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Professor receives Mellon grant to expand philosophy course

| Thursday, September 6, 2018

To help expand and improve the popular introduction philosophy course “God and the Good Life,” philosophy professor Meghan Sullivan has received a grant worth $806,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The three-year grant includes both Notre Dame and national components.

On the Notre Dame side, Sullivan said the funding will help offer more sections of the course and complete research on teaching philosophy and creating exciting assignments for students. The grant will also fund the undergraduate teaching assistant program, which has expanded as the course has expanded.

The undergraduate teaching assistant program is unusual for an introductory philosophy course, and Sullivan said people were initially surprised that she wanted to use Notre Dame students to prompt better discussion instead of graduate teaching assistants.

“That program has been fantastic,” Sullivan said. “ … We have radically improved and made more personal our discussion sections, but also from a planning perspective, many of those students have been involved semester after semester … and now they provide really great sources of ideas and feedback for improving the class, so we have our built-in student advisors who work really hard and take some ownership.”

Justin Christy serves as the program coordinator for the Philosophy as a Way of Life project, which the God and the Good Life course is a part of, and said the discussion sections are a unique component of the course in terms of their structure as well.

“Rather than just reinforce what’s been taught, they’re more aimed at dialoging in a group about concrete issues, about how to live well, concrete social issues that are in the news and not so much in a way that’s directly tied into the material in class,” he said. “ … It’s a very open-ended and free-flowing discussion.”

The second part of the grant, which is the more outward-facing component, will include sharing the findings from the Notre Dame course with other universities who want to start similar programs. A weeklong workshop focused on how to teach people to live well will be offered during the summer, and the grant will fund 15 universities to send representatives to the workshop.

“The second half of the grant is focusing on making this project much bigger than Notre Dame, so getting a lot of educators, a lot of students together and thinking about what should philosophy education look like in the 21st century,” Sullivan said. “We’re 2,400 years after Socrates now; some of the basic insights are still the same, but the things we can do now with technology, with the kinds of students we have access to, are tasks we couldn’t have imagined even 10 years ago.”

Sullivan has already collaborated with professors doing similar courses about philosophy as a way of life at Fordham University and Wesleyan University, and she said the workshops should help form a network of schools that are also interested.

“We’ve been focused really narrowly on how to make things really incredible for Notre Dame students over the past three years … which is still really exciting to me, but now we’re kind of taking it up a level,” she said.

Sullivan said she’s excited to see what does and does not transfer well to the other schools in terms of the approach to the course.

“Different universities are not all like Notre Dame,” she said. “ … We’ve learned a lot about how things will work well here. How do we help other universities and other departments that want to do the same thing for their students engage in the same process even though their cultures are very different? … What about the core of this way of approaching philosophy is universal?”

Sullivan said the grant will also fund one to three schools to start undergraduate teaching assistant programs on their own campuses. To further build the network of schools, the Philosophy as a Way of Life project is putting together a website database that will include syllabi and blog posts about professor experiences to make the information accessible to universities who cannot send representatives to the summer conference.

Christy said the course as a whole is “revolutionizing how philosophy is being taught at Notre Dame and hopefully elsewhere, too.”

“Whereas in a more typical introduction class you’d maybe tend to focus more on learning the history of philosophy in sequence and/or on learning what the responses have been to various philosophical puzzles or paradoxes or problems, in God and the Good Life, the focus is on thinking carefully on how each student is living his or her own life and living well,” he said.

Sullivan said the course will continue to evolve just as it has in the past.

“A place like Notre Dame should be the best in the country at teaching undergraduate philosophy,” she said. “It’s part of our required curriculum for a reason because we care so much about these topics and think it’s so central to our mission as a university so how do we make sure we’re pushing ourselves to make sure we’re doing as much as we possibly can?”

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About Alexandra Muck

Alexandra Muck is a Notre Dame senior majoring in business and economics. Originally from Dallas, she currently lives in Howard Hall.

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