My first year and a half at Harvard have proven to me that while all of us here are horrendously busy, the Professors, despite warnings to the contrary, are also very interested in teaching and learning with their students. To demonstrate, I could talk to you about the deeply engaging seminar on the religious dimensions of children’s literature that I took with Stephanie Paulsell, formatted around weekly discussions that opened up new worlds within our texts through the shared insights of students with diverse motives and projects; or I could talk about the opportunities for independent reading and research that allowed me to flesh out and experiment with thesis ideas under the personal supervision of impressive scholars who have shown particularly encouraging interest in my theoretical and methodological questions. But both of these examples are what I had always imagined myself enjoying about my time at graduate school, wherever I went, and it is not surprising that I should have found those things at HDS. What has surprised me most about my engagement with coursework at HDS has been the lectures.
In my first year, I ended up taking two very traditional lecture-based courses. When I began in David Lamberth’s course on German developments in nineteenth century religious thought, I didn’t know what to make of the format and I was dubious about whether it was a good use of my time. I was also, as tends to happen, in a very Harvard-suspicious state of mind. Sure, I was excited to be here, but I was still worried about Harvard elitism, and part of me (fed by the worries and stereotypes of friends and counselors) imagined that my Professors would be arrogant, self-important, and aloof. But Professor Lamberth was both entertaining and illuminating, exposing key elements of the enormously challenging structure of thinkers like Kant and Hegel, and drawing attention to the subtler poetry of their approach to very abstract problems. It was this latter quality of the lectures, as Lamberth elegantly portrayed Kant’s bound of human knowledge as a precipice that would be revisited by Kierkegaard’s image of a chasm over which one might leap, that was particularly surprising. Lamberth’s lectures weren’t just powerful on their own, as individual explanations of one particular thinker or essay; they wove into one another, seamlessly revisiting key images and themes throughout the year so that listening week by week was like being inside a living interpretation of these thinkers.
My experience of Charles Hallisey’s course on Buddhist ethics was similarly surprising. As Professor Hallisey interwove key insights by thinkers as diverse as the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere and the Thai Buddhist monk Payutto, always dancing just beyond the horizon of our understanding. Introducing his course with an exhortation that we allow Buddhist thinkers to look into our deepest assumptions about what it means to be human and how to ask ethical questions, Hallisey harried whatever safe position we thought to stand on from every side. Whether he was using the linguistically impenetrable insights of Paul Ricoeur as a Zen koan or demonstrating that his capacity for obstinacy could equal our own in his refusal to concede to a tacitly utilitarian view of ethics, the course was always frustrating. But as the weeks rolled on, we began to see that the course was frustrating in precisely the same way that a Buddhist anthropology frustrates and overturns our often unexamined Western notions of self and agency. It wasn’t simply that the lectures contained important factual and interpretive information; the lectures had been designed expertly to give students the authentic experience of being critiqued.
After a year here at Harvard, this is what I’ve come to expect: lectures that reflect in their form and sequence a well-curated journey through otherwise dauntingly-opaque theorists and thinkers; lectures that feel more like living through a brilliant scholarly book, one week at a time, than dry sessions of knowledge-dissemination. Of course, I continue thrive in seminars and seek out opportunities to pursue my own research, and Harvard has more opportunities for this kind of learning than you’ll ever be able to take advantage of in your two or three years as a Masters student. But I valued those learning-forums when I arrived. It’s much more of an endorsement, I think, to say that Harvard’s courses sold me on a format of which I was suspicious, than it is just to say that they let me do what I want.