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Finding Reciprocity and Compassion

Rebecca T. Alpert returned to the classroom after serving in administration, and she requested that she teach a few sections of Intellectual Heritage. It was transformative.

When I was serving as Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts, I thought a lot about what I wanted to teach when my term ended and I went back to faculty before I retired. I relished the semester off from teaching I would get when I stepped down but I was also excited about returning to the classroom full time. 

The courses I taught while in the dean’s office and before were still interesting to me, but I was also ready to try something new. I decided I wanted to teach in the Intellectual Heritage Program. 

When I mentioned this idea to some colleagues, their faces always registered surprise, and occasionally stupefaction. 

In part that was because, unlike me, most of them do not like teaching General Education courses. But, like me, they also had good historical reasons to steer clear of IH: 

• In the ’80s: trying to wrest control from the proponents of great books courses, which meant, of course, great “Western” books. How many years and protests did it take simply to add the Sundiata to the required readings?

• In the ’90s and ’00s: making sure that you taught your own courses well enough so that your department chair didn’t send you to teach IH as a punishment.

• In the ’10s: trying to recover from changing the course to Mosaic, which made the curriculum a jumble – a mosaic? – of unrelated themes.

After working closely with the program’s leadership when I was in the Dean’s Office, however, I knew that much had changed for the better. The curriculum is coherently structured as two courses: The Good Life and The Common Good; diversity is recognized with texts by women and from different world cultures, ancient and modern; the faculty is comprised of smart, dedicated, innovative (albeit contingent) instructors, both full and part time. 

This was a program that I would be proud to be associated with, even if my some of my colleagues didn’t have a clue about what IH was about or why I’d want to teach there.

I had contacted the program’s administrators, and they seemed glad to have me. My department, so used to my not being there, didn’t complain about my choice. As I started thinking about what I might want to do with The Good Life course the following year, life got to be not so good for anyone. It was March 2020, and our world turned upside down.

Luckily for me, I could take advantage of the fall semester off to refresh and retool for my new role in the asynchronous online IH classroom in spring 2021. I knew that teaching online was its own universe, not a pale imitation of the in-person experience, and I wanted to learn how to do it right. 

It was my good fortune to be in the right program. Because IH is required of all students, and several undergraduate degree programs at Temple are fully online, IH instructors had already created a beautiful and well-developed template for me to follow. Since there’s no plagiarism in teaching, I borrowed freely, but also gave credit to Sheryl Sawin and David Mislin, whose Canvas sites, syllabi, voice threads, and annotation activities were amazing resources. 

For two of the required texts, I chose The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Trial of Socrates.  I could select three texts from a set list. I chose The Selected Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, the Dao de Jing, and The Complete Persepolis to signal my commitment to include writings by women and from world cultures and because they are great books to teach about the good life. 

I borrowed terrific activities from my colleagues. Students loved Sheryl’s use of a TED talk on making bread that paired perfectly with the themes of Gilgamesh about death and mortality. And David’s excerpts from The Tao of Pooh helped students see different perspectives on how Daoist wisdom can contribute to living a good life.

And sometimes the texts had direct resonances for the students. Persepolis is a good example. This very personal story of growing up in Iran challenged their views of that country. Most notable were students originally from India and Israel, who said they had to rethink what they had been taught about Iran and its inhabitants by their families.  A host of other students had never given a second thought to Iran but realized they had to begin to question what they had heard in the media. That was the beauty of using the VoiceThread tool, where every student had the opportunity to respond to my lecture and to each other at their own speed and without the pressure of performance they often feel in face to face class discussions.

I also got to put my own stamp on the course. I taught Beloved by Toni Morrison as the text I could choose that was not on the list. I couldn’t imagine thinking about what constitutes the good life without reference to the ways our society has made life the opposite of good for people of African descent throughout our history. My original plan was to accompany that reading with a community engagement project, but found it too challenging during the pandemic to pull that off. Maybe in the future. 

The other opportunity I had to innovate was with the required reading from scripture, where instructors can select any passage from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or the Qur’an. I chose the Book of Jonah because I like it a lot, but also because it was easy to pair it with activities that raised questions about the good life. First, students read the text on the annotation tool and responded to questions that sharpened their analytical skills as they talked to each other about the text. Then I introduced Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations of Jonah so they could see how diverse traditions understood some of the key ideas. Last, they read and listened to some modern versions of the Jonah story – the sermon from Moby Dick, the song “Mobile” by the Mountain Goats, and the film Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.  The idea was to make the connection between the text and issues we face in our current world. 

At the same time, they examined how these modern works understood the ethical issues raised by the story – everyone deserves a second chance; don’t be afraid to fail; take responsibility for your mistakes; don’t run away from problems; seek justice; care about people who are different from you. They did this through the following assignment:

Jonah is an ambiguous text with many possible ethical lessons. Select the one you think is most important. Go to that slide and explain why you chose it. 

Choose a character in the story (Jonah, God, the sailors and the ship’s captain, the Ninevites and their King) who best exemplifies that value, and include a quote from the Book of Jonah to illustrate the connection between that character and the value you chose. 

Finally, which one of this week’s modern versions supports or challenges your choice? 

The students’ responses to Jonah were a highlight of the course for me. I loved watching them engage with and argue about the text and its possible interpretations. And I learned new ways of interpreting it from them, even though I have read Jonah on Yom Kippur every year for most of my life.

Teaching IH during the pandemic made me focus on what matters to me and take stock of where I can stand still in this tumultuous world that is spinning madly now. I asked the students to do this as well through what became my favorite assignment in the course. At the beginning of the semester they introduced themselves to each other by describing what made their life good. For their culminating projects, they created their own good life VoiceThread, looking at what changed for them over the semester because of what we read and discussed together. I thought it only fair to do the same myself, and I’d like to close by sharing my own brief reflections on the good life that I shared with them. 

When I was growing up, I attended a synagogue housed in a beautiful, old building. These words from the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the prophet Micah (6:8), were carved on it in good King James English:

“It hath been told thee, o man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

If I had to sum up my understanding of the good life, I would say it was contained in that verse, although as I grew older, learned more Hebrew, became a feminist, and lost my belief in a supernatural God, I decided I should make a new translation for myself. Taking the power and license of the translator, I interpret Micah to be telling us to seek justice, which to me means to strive to make the world a good place for everyone; love well (meaning make strong relationships founded on reciprocity and compassion), and tread gently as you walk in the world (meaning notice, appreciate, and care for yourselves and the amazing planet we live on). What I found in the texts we have read together, and your responses to them, reaffirmed my belief that following Micah’s threefold path is how I can live a good life.

So here’s how I see our texts and your interpretations of them during the semester fitting into that framework.

Seeking justice: You noticed Socrates fighting against powerful forces in order to make education available without cost, and Toni Morrison’s contribution to the fight for racial justice by remembering wrongs our country has done to people of African descent and connecting them to the present efforts to bring about real change.

Loving well: So many of you responded to the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the support Marji received from her family in Persepolis.

Treading gently in the world: Learning from Laozi, how, like water, to adapt to the vagaries of life; from Hildegard about how to use music to calm and comfort yourself; and from Jonah about facing your problems and using your second chances well.

What I’ve appreciated this semester is your willingness to dig into these texts and find imaginative and intelligent ways to connect them to your own ideas about living a good life. I have also seen your skills grow as the semester went on: you are all better at reading and analyzing difficult texts, making connections between them and the world we live in, being sensitive to human differences, thinking through ethical dilemmas, and writing and speaking about big ideas persuasively (and succinctly). I deeply appreciated your making time to chat with me on zoom earlier in the semester and participating so vibrantly and consistently. It really meant a lot to me, and I’m pretty sad to see you all go.

Although I am taking a break from teaching now that I’ve retired, I can’t imagine I won’t want to teach IH again. 

I hope I’ve made you think you might want to do it too.

Rebecca T. Alpert, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Religion in the College of Liberal Arts. She is a recipient of Temple’s Great Teacher Award (2016).

This story is from the June 2022 edition of the Faculty Herald.

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