Eva Ballester ’20 recently started a new job in a new city, a big life change made even more complicated by unprecedented circumstances. As a young professional living through a global pandemic, she’s been forced to face important, existential questions regarding life, death, and meaning.
As she navigates a new and uncertain world, she often thinks back to "Life and How to Live It," a course she took in the last semester of her senior year. Taught by Professor of English and Cultural Studies Thomas Roach, Ph.D., the class asked students to grapple with some of life’s biggest issues, learn from some of history’s most influential thinkers, and find meaning in challenging times.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that class,” says Ballester. “Everything in the books we read mattered, and we could relate everything in them to what’s happening around us, either in the grand scheme of the world or on a personal level.”
Important lessons from timeless classics
“I think the first thing I typically say to students about the class is ‘It's not for the faint of heart,’” says Roach, who developed "Life and How to Live It" with the aid of a Faculty Innovation Grant. The course, he notes, is designed to take students out of their comfort zones and have them confront uncomfortable issues. “I’m trying to prepare the students for life's hardships, and give them ways to become more resilient and more grounded for when they face death, and sickness, and the other things that are a part of life.”
“Professor Roach never judged us or tried to convince us of a certain viewpoint. He only wanted us to decide for ourselves how to ‘live well in a profound way.’”
At the start of the semester, he admits, he had no idea how timely those lessons would quickly become.
The course readings covered an international range of literary and philosophical works, from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to The Epic of Gilgamesh, and touched upon questions of identity, morality, and mortality. The students began each class with no prior information about what they would be reading until the book was handed to them at the beginning of the session.
That uncertainty was important, explains Ballester. “It allowed you to go into the class with a blank slate, without any preconceptions, biases, or opinions, and try to completely understand what the author of the book was trying to convey,” she notes.
For the first half of each five-hour class, the students read and took notes before coming together for a lively discussion of the ideas raised by their readings. One of the key goals of the course, Roach says, is to require busy college students, focused on grades and post-college careers, to step back and look at the big picture. “I want them to actually think about what they're doing and why they're doing it – as well as the effects and consequences,” he states.
“I was confronted with issues that I never realized existed in the world, and am armed with the knowledge of how to take on new challenges as a result of Professor Roach’s lessons.”
The students’ interactions required them to reexamine their beliefs, consider what what is truly meaningful to them, and decide how they would choose to move forward. “I feel as though I am a better human being from having taken this class,” says Marketing and Spanish double major Joseph Leary ’21, who also took the course last semester. “I was confronted with issues that I never realized existed in the world, and am armed with the knowledge of how to take on new challenges as a result of Professor Roach’s lessons.”
“I think 'Life and How to Live It' is one of the most, if not the most, valuable classes I have taken and will take at Bryant University,” agrees Audrey Chase ’21, an Applied Mathematics and Statistics major concentrating in Economics. “Professor Roach never judged us or tried to convince us of a certain viewpoint. He only wanted us to decide for ourselves how to ‘live well in a profound way.’”
As part of the course, the students provided meals for one another, an activity that helped them bond and form an intellectual community. Ballester remembers the impressive Caribbean-inspired meal that one of her classmates made for her and the traditional Fillipino dish she made for another student.
“I took it super-seriously,” she remembers. “I wanted my assigned person to have something good. I want them to know ‘I got you.’”
It was a natural outgrowth of the relationships forged through their discussions. “I can honestly say that I formed a bond with everyone in my class and I deeply trust everyone in that class,” she says. “I consider them all close friends."
Tested by pandemic
When Bryant shifted to offering courses online due to the COVID-19 epidemic, "Life and How to Live It" adapted with the times. Roach individually wrapped copies of the remaining readings for the course and mailed them to each student, ensuring the contents would remain a surprise until class began.
“Our class was a family. We came together every week, talked about our lives, laughed, read, and just were ourselves. No matter who we were or what major we were or what life experiences we have had, we could all just be ourselves.”
While the students were no longer able to prepare dinner for each other or meet in the same room, the bonds they formed remained strong and their discussions were just as vital. “We would check in with each other and how everyone was living in this moment of anxiety and uncertainty,” says Roach, “I wanted to make sure that the course was always a place of solace in one way or another.”
“Our class was a family,” says Chase. “We came together every week, talked about our lives, laughed, read, and just were ourselves. No matter who we were or what major we were or what life experiences we have had, we could all just be ourselves.”
"We tried to take care of each other,” adds Ballester.
The way forward
One of the biggest subjects the students tackled, Ballester says, was how to live life purposefully. For their final assignment, they were asked to address the question: “In these times, what does it mean to live a good life? What does it mean to die well?” In their responses, they took a semester's worth of big ideas and vibrant discussions and attempted to use them to chart a course for themselves that would help them make the most of their lives.
For Ballester, the answer was to always keep searching, to learn as much as you can and adapt those lessons to each new situation. “It's up to you,” she says. “You have to find the meaning in your life, or give it a meaning of your own if you can't find one.”
Her semester with Professor Roach and the other students in "Life and How to Live It," she says, have made that quest for meaning a little bit easier, no matter the road ahead.