Existentialism, Joshua M. Hall | Blog of the APA

During COVID, I was part of the 40% of the tenure-line faculty laid off by William Paterson University in New Jersey, after which I returned to my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, where I became an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). Then last semester (fall 2023), the only permanent faculty member whom UAB relied on to teach the history of philosophy, feminist philosophy, non-western philosophy, and continental philosophy retired. So they offered me the opportunity to teach Existentialism (in addition to my usual Bioethics). And since that is squarely in my wheelhouse, from my undergraduate and graduate education (which emphasized continental philosophy) my publishing history (which includes articles on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Arendt, and Fanon), I jumped at the chance.

For the structure of the course, I was inspired by a combination of courses I had taken on both canonical (European) existential philosophers and African philosophers, including graduate seminars on Ralph Ellison and W. E. B. Du Bois with Dr. Lucius Outlaw, Jr. at Vanderbilt University. I developed two primary pedagogical goals. First, from the outset, to explore the connections among what most undergraduates think about when they hear “existentialism,” the Black existentialist tradition and its southern U.S. precursors, and the leftist political activism of thinkers in both traditions, including militant resistance to fascism and colonialism. And second, as the post-Oct. 7th events in Palestine unfolded in the middle of our semester, I sought to apply these existentialist insights to our struggles with questions of antisemitism, colonialism, and political engagement.

My overall philosophical pedagogy takes inspiration from, among other thinkers and texts, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. When applied concretely in this course, that meant (a) exhorting students to share the problems they were facing in their lives, and their tentative solutions thereto (from Freire); and (b) challenging them, and myself, to experiment with new ways of learning and thinking, bravely taking risks and being vulnerable in the process, for example by discussing the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Gaza (from hooks).

The most rewarding elements of the syllabus for me were, as usual, a subset of the primary texts that are marginalized both in this subject area and in U.S. academic philosophy generally (in this case, those of Ellison, Wright, and Fanon). As for the students, during our customary “mid-semester review” process, they were most positive about the assignment structure, specifically their being empowered to choose any eight of the thirteen weekly readings on which to write a short paper and to submit as many early drafts of those papers as they wished for feedback and possible revision prior to grading.

Finally, since this was a brand-new course for me last semester, I have not had the opportunity to apply anything from it to other courses yet. Whether I would change anything, if given the opportunity to teach it again, would depend primarily on where and when I was teaching it next time, as I try to restructure courses in response to the distinctive challenges and opportunities faced by each group of students in each semester. So in that spirit, as a parting provocation for my colleagues, I would encourage you to be as open and responsive to your communities as you can, and as brave and principled in modeling your commitments to social justice as our institutions will allow. And then if they don’t allow it, fight the good fight, and mindfully rebel.

The Syllabus Showcase of the APA Blog is designed to share insights into the syllabi of philosophy educators. We include syllabi in their original, unedited format that showcase a wide variety of philosophy classes. We would love for you to be a part of this project. Please contact Editor of the Teaching Beat, Dr. Smrutipriya Pattnaik via [email protected], or Series Editor, Cara S. Greene via [email protected] with potential submissions.

Joshua M. Hall

Joshua M. Hall earned his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and has published seventy-five peer-reviewed journal articles (including in The Pluralist, Philosophy Compass, and Philosophy and Literature), two of which have recently appeared in Spanish translation, and coedited Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration: https://ua-birmingham.academia.edu/JoshuaHall.

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