the oldest problem of all: getting students to do the assigned readings. And neither was I, by sheer dint of effort and pointed interactions with my students, able to get a robust discussion going in class. I was also too easily distracted and put off by some of the body language on display–bored expressions, slumped posture. It was all too clear to me I was not being able to make the material interesting or engaging and as the semester wore on, my sense of futility grew; I could sense my interest in the class lessening. My students and I were not helped by a classroom that was alternately too hot and too noisy. In an effort to shake things up, I changed the seating arrangement in class, going from the traditional ‘teacher-in-front’ to a square configuration with me sitting down with my students. It did not work. Perhaps I gave up too easily; I should have been more unconventional, and I should have tried individual interventions–by email, or in my office hours–with some of the students most clearly in need of one.

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I adopted an unconventional tactic to introduce students to philosophy: I would do so via the Stoics. My syllabus consisted of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; through their writings I would introduce students to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. I would begin each class by asking my students to write a brief reaction to a verse/chapter/section from the assigned reading; we would then use their responses as the foundation for the class discussion. I had mixed results in this project. I was teaching at night, in one of those terrible 150-minute slots, which are a pedagogical disaster. My students were tired, and sometimes unable to summon up the energy to participate in class discussion. They did, however, find plenty to provoke and intrigue them in the Stoics, and by virtue of connecting Stoic nostrums for a good life to their own personal experiences, I was often able to evoke vigorous responses from, and interactions with, them. Many students spoke with a great deal of feeling about how Stoic insights resonated with them; these responses would, in turn, provoke other students to speak up. Thanks to the Stoics, I was also able to introduce the students to Buddhism (they found the Buddha‘s ‘no-self’ theory of self utterly fascinating.) In retrospect, I would say that I could have dropped one of Seneca or Epictetus and brought in some other readings to supplement this unrelenting diet of the Stoics. I look forward to conducting a class like this again with a modified syllabus.

My Political Philosophy class was greatly aided by a classroom which featured a seminar table, thus automatically introducing a more informal, less hierarchical spatial structure to the class discussion. I was also aided by interesting and provocative readings, by the idiocy on display this election season, and by many students being diligent about the assigned readings. I stayed very close to the texts, and read aloud many passages in class, stopping again and again to discuss them with my students. These class discussions were easily the best I had all semester in any of my classes.

I continued to struggle with grading writing assignments but was happy to note that at least on a couple of occasions students took advantage of my offer of resubmission opportunities and came to see me with revised papers, after working on which they secured higher grades. Some of these personal interactions were very rewarding as I could sense students were able to learn something about the difficulty and the pleasures of the writing process by working with me.

Thus endeth another semester of teaching. (Grading remains though.) More mixed results; more food for thought for the future.

The Post-Running Glow, And Watching Batting Practice

On Tuesday morning last, I awoke at 5:45 AM, drank coffee, changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, laced up my running shoes and went for my now-regular twice-a-week 3.4 mile-loop of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. (I accompany an old friend, a far more serious runner than me, on the days he does his ‘easy runs.’)

After we had finished our run, I was sweaty, and suffused with the endorphin-saturated glow that runners like to term ‘the runner’s high.’  My way home lay along a small cluster of sporting fields: tennis courts, football fields, baseball diamonds. As I walked back, slowly, along the wire-mesh fences that marked off the boundaries and edges of these zones of recreation from the walkways and parking lots of the offices of the Park Authority, the summer sun’s rays, already finely honed to a warm sharpness by 730AM, shone through their grills, drawing diffraction patterns on me and all that lay around me. I was primed to regard this little urban oasis’ landscape with a benevolent and appreciative eye; this early in the day, as other residents of the city scrambled to prepare for their work and school days, I had already acquired the virtuous distinction of having performed service for both body and soul. And I had spent time with a friend, talking about matters cultural and political and emotional. Conversation with friends; physical endeavor; quiet meditative time; there seemed to be a Epictetan aura around my simple doings that morning.

At one end of the baseball diamond, a father and son pair appeared engaged in a distinctive summertime occupation: batting practice. The young lad adorned himself with his helmet, and twirled his bat in anticipation; his father, away on the pitcher’s mound, behind the practice L-screen, reached, again and again, into a sack full of baseballs, picked out one, and threw it over at varying speeds and trajectories; the batter in training swung or let go, trusting his judgment of balls and strikes; sometimes balls thudded into the fences behind which I now stood, my progress home temporarily halted, gazing on at this spirited attempt to acquire competence in a difficult sporting task; sometimes lusty contact was made and the baseball departed to sundry corners of the field, awaiting retrieval once the sack of spares had been depleted. Here was sport, here was family, here was physical aspiration.

I could not stay too long; my day’s responsibilities awaited me; I had to get home in time to aid my wife in her departure for work by taking my daughter to day-care; and then, I would have to turn to my writing, my syllabus preparation, and unfortunately, my perennial states of distraction. All too soon, I would be possessed by anxiety and self-doubt about my intellectual abilities, my suitability for the task of writing; I would fret and fume by all that I would leave undone as the day drew on. So this little morning-time instruction in that oldest of lessons, about the cost-free nature of simple pleasures, acquired in retrospect, as many of life’s experiences often do, some of the hue the summer sun had afforded to my treed and shaded surroundings on my walk back home from a run around the park.

Note: In an older post, I had regretted my inability to run regularly thanks to an old ankle injury; this latest bout of running marks a return of sorts to a much beloved activity of mine. I do not intend to risk injury and only run twice a week.