Pipe Dreams

Every professor probably has a list of courses he or she would love to try a hand at before retiring. Mine is filled with subjects I want to force myself to learn more in depth by having to teach them. I would love, for example, to offer a course centered on the question What is Beauty? It's one of the three major questions in the liberal arts tradition, yet it receives the least attention and is often dismissed or turned into a subset of cultural studies more interested in semiotics than aesthetics. I think it would be interesting to approach beauty as a human universal, to overview the various historical attempts to make sense of its role in our lives, and to help students see an articulation of their tastes as a way of knowing themselves more intimately.

I would also love to have a go at an introductory course in appreciating architecture. I've included some of this in my Introduction to Humanities sections, but it's just squeezed in along side tidbits of poetry, philosophy, literature, art history and music, subjects that tend to intimidate students (I sometimes joke that I'm a professor of unpopular culture). Interestingly, I've never found students to be intimidated by architecture. They love learning about it. Perhaps this is because they have never thought of buildings as expressions of ideas and values, or maybe it's because they have experienced far more buildings than they have sonnets.

Another dream is to teach an overview of Doubt, Free Thinking, Secularism and Irreligious Thought. Imagine the bugbear such a course would be for some people! And just think of the reading list: Shakespeare, Behn, Voltaire, Paine, Franklin, Wollstonecraft, Madison, Shelley, Twain, Ingersoll, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, Mencken, Dawkins... A devil's brew of blasphemous cantankery. And what better way to stir up trouble?

A few years ago, too, a colleague and I were remarking on how little awareness our students had of historically important films or, for that matter, the history of cinema itself. They love movies. There's no mistaking that, but most have never seen Citizen Kane. Anyway, our idea was to hold the class on Sunday nights at 9:00 pm (most college students don't do anything until after 9:00 pm anyway). We would invite professors from various disciplines to offer brief lectures from their field as they relate to a classic film of their choice. A philosopher might lecture on situational ethics in Hitchcock's Lifeboat, a historian on cold war paranoia in High Noon, etc. Students would then watch the film and participate in a post-screening discussion. We would also create a filmography from which students could select two or three films to watch, analyze and write papers on. Call the course "Sunday at 9:00" or "The Sunday Night Movie." Make it an elective.

I've also dreamed about teaching a course on friendship, a subject of significant interest for ancient thinkers. Indeed, friendship is a fundamental aspect human life, yet it receives little serious attention. How do we define it? What is its value? Does its nature change over time and across cultures? Is a fully-mediated friendship in cyberspace possible, or--as Plato claimed--does it require embodiment and proximity to flourish? I also find it interesting that friendship is an area of human life that seems utterly resistant to the permeation of our culture with marketplace imperatives. There's just no money in friendship, no angle, no way to extract the cash from it, which, come to think of it, is probably why it receives so little attention.

On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong. One of my students recently informed me that her boyfriend has over 5,000 Facebook friends, which makes me wonder if the entire concept of friendship has finally been commodified.


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