Sawyier Fellow, Stephen Harris
Faye Sawyier, long–time philosophy professor at IIT, held a deep conviction on the importance of philosophy's legacy. She left a bequest to the university in 2004 that provides funds for the Sawyier Philosophy Lectures in Science, Technology, and Society and a pre–doctoral fellowship program in the Lewis Department of Humanities. The Sawyier Pre-doctoral Fellows Program is an appointment of two doctoral students in philosophy who teach for the Humanities department for one year or two, while completing their dissertation research and writing. (For more history on the fellowship, click here.)
One of the most recent recipients of the Sawyier gift, Stephen Harris will begin his second year in the Sawyier Fellows Program in Fall 2012, while he continues to work on his PhD in Asian philosophy from University of New Mexico.
Although he began his undergraduate studies as an English, then psychology major, Stephen soon found himself attracted to the way courses in philosophy challenge us to think about "questions that absolutely permeate the way we exist. We experience objects everyday, but before taking philosophy I had never thought about what exactly I was experiencing when I experienced an object." He developed a love for philosophy in the wider sense, the sense of "being taken out of our box and being made to look at and think about things we have always taken for granted—think about them and think about whether we can think about them and how we think about them." He felt at home in the philosophy department, doing philosophy.
When asked about his teaching experience at IIT, Harris talked about striving to be a good teacher. He believes that a teacher should take difficult ideas and texts and make them accessible to others. He thinks this task is challenging and never easy, but believes that in the texts of philosophy there is something worth reading that immediately relates to one's experience. He believes a teacher should help students look closely at a text and see what it is trying to teach. "Teaching philosophy well involves the application of philosophy to life, but in an expanded sense of life. Doing philosophy helps us expand our sensitivity to the world by thinking about concepts and ideas that we usually take for granted. I believe that this actually changes the way we encounter the world. This is almost parallel in some sense to an artistic experience—an artist doesn't simply use her technique to represent the world, but actually experiences the world in a deeper way as a result of her sensitivity to facets of the world most of us overlook. An artistic experience can change your perception of a day or a relationship with a person. Doing philosophy does that as well."
Stephen has found IIT students very responsive to the courses in Buddhist and Asian philosophy he taught in Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. He's found it rewarding to teach at a university that does not have its own philosophy department, in that an instructor often is teaching students philosophy for the first time, but not to students who are necessarily at the freshman or sophomore level. He finds it compelling to teach seniors who have done a lot of specialized studies in engineering or architecture, coming in with carefully honed skills who are prepared to take a look at arguments and raise intelligent questions, but who haven't studied philosophy. "This has been an interesting challenge and I learn a lot from my students, who are coming from other disciplines and taking a look at philosophy for the first time." One of the intriguing things for him is to see what resonates with his students and what doesn't and finding out that this doesn't necessarily match with his personal, philosophical inquiries.
Harris's dissertation topic is Buddhist ethics. His purpose is to look at a few concepts that are very important to ancient Buddhist ethical texts and think about the connections they have with problems they have in common with Western philosophy. One of the concepts he looks at in his work is duhkha, which usually gets translated as "suffering," although he says there isn't actually a perfect translation. A person can suffer physical pain, but Buddhists distinguish subtler forms of pain—dissatisfaction, for example. "In a deep sense of pain you can even not be aware of the pain—like, the pain of life not leaving you satisfied. Western philosophers tend to assume that pleasure is a good thing, and that if you're experiencing a pleasurable life, that is necessarily a good thing. A lot of western philosophers haven't questioned this. Buddhist philosophers do, with texts and images that problematize the idea that a pleasurable life is necessarily good. Maybe pleasure in some senses can be good, but actually it has huge drawbacks of which you're probably not even aware. Through texts and images, Buddhist philosophers try to make you aware of your own experiences; these texts help us realize the gap between what our expectations are and what the reality in the world is." Stephen finds it creative and provocative to look at western philosophy with this in mind, because it problematizes something that western philosophy just accepts: that pleasure is good. "For Buddhists, pleasure is very dangerous. Not necessarily bad, but dangerous. Neutral of itself, but given our expectations of it, it's almost always bad." He believes that western ethicists and philosophers can learn a lot from eastern texts and a lot can be learned about Buddhist texts from a western conceptual framework. Stephen believes it makes great sense to read these works alongside each other.
When asked about the Sawyier Fellowship Program, he says "it's been fantastic be cause it gives you a lot of responsibility and a lot more opportunity than you have as a graduate student—you develop your own classes and have a lot of flexibility to draw upon research in developing classes. It lets you develop strategies for becoming a successful professional philosopher, to compete for and get a job and succeed in that job." He is grateful that the department is really supportive. "They've been great with scheduling, allowing the maximum time to work on my dissertation. It's also been fun being part of a humanities department; good to be able to hear colleagues give colloquia on linguistics, and other work that draws upon statistical analysis." He admits that it's easy to become so specialized that you lose track of how your work connects with other things. "It's great to be part of a humanities department where you engage with the ideas of others."