Preceptor, Harvard College Writing Program
Philosophical Films, fall 2019-spring 2021
Are those ignorant of history doomed to repeat it? Or does respect for the past and tradition risk entrenching ways of thinking and living we should instead leave behind? America is in the midst of a heightened reckoning with its history: reexamining its monuments, how it names things, what it teaches, to whom it owes moral debts. At the beginning of the course, we will watch two award-winning documentaries that, in the personal and political realms, take up issues of memory and whose voices should be heard. In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley investigates rumors about her family’s past and learns that her father might not be who she thought he was. In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (Harvard College ’97) and his anonymous co-director interview perpetrators of government-supported mass killings in Indonesia in the 1960s, who openly admit to their brutal actions and recreate them with strange stylization. As students develop their interpretations of one of these films in their first paper, we will also learn the basic vocabulary of cinematography and editing. In the second unit, we will read philosophical selections from Nietzsche about the value of different orientations toward history and truth, the importance of forgetting, and his myth of “eternal recurrence,” which asks how you would respond if told that every detail of your life will repeat endlessly. Students will then put one of Nietzsche’s provocative claims in conversation with a mainstream film—Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bamboozled, or Antebellum—each of which offers a speculative story about memory loss or the return of repressed history. Finally, at the end of the semester, we will read some short theoretical selections about the relationship between philosophy and film, attuning students to larger issues as they write a research paper about a philosophical film or filmmaker of their choice, such as Get Out, Snowpiercer, Blade Runner, No Country for Old Men, Claire Denis, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick, among many other possibilities.
A previous version:
How should society be organized? What should individuals do when they disagree with the reigning order? Protest? Revolt? Withdraw? Our class will approach these perennial philosophical questions though a number of recent films. At the beginning of the semester, we will watch Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, about the stratification of wealth and opportunity in contemporary South Korea; Michael Haneke’s Caché, in which a man’s personal history—and France’s colonial one—come back to haunt him; and Queen & Slim (directed by Melina Matsoukas, screenplay by Lena Waithe), about race and policing. [In other semesters, this unit has included Sophie Barthes's Cold Souls, Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, Jordan Peele's Us, and Ruben Östlund's The Square.] As students develop their interpretations of one of these films in their first paper, we will also learn the basic vocabulary of cinematography and editing. Then, in the middle of the semester, we will turn to questions of adaptation, reading two classic works of philosophical literature and watching films that import their stories into radically different settings. Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about how awareness of our mortality affects our values, is relocated from nineteenth-century Russia to post-World War Two Japan in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Aristophanes’ ancient drama Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War, is transported by Spike Lee to Chicago’s South Side in Chi-Raq. Students will compare one of these films to its source material in their second papers. [Another version of this unit have involved comparing Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder, Omer Fast's film adaptation of it, and Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York.] Finally, at the end of the semester, we will read some short theoretical selections about the relationship between philosophy and film, attuning students to larger issues as they write a research paper about a philosophical film or filmmaker of their choice, such as Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stalker, Claire Denis, Jordan Peele, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick, among many other possibilities.
Existentialism, fall 2017-spring 2019 (two sections each semester)
“Existence precedes essence.” According to Jean-Paul Sartre’s slogan, we are not born with a purpose given to us by god, human nature, or society, but are instead “condemned to freedom,” to create ourselves through the choices we make. In our first unit, we will grapple with the idea that we create our own values, reading Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” and consider a recent philosopher’s attempt to understand what it means to describe life as absurd. Concerned as they were with concrete situations, existentialists also produced a great deal of literature in addition to philosophy. In our second unit, we will think about coming of age, inauthenticity, and the performance of gender and identity in stories by Simone de Beauvoir and David Foster Wallace. Finally, at the end of the course, students will write a research paper about a major existentialist literary text of their choice, examining themes like bad faith, despair, freedom, and authenticity in a classic novel by Sartre, Beauvoir, or Albert Camus, or in a more recent text influenced by that tradition, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, or Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, among other possibilities.
The Narrative Self, fall 2015-spring 2017 (two sections each semester)
“Life must be understood backwards, but lived forwards” the philosopher Kierkegaard wrote. Sartre, in one of his novels, develops the thought: “You have to choose: live or tell.” Both suggest that living one's life and telling the story of it are mutually exclusive. Over the past few decades, many philosophers have disagreed, developing the view that understanding one's life as a story is not only something that most of us do, but allows us to become full persons and to live well. We will begin the course by considering some of these recent views. Are we right to speak of chapters of our lives and authoring our selves? To explain someone's behavior by referring to her character, or alternatively her role? To use literary genres such as tragedy to describe events in real life? What is entailed by such metaphors? Do they withstand careful scrutiny? Do our lives enact typical narrative arcs? Should they? Or do such claims confuse fiction and reality? In the middle part of the course, we will look at two fictional works that investigate similar issues. In Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, the narrator's understanding of his life is upset by revelations concerning his past; the novel explores the fallibility of memory and its relation to material evidence. In the recent Swedish film Force Majeure, a wealthy family's ski vacation is upset when the husband reacts to an avalanche in an apparently cowardly manner, raising questions about character and situation, and what it means to be brave. At the end of the course, we will consider some critics of narrative self-understanding, as well as more specific applications of it. Do empirical studies challenge the idea that we have stable character? Does understanding one's life as a story preclude living in the moment? If lives are like stories, do they have a genre? Students could begin from these or other questions as they develop their own final research topics.
Instructor, Harvard Extension School
Introduction to Philosophy, fall 2017, fall 2018 and fall 2019 (w/ online option), fall 2020 (online)
What is happiness? Should we fear death? Does ethics depend on god's existence? Do we have free will? What should we do when we think a law is immoral? This course introduces students to Western philosophy through fundamental questions about how we should live. Beginning with Plato's account of his teacher Socrates' trial and execution for impiety in ancient Athens, we read central historical thinkers such as Aristotle, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Sartre, Beauvoir, and King Jr., as well as a number of influential contemporary philosophers who show why these questions remain pressing today.
Lecturer, Department of Philosophy
Introduction to Ethics, spring 2015
How should we live? How should we act? What duties do we have? Should we try to maximize pleasure? Respect other people’s autonomy and rationality? Embody specific virtues, like courage and generosity? This course will involve the close study of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and, more briefly, some contemporary proponents of those thinkers’ views (including Peter Singer and Alasdair MacIntyre). Rather than progressing chronologically, we will work our way backward, examining past theories for relevance to our lives now.
History of Ancient Philosophy, fall 2014 (two sections), spring 2015
This course will involve the close study of Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Republic, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Politics (in part), and Poetics. The last we will read alongside Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Taking our lead from these texts, our primary concerns will be Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of human nature, ethics, politics, and literature.
Great Philosophers, fall 2014
This course introduces students to Western philosophy through central historical thinkers, beginning in ancient Greece and continuing forward to the twentieth century. We will read works by Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Fanon, and Martin Luther King Jr. The course is (loosely) organized around one of the most basic of philosophical questions—How should we live?—especially inasmuch as it isn't diverted into the question of what specific duties we each have, the domain of moral philosophy. Our readings will oscillate between questions concerning individuality, contemplation, and solitude on the one side and friendship, society, and tradition on the other.
Instructor, Writing Program
Narrative, the Self, and Authenticity, fall 2012, spring 2013
Teaching Fellow, Department of Philosophy, fall 2008-spring 2010
Course Assistant, Department of Philosophy, 2002-2004
Writing Tutor, Writing Workshop, 2000-2004