Students Consider the “Good Life” at the University of Florida
At the University of Florida, Jennifer Smith, Director of the Office for Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence, and Andrew Wolpert, Good Life Course Director and Associate Professor of Classics, have been spearheading a course titled “What Is the Good Life?” This multi-disciplinary course, required of all first-year undergraduate students, explores how people have thought about the meaning of a “good life” for thousands of years and the ways in which we seek, fight for, and celebrate it.
We recently chatted with Smith and Wolpert about this course and particularly its incorporation of The Good Project’s Value Sort as a core class activity. A summary of our conversation is below.
Q: How did this course originate? What do you see as its purpose and hope that students learn?
Jennifer: “What Is the Good Life?” is a component of the University of Florida’s “UF Core,” a series of general education courses. This past year, nearly seven thousand freshmen have completed the course, which is required for students in all colleges at the University, regardless of topic of study.
Andrew: The UF Core focuses on the themes of “meaning-making” are “purpose exploration.” In “What Is the Good Life?”, we want students to delve deep into the ideas and concepts that we discuss in class and to realize that this course is indeed applicable to their own lives. By examining a wide range of works from the arts and the humanities, students come to realize that the “good life” is a complex concept that has little to do with ephemeral pleasures. It is about what you must do for yourself and others in order to live a meaningful life. We try to crack the term open and examine the “good life” across time and cultures.
Jennifer: In course feedback, some students report that they don’t understand the relevance of this course to their areas of study or wider lives. We want all of our students to realize that the question of what constitutes an ideal life is important to everyone and that what we value affects the decisions we make every day and eventually the trajectory of life. Even though it may seem abstract and unimportant, the way you think about a “good life” does have a real impact. This course allows first-year students to explore and put into words their own personal values, laying a groundwork of self-knowledge before they move on the following year to consider the values of society and their place within it.
Q: How is The Good Project’s Value Sort implemented as a part of this course?
Jennifer: We start the semester with our Career Resource Center’s “Valuing Your Values” activity, which is similar to The Good Project’s Value Sort. Students are asked to pick ten values from a list that are important to them. They must then narrow the list to five values and discuss the trade-offs they face in narrowing that list.
Andrew: The list includes items like “power and authority,” “achievement,” “family,” “autonomy,” “location,” and “challenge” and is meant to focus on values that relate to a wide range of careers. Many first-year students (and their parents) are concerned about starting a career, but they don’t take the time to consider whether their envisioned professions are compatible with their values. We try to get them to sit back and consider big questions like, “What do you want your life to look like?” and “What happens when you pick a career that does or does not align with your values?”
Later in the semester, we ask students to complete The Good Project’s Value Sort in order to help them answer questions about what they prioritize and why. By ranking the values found in this activity, they get an even better sense of what is most important to them. We also ask them if any value is not listed which they find personally meaningful.
Jennifer: I have found that The Good Project’s Value Sort is easy to use and provides clear results to students. They then choose one value or belief in particular and record an audio essay explaining its importance in their own lives. Students are asked to relate their personal value or belief to one of the course readings.
Q: One of the unique aspects of this course is the audio essay. Tell me a little more about that.
Jennifer: The inspiration for the audio essay, the final product of the semester, was the “This I Believe” audio essay series, which was broadcast on NPR from 2005 to 2009 (see thisibelieve.org). Students record themselves talking about a dearly held value or belief for three minutes. We have a competition in which the writers of the best essays of the semester have the opportunity to be chosen as finalists for a scholarship. Moving forward, we hope to use these finalist recordings as examples for future students to emulate. Faculty members can bring these audio essays and multimedia into “What is the Good Life?” as well as their other courses. I think it helps students to create a personal emotional connection with the material.
Andrew: What’s neat about this assignment is that it gives students the time to reflect on their values; they often don’t have the opportunity to engage in such an activity until they enroll in the course. The “This I Believe” audio essay allows UF students to express their ideas of the “good life” in concrete terms and see how their own ideas relate to the works that we have studied. Overall, students have responded positively!