What [Thing] Will Make You a Better Person?

By Jessica Cheung

What Will Make You a Better Person?

What [podcast] will make you a better person?

Of course, I would be remiss to not say Serial, the new podcast by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder.  It has killer cliffhangers and incredible writing. It Has inspiring spoofs, spoiler specials and productive conversations about narrative, ethics in reporting and storytelling. Listen to it!

Another favorite is Love & Radio. Creator Nick Vanderkolk describes L&R as intimate stories from “the seedy to the sublime.”  They are so intimate they can get uncomfortable, “but in a good way.”  Some episodes are so weird, I can’t fully get on board, but Love and Radio consistently pushes me out of my comfort zone as a human and as a producer.  It nurtures compassion and inspires sonically.

Erin Davis, Visiting Winter Term “Sound and Story” Instructor

What [philosopher] will make you a better person?

When I think of the life-skills that I’ve learned from doing philosophy, three things stand out. First, philosophy teaches one to be fairly discriminating about what’s necessary, and there’s something very liberating about recognizing that something once assumed to be necessary is in fact contingent. Second, philosophy teaches one to solve bigger problems by breaking them up into a collection of smaller problems that are easier to solve. Third, philosophy encourages rigorous thought across a wide variety of topics.

I don’t know that there’s one person who perfectly embodies all three of the ideals to which I alluded in my previous email, but David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Wilfrid Sellars strike me as pretty good exemplars. Having said that, I’m not really a “figure-driven” philosopher; I care more about the ideas than who said them.

Kareem Khalifa, Associate Professor of Philosophy

What [book] will make you a better person?

Reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene will make you a better person! Spenser thought that the activity of reading was a profoundly MORAL activity, so the poem teaches you to be a good, careful, ethical reader – of the poem and the book of life! (2)

Marion Wells, Associate Professor of English & American Literatures

What [book] will make you a better person?

Tough question. Guy Vanderhaeghe, Homesick. (You can’t see it, but I keep changing my mind!) A beautifully crafted story about family love, growing up, and loss. It will make you wise!

Brett Millier, Reginald L. Cook Professor of American Literature

What [research study] will make you a better person?

The original paper by Hodgkin and Huxley In the 1950’s that described the ionic basis of resting and action potentials for which they won a Nobel Prize.  In the 1950’s equipment was ancient, they had to be especially creative, very mathematical, and were especially intuitive. (3)

Tom Root, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience

What [television series] will make you a better person?

I’d argue that the TV series Mad Men will make you a “better” person. I put “better” in quotes because I do think what a “better” person is is very debatable.  But I’d suggest that Mad Men makes us more thoughtful and aware, especially of the relationship between the personal, the social, and the political. At first it seems like the gender and social restrictions depicted in Mad Men are a thing of the past, but as the seasons unfold, I think we come to see how we’ve inherited those social assumptions and how far we still have to go. And because we identify with the Mad Men characters, we see the reflections of those social issues in our own lives. (4)

Louisa Stein, Assistant Professor of Film & Media Culture

What [book] will make you a better person?

I never like books that set out to make me a better person (self-help books, say, though I’ve found a few helpful now and then!) I think any book that enlarges your sense of the world and that allows you entry into another point of view has the potential of increasing your awareness, opening your eyes, stretching those muscles of compassion—which to me might be the best definition of how to be a better person . My favorite inspirational non-self-help book of the moment is one which  I used to give to all the volunteers who went down to spend a year at our farm and literacy project in the Dominican republic, alta gracia. it is Rebecca Solnit’s very short, very amazing Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, Wild Possibilities.  It’s a rousing call to activism—urging us to think outside the box, to “change the imagination of change,” her phrase, so that we can begin to turn around some of the colossal challenges facing us as a planet and species. Solnit claims (and I agree!) that one place to begin is with the stories we tell and spread that help us to re-imagine ourselves and the world we live in, which is what the best stories and books do. Will this book or any book make us a better person? I guess ultimately, it’s up to us.  As Rilke reminds us at the end of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” having described Apollo’s statue, the moment of art is over, and now, reader, “You must change your life.”

Julia Alvarez ’71, writer-in-residence

What [study] will make you a better person?

I love the research coming out of the field of positive psychology. Particularly the work of Diener & Seligman, which demonstrates very happy people are highly social and have strong social relationships. If you want to be a better person, be a better friend, sibling, partner, etc. High quality relationships are central to our happiness. (5)

Robert Moeller, Assistant Professor of Psychology

What [play] will make you a better person?

Hamlet suggests that theatre is a mirror, and that we learn from this reflection.  In response to your question, there are so many plays, but I will cite just one example. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the character Walter Lee is about to commit a despicable and immoral act before he comes to the conclusion that this act will be devastating to his family and to his manhood.  When the audience sees Walter Lee’s struggle, they too realize that Walter’s ultimate decision makes him a better person.  I hope this is sufficient.  I must now go back to trying to comprehend wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. (6)

Nathaniel Nesmith, C3 Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theatre

What [political text] will make you a better person?

On the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless.” It will make you a better person, because a life lived in truth is a life that matters. Or as Havel said, “For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”

Allison Stanger, Russell J. Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics

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