Some students struggle to sit through an hour-and-a-half lecture. But what if the class went on for seven hours straight?
Professor Justin McDaniel, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies, will be teaching an experimental class in fall of 2017 called “RELS256: Existential Despair.” McDaniel has previously taught unconventional classes such as “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life,” colloquially referred to as the ”monk class.”
Since “Existential Despair” is classified as a Benjamin Franklin Seminar, the class will be capped at around 18-20 people. No prerequisites are needed, save for a love of reading. It will meet once a week on Tuesdays from 5:00 p.m. until midnight.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with McDaniel about his upcoming class. This interview has been edited for brevity.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What is the purpose of having a 7-hour class?
Justin McDaniel: Oh well there’s lots of purposes for it. Again, I’d rather it be eight hours. A little background is that ... in any class I teach, I’ll throw out the name of a book that I assume students will have read, kind of basic literature. And I’m shocked, like 90% of the students I will mention a book to, they haven’t heard of it. And I’m talking books that are in several top 100 list of the 20th century... And I think it’s not because students aren’t bright, they clearly are very bright, they’re just hyper-bright students who don’t read for pleasure.
And another thing is that rarely do students read a book cover to cover. You are assigned 30 pages of this, and the first two chapters of this... A lot of people will tell you a lot of things about an author or about a musician or about an artist, but actually the process of just seeing the painting or just listening to an album or reading a book without acquiring information about the background or the author or the context or the social impact of it or the message of it and the importance of that book at the time... is very different from the process of just picking up a book and reading it... Just pick up a book, start at page one, and read it straight through.
DP: What will a typical day of class be like?
JM: There will be no cell phones allowed in the class. You will put your cell phone in a box when you enter the class. There will be no checking of email. There will be no breaks where you can do this. There will be two bathroom breaks, that’s it. And we will sit and read a book all together. That’s it. In silence.
We can get about 4 1/2 hours to read the book... There will be a half an hour to eat. You will bring a meal, either you can buy a meal or you can make it yourself, cook it at home, and you will not eat that meal, though, you will give it to a partner you have in the class... They will make something for you, or buy something for you. We’ll talk about food allergies and preferences and all those things. And the eating will be done in silence... so five hours to eat, to go to the bathroom, and to read... Then we will have a very, very intense discussion. There will also be writing exercises. They will be in class, and they will all be hand-written. No typing, no computers in the class... And there will be escorts to take people home at midnight. Then you will leave the class, and you will have no homework, you will have no writing, you will have no reading, no research, no projects, and you will come back next week and we will do it all again with a very different book.
DP: What types of books will the class be reading?
JM: We’re looking at when people have faced moments of trauma or existential despair... There’s going to be poetry, memoir, essays, and primarily novels, not really philosophical reflections or things like that, but no biographies or things like that. And they will be on different themes each week.
DP: How will the class be graded?
JM: The class will be graded on about 75% participation and about 25% writing. You can’t miss a class. Unless it’s a medical emergency, if you miss one class you lose a whole grade.
DP: What do you hope students take away from the class?
JM: We’re going to be reading really, really good literature. Really kind of devastatingly profound and beautiful literature. And so, to return a love of reading to people, hopefully.
Second is the theme of what is trauma, and how have people in different religions in the past faced the kind of crisis of meaning in their life, crisis of purpose in their life, the crisis of what does it mean to be alive. Especially when things go wrong, not when things go right.
And again to help students prepare for trauma... This might be a chance for people to think hard about, what does it mean to survive as a human?... How have people dealt with this in the past, and what can we learn?
DP: Is there anything else you would like people to know about the class?
JM: I’m not looking for a particular type of student. I’m looking for a diverse class, I want nurses and engineers and Wharton and the College , and I don’t want all English majors or all religious studies majors... I don’t want all seniors or all freshmen. I want to have a nice balance of gender, and so I’m looking for people who love to read and want to return to that and want to think hard about difficult subjects.
One thing I should also note: there will be absolutely no napping.