Interview with Tushar Irani (Wesleyan) on Exercises for Teaching Ancient Schools as Ways of Life

Tushar Irani holds a joint appointment at Wesleyan in the Department of Philosophy and the College of Letters. His recent book, Plato on the Value of Philosophy: The Art of Argument in the Gorgias and Phaedrus (Cambridge University Press, 2017), explores Plato’s views on the role and purpose of argument in civic life. You can read an interview with him about it here. In addition to his work on Plato, he has interests in questions of philosophical method, the history and practice of rhetoric, Ancient Greek and Roman literature, and the history of ethics (especially virtue ethics). He also has a strong interest in philosophy as a way of life. He is co-editing a special issue for Metaphilosophy on philosophy as a way of life. The submission deadline for this issue is July 1 and you can see the call for papers here. In his teaching, he has developed a number of exercises helping students to explore what it would be like to live a Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, or Epicurean life. In this part of the interview, I ask Tushar about the inspiration and history behind his development of these exercises. The next post shares his exercises on living the Platonic life along with our discussion about them.

  1. First, what inspired you to develop these exercises? Why were you interested in including these practices and reflections in your ancient philosophy class? How important do you think philosophy as a way of life is to teaching ancient philosophy to our students?

Thanks for inviting me to share this work, Caleb!  The initial inspiration for these exercises came almost five years ago from the team who runs Stoic Week (a continuing event since 2013).  I’d been teaching my regular introduction to Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy class at Wesleyan for a number of years.  The bulk of this class focuses on Plato and Aristotle before concluding with two weeks on the Hellenistic philosophers.  I’d always felt that the Epicureans and Stoics didn’t receive their full due in the course, but I heard about Stoic Week and was intrigued.  If your readers don’t know about it, Stoic Week is an event organised by a group of philosophers and cognitive behavioural therapists that takes place online every year and attracts several thousand participants from across the world.  Each day of the week is organised around a Stoic theme like “Control” or “Resilience.”  Participants read a quote on the theme by a Stoic philosopher in the morning and then, during the day, engage in a set of exercises related to that theme.  After contacting the team who produced the Stoic Week handbook, I got permission to use their exercises as an extra credit assignment in my course.  I offered any student who completed all the exercises for Stoic Week, along with a daily journal entry, full credit for class participation.  About a quarter of the students in the course ended up participating and I was impressed by the quality of the responses in their journal entries.  It became clear to me that they were learning more about Stoic ethics by putting its doctrines into daily practice than by taking an exam on the material or by writing a paper.  So after that semester I began to think there may be further ways of motivating and evaluating my students’ engagement with the thinkers we were studying, in addition to the normal measures – quizzes, essays, exams, etc. – that I’d used in the past.

The next year, I decided to assign exercises for all four of the philosophers and schools I cover in my introductory course: Plato, Aristotle, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.  I continued to adapt the exercises created for Stoic Week by the Modern Stoicism team, but I came up with my own for the other units.  I got almost full participation from the students in this course for these units.  The incentive was that anyone who completed all of the exercises for each unit would be excused from taking a final exam, but it turned out that the amount and quality of writing these students produced during the semester easily surpassed the work of the handful who took the final.  The pedagogical benefits were also notable: the way the students engaged with the material by putting into practice what they’d learned in theory far exceeded my hopes of what they’d get out of the exercises.

The year after that, I got a pedagogical innovation grant from Wesleyan to design a small project-based learning seminar for first-year students called “Live Like a Philosopher.”  Both this course and my large intro-level ancient course have a similar structure with the same four units, but in the project-based seminar there’s a greater focus on the exercises.  Each unit of the seminar consists of two weeks: in the first week, I introduce students to a particular approach to the good life from antiquity and we examine the various philosophical arguments (metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, ethical) for that way of life; in the second week, the students put the way of life into practice by engaging in philosophical exercises based on the views of the philosopher/school.  At the end of each unit, the students discuss how their comprehension of these views – and their conception of the good life in general – has changed or been deepened.  Then we rinse and repeat with a new unit.  The exercises you have are the ones I used for the Plato unit in the version of the project-based seminar that I taught in prison last semester.  I’ve offered the seminar three times at this point and I’m convinced it’s a great way to introduce the study of ancient philosophy.

There are many benefits to incorporating such exercises into a course on ancient philosophy.  My motivation in assigning them is primarily pedagogical.  As you know, there’s been a lot of scholarship in our field recently on how philosophy in the ancient world was regarded as a way of life, not simply as a set of doctrines to be debated, and I’ve found offering these exercises an excellent means to get students to appreciate the complexities of various philosophical theories from antiquity.  In fact, I’ve come to see the exercises as an empirical device of sorts in helping students evaluate the theories.  Almost every philosopher in antiquity, after all, held that by putting their understanding of the good life into practice, we’ll live better lives than we generally do.  Well, that’s something a person can test for themselves by trying out the way of life in question.  So there’s the work that can be done in evaluating the metaphysical and psychological arguments for these philosophers’ claims – which is the method we typically use in introducing philosophy to students – and then there’s the work that can be done in evaluating the viability, as it were, of each approach to the good life.  Inviting students to put each approach into practice offers them a complementary perspective with which to assess the theory in my view.  I don’t see my role as a proselytizer for any way of life in particular, but I’ve found that students who complete the exercises do get a lot personally out of completing them.

A good example here is how students react to living like an Epicurean.  Their interest is piqued at the start of the semester when they hear they’ll get to live as an enlightened hedonist.  Then when we study Epicurus’ views, we consider his arguments for the idea that the experience of genuine pleasure lies in the absence of pain.  That’s a bit of a letdown for some students, though many find the Epicurean distinction between static and kinetic pleasures compelling.  With the exercises, however, they get to try out the Epicurean ethos themselves: they’re led to consider what it means exactly to make the absence of pain a governing end in their everyday choices, in their long-term ambitions, in their reasons for acting justly, and in how they regard other people.  Many students jump off the Epicurean bandwagon at this stage; others remain fully on board; but in all cases, they come to see what setting pleasure as the goal of life entails and make a judgement for themselves about the choiceworthiness of that way of life.  This isn’t the sort of thing you can easily achieve by having students analyse arguments for and against Epicureanism.  I don’t mean to dismiss such discursive work.  It remains crucial to what we do as philosophers.  But prior to assigning these exercises I felt I was simply presenting students with a smorgasbord of theories and arguments from antiquity.  Now they get to see how there are stakes involved in accepting or rejecting a view of the good life oriented around various ends – that how they conceive of pleasure or virtue or reason can turn out mattering to the kind of life they wish to lead, and that thinkers from the distant past still have a lot to contribute to their understanding of such issues.

I should note, too, that the support and encouragement I received from the philosophy department at Wesleyan was also highly motivating when I began this work.  It helped that two of my colleagues, Steve Horst and Steve Angle, were incorporating way of life material into their teaching at the same time.  Before I arrived at Wesleyan, Steve Horst had an established and popular course on moral psychology that he’d been offering for many years on conceptions of the good life from classical Western and Eastern philosophy, psychotherapy, and evolutionary psychology and ethology, which introduced students to these ideas in a way that applied to their own personal development.  Then Steve Angle devised a course a couple of years after I arrived called “Philosophy as a Way of Life” in which students integrated techniques and modes of living from different philosophical traditions into their daily lives.  Developing the exercises for my courses thus felt like a natural extension of initiatives that were already underway in my department.  Since then, Steve Angle has helped organize the “Reviving Philosophy as a Way of Life” NEH institute that was held on campus last summer with Stephen Grimm and Meghan Sullivan, where I got to meet you and other scholars with interests in this area.  So Wesleyan has been a perfect hub for me to pursue such work.

  1. You have used versions of these exercises when teaching your students at Wesleyan and also while teaching a course this semester at a maximum-security prison.  Do you have any advice on how to adjust these exercises for different student populations? Do you think they work well for almost everyone?

The course I taught in prison last fall and my project-based “Live Like a Philosopher” seminar for first-year students are identical and have the same syllabus.  The prison course had 19 students, which is the same cap for first-year seminars at Wesleyan.  I also taught my standard intro-level ancient course last fall – that class is large with close to 50 students and I continue to assign philosophical exercises in it as a substitute for the final exam and for class participation credit, but because of the size I lecture for most of the time using PowerPoint.  There are also a mix of assignments in that course – an essay in argument analysis, a midterm, quizzes, and the option of a final – whereas in the project-based course, the students compose daily journal entries, write a “synthesis essay” for each unit, work on a craft project, and submit a final paper.

I’ve observed no significant difference between teaching the “Live Like a Philosopher” seminar on campus and in prison.  The two courses have the same four units on Plato, Aristotle, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, and I assign the same exercises in each unit.  Some adjustments have had to be made, naturally.  The main one concerns how I distribute the exercises.  On campus at Wesleyan, I put all the material up online and it works well because I can use our course management portal to ensure that students check in each day to view the assignments, carry out the exercises, and post their evening journal entries.  The students in prison have no access to the internet, so for each unit in the course last semester I printed out a booklet with the daily exercises and some writing space.  The students wrote up their journal entries in the booklet along with an essay at the end of the unit, where they reflected on and synthesized their impressions on what they’d learned about the way of life under consideration.  That turned out to be great, actually, because when the semester concluded they were left with these tangible mementos filled with their experiences and thoughts on different philosophical approaches to the good life.

I’ve wondered what this seminar would look like if it were scaled up for a larger group of students.  It might work, but the best thing about the seminar setting is its conduciveness to discussion and debate.  At the end of each unit, the students have a post-mortem discussion on any challenges they faced in doing the exercises and on how putting a certain way of life into practice changed their minds about its validity.  This has led to nice explorations of the relationship between argumentative validity and what we might call “experiential validity.”  Also, a rewarding thing about teaching the seminar in prison last fall was that I could borrow pedagogical techniques that have worked in that setting from one of my colleagues, Lori Gruen, who’s been offering courses to incarcerated students for many years.  She and Kristen Inglis, the director of Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, encouraged me to assign in-class debates.  I’d never done this previously in my teaching, but it worked well and I plan to do it when I teach the course again on campus.  Kristen is also an ancient philosopher by training and was a wonderful resource during the semester in offering advice on what I could expect students to do given their conditions in prison.  To conclude each unit in the course, I divided the group into teams and they debated questions like “can virtues conflict for Aristotle?” and “can a Stoic develop strong loving attachments?”  They ended up arguing brilliantly for positions on each side of these questions, and it was great to see them support their reasoning with insights they’d developed from doing the exercises.

Again, these kinds of activities are well suited to small discussion-based seminars.  It would be more of a challenge to carry them out in a group larger than 25 students, though not impossible perhaps.  What I do in my big lecture-based intro class is schedule shorter versions of the exercises as optional assignments for students, usually running for four days per unit instead of a whole week.  Even in an abbreviated form, though, students always comment that they get the most out of the exercises.  What I think they find illuminating about them is the opportunity to take some time out each day to reflect on their experiences and the influences that shape their choices.  I’ve found this is something they do less and less with the barrage of information they’re constantly presented with from different sources nowadays.  I know some student populations don’t have much free time – particularly mature students with families or jobs outside of school – and that’s a constraining factor for the effectiveness of these exercises as a learning tool.  I’ve tried to ensure, however, that they can be completed in under an hour each day or that they involve simple modifications to habits or day-to-day behaviour that people engage in generally anyway.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *