How conversations about evil, justice and truth help students and faculty connect

January 8, 2020 | Society, Campus Life

In a way, evil was the impetus for Dr. Susan Mills’ philosophy reading group. When researching their essays for her PHIL 342: Continental Rationalism class, a few of her students discovered The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil in the Age of Reason by Steven Nadler.

“It’s a great book that tells a captivating history of philosophers in the 17th century grappling with (and arguing with each other about) the problem of evil,” says the associate professor of Philosophy.

The idea of creating a reading group (based on what she knew about the one founded more than a decade earlier by her colleagues in the Department of Humanities to study Plato’s works) had been on Susan’s radar for a while, so when the semester ended, she invited her class to continue the conversation about Nadler’s book.

It connects them to their philosophy majors in a deep way because it isn’t for a grade; it’s just for the love of philosophy itself.
—Dr. Susan Mills

Neither the Plato reading group nor the early modern philosophy group are connected to a course. There are no grades and no credit. But the students – and their professors – are committed to these groups, and to each other.

“Students treat it as something special,” says Susan. “From what I can tell, it connects them to their philosophy majors in a deep way because it isn’t for a grade; it’s just for the love of philosophy itself.”

Reading outside the classroom gives both groups the opportunity to take things slow. In the year-and-a-half since it was created, the early modern philosophy group has read three books. But there are benefits that come with not being in a rush.

“Students are asking more questions, being more creative, thinking with more independence, being more collaborative and offering up more ideas as we go through this book than they would ever do – or have the opportunity to do – in a regular class,” says Susan. “And their excitement about doing all of that shows.”

It’s the same in the Plato reading group, adds Sara Fortin, a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student who has spent time every week outside of classes puzzling out the meaning in Plato’s texts with her fellow students and two faculty members from the Department of Humanities.

“We’re reading dialogue, so it has a dramatic effect, and we stop every couple of paragraphs to discuss what is going on,” she says. “We can make mistakes and not be tripped up by them or feel like we’re being judged. We all love the material and it’s an amazing learning experience – one that builds confidence.”

The benefits aren’t purely academic – there’s also a sense of community that each of these groups fosters.

“Even when students only vaguely know one another when they join, they generally end up forming a fairly close connection,” says Dr. Colin Bailey who leads the Plato reading group alongside Dr. Edvard Lorkovic (who originally created the group with Dr. Benjamin Garstad).

Studying philosophy can be quite solitary, says Sara, so that sense of community is something she appreciates.

“These reading groups bring us together,” she says. “We get to know students who also really love this material, who are in the same position that we are and who have the same struggles. And because we each bring our own views and backgrounds, reading together often results in a new perspective about a passage that I never would have thought of on my own. ”

Both Susan and Colin agree that they too take much away from the time they spend with the reading groups, including the opportunity to explore and get messy with texts; see students respectfully challenging themselves, each other and their profs; and connect outside the classroom in a meaningful way.

“MacEwan has students who are absolutely terrific people. The members of this group are thoughtful, kind, interested, interesting, funny, curious, informed, respectful and I could keep going on,” says Susan. “I feel exceptionally honoured that they choose to spend their time reading and discussing early modern philosophy with me, and I only hope that there are more students out there who would also make that choice so that this group can continue on for years to come.”



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