OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New ‘Philosophy of Phish’ course at OSU aims to engage students in curriculum

06/19/2014

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In an effort to make a challenging curriculum more accessible and engaging for students, a professor at Oregon State University will teach a philosophy course on the band Phish this summer.

Stephanie Jenkins, an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts at OSU, plans to explore the relationship between philosophy, music and social change with her students in a course she has dubbed “Philosophy School of Phish.”

“I have to find what students are passionate about in order to speak to them about philosophy,” Jenkins said. “Phish, or any pop culture topic, elicits interest and engages them. It’s really about teaching effectively in ways that students will remember and use for the rest of their lives.”

The course begins June 23 and runs for eight weeks. It is a distance education course offered online through Oregon State University Ecampus and enrollment is not limited to Oregon State students. Phish fans from all over the country could participate in the course. For information, visit http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/.

The course, a special section of PHL 360: Philosophy and the Arts, was designed as a philosophy of music class. Other musicians could easily be substituted as case studies, but Jenkins chose Phish because she’s a fan and is familiar with the group’s large and loyal following.

“One of the benefits of doing a rigorous philosophical study of a band is that it gives students tools to articulate why they like the concerts and how the band’s music has philosophical and spiritual components,” Jenkins said.

The practice of philosophy involves exploring questions about ethics, politics, beauty and more. Students learn to clarify and articulate their own beliefs, analyze ideas and acquire critical thinking skills.

Along with required readings from philosophers such as Kant, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, students in Jenkins’ class will be required to attend Phish concerts during the band’s summer tour or watch them via webcasts online. The experiential component is critical to engaging students with the curriculum, Jenkins said.

“I can lecture forever, but they’ll never remember it,” she said. “When you give students an experience, you give them a basis for relating to the content. It’s like field work.”

Phish is known for improvising and blending elements of a variety of musical genres. Fans follow the group from concert to concert and each show can vary widely as the musicians improvise. The band, which was founded in the 1980s, is releasing a new album later this month and will launch a new tour July 1 in Massachusetts. Other stops include New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and more. 

Jenkins will follow the tour. She’ll attend concerts, teach, conduct research on the practice of public philosophy and hold philosophy events at concert venues along the way. Students from outside Oregon who are taking the course online would have a chance to meet their professor in person during the tour.

The public events also are an opportunity for Jenkins to discuss Phish and the philosophy of music with fans or anyone else who might to join in the discussion.

“It’s a way for people to engage in academic conversations and maybe inspire people to actually read philosophy,” she said. “Today, we think of philosophy as something really abstract that scholars do. But Socrates and others did philosophy in the city, in the public square.”

To find out more about the public events, visit Jenkins’ website, http://philosophyschoolofphish.com/ or follow her on Twitter: @scjenkins.

College of Liberal Arts

About the OSU College of Liberal Arts: The College of Liberal Arts includes the fine and performing arts, humanities and social sciences, making it one of the largest and most diverse colleges at OSU. The college's research and instructional faculty members contribute to the education of all university students and provide national and international leadership, creativity and scholarship in their academic disciplines.