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Class to dissect ‘The Good Place’ during fall semester as part of joint endeavor by television, philosophy departments

| Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Students interested in receiving academic credit for studying “The Good Place” and philosophy should start trying to earn points for their positive actions.

This fall, the departments of Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) and Philosophy are joining forces to create “The Good Class,” a six-week, one-credit class that will serve as an interdisciplinary study of “The Good Place,” a hit sitcom on NBC. The class will be restricted to FTT majors and students in the philosophy major or minor, and will feature a visit from television writer and producer Michael Schur, who created “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” in addition to “The Good Place.”

Meghan Sullivan — the Rev. John A O’Brien Collegiate Chair and professor of philosophy, and one of the architects of The Good Class — said the department typically aims to bring in “people who have some philosophical dimension to their jobs but they’re not philosophy professors” to speak each year. This year, someone suggested Schur.

“We all love ‘The Good Place,’ students reference it in class all the time and in their writing, and it’s really creative and well-done, philosophically,” Sullivan said.

So, Sullivan wrote an email to Schur, which got passed through the Notre Dame community to Notre Dame alumnus Regis Philbin, who gave it to his daughter, Jennifer Joy Philbin, who is married to Schur. From there, Sullivan said, Schur agreed to come to campus as long as he could talk to a lot of students about philosophy.

In order to ensure Schur’s trip to campus was as fruitful as possible, Sullivan explained, she wanted to make his visit “a whole production” and find a group of students guaranteed to be “totally obsessed with the show” and then “weaponize them” to make the most out of a day with the creator.

The idea for a one-credit class about philosophy and “The Good Place” came together between Sullivan and Ricky Herbst, the cinema program director at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, who suggested they bring in FTT professor Christine Becker to teach the television aspects of the class.

Becker jumped at the chance to be involved with the class, as “in addition to loving the show and loving Mike Schur,” it gives her an opportunity to expand her “world of teaching” in a new way.

“I was fascinated by a crossover with philosophy and thrilled with the idea of being able to work with someone bringing different approaches, and then students who will have different ways of thinking,” she said. “I always love it when I have students from other majors in my FTT classes because they ask different questions, they think in different ways, they challenge me.”

While Schur’s visit itself will be the main event of The Good Class, Sullivan said he will also speak to around 450 freshmen in God and the Good Life — a large class that satisfies the first philosophy requirement — and attend a larger event with the broader Notre Dame community.

The professors haven’t set an official syllabus yet — although Becker said formulating the class has been the most fun she’s ever had building a course — but they know it will probably end up featuring an even blend of television and philosophy studies.

“There are ways in which they’re not fully discrete. So I don’t think it will be like this day will be FTT day and this day will be philosophy day,” Becker said. “I think the goal is more, where can we find these intersections in the fabric between them and the idea of even storytelling as a notion is philosophical.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the course will ultimately be beneficial to students from both departments, Herbst said.

“That’s something that we should be finding in more of our classes here, because it’s the way almost every other business is trying to train its people,” he said. “It’s to give them broad exposure and cross-train.”

Sullivan added that the show itself is “enormously culturally important for expanding interest in philosophy” in today’s society, which the class will explore.

“Everyone does philosophy at some degree in their life, and philosophy is a very important part of everyday life — and a lot of times people don’t believe us about this,” she said. “And for good reason, because a lot of philosophy books are exceptionally boring, but art like this is the counter-example.”

In addition, Becker said, this class — which will ultimately speak to “understanding how storytelling is forged” — is a natural extension of the FTT department, as it ensures its students will “be smarter consumers of film and television and have fun along the way.”

“You’re not someone who just watches TV, you’re someone who can have an elevated experience of it,” Becker said. “There’s value in understanding how these things are made, how the creative process works, how the industry works, understand the economics behind it and that kind of stuff. You become a media-literate person, but it’s a blast if you like it.”

The target demographic for the class, Becker said, is students who are able to hit the ground running in terms of knowledge of the show and creative thinkers. This goal, along with the idea that the class will be a small discussion group, led the professors to create an application with questions that refer to “The Good Place,” such as, “We recently discovered that no one has passed The Good Class in centuries, so please provide your suggestions for how the course should be fairly graded going forward.”

“We thought, OK, well we have to have an application, and then the thought is, well, how do we vet people?” Becker said. “We said, ‘Let’s come up with “Good Place”-like questions.’ … One of our ideal students would be someone who’s seen the show, knows it backwards and forwards on day one of that class.”

That application is available online — where Sullivan said the professors will likely post updates about the course so anyone who is interested can follow along with it — and is due April 7 by 11:59 p.m.

In the end, Herbst said, using “The Good Place” as a case study will show students the benefits of blending two disciplines in an interesting and enjoyable way.

“We can be smart about fun things, and we can have fun with smart things,” he said. “And we need to do that much more.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, who recently wrapped up her year as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney