Updates On Sawyier Fellows Stephen Harris and Krisanna Scheiter
Fay Sawyier believed in the value of teaching philosophy at an undergraduate level, especially within a technical curriculum. As a faculty member in the Department of Humanities for many years, she was enthusiastic about the benefits of grants for philosophy that benefactors such as the Mellon Foundation provided to the university during her tenure. Sawyier held a deep conviction on the importance of philosophy's legacy and, in 2004, left a bequest of her own to IIT that supports this belief.
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."
Ms. Scheiter came to IIT from University of Pennsylvania in Fall 2010. She received her master's in philosophy from Penn and has recently completed her dissertation work there on emotion in Aristotle.
Her professional focus is ancient philosophy and philosophy of emotion. While at IIT for the past two years, she taught an Age of Darwin class and an introductory course in ancient philosophy. In Spring 2011, she offered a course called The Ethics of Anger, Revenge and Forgiveness, and guided her students in examining reactive attitudes to the emotional states of anger and resentment, focusing specifically on revenge, and forgiveness.
She accepted the Sawyier Fellowship offer instead of a critical writing and teaching fellowship offered by Penn, which was a tough decision both personally and professionally, but is certain this was the right choice for her. One thing that Scheiter has appreciated about what the Sawyier Fellowship has given her is the chance to engage in professional development; teaching, writing, and managing her time. "It's been a really nice bridge between student life and full–blown professional responsibilities."
When asked how she came to a career in philosophy, she gave an answer that revealed a serendipitous route. The last semester of her undergraduate program in literature, her advisor told her she needed a cultural diversity class in order to graduate. She chose a medieval Arabic philosophy course because it fit into her schedule. Even though it was a very difficult course (one of her hardest to that point) it "mesmerized and fascinated" her. She ended up with the highest grade she had ever attained, for the hardest she had ever worked. It was a life changing experience, but what to do with it? She took a year off, worked for an environmental organization, and traveled for four months in Europe, but whatever she was doing and wherever she was, she always found herself in book shops looking for works in philosophy, just to read more on what had so fascinated her in the medieval Arabic philosophy course. She went back to the professor of that class and asked for his advice. He suggested trying a master's program, which would allow her subsequently to get into a PhD program. She would end up, at the very least, with a master's in philosophy. Her fascination with her chosen subject has never waned. "Even if someone studying philosophy does not change their attitudes on the big questions of life, at least after study they have full, rich reasons for their beliefs. They do not simply believe something just because they were brought up that way or because people taught them to believe such things. Students come in to the anger, revenge, and forgiveness class with certain assumptions about blame and responsibility and they leave with a new understanding that fundamentally changes how they think about their relationships" (as evidenced by their course evaluations).
When asked what pleased her most about her experience here, she laughed and said, "that's a really tough question, because I've actually enjoyed everything. The students are terrific—really smart. It's been a lot of fun teaching philosophy to non–philosophy majors. I've learned a lot from them," including how to teach a diverse group of students focused on science and technology. She says she has consistently met students at IIT that have been excited about taking philosophy classes. She finds "they're very driven and they really want a chance to explore different ideas and to talk with their peers about things they're thinking about and experiencing or struggling with."
She also values having had the opportunity of working with IIT students who have an appreciation for ancient philosophers, in particular the pre–Socratics, who were in a sense the first real scientists. She likes that students use examples she never would have thought of, to try to understand philosophy.
During her first semester here, she had a number of students in her classes who were good in philosophy but had no notion of pursuing it as a full–time endeavor. She was going to suggest the students join the Ethics Bowl but discovered that IIT didn't have an Ethics team and hadn't for several years, even though IIT Professor Robert Ladenson is the creator of the competition. She offered to coach the team for two years, if her students had enough of an interest, and was offered support by Kelly Laas, Librarian and Researcher in the Center for the Study of Ethics, who agreed to become co–coach for the team.
Ethics Bowl participation has given participating students a chance to talk about ethical cases and compete at the regional competition, in Indiana. Scheiter has helped them prepare for next year so they can have a more rigorous structure. There is a core group of dedicated, motivated students and Scheiter is grateful and pleased that her colleague, Stephen Harris, has agreed to take over coaching the team. Students have also completed the procedures for turning the Ethics Bowl into a permanent student organization once again. It has now been officially recognized by IIT, and funding will be sought if an opportunity to go to the nationals arises. "It's been a great two years," Scheiter reports. "I really enjoyed it—coaching the Ethics Bowl was a good time."
Scheiter has recently had a paper accepted by Phronesis, a journal specializing in ancient philosophy. Her article, "Images, Appearances, and Phantasia in Aristotle" will appear in the next issue (57:3). The paper proposes a solution to a long–standing interpretative debate regarding Aristotle's account of imagination (phantasia). The article arose out of her dissertation, "Emotion, Imagination, and Feeling in Aristotle". In the dissertation Scheiter argues that for Aristotle emotions are acts of imagination that involve feelings of pleasure and pain. Her interpretation goes against the more popular interpretation of Aristotle, which claims emotions are beliefs and are not imaginative or necessarily pleasurable or painful.
Faculty and staff in the Humanities Department and students throughout IIT wish her all the best as she begins her career in earnest at Union College in Schenectady, NY this fall.