A UChicago Course on the Well-Examined Life (Now Also a Podcast)

March 5, 2022 (last updated on July 13, 2023)

A popular UChicago course taught by Eric Oliver on the lived experience sets the stage for an upcoming podcast and eventual book from the professor.

By Sarah Steimer

Eric Oliver

There’s a class offered at UChicago that includes regular meditation. Students write personal essays during the course and — when it’s held in person — there’s even a cheese tasting.

It certainly doesn’t sound like one of the more traditional courses the university offers, but it is one of its most popular. Called “The Intelligible Self” and taught by Political Science Professor Eric Oliver, students have come to embrace the class for the introspective approach it offers: They have an opportunity to work on themselves; they are their own projects.

As one student, Will Davis, explained it, “To be able to look inside yourself and even do a little therapy on yourself as part of your coursework at UChicago — most of which is otherwise so heavy-handed and divorced from the students’ emotions — was a blessing that quarter and beyond.”

The class has evolved over the years and has become the launchpad for Oliver’s upcoming podcast and eventual book. It was all born out of his desire to teach a seminar that would combine his interest in psychoanalytic theory, Buddhism, neuroscience, and beyond. “I wasn't really sure how it would work out,” he said. “My wife did joke that I should just call the class ‘Stuff I'm Interested In.’”

One of the orienting principles of the class, Oliver said, is that a sense of self is not something to be mastered, but a process to be explored. Some of the tools he provides to students include reading assignments by individuals across time and discipline. To begin with, the class explores how the perspectives of physics and chemistry define their being, then they move onto biology and evolution to explore the biological sources of the self.

From here, the class examines how language and culture shape the self. Students are taught to consider cognition and emotion, and how they’re experienced and understood. Then a week is spent on narrative and life story. Oliver draws on readings from Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Alison Bechdel, and others.

“We put these various thinkers in conversation with each other,” he said. “What would Aristotle have said had he known anything about neuroscience? Or how would Buddhism be changed if the Buddha knew about physics? We think about both ancient and modern and East and West and put them in conversation with each other, and then apply that to our day-to-day, ordinary experience as well.”

The students are encouraged to relate what they learn to their own lived experience — Oliver asks them to draw on their own lives and much of the writing done for the class is connecting what they read to what they experience themselves. Not unlike how learned formulas and concepts can be applied to their own research, the students are taught to explore their own lives through the lens the class provides.

“Professor Oliver’s class enabled me to take this academic interest and apply it inward,” former student Alison Cenname said. “I was given the tools, the guidance, and the space to reflect more openly, critically, and honestly about the purpose of life and my own experiences.”

Oliver limits the class to juniors and seniors, and notes that it’s often the first time many of the students have thought deeply about their inner selves. “At a very basic level, it provides them with a  wider vocabulary for their lived experience,” he said. “A lot of students have never really sat down and questioned why they're doing the things that they do. And it's the first time for them to think about their motivations for the choices that they're making. How do they understand their own emotions? What are they doing in their relationships? What is their purpose? And what are they trying to make out of their life's purpose?”

When Oliver would tell others about the course over the years, people would often tell him how they wished they had a class like his in college, and they would ask if he had a book to recommend on the topic (“I had like 40.”) Oliver said he was a little frustrated thinking that all the wisdom was scattered in so many different places. So why not pull it all together himself?

He used the structure of a questionnaire he asks students to fill out at the beginning of the course, which they then revisit at the end. For the podcast and book, Oliver narrowed the list down to nine questions, meant to be useful for having a well-examined life. The aim of the book and the podcast, he said, is to translate the experience of exploring oneself by using both classical pieces of literature and modern science.

While working on the book, Oliver decided he wanted to talk to people about how they view themselves. He realized that some of his conversations were worth sharing with a wider audience, by way of a podcast.

“With my students, I'm trying to help them expand this vocabulary of their own lived experience,” he said. “With a podcast, it's the same thing: To provide a wider audience the same broader menu or set of ideas about how they can reflect on their own lives.”

Oliver is looking to pull from a wide array of sources for the podcast: scientists, therapists, artists, and the religious, to name a few. Some guests will be more prominent than others. “My hope is that as people will listen to the podcast, they'll hear others publicly sharing their own self exploration, and it will give them an idea of how they might answer these questions themselves.”

In one of the first episodes of Professor Eric Oliver’s Nine Questions podcast, he speaks with Bill Ayers, an author, co-founder of the Weather Underground, and retired professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Oliver: Here we are with the nine questions. Why don't we start with the first one, Bill: What are you?

Ayers: I go back to think of myself as a teacher always. That's kind of, “Who am I?” But I often characterize my students, whether they're 5 year olds or three year olds or 33-year-olds, as unruly sparks of meaning-making energy. So what am I? I'm a human being. What does it mean to be a human being? It means I’m on a journey of discovery and surprise, and always, always moving. Always a spark.

And not only that, we're also part of everything. I mean, you go back far enough, and we’ve all got the same molecules in the same life force. So yeah, what am I? A person who wants to be seen as a full human being, or who wants to see myself that way. That is, a person of many dimensions: a heart, mind, a spirit, a soul, a body, all of which are kind of moving in tandem.

Oliver: How do you describe your soul?

Ayers: Your soul is kind of your essence in the sense that, I've done work that's soul-crushing. Then I think, what part is crushing? It's crushing who I aspire to be, who I think I am at the center of my existence. So in that sense, your soul is the center. I'm humble enough about my own life to think that I'm a speck of life and a tiny speck, a transient speck. And therefore there's so many things I don't know. I'm agnostic, and skeptical on almost every dimension about everything. And one of the reasons I intentionally don't embrace God or a god, is because I think that narrows your ability to be fully in the world, to kind of pass it off to the Big Guy. And that's a mistake, in my view,

Oliver: I think you've already answered this to some extent, but what is your purpose?

Ayers: I refer back again and again to myself as a teacher and a teacher-educator, because I argue these things with my own students a lot. I asked them to consider and reflect on what their purpose is. Why are you going to be a teacher? What's the point? To me, it’s the most hopeful job and the most hopeful career because you're ushering so many other callings, you're the calling of callings.

Oliver: How do you make meaning?

Ayers: We make meaning in dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with the world. There is no one meaning and one of the great things about being a teacher and being associated with young people — but also about trying to stay alive to the world, to stay awake to the world, — is that you're learning all the time, things are changing all the time. You and I didn't know how to use pronouns properly until the last two years, right?

Oliver: Who are you?

Ayers: I’m Bill. I'm a 77-year-old retired professor living in Hyde Park. Just the facts.

Oliver: Are those facts working for you?

Ayers: Pretty well. As I said around “What am I?,” I think claiming your humanity sounds pretty simple, but it's actually not simple. The world is pressing down on us, asking us to be things, defying us. And so saying, “I'm a human being,” that's the essence of what James Baldwin says in everything he writes. I am human.

I've told you that I've never stopped being a kind of communist anarchist. But I wonder if anarchism also gives us the possibility of getting more in touch with who we really are, as opposed to cogs in a machine, subjects to power. If it doesn't allow us to see all the animal pleasures and joys. You're making me think a lot about, how does one then get in touch with our animal selves? I do think that we're far away from that, and that hurts us. I also think that things like joy and privacy matter a lot. Privacy is something that's disappearing in front of us. And I think that is a form of oppression. We need to have private lives and not be constantly subjected to surveillance. I worry about kids who are photographed every minute of the day and photographing each other. It sticks you in an identity that you don't necessarily want.

Oliver: What are your dreams telling you?

Ayers: There are two kinds of dreams. What are the actual dreams that I have? Every night? They tell me a lot of different things. Every movie I see I dream about it for a week afterwards. And it's telling me that I'm reconstructing and rethinking the whole thing. Just last night I binge-watched a show from Australia called “Stateless.” It's about an immigration detention center and it is overwhelmingly bleak and difficult. I dreamt about that last night. I always dream about the books I'm reading. When I'm going to get into bed, I often rethink a scene from a book I just read and that puts me to sleep. And then I dream about it. They're telling me to reconstruct and rethink the whole thing.

Oliver: How do your dreams in this regard work within meaning-making for you?

Ayers: One of the things my dreams have told me is that what we take to be rational and conscious and awake is only one fragment of what's going on, because there's a whole other world and if I were living the dreams that I have — like the dream I had last night about this detention center — I'd be locked up in a psychiatric ward, because it's crazy. Well, what I'm seeing is actually crazy.

Oliver: But the interesting thing about that is it's all coming from within your head absolute. So you are as much the dreamscape as you are the dreamer.

Ayers: Absolutely. So dream on, dreamer. But if you listen to what your dreams tell you, it’s that this part of your life, these particular 12 hours or whatever, or 15 hours are just one part of who you are, because there's a whole inner thing going on that's churning and desiring and wishing and hoping. That's one way of thinking about dreams.

The other thing is that I am a romantic in the sense that — an idealist in the sense that I think there are ideals worth living for. I'm not an idealist in the sense that I think that we can just wish good things into being, but I am an idealist in the sense that I have an ideal. I have a belief that we could do so much better. I have utopian dreams.

Oliver: What moves you?

Ayers: So many things, I mean, being alive is the most… everything moves me. Lake Michigan moves me, music moves me, art, theater, reading, other people. But nothing moves me quite as much as the feeling that I have when I'm part of something larger than myself, pushing against a rock, trying to make it move. In that sense, I guess it gets us back to politics because it's deep in my essence that I want to be part of a collective. Arm in arm, heart to heart, pushing that rock out of the way, pushing that obstacle out of the way. And that the dialectic there, the problem for me always has been, how do you commit to a cause wholeheartedly and not lose your humanity? How do you do both? How do you remain fully human? And at the same time, part of a movement? That's complicated. And I don't think it's easily solved, or even solvable.

Oliver: How does it feel when you're moved?

Ayers: It feels energizing. It feels like you don't want to sleep, you want to keep at it. Even the recent upheaval after the death of George Floyd, where I was in the streets a lot, and in a lot of different places. But the feeling that we could be heard. That we could see each other. And together, we could make a difference. And I just had so much energy from that. I got energy from the crowd.

Oliver: Who's writing your life story?

Ayers: In many ways, so many people write your story, and as somebody who's been kind of caught in the public eye, both for good and for bad — I mean, both in my favor and out of my favor — a lot of people have a claim on who I am and defining who I am.

From my own perspective, of all the things I've done in my life, raising these three boys was the most significant, there's nothing that compares to it. And my feelings about them, my investment in them is so total. For me, that's the most intense ecstasy that I've experienced in my life, the birth of my kids, and then raising my kids.

Oliver: Do you own your shit? Or does your shit own you?

Ayers: I would say both. I think it's true for most of us that as soon as you're aware of your shit, you can deal with it, but you're not always aware of it. Things like white skin privilege. I mean, saying that somebody has a white blind spot. — it's in the nature of it, that it's a blind spot, and therefore it owns you. Right? So do I have blind spots? Absolutely. They own me for certain. It says if I can identify them, that I can own them.

Oliver: How do you find love?

Ayers: I think that love is the most fundamental life energy that we have. And I think you find it by relating to a lot of people, in interacting with them, and listening and watching and trying to be open to love. What I look for in relationships is the ability to grow together, our roots. I have that, but I think I also have it with my kids. And with my daughters-in-law. You have enough experiences and enough challenges and enough resolutions, that's the essence of what love is: commitment. Where do I look for it? Everywhere.

Oliver: Where are you going from here?

Ayers: From here, I'm going to dinner. One of the things that I think is in the nature of life, certainly in the nature of my life, is that I always have things to do. My mentor, Maxine Greene, she always said, I am what I am not yet. And that was kind of her slogan, which one of my students tattooed on her wrist. I am what I am not yet. And that is a statement of futuring, a statement of, “Where do I want to go?” I often think that's how I have lived and how I want to live. I have things to do.