AUSTIN, Texas—What happens when you put a lawyer, a microbiologist, a psychologist, two philosophers and two English professors in the same classroom and ask them to talk about love for seven weeks?
That’s what Dr. Paul Woodruff, director of the University of Texas at Austin Plan II Honors Program, wanted to find out when he designed a new course this spring called Perspectives on Love. The evening class is open not only to Plan II students, but also to graduates of the honors program which is part of the College of Liberal Arts.
After two weeks of pleasant intellectual bickering, the UT professors haven’t agreed on a definition of love and one faculty member (law professor Philip Bobbitt) doesn’t even believe it lends itself to definition. There has been talk of Plato (by Woodruff), brain levels and natural selection (microbiologist Ruth Buskirk), shared identities (philosopher Robert Solomon), emotional memory (psychologist Wendy Domjan) and star-crossed lovers (English professor and literary critic James Loehlin).
“I picked love as a topic because it’s so important in our lives, and because so many different disciplines write about it,” said Woodruff, who also is a professor of philosophy. “The faculty are all people who teach in Plan II. Our students see us one-by-one in classrooms, but hardly ever together, and only in such a forum as this course will they see us together working out our differences. It’s a lot of fun for each of us to hear what other faculty members say about subjects we think are ours.”
Last year, Plan II offered a course titled Perspectives on Truth, also taught by faculty from different disciplines. The format for the class is the same: An hour-long talk by one of the professors followed by a discussion with all the participating faculty members. Woodruff led the first classroom discussion on “Plato’s Discovery of Equality in Love.”
“Poets before Plato treated love as a disease — miserable and unequal,” Woodruff said. “He was the first writer in the western tradition to say that love could be joyful and equal. Plato changed things. Love poets after him began to write differently — a happier tradition of love took hold in Greek poetry, was picked up by Arabs and then on to the western world.”
Solomon, who is the author of 30 books including About Love and The Passions, told the class that “in a fragmented world so built on intimacies, love even more than family and friendship determines selfhood. When we talk about the ‘real self’ or ‘being true to ourselves,’ what we often mean is being true to the image of ourselves that we share with those we love most.
“The self we would like to think of as most real is the self that emerges in intimacy, and its virtues are the typically private virtues of honesty in feeling and expression, interpersonal passion, tenderness and sensitivity.”
Romeo and Juliet as one of the defining myths of romantic love and culture, is Loehlin’s Feb. 6 topic. “As a literary critic, I am interested in the stories we tell about ourselves, the way we use stories to make sense of our lives. Our experience of love is informed by, and in turn informs, the stories we tell about love,” said Loehlin, who is the new director of UT Austin’s Shakespeare at Winedale program.
“Why does the love of Romeo and Juliet, which begins blindly and ends disastrously, continue to appeal to us? Is it a model we should keep? What enduring values does Shakespeare’s play have, and how can it enrich our understanding of the role of love in human life?”
Domjan, who will be the main faculty presenter on Feb. 13, agrees with Woodruff that having people from a variety of areas talk about a topic in which they all have a common interest gives the students a chance not only to get a richer perspective on that specific topic, but to get a sense of how different disciplines approach problems. The UT psychologist says she will be talking about the different varieties of love that psychology has identified, focusing particularly on the differences among them and how they relate to each other. She’d also like to discuss the characteristics of successful long-term relationships.
Other sessions for the course include Bobbitt’s talk on “Law Like Love” on Feb. 20 and Buskirk’s Feb. 27 class on “Natural Selection and Love.” Dr. Elizabeth Cullingford, an expert on Yeat’s love poetry, will discuss Yeats on March 6. Cullingford, Woodruff and Solomon are members of UT Austin’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
“I’d like to consider some examples of the evolution of mating strategies and some of the biological bases of altruism and other seemingly unselfish acts of love,” said Buskirk.
Plan II students taking the course receive one hour credit. There is no grade, but attendance is required.
For more information or to schedule interviews, contact Woodruff at (512) 471-1442 or Karen Bordelon at (512) 232-7025.
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