Thursday 09/04/2014 by Icculus


You may have heard about the Philosophy School of Phish, which is directed by Professor Stephanie Jenkins, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University. She is also co-director of the Phronesis Lab for Engaged Ethics, which concerns communicating with each other about ethical questions and issues in a pragmatic, active, and civil way, in order to foster greater experience and understanding of the human condition. See, e.g., this article from April 2014 about Dr. Jenkins’s work with high school students regarding whether whites owe blacks reparations for slavery.

Dr. Jenkins also recently invited Dr. Ellis Godard, Ph.D., the executive director of The Mockingbird Foundation and an associate professor of sociology at California State University Northridge, to answer questions from her students, and he did so in a post in July to this blog.

I asked Dr. Jenkins and a few of her students about the “Phishlosophy” course, and how it went.

Dr. Jenkins answered my questions as follows:

How did the course go?

From my perspective, the course was fantastic! This was a class that I’ve daydreamed about for years, but I never thought it would happen. I’m thrilled it came to life in this way, honored to have been a part of it, and grateful to those whose support made it possible. Obviously, there’s always room for improvement, but we had a successful start.

How many enrolled students were there, and where were they from (if you know)?

There were 15 students enrolled in the course. I really enjoyed the size. It was large enough to generate a lively conversation with different perspectives, yet small enough to get to know individual students. In addition to students from Oregon, there were students from across the country, including Illinois, Washington, and New Hampshire.

How many of them did you meet face-to-face and when/where?

I met three enrolled students in person at SPAC, Chicago, and MPP. I also had the opportunity to meet many philosophy majors and professors, as well as scholars from other fields, throughout the summer.

What are your favorite aspects of how the course went?

In no particular order:

  1. MPP2’s magic: During the set break, I struck up a conversation with the phan sitting next to me, only to discover that he was taking the class! After this improbable meeting, we were gifted with an equally surprising Tweezerfest and Jennifer Dances!
  2. Student emails: I always try to make my assignments engaging, but it can be hard- especially in courses that meet general education requirements- to make homework fun. This summer, I received regular messages from students telling me how much they enjoyed the assignments and a few even said they looked forward to writing their essays each week!
  3. The threads: One of my goals for the course was to create opportunities for interested phans to participate in the on-going philosophical dialogue, even if they weren’t enrolled in the course. Thank you to, forum participants, and especially Dr. Ellis Godard (aka @Lemuria) for making the event possible and generating an interesting series of posts about Phish, music, and community. I still smile every time I think about @Lemuria’s comment, “I'm pretty sure that this is the first time has ever had homework.”

What did you learn (from your students or otherwise)?

I learn from every course I teach through students’ questions and assignments, rereading the material, and the unpredictable back-and-forth of philosophical dialogue. It’s hard to summarize these findings, because they consist of ideas for future research and pedagogical strategies. The students introduced me to new perspectives, shows, case studies, and examples that will help with these future endeavors.

My favorite philosopher, Michael Foucault, wrote with the goal of creating “experience books.” He wrote to transform himself. What, after all, is the point of writing a book, if you’re the same person you were before you started, after it is finished? And, hopefully, readers of his books become different through their encounter with the text. This course affirmed my goal to create an experience classroom.

I can lecture to you about Nietzsche’s discussion of music in The Birth of Tragedy, but you’ll probably forget the content fairly quickly. If I pair the reading with a concert and you take Nietzsche’s conceptual tools with you, you’ll be able to test those ideas for yourself and apply them to a concrete situation. That’s the kind of learning that sticks.

What will you change about the course?

A few of the changes I plan on making include:

  1. Content update: Some of the course content is specific to the 2014 Summer Tour, so I will update or modify those sections of the course.
  2. Schedule change: The course ran during Oregon State University’s summer session 3, which is 8 weeks long, instead of our usual 10-week terms. Next time, I will opt for a full quarter over the accelerated session, which means some of the content will need to be reorganized to account for the slower pace.
  3. Formalizing “Hangouts”: In addition to required assignments, students were able to participate in “Google Hangouts” with guest speakers, including authors of some of our readings. I interviewed the guests using questions generated by the class. Students were able to participate in the Hangouts themselves or watch the recordings at their convenience. This is the first time I have used this Google feature with a class, so it was a bit of an experiment. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so I will incorporate “Hangouts” more in future sessions of the course. Some of the Hangouts are publicly available and can be accessed at

Will you be teaching the course again, and what are the details of when you'll be teaching it again, e.g., how can one enroll?

I will definitely teach the course again, most likely next summer. Once the course is officially on the course schedule, I will announce the details via my website and Twitter (@scjenkins).

For now, potential students can watch the course announcement video, check out the syllabus (subject to change), and find additional resources (including the Google Hangouts) on the course website.

Really cannot thank you enough, Dr. Jenkins, for this information, and for the idea of this course and your work in pragmatic philosophy! As you know, I also touched-base briefly with some of your students, and here is what they had to say.

How did you learn about the class?

[Michael Mason:] I heard about the class via a Google news alert for Phish-related news. Since I got my B.A. in philosophy and religious studies, I was instantly interested.

[Christopher Prinos:] I first learned about this class through a press release that hit my inbox via JamBase. Within 20 minutes I found out what I had to do to enroll in OSU's e-campus, and had filed the $20 application. Before I knew it I was enrolled and officially part of the course. I really had no idea what I was in for. I have a pretty demanding work schedule and this class hit me at a time when I was getting ready to start a stretch of Summer tour, 4th of July vacation, and a number of work-related trips. I dove right in and worked hard to stay on top of my work in the class, but, that said, I quickly found myself behind on a few assignments. After week three I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to withdraw because I didn't think I could dedicate the time that the class, in my opinion, deserved. Thankfully, Stephanie worked with me and convinced me to stay in the class and I'm happy to say it was one of the highlights of my year. It was an AMAZING, fun, and rewarding experience for a 37-year-old Phish fan.

What did you like most about the School of Phish course?

[Michael Mason:] I most enjoyed getting to read other students' thoughts about Phish and philosophy; particularly the students who had not heard of Phish.

[Christopher Prinos:] I loved how Stephanie organized the course into weekly "themes." It was really very easy to roll week-to-week knowing you were focused on a particular topic -- whether it be aesthetics, the sublime, or community. The "structure" of the class was very well done.

Stephanie also blended classical and modern texts in a way that kept each week interesting. At times, reading some of the classical work from philosophers like Kant and Tolstoy was difficult, but it actually got me to approach reading in a more deliberate way -- something I hadn't been used to since my last trip to college.

The live hangouts with characters like Jesse Jarnow, Professor DeChaine, Dr. Ellis Godard, and Dr. Jeanette Bicknell (our text book author) were great. The Jarnow session was especially memorable, as his enthusiasm and perspective were infectious.

I also got to learn how college works TODAY. The whole concept of Blackboard, online discussions, and filing work electronically was really interesting. As someone who graduated in 1998, it was really amazing to see how things have changed.

The class and our coursework was in my head constantly throughout the 8 weeks. The class was in the middle of summer tour, so I would always be telling my friends what we were doing this week, etc., and sometimes I'd even share some of the readings with them. I remember whipping-out some of my Week One reading assignments late night after SPAC night one. I thought it was great that I was able to showcase what Stephanie was doing to a host of other people -- both phans and non-phans alike.

I also loved the fact that we were able to integrate field studies and actually meet our classmates. I met another student at MPP2 and ran into Stephanie at SPAC, Chicago and Merriweather. I feel like the class, in addition to offering a great experience, introduced me to some new friends I'll have forever.

What did you learn about Phish, or your appreciation of Phish, and/or Philosophy, in taking this class?

[Michael Mason:] In examining my own thoughts and feelings about phish during the course, I realized that the experience of the event itself is of the highest value. I recognize that a lot of fans enjoy recording the event and analyzing and critiquing the performance and keeping track of how many shows they've seen; and prior to the course, I was a bit envious and felt a little left out that I couldn't really get into it. After the thoughtful consideration of the course, I feel a degree of validation of my more existential focus.

[Christopher Prinos:] I learned / confirmed that, for me, Phish is truly about music, community, and experience. I also learned that even if you don't like Phish per se (like some of the students in our class), you really can't ignore the fact that the band and its fans have something special going on. As far as Philosophy is concerned, I learned a lot about looking at perspectives from all angles. I constantly found myself formulating my own opinions only to change them, and often change them again. I think the class did a great job of making you think at every turn with material that was fun, engaging, and -- of course -- Phishy.

Thanks very much to Dr. Jenkins, Michael Mason and Christopher Prinos for your time and effort on this piece! -charlie

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