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Photo from Justin McDaniel

Not many courses at Penn have as dramatic an impact as professor Justin McDaniel's "Existential Despair" course.

The class, RELS256, meets once a week for seven hours and launched last fall. Each week, students read a book together in silence, cover to cover, before discussing it as a class. 

Phones are collected at the beginning of class and only two bathroom breaks are allowed. The class has no prerequisites, no homework, no exams, and is graded based on participation and attendance only. 

“I find it important to make yourself intellectually uncomfortable at least once a week,” said McDaniel, who is the undergraduate studies chair of the Religious Studies Department. “It staves off ego and builds a sort of healthy self-contentment. It’s good to challenge myself to teach outside of my field, and I think my students appreciate that as well.”

The story of McDaniel’s unique class has been widely shared and picked up by publications like the Huffington Post. Current and former students of the class have reacted well to the course and said it creates a lasting impact. 

“The fact that you have to set aside a seven-hour window within your week, it makes you more deliberate with your time, set aside all distractions, put your life on pause,” said Wharton senior Heather Tang, who is currently taking the class. “It’s a good reminder that some things aren’t so important, that they can wait until the morning.” 

Tang added that the course so far meets her expectations.

"My expectation is that it would be a break from the hustle and bustle of Penn, and I was right," Tang said. "It feels like putting the real world on pause for a few hours, and then it all resumes when I wake up on Wednesday morning.” 

McDaniel identifies his class as a necessary escape from the academic environment on campus.

“A lot of academia is about showing off accomplishments," McDaniel said. "We are taught to consume knowledge and represent it. What I’m doing is creating a space where it’s not about the accomplishments but about the process itself.”

2018 College graduate Corey Loftus, who took the class when it was first offered last fall, agreed that the class both provided a necessary contrast to the culture at Penn and also helped her articulate her own beliefs.

“The educational purpose of the class is that education is a perspective rather than an achievement that you come to,” Loftus said. “It sort of gives me hope and puts me more in touch with the mental health perspective because a lot of the conversation consistently came back to belief, and I think that college is such a time when you form your own beliefs.”

The course title, "Existential Despair," refers to the content of both the in-class readings and the discussions. 

“Half of life is dealing with existential problems — the death of a parent, depression, dealing with a relationship that is on the skids,” McDaniel said. “A traditional education doesn’t cover how to reckon with these issues.” 

McDaniel has taught similarly unconventional classes such as “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life,” which became known as the ”monk class.”

“You are re-learning how to learn in a way that isn’t motivated by an alternate outcome,” said Tang. “It’s more how it relates to you, to textualize it and internalize it. You can extrapolate whatever you just learned into something greater and more applicable in the real world.”

“It’s also learning empathy," Tang added. "I mean, how many college classes teach empathy?”