The Good Life and The Good Death in IntroSems

June 20, 2024, 12:59 p.m.

In her small dorm room, junior Anne Kwok only has space for a handful of books. Almost all of them are from an IntroSem she took frosh year: “Perspectives on the Good Life.” The texts included Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, and the “Basic Writings of Zhuangzi.” One day after class, Kwok asked the professor, Lee Yearley, what had helped him through his darkest times in life. He replied, “Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William James.” He had, Kwok realized, designed the class around the books that had helped him the most in his over five decades as a religious studies professor. 

After being introduced to the subject during the IntroSem “The Good Death,” Molly Graybill spent a summer researching and training to be a death doula, a person who provides support to a dying person and their family members, on a Chappell-Lougee scholarship. The scholarship provides funding for a full-time project in the humanities, creative arts or social sciences to selected Stanford students during the summer after sophomore year. Graybill, now a junior, said that she walked out of a class meeting where two death doulas were invited to speak “feeling so moved and inspired and so full of life, I wanted to learn how to be a doula and study this amazing group of people I’d never heard of.” 

Frosh and sophomores often seek out IntroSems, short for Introductory Seminars, to explore a topic of interest with a small group of peers. The classes offer an opportunity to connect with a professor and classmates in a discussion-based setting. The religious studies IntroSems for frosh, “Perspectives on the Good Life” and “The Good Death,” seem to stand out from among an already very popular set of introductory courses. A quick glance at the reviews on Carta with phrases like “life-changing,” “mind-blowing conversations,” “epitome of a college class” and “do everything in your power to take [it]” gives an impression of the unique impact on some students.   

What exactly makes these courses so powerful? Kwok reflected that, “A lot of philosophy classes are reading texts and understanding what people have thought before but [“Perspectives on the Good Life”] is really developing your own philosophy of life.” Graybill felt similarly that “The Good Death” was a class that enabled students to “discern a path for themselves, their values and what matters in life.” She continued, “I would venture to say that it’s almost impossible to live a good life without considering what a good death entails. This class has definitely transformed the way I think about my life and the things I value, how I spend my time, who I spend my time with.” 

It is the small, discussion-based environment of these courses that enables students to begin exploring and voicing their views on some of life’s most profound questions. Kwok described how in “Perspectives on the Good Life,” Professor Yearley would “listen to our inexperienced thoughts about the meaning of life and take it seriously. It gave me a sense of confidence and made me feel like I could contribute to what a good life means.” Professor Anna Bigelow, who teaches “The Good Death,” said of teaching the class that “sometimes it feels like you’re more of a witness than a teacher as people are learning and finding language for their interests.”  

At the same time, space constraints mean that few students have the opportunity to take these courses given that they are offered only for frosh, on a yearly or biyearly basis. Many students who apply for a spot don’t get in. Kwok said, “I was lucky to be able to get in … I don’t think there are a lot of opportunities like that class.” Graybill similarly reflected that similar classes and spaces aren’t “out there enough” and feels that this “kind of a class should be required for undergrads to take; that level reflection about values in life can be very transformative.”

The “good life” and “good death” are closely related. As Bigelow explains, embedded in the idea that “there are better and worse ways to die … are questions of what does it mean to live well and appropriately whether morally, or ethically or whatever else the driving ethos of your life might be … How you live relates to how you die.” While the course explores questions of how to live, its main focus is on death itself, which Bigelow sees as “often a less fully explored idea.” 

One of Bigelow’s motivations in teaching the course is that “in American society at this moment, it’s often very awkward and difficult to have conversations about death … It involves a lot of fear and anxiety and there is a fair amount of research suggesting that the more one addresses these fears and anxieties, the less they are experienced,” she said. The course explores death practices and rituals from around the world and across time periods in addition to examining how instances of unjust deaths can spur major social change, such as during the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Graybill, a religious studies major, feels that “The Good Death” shaped her Stanford academic journey. “It was such a beautiful foundation for the rest of my education at Stanford. It informed my degree choice and how I think about building intention,” she said. In addition to pursuing a Chappell Lougee scholarship to further research death doulas, Graybill took a graduate-level seminar, also taught by Bigelow, on death and religion. 

Kwok will continue to study the good life when she goes abroad to Oxford this spring and takes an individually designed class called a tutorial. “One thing I got [from “Perspectives on the Good Life”] was a continuous curiosity to pursue this more. I’m going to Oxford to study abroad and my tutorial is going to be an extension of this course. I’m trying to see what happens in your brain when you have a religious or spiritual experience, basically, what happens to create meaning. I’m trying to see what happens in your brain when you read poetry, and I’m trying to write a lot of poetry,” she said. 

The summer after taking “Perspectives on the Good Life,” junior Jay Yu returned to some of the course material. “The William James reading ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ really stuck with me. So I ended up buying the actual whole book on Amazon and just going through it through the summer, reading it cover to cover. That was definitely a really great experience, having the chance to actually dive deep into one of the things,” he reflected. 

Given the pre-professional focus of many of Stanford’s student organizations and most popular majors, these IntroSems can be, if not a counter to these pressures, a space in which to reflect and gain a wider perspective on what can constitute success. As an economics major and member of multiple pre-professional groups on campus, Kwok reflected that, “Being in a pre-professional group can narrow you into one path, but having this class as part of my foundation at Stanford showed me the range of things I can do.”

She recalled one particularly unconventional route mentioned by her professor: “One of the favorite things our professor would talk about was that he converted a Stanford student into a goat farmer and he’s very proud of that and I think that showed me a new perspective on what it means to have a good life.” 

Yu, a double major in computer science and philosophy on the philosophy and literature track, said that during the class it was “impressed on us that we should focus on the humanities … and that we don’t need to be on the tech and finance grind. But after the class, when we would talk to each other, we were all [on the grind]. We were taking classes like these but were still pretty realistic about what our goals are.”

Still, Yu felt that most students in the class shared a “reflective capability to look within themselves and say, ‘Yes I am choosing these things because I believe in something. I know that my life is not just about a career.’” Classes like “Perspectives on the Good Life” perhaps can help expand this intentionality. In Yu’s view, college is about preparing for a career, but also life itself: “You should be in college to grow as a person, rather than just grow a skill set for a career.” 

Years after taking “Perspectives on the Good Life,” Kwok, Yu and their classmates continue to maintain the community that emerged from the class. “I still get picnics with the people in my IntroSem,” Kwok said. It’s been like three years and at least every quarter we still talk about the topics that we talked about in that class … Our professor encouraged groups outside of class to continue these conversations and created a lot of community and so the class didn’t end spring quarter, it feels like it’s continued until now.”

Graybill had a similar experience, saying that “The Good Death” had “one of the most life-giving environments, with conversations that lasted in and out of class.” Graybill met two of her closest friends through the class and remains in touch with many of her other classmates. “People continue to reminisce about the class,” she said. 

For Bigelow, “The Good Death” has been “hands down my favorite class to teach or really just to be in any way a part of.” It is incredibly meaningful, she says, to teach a class that encourages students to  “recognize … that they have something to contribute on some of the most important questions, ultimately, that any of us will ever confront.”

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