What do Sophocles, Toni Morrison, The Good Place, and an advice column have in common? Soon, they will be tenets in an Advanced Studies course centered around literature and philosophy. The class is the brainchild of Caroline Boyajian, who says, “This is a dream course for me, and something I think the kids can really sink their teeth into.” Students will be reading and viewing works that are not explicitly philosophy, alongside great philosophers from history.
“What I hope to achieve is an experience where students engage with works that are about the human experience, what makes our lives meaningful, and what we owe to each other,” Caroline explains. “The idea is to get kids to think about their lives differently, and to also think about literature differently—how what they’re reading speaks to the human condition.”
Inspired by the philosophical discussions in the TV show The Good Place, Caroline envisions the class exploring a selection of fiction works, the New York Times’ column “The Ethicist” by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and a variety of classic works of philosophy to inform what they’re reading. Add on a layer of resolutions (think New Year’s), and students will walk away with an interdisciplinary experience that informs how they see the world around them. “I want students to resolve for themselves to accomplish something that will either do good in the world or allow them to live more authentically,” Caroline says. “Whether that’s to return to a hobby that gives you joy or interact with their friends in a different way or become more engaged with current events… I want them to think about how both fictional and philosophical texts can help us live our lives in a way that is richer and more fulfilling.”
With a variety of writing assignments in store, students will journal, write book and film reviews, and even try their hands at an advice column. “They’ll get to practice using a different voice in their writing,” Caroline says, “and they’ll also teach the rest of the class about the particular philosopher they’re researching.”
While Caroline sees the class as having some parallels with a traditional AP curriculum—a holistic approach centered around how students think and write—it’s the creativity to move beyond the boundaries of the AP test that excites her. “Rather than working toward a goal that happens at the end of the year,” she shares, “students can be more creative in thinking about what they’re passionate about in the moment.”
To Caroline, going “beyond AP” means having the opportunity to do interdisciplinary work. “Sometimes kids can walk away from high school with the sense that these subjects that we hand to them—math, science, English, art, history, music—are separate things in the world, and the truth is they’re not,” Caroline contends. “These are all interrelated, interconnected ways of thinking about the universe and each other. You don’t need to pigeon-hole yourself as a math person or a history person or an English person—you’re just a thinker.” Caroline is giving students the opportunity to be more open about how they see themselves as thinkers and learners.
In her additional role as junior class dean, Caroline engages students in conversations that move beyond what is explored in a typical classroom setting. “Conversations about who we are, who we want to be, and what it means to be in community together are not and should not be separate from the intellectual, academic conversations we’re having in the classroom,” she asserts. “The more we can think about character as part of our academic experience the better.”
Caroline’s dream for creative advanced coursework doesn’t end at philosophy. “I also fantasize about designing a course that’s grounded in ekphrasis, writing about art,” Caroline shares. She gives as examples the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley—inspired by a fragment of a statue of Ramesses II—and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier—inspired by the Johannes Vermeer painting of the same name. Her face lights up as she explains, “I envision an interdisciplinary environment where students use real artwork as inspiration for the writing that they complete for the class!”
By nurturing this imaginative process, Caroline hopes that students can shift their focus away from external pressures and evaluations and more toward what they have accomplished. As class dean, she has had ample opportunity to see firsthand the pressures that students are under. “Students will always care about grades—and they should,” Caroline adds, “but if we can shift their attention away from the pressure of that measurement in just a small way… that would be something!”