Suzanne Obdrzalek’s Summer Session Philosophy Course Helps Students to “Think Well”

sobdrzalekPhilosophical Questions, a three-week intensive summer session class beginning May 22, will  introduce students to the discipline. According to associate professor of philosophy Suzanne Obdrzalek, some instructors focus primarily on historical texts, while others focus on contemporary readings; some survey a range of philosophical questions, while others compare how different authors deal with one core topic. All courses in the class will focus on teaching philosophical methods, including the skills of interpreting and evaluating arguments in a rigorous fashion.

We asked Obdrzalek a bit about the course, including how “thinking well” can enhance life experience.

CMC: How can a firm grasp of different philosophical approaches better prepare students for their own life journeys?

Obdrzalek: Here’s the best answer I’ve ever heard to this question; it was given to me by a job candidate I interviewed recently: With the advent of the Internet, people are bombarded with information. It only takes a few seconds to find out, say, the average life expectancy of a certain segment of the population, or the cost of bananas in a given country. It’s not even that hard to manipulate this data—you can find online calculators, or hire someone to do so for you. What is crucial is being able to think well about this information. That’s what philosophy teaches you—better, I think, than any other discipline. Our goal isn’t to have you memorize lots of philosophical jargon or the dates of birth of various philosophers. It’s to teach you to think well.  We teach you to identify the presuppositions of an argument, theory or claim, and to challenge these. And we teach you what it is to construct an argument well. This has application to every area of life. When you read a legal brief, a policy note or a business proposal, you will be able to find the key weaknesses and critically assess them.  If you’re writing an essay on a literary author, you’ll be able to marshal evidence effectively to defend your interpretation.  If you’re making an important life decision, you’ll be able to think carefully about the presuppositions—about what constitutes a good life, what makes someone a good friend etc.—that lie behind this decision.

CMC: Does the work of any one particular philosopher speak to you in a way that other philosophies might not?

Odbrzalek: Plato is the philosopher that speaks to me the most. One thing that I like about him is that he engages in a profound and nuanced manner with the sorts of questions that worry me as a person, and not just as a philosopher. How do you become a good person? Why do I sometimes do the wrong thing? Why do I sometimes feel deeply conflicted about what to do?  What is it to have inner peace? What makes for a good life? Plato is also the greatest philosophical writer of all time—whether you agree with his philosophical proposals or not, the way in which he presents them is often breathtakingly beautiful. It takes a special kind of philosophical genius to, say, present the ascent to knowledge as the escape from a dark, subterranean cave, or the struggle for self-mastery as the taming of a dark and vicious horse.

CMC: Can you describe the moment when you knew you wanted to be a teacher?

Obdrzalek: When I first decided to pursue graduate studies in philosophy, it was because I wanted to be a philosopher, not a teacher. Now, of course, I view teaching as my major calling in life. What won me over was having exceptional students in small classes, first at Yale and now at CMC. Every semester, I see a student, struggling to articulate his/her ideas, suddenly have an “aha!” moment, when s/he becomes suddenly able to express them in a logical and compelling manner. For me, this is the most inspiring and gratifying part of my job.

CMC: Given the challenges that graduating seniors face entering a tough, global job market, what advice would you give to those students? How can they be more competitive? And, is there an advantage that a CMC education affords them?

Obdrzalek: My advice to students is twofold: First, find a major that is going to develop your intellectual abilities. Philosophy is a great candidate, because it teaches students skills in reasoning, analyzing and arguing. Second, try to develop as much internship or other experience as possible in your prospective field. Many Philosophy majors have gone on to find wonderful jobs with companies such as Google, McKinsey, Bain etc. Typically, these students did summer internships in their prospective fields; their work experience, combined with the analytic skills they gained through Philosophy, made them very attractive to prospective employers.

CMC: What aspect of your summer material do you most look forward to sharing with students?

Obdrzalek: In my classes, I strive to develop a sense of community with my students. One thing that we do, which I really enjoy, is read Descartes’ Meditations, then watch The Matrix together, over pizza and snacks, and discuss the ways in which it reflects and responds to Descartes’ ideas.

CMC: What is the single favorite thing you like to do during summer?

Obdrzalek: There’s a big public meadow close to where I live, and when summer nights are long, it fills with everyone from the neighborhood. People bring pizza, wine hidden in bags, banjoes, croquet sets, and there’s a palpable sense of community and joy as we watch the sun set over the mountains.