At Home with Death: Reflections on a Residential College Tutorial

Balberg Tutorial at Movies

Death is a difficult topic to tackle, but Mira Balberg, assistant professor of religion and Willard Faculty Fellow, found an intriguing way to make the subject accessible to students living in the Willard Residential College. With plates of cookies handy and a variety of ancient and modern texts as guides, Balberg created a powerful 21st-century academic learning experience. Modeled on the Greek symposium, the residential college tutorial brought together a small group of avid learners in a lively conversation in a non-classroom setting. In designing the tutorial, Balberg was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, “who famously believed that an awareness of death and an ability to look death ‘in the eye’ as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living.”

As in many other things, the ancient Greeks were the first to get it right: they considered the most meaningful and enjoyable form of learning to be a conversation, which takes place not in a classroom but in a banquet hall. The Greek symposium was essentially a small gathering of friends who dined together while discussing a topic of choice, considering intellectual stimulation to be the flavor of the evening. The Greeks thought of the process of learning itself as a feast, in which, as Plato described it, “wisdom flows from one to the other like wine into glasses,” and found it only appropriate that it would be conducted as such.

Can a college class in the twenty-first century follow the model of the Greek symposium? Insofar as wine, sofas and hired musicians in the background are concerned, probably not: but insofar as genuine, lively conversation taking place in a non-classroom setting among a small group of avid participants is concerned, I discovered that the answer is a resounding yes. It’s called a Residential College Tutorial, and as a faculty fellow at Willard Residential College I had the fortune of teaching one of those in the spring of 2014.

A Residential College Tutorial is a small class, 8 to 10 students, which is offered specifically in one of Northwestern’s 11 residential colleges and is usually designated for the students living in that college. In some ways, it is no different from other college classes: tutorials count for credit and include obligations such as homework and paper writing. But it differs from a standard class in time, in place, and most of all, in feel. Tutorials take place in the late afternoon or evening, in the residential colleges themselves, and as such they generate continuity between two aspects of the college experience that are often conceived as completely disparate from one another: learning and living. A tutorial brings those two together, and therefore generates what is the key both to good learning and to good living: a sense of community. This sense of community is maintained not just during the formal part of the class, but also in going to dinner together as a group afterwards, or in going out to see a class-related movie together, as we have done. It is these seemingly inconsequential things that melt the boundary between disparate areas of college life and make it all the more meaningful – for students and professors alike.

And so it was: once a week ten students and I would gather in the Willard Library. Notable in their absence were laptops, tablets, smart phones and any other modes of distraction. Notable in their presence were cookies, which were a staple of our meetings – not just because of the usual peckishness of 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon, but also to make the point that we are, at least symbolically, partaking in a feast of learning. More notable, however, was what every student brought with him or her to each meeting: a well-crafted and pre-meditated series of thoughts and insights on the readings we were about to discuss that day, which each student wrote down and sent to me ahead of time. The students’ written responses provided the fuel for a lively and vibrant discussion, at the center of which stood a three-way encounter: between the students themselves, between them and me as an instructor, and between us and the third “participant” in our meetings – a silent participant which we have gradually started befriending – Death.

Indeed, the topic of the class was death. More accurately, it was the manner in which human beings confront death, their own or their loved ones’. In this choice of topic, too, I was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, who famously believed that one’s entire life was essentially a preparation for death, and more importantly, that an awareness of death and an ability to look death “in the eye” as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living. In our own society, in which death is very much ignored if not entirely denied, and is removed from the realm of everyday life into the specialized care of professionals, this wisdom seems to have been forgotten. But death, as we know, remains a reality that we all, at one point or another, encounter nonetheless, now oftentimes without any conceptual or emotional tools to deal with it. As a scholar of Religion, I find the manners in which different religious and philosophical traditions confronted and explained death to be absolutely fascinating. I see death as a particularly potent and powerful prism through which we can explore the diversity of human communities and the development and change in modes of thinking and behaving across time – two issues that I consider to be at the heart of any discipline in the Humanities. However, my interest in this topic is hardly purely intellectual. I fully subscribe to Socrates’ statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and since I view death as a part of life – perhaps the most definitive part of life – I believe it must be examined rigorously, honestly, and courageously. This was the purpose that I set forth for this tutorial.

“Is it really possible to discuss death so openly and forwardly with a group of 19 and 20 year olds, who are in the prime of their (allegedly) care-free youth?” I asked myself before the tutorial started. But from very early on, I was surprised by how intensely engaged and committed the students were to this examination of death (and, naturally, of life). For some students, who have suffered losses of close family members, this topic was very personal; but even for those who did not experience death in their immediate environment, the questions we discussed were poignant and, I dare say, emotionally and cognitively urgent. This was a journey on which everyone was eager to embark, and fortunately for us, we had great guides to lead us through this journey. From the Greek poet Homer to the Roman philosopher Seneca, from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to American journalist Mary Roach, we spent each session with the works of wonderful (and very different) writers who spent a lot of time contemplating death and who gave us much to think about, with, and against. However, as fabulous as these guides were, I believe much of the success of the journey had to do with the fellow travelers: with the fact that we explored these texts and questions together, looking at and listening to each other, sharing thoughts, fears, and doubts, and no less importantly – sharing laughter. A lot of it.

Throughout this entire quarter, one sentence kept on recurring to me in respect to this tutorial: that’s how it should be. College education, at its best, is an opportunity to examine the world audaciously from within a supportive, warm, and friendly community of like-minded examiners. Residential College Tutorials prove that in can be this way, and that putting emphasis on human contact – between students and professor, between one student and another, and between students and powerful ideas of people from other times and places – has the power to make higher education truly significant for all those involved.

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