|“Living Philosopher” Creating New Research Opportunities for LVC Students
The common conception of philosophy in academia is that its students study texts from thinkers that have been dead for centuries. Analyses turn into papers, and papers turn into books. There is little room for new interpretations.
That structure is being challenged at Lebanon Valley College, where Dr. Jeff Robbins, Dr. Bob Valgenti, and Dr. Noelle Vahanian introduced the LVC Symposium on a Living Philosopher this fall.
“The idea was to create a context in which our undergraduate students would learn what it means to do research in philosophy,” Robbins said. “It’s very different than research in the sciences. They’re not accumulating data and working in labs. Instead, they’re reading, thinking thoughts, and presenting papers in the public forum.”
For its first thinker, the group selected Catherine Malabou, whose work is based in neuroscience, psychoanalysis, philosophy, religion, and feminist theory. In the fall, students study Malabou’s work in a course team taught by Robbins and Valgenti. They have already video chatted with Malabou - presenting their interpretations to the philosopher and receiving instant feedback.
"One of the unique and enriching aspects of this course is the fact that it is team taught," said Ashley Ferrari '14, a triple major minoring in philosophy. "Dr. Robbins and Dr. Valgenti balance one another very well while each bringing their own background and specializations to the discussions of Malabou's work."
“We are engaging Malabou's work as if she is the guide who is leading us through this,” Valgenti said. “What has been helpful within the course is that the students have the chance to witness us as instructors grappling with the difficulties of the texts. We disagree at times. We really wanted to use the idea modeling philosophical research for the students to help both our majors and the students coming from other disciplines.”
The course is designed to attract students from philosophy and other majors. Other majors that typically take upper-level philosophy courses include English, psychology, and science majors, including biology, chemistry, and physics.
Malabou was selected because she connects philosophy to the “hard sciences” through her research on neuroscience.
The course will progress into the spring, when students will study Malabou’s advanced works and take part in several visiting philosopher events. Each student will present their research from their year of work by way of symposium papers to be presented in a public forum attended by Malabou.
“Malabou’s work is unfolding as we speak," Robbins said. “It’s dynamic. It’s alive. It’s developing in response to some of the commentaries and criticisms that have been published. The idea that the students can be involved in this much larger conversation and can be on the ground level, contributing to the emerging views about this very distinguished philosopher – their work can make a real contribution.”
“She is new enough to philosophy to not yet have a canon,” said Anthony Feudale ‘13, another triple major who is studies philosophy and psychology. “In the process of reading her works, as a class, we have the chance to interpret her work free from any real preconceptions. It's an unusual, liberating state of affairs.”
Inspired by a similar course taught at Siena College at which he served as an external scholar, Robbins began to design LVC’s course in 2010 and submitted a proposal during the first wave of Arnold Grant applications. The idea is to create undergraduate research opportunities, thereby emulating graduate-level work. The course was selected in the spring 2011 awards.
"The participating students take a genuine interest in the material, Ferrari said. "From a student perspective, this is very encouraging and motivating to see the interest from my peers. We openly bounce ideas off of one another and collaborate. It is okay if we disagree sometimes because we are working through Malabou's work together."
“Getting to meet with, speak to, and even question the actual author provides a real sense of exploration and creation which is often missing from other courses,” Feudale said. “You get the sense you are truly breaking new ground, and accomplishing actual work in the class. It's exciting.”