Professor Laura Papish teaches freshmen how to think like philosophers.
By John DiConsiglio
In George Washington University Professor Laura Papish’s Dean’s Seminar on the Philosophy of Love, Sex and Friendship, you won’t find a speaker behind a lectern talking about Sigmund Freud. Instead, you are likely to hear a whirlwind discussion among 16 engaged, first-year students arranged in a semi-circle, their arms shooting into the air to have the last word on whether there is philosophical merit to ABC’s reality show “The Bachelor.”
“This is one wild class,” said freshman Dori Goodman. “The conversation moves really fast and in all different directions. It can be hard just to get a word in.”
That’s exactly what Dr. Papish, an assistant professor of philosophy in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), hoped for when she designed her course which, like other Dean’s Seminars, allows CCAS freshmen to focus on specific topics with an emphasis on critical thinking and inquiring discourse.
Rather than leaning heavily on a syllabus and lectures, Dr. Papish invites free-flowing debates on what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-love. And while the reading list includes Aristotle and Plato, Dr. Papish encourages the class to draw on everything from philosophical texts to personal experiences as they reflect on the seminar’s big questions: Are friends different from lovers? Why do we want to be involved in intimate relationships when they cause us so much heartache? Are these relationships morally good, or can they pose an ethical threat? And what to make of fireworks-topics like pornography and censorship?
“These are questions that we may live with every day, but we don’t really take time to think about them,” Dr. Papish said. “I want students to look at their relationships in ways they’ve never done before.”
Building a Philosophy Mindset
Dr. Papish set out to design a course that would appeal to freshmen, many of whom have never taken a philosophy class. Even the class title is meant to draw attention. “If I were flipping through a course catalog, and I saw something called ‘Love, Sex and Friendship,’ that would jump out at me,” she said.
Most of the students are unaccustomed to the discipline’s lengthy reading requirements and its well-researched scholarly writing assignments, much less the spirited discussions. Indeed, Dr. Papish revealed that the first teaching hurdle she faced wasn’t eliciting debates on love and sex. It was showing her students how to think like philosophers.
“As a freshman, you don’t necessarily have any philosophy background so part of the challenge is simply introducing them to what philosophy means,” she said. "There are some pretty dense readings. There are papers that must be backed up by citations and well-constructed arguments. Once you’ve mastered all that, then you can talk about how you feel.”
In one sense, noted political science major and ROTC member Michael Rossi, the class is particularly applicable to the freshman experience. “When you first get to college, you want to be friends with everyone. You don’t want to be lonely or bored,” he said. “This class has taught me how to be more cognitive of my relationships. It met me right where my life was at.”
For Mady Alfieris, a double major in computational mathematics and economics, a philosophy course on love and sex seemed like a fun way to earn humanities credits. Attracted to the class-size of a Dean’s Seminar, she still had butterflies when she first entered Dr. Papish’s raucous semi-circle.
“Philosophy is not my strong suit, so I was a little nervous,” she said. “But Laura is so open and friendly. She’s not lecturing. She’s having a conversation with us. After the first class, I walked out and thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
Still, Dr. Papish expects her students to roll up their sleeves for philosophical skirmishes whether it is Aristotle versus contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt (Do we love someone because they have valuable qualities, as Aristotle argues? Or do we ascribe value to the ones we love, as Frankfurt contends?), or hot-button issues like pornography versus censorship.
Dr. Papish knows that a smattering of her students could go on to study philosophy, but many others could never step into a philosophy classroom again.
“I may only have this brief moment to help them see things differently,” she said.