That’s the question one of Qualia School’s Great Ideas classes has been pondering, but over the course of this year-long philosophy course, they have been considering it through the lens of affect theory and phenomenology, subjects that their teacher, Wednesday Hobson, a Ph.D. student in Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University, is studying as part of her dissertation.
“It’s already hard enough as a graduate student to think about these things, but to teach them to high schoolers made me double down on really understanding how they work,” Hobson said. “I chose to make a lot of the class experiential, which makes sense, because phenomenology looks at the experience of experiencing things.”
For the students, on this class day, that meant participating in a mock trial on an unusual subject—whether a student had waved hello to a person who didn’t notice their friendly gesture. By putting this innocuous and slightly embarrassing incident under the microscope of a trial, the students had a chance to consider the subject and its resulting emotions in a different way. They delved into the experience through another experience.
The students heartily embraced this approach, diving into their roles—judge, witness, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and defendant—with eagerness. When the defendant, who the witness said “exhibited an excessive amount of embarrassment” was found guilty of his “crime,” the students then turned to various subjects that this trial circled around, including whether feelings matter.
Sophomore Cemary Chavez said, “Yes, feelings matter. It’s the way we create opinions,” while junior Ella Storm agreed for a slightly different reason, “I think the way we see the world and process the world all correlates to feelings.”
Over the school year, the students analyzed feelings through considering both affect theory, which originated with Silvan Tomkins as a way to categorize emotions based on biological criteria, and Raymond Williams’ 1950s theory of the structure of feeling, which considers emotions and consciousness as historical and social phenomena. In addition, phenomenology, the philosophical study of experience and consciousness, a theory created by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century and studied by numerous philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, was a central focus of many classes.
The students also investigated how different populations might have altered perspectives and feelings based on individual or group traits, ranging from ethnic backgrounds to baldness.
“This analysis lends itself to a more critical interpretation of how experiences are perceived,” Hobson said. “It was interesting to have them do this hard mental work. The thinking through of the process is what’s tricky about this.”
As part of her final project, Chavez used some of these ideas to inspire a presentation from the perspective of a mechanic. She dressed the part and considered stereotypes of people based on their attendance of trade school versus four-year colleges. She noted that, over the course of the school year, processing the complex ideas of phenomenology and the other theories was an in-depth process that required patience from their teacher and multiple approaches, but she appreciated the in-depth study of a topic typically not considered in high school.
“The class was just interesting,” she said.
Fellow student Jamie Watson added, Hobson “is a really good teacher…. Even though it’s super hard to understand, she makes it a lot easier. At first, I didn’t understand anything that was being said about some topics, but now I understand them all.”