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Continued: Minnesota college students mull life's big questions at 'Philosophy Camp'

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 9, 2013 - 4:51 PM

Some spent one Sunday afternoon binding books, playing cards and, as one student put it, “wandering aimlessly.” In the studio, Emily Dueker attempted to thread a Singer sewing machine with the help of Ardes Shea, the “camp grandmother,” and YouTube.

“Close your box,” the video instructed them. They squinted at the machine.

“OK, we did that,” Dueker said.

Tucked into the center’s corners and windowsills are little “libraries” stocked by the instructors and apprentices. In “Steve’s Library,” Kosowski shelved “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day, among others.

Philosophy majors have signed up for the camp envisioning dense, daylong discussions about theory, said Nance Longley, an instructor and graphic designer. “Which can happen — but not in the way they’re used to.”

The course’s fluid structure is meant to mirror 19th-century Danish folk high schools, which practiced education “that takes care to respect, draw out and build on the experiences of life that students bring to the learning setting,” the syllabus says.

At Philosophy Camp, that drawing out happens during daily “story circles.” Each morning, the community of about 30 people splits into smaller groups and settles into their collection of chairs. A recent prompt: “Tell about a time when music deeply impacted your life.”

Wallace, a longtime philosophy professor, crossed his legs and reminded people of a few rules. “Silence is OK,” he said, gently. “You contribute as much by listening as by your speaking.”

Then they each told a story. Wallace, too. One woman shared a piece from the Japanese film “Castle in the Sky,” playing the track on her pink iPhone. Another described the songs a music therapist played in the hospital room hours before her grandmother’s death.

At Philosophy Camp, “you get to know each other backward,” said Wallace, who dreamed up the course with like-minded instructors and graduate students. Usually, a stranger asks about your major, maybe where you grew up.

“We do those introductions, too. But immediately, you know something about a friendship. A time when hope shifted. A place that has meaning.”

An impromptu lesson

Through those discussions, “you learn that everyone is really important,” said Anna Lohse, 24, one of the course’s apprentices.

At the start of camp, Lohse finds herself judging the other participants. But “by the end of four weeks, I’m completely surprised by who I’m close to, who I’m the most interested in,” she said. “It works every year.”

The sky had darkened by the time the students arrived back from their walk. A few squinted their way to the observation deck, leaning their heads back to look at the stars.

“It’s so peaceful. We should meditate,” joked Dueker, a sophomore.

“I could lead us,” replied Tiffany.

He asked the students to get comfortable. After some giggling, they quieted, crossing their legs and closing their eyes. The prairie’s noises — chirping crickets, groaning frogs, gentle wind — grew. Tiffany spoke slowly.

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  • Video: Philosophy on the farm

    Wednesday July 10, 2013

    The non-traditional course offered by the University of Minnesota places students in a uniquely intimate situation for a month...

  • University of Minnesota students enrolled in a spring philosophy camp course walked toward the fading sunlight on an impromptu prairie walk.

  • U of M philosophy camp students Zach Benson, left, and Liz Vocasek enjoyed pre-dinner banter at philosophy camp.

  • Chun Zhang, an international doctoral student at the University of Minnesota from China, was elated after plucking an egg in the henhouse.

  • Ardes Shea, the “camp grandmother,” attempted to thread a donated Singer sewing machine as U of M philosophy camp apprentice Anna Lohse, middle, and student Dawn Jiang, right, tried to assist. In the end, Jiang brought out her iPad for a YouTube tutorial and learned the machine was missing an important part.

  • During a morning University of Minnesota philosophy camp meeting, hands of instructors and students go up for those wanting to participate in a nearby town’s summer festival parade.

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