Curiosity, Creativity, Collaboration: In Conversation with Alexandra Gustafson

Published: December 19, 2022

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In 2022, the Martha Lile Love Teaching Award went to Alexandra Gustafson for her outstanding work teaching PHL388  Literature and Philosophy. The committee singled out for praise her course’s design, timely theme, approach to accessibility, and innovative lecture format. Besides being a committed teacher, Gustafson, a published scholar of the philosophy of emotion and the 2021-2022 president of the Graduate Philosophy Student Union (GPSU), also dedicates much of her time raising awareness about mental health among students and working toward ever greater inclusivity in academia. We spoke with her about time in the classroom, accessibility, writing, her scholarship, and the value of community.


Thank you, Alexandra, for taking the time to answer a few questions. The award committee gave particular praise to your efforts to make your teaching and class materials accessible, and to the innovative class format. Could you speak to us about what you did and students’ responses?

Situated just after the lifting of major pandemic restrictions, I hoped to connect the content of the course with my students’ experiences of the pandemic in a timely and therapeutic way (we close-read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague). With both context and content in mind, I made accessibility a priority: from emphasizing mental health policies and procedures on my syllabus and building deadline extensions into the assignment timeline, to offering an optional, online component, I preemptively structured the course to be as flexible and student-focused as possible.

Regarding class format, I structured seminar time around guided discussion, generally beginning class with the discussion of a thematic question that would feature later in my lecture. I find teaching to be a lot like improv acting and, for me, getting my students’ impressions via discussion before I lecture helps me tailor my teaching to their understanding on the fly. This inversion of the typical lecture-then-discussion format seems to, in my experience, produce a more active learning environment.


What do you try to bring to the classroom, and what do you most seek, or seek to encourage, in your students?

I teach to foster the philosophical values of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration. While philosophy has a tremendous number of transferable skills to offer, it’s the core values it instills that make the greatest and most lasting impact on students. As such, I design lectures and lessons with an eye toward these values, integrating activities and assignments that encourage students to engage with philosophy curiously, creatively, and collaboratively.


In the Department of Philosophy, you are not just a student, scholar, instructor, essay clinician, and frequent contributor to departmental activities but you also recently led the Graduate Philosophy Students Union (GPSU) and have been at the forefront of efforts to make the department a welcoming and inclusive space with regard to mental health and disability. Can you talk about the meaning of community in academia and scholarship, and the significance of supporting students’ mental health?

Simply put, philosophy is best done together. It cannot be done together if someone is unintentionally left behind, purposefully left out, or otherwise excluded. Philosophy has made great strides, but there is more work to be done (both in philosophy in particular and in academia-at-large). For instance, an undeniable mental health crisis persists. Getting down to the root reasons of why this is the case and employing intentional, targeted action continues to be the task at hand. For, after all, we are more than the roles we occupy; before our students are students, they are human beings.


You are no stranger to receiving recognition for your work, whether as a scholar, a student leader, or, now, as an instructor. What does it mean to you to receive recognition in the form of the Martha Lile Love Teaching Award?

Receiving recognition is not my forte; I am painfully introverted! To receive the Martha Lile Love Teaching Award is particularly meaningful for me, precisely because teaching is my passion. What’s more, this was really my dream course, and I can’t thank the department enough for choosing me to teach it!


Please talk to us a little bit about your scholarship and what brought you to philosophy and your area of concentration in the first place.

I work on love, primarily romantic love. In general, my research argues that we ought to pay more attention to the phenomenology of love (that is, the experience of love); basically, I think this essential aspect of love has largely untapped theoretical promise.

Like all great loves, I found mine by accident: it was during my MA that I took a few courses on philosophy of the emotions, and one in particular that focussed on anger, love, and grief. I actually started out working on the language of poetry! (But poetry and love are not so dissimilar, really.)


Besides writing academic articles, you frequently also engage in what we might call “public philosophy,” discussing philosophical questions for a non-expert audience. What is the value of this approach? Would you deem it a requirement for being a good philosopher?

Again, I believe that philosophy is best done together, in community. By excluding the greater population, we philosophers cut ourselves off from so much possibility! This isn’t to say that every professional philosopher need engage in public philosophy; only to say that philosophy-at-large needs the public philosopher as much as it needs the traditional researcher.


What’s your best writing advice?

As in all things, I believe in authenticity. Though it can be hard to make the perspective-shift, I try to think of my writing not as an article, or a dissertation chapter, or a class essay, but as an authentic expression of my current thinking on some subject. I find that this helps me worry less about the imperfection of the piece; it isn’t so much a product (that can be more-or-less final) as it is a living representation of where I am at the moment. When I can engage in writing as an act of authenticity, I feel more connected to both philosophy and myself.


What might we find Alexandra Gustafson doing or enjoying when she is not thinking philosophy?

When Alexandra Gustafson is not thinking philosophy, she is thinking philosophy! I’m one of those single-minded people who finds philosophy in all that I do (which includes writing poetry, painting, and enjoying live music).