Matters of Life and Death


MUSE/Phil 29C, Sec 8 (Area C2)
Metropolitan University Scholar’s Experience (MUSE) Seminar
Professor Janet D. Stemwedel

Class Basics
Regular class meetings: MW 1200-1315 (DMH 347)
Course website:

How to Contact Your Professor
Office hours: Mondays 1:30-3:00 PM,
Thursdays 10:00 AM-12:00 noon,
and by appointment.
Office: FOB 232
Phone: (408) 924-4521


Introduction to MUSE
University-level study is different from what you experienced in high school. The Metropolitan University Scholars’ Experience (MUSE) is designed to help make your transition into college a success by helping you to develop the skills and attitude needed for the intellectual engagement and challenge of in-depth university-level study. Discovery, research, critical thinking, written work, attention to the rich cultural diversity of the campus, and active discussion will be key parts of this MUSE course. Enrollment in MUSE courses is limited to a small number of students because these courses are intended to be highly interactive and allow you to easily interact with your professor and fellow students. MUSE courses explore topics and issues from an interdisciplinary focus to show how interesting and important ideas can be viewed from different perspectives.

Course Description
We all have to die sometime, but is that death good for us, bad for us, or nothing to us? How is death defined, and what influences its definition? What do our practices around dying and death — from the traditional to the cutting edge of medical technology — say about our attitudes toward death? And what implications does our mortality have for the meaningfulness of our lives?
This course will explore these questions by engaging with works in philosophy, history, anthropology, literature, and film. It will consider historical and cultural contexts ranging from ancient Rome to 19th century Europe, from the Amazonian rainforest to the Himalayan foothills, from medical ethics committees in the U.S. and Japan to the modern American funeral industry. This multidisciplinary approach to the question of what our mortality means to us will give you experience in using different kinds of texts to approach a question. Further, the course will help you develop the critical thinking skills necessary to help you decide how the recognition of your own mortality will influence your understanding of your own life.

Course Goals

Learning Objectives and Activities for this Course

This course qualifies as an Area C2 (Humanities & Arts – Letters) course in your General Education requirements. It is designed to enable you to achieve the following learning outcomes:

The following content and activities will be incorporated into the course as you engage in the subject matter of the course:

The big questions. In addition to helping you develop the skills you need to succeed as a college student, this course will ask you to grapple with questions of importance in your life. Discovering ways to think about “big questions”, sources of information that might shed light on these questions, and ways to develop your own answers to them will be valuable to you in life, not just in school. The central questions we will discuss this term are:

Course Text and Materials
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Margaret Edson, Wit
A Spartan Scholar from the Start
“Matters of Life and Death” Course Reader

Course Requirements
The learning process is not a matter of being a receptive container and having your instructor pour knowledge into your head. Rather, your learning in this course requires your active involvement (although I will work to facilitate your learning at every turn). It will require work. However, the payoff for you will be more that just a particular body of knowledge from course readings and lectures. You will leave this course with skills that you can use to help you in your other courses, and even in real life.

In order to develop these skills, you will do the following:


Course Grade Breakdown

Analytical essays 15%
Response essays 10%
Research presentation 15%
Research report 15%
Course Log entries 10%
MUSE activities 5%
Participation 10% This may include pop quizzes!
Final exam 20%

Major Due Dates
There are no due dates listed in the syllabus for the analytic essays and response essays. Your due dates for these assignments will depend on which essays you sign up for.

Everyone's first analytic essay will come due between September 13 and October 4.
Everyone's second analytic essay will come due between October 11 and October 25.
Everyone's third analytic essay will come due between November 1 and December 6.

Everyone's first response essay will come due between September 20 and October 18.
Everyone's second response essay will come due between November 1 and December 6.

You are responsible for keeping track of your actual due dates!
Click here for Analytic Essay schedule.
Click here for Response Essay schedule.

Research Presentation (week of November 15)
Click here for presentation schedule.

Research Report: due Wednesday, November 17.

Course Log entries:
Course Log entry #1 due Friday, September 17.
Course Log entry #2 due Wednesday, September 29.
Course Log entry #3 due Wednesday, October 27.
Course Log entry #4 due Wednesday, November 10.

Reports on MUSE and non-MUSE events: all three must be handed in by December 6.

FINAL EXAM: Friday, December 17, 9:45 AM-12:00 noon.

Class Meetings, Assignments and Activities

Please note that this plan is tentative! The schedule listed here is my best guess as to the quantity and timing of readings and activities. We will make any necessary adjustments as we go along.

CR indicates a reading from the Course Reader.

Week 1 (Aug 25)
Introduction to MUSE, SJSU, and an interdisciplinary examination of life and death.
To be discussed: Syllabus, course materials, MUSE objectives and activities. What makes a life meaningful?

Activity: Greensheet bingo

Skills & Information:

Week 2 (Aug. 30, Sept. 1)
A speck in the universe: Is human life meaningful or absurd?
To be discussed: What could give my life meaning? What could make my life absurd?

Activity: Class in the computer lab. (Mon. Aug 30 -- Meet in IS 134A at class time.)

In-class writing assignment (in the computer lab): Is death good for you, bad for you, or nothing to you? Explain your answer. (Mon. Aug 30)

Reading Assignment: Nagel, “The Absurd” (CR) (due by class time Wed. Sept. 1)

Skills & Information:

Week 3 (Sept. 8)
My death: Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich and the horror of being mortal.
To be discussed: Does mortality make our lives meaningless? Can mortality save our lives from meaninglessness? How are philosophy and literature different?

Assignment: Take notes on the second half of The Death of Ivan Ilyich (turn in on Sept. 13)

Reading Assignment: Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, pp. 35-91. (due by class time Wed. Sept 8)

Skills & Information:

Week 4 (Sept. 13, 15)
A good death: what common folk know about dying (and living).
To be discussed: How is death a different experience for peasants than for the well-to-do? What could make the experience of death less terrible?

Activity: Library orientation. (Wed. Sept 15 -- Meet in King Library room 217 at class time. )

Assignments: Course Log entry #1 (due Sept. 17)

Reading Assignment: Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, pp. 92-end. (due by class time Mon. Sept 13)
Ariès, “Tamed Death”, pp. 7-14 (CR) (due by class time Mon.. Sept 13)

Skills & Information:

Week 5 (Sept. 20, 22)
Death is nothing to me: Lucretius.
To be discussed: What is the atomist understanding of human body and soul? If death is the permanent end of my existence, do I have anything to fear? What’s the use of Lucretius’ argument if we don’t know whether death is the end of me?

Assignment: Visit instructor’s office hours (or make an appointment).

Reading Assignment: Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, III.26-95, 135-176, 323-336, 418-475, 622-632, 795-1094. (CR) (due by class time Mon. Sept 20)

Skills & Information:

Week 6 (Sept. 27, 29)
Life is pain: Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy.
To be discussed: What is Schopenhauer’s understanding of human body and soul? What is human life like? How should we understand the will to live? What is essential to human beings? What defines me as an individual?

Assignment: Course Log entry #2 (due Sept. 29)

Activity: “Four categories” writing exercise

Reading Assignment: Schopenhauer, “On the Suffering of the World”, pp. 41-50 (CR).
“On the Vanity of Existence”, pp. 51-54 (CR) (due by class time Mon. Sept 27)

Schopenhauer, “On Affirmation and Denial of the Will to Live”, pp. 61-65 (CR).
“On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being …”, pp. 66-76 (CR).
Kramer, “Tibetan Attitudes Toward Death”, pp. 70-79 (CR) (due by class time Wed. Sept 29)

Skills & Information:

Week 7 (Oct. 4,6)
Playing chess with Death: The quest for meaning in The Seventh Seal.
To be discussed: How do humans respond to the chaos of life? How do humans respond to the advances of Death? Does religious faith end the quest for meaning?

Viewing Assignment: The Seventh Seal (due Oct. 4)

Reading Assignment: Kübler-Ross, “On the Fear of Death”, pp. 15-23 (CR).
“Attitudes Toward Death and Dying”, pp. 25-49 (CR) (due by class time Wed. Oct. 6)

Activity: Find out about the Peer Mentor Center. (Oct. 6; class will meet in the usual place.)

Skills & Information:

Week 8 (Oct. 11, 13)
Library research
To be discussed: Strategies for the research assignment. Possible topics.

Assignments: Formulate a question (or set of questions) you hope to answer in your research; develop a list of keywords for your literature search.
Complete the online SJSU Plagiarism Tutorial (

Activity: Library database tour. (Wed. Oct. 13 -- Meet in King Library room 217 at class time)

Skills & Information:

Week 9 (Oct. 18, 20)
The right way to grieve: modern Western attitudes and practices around death.
To be discussed: Is there an “American” attitude toward death? What evidence do we have for a culture’s attitudes? What historical developments explain our modern attitudes toward death? What cultural factors influence our modern practices around death?

Activity: Popular/scholarly comparison.

Reading Assignment: Mitford, “The American Way of Death”, pp. 14-19 (CR).
Mitford, “What the Public Wants”, pp. 123-137 (CR).
Ariès, "Forbidden Death", pp. 84-107 (CR).(due by class time Mon. Oct 18)

Skills & Information:

Week 10 (Oct. 25, 27)
Consuming grief: ritual mortuary cannibalism among the Wari’
To be discussed: How does a culture’s understanding of the body and the world affect what it views as the right way to deal with a corpse? What purposes do rituals serve for the mourners?

Assignment: Course Log entry #3 (due Oct. 27)

Reading Assignment: Conklin, “ ‘Thus are our bodies, thus was our custom’: mortuary cannibalism in an Amazonian society”, pp. 75-101 (CR). (due by class time Mon. Oct 25)

Skills & Information:

Week 11 (Nov. 1, 3)
Defining death.
To be discussed: Is “brain death” really death? How does technology influence our definition of death? How does culture influence our definition of death?

Reading Assignment: Lock, “Displacing Suffering: The Reconstruction of Death in North America and Japan”, pp. 207-244 (CR).
Callahan, “Death and the Research Imperative”, pp. 654-656 (CR).
Greenberg, “As Good as Dead”, pp. 36-41 (CR). (due by class time Mon. Nov 1)

Skills & Information:

Week 12 (Nov. 8, 10)
Living with mortality.
To be discussed: How does mortality fit into one’s self-image? What are the generational factors in attitudes toward death and dying? What sorts of attitudes can improve the experience of dying?

Assignment: Course Log entry #4 (due Nov. 10)

Reading Assignment: Callahan, “Living with the Mortal Self”, pp. 120-155 (CR).
Behar, “Death and Memory: From Santa María del Monte to Miami Beach”, pp. 34-89 (CR).
(due by class time Mon. Nov 10)

Skills & Information:

Week 13 (Nov. 15, 17)
Research presentations

Assignment: Prepare a one-page handout for your classmates.
Research report (due by class time Wed.Nov. 17)

Week 14 (Nov. 22, 24)
Modern medicine versus death: responding to terminal illness.
To be discussed: How does the doctor’s understanding of death differ from the patient’s understanding of death? What factors make for a better death? What factors make for a worse death?

Reading Assignment: Edson, Wit (due by class time Mon. Nov 22)

Week 15 (Nov. 29, Dec. 1)
Morbid fascination: life and death in Harold and Maude
To be discussed: How does age affect one’s outlook on life and death? What is the purpose of life? What is the importance of control in a meaningful life?

Viewing Assignment: Harold and Maude (due Nov. 29)

Reading Assignment: Heilbrun, “Preface”, pp. 1-10 (CR). “On Mortality”, pp. 205-215 (CR).
Grigoriadis, “A Death of One’s Own” (CR).(due by class time Wed. Dec 1)

Week 16 (Dec. 6, 8)
Taking stock
To be discussed: The meaning of death, the meaning of life.

Last day to turn in reports on MUSE and non-MUSE activities: Mon., Dec. 6.

Skills & Information:

FINAL EXAM: Friday, December 17, 9:45 AM - 12:00 noon


Location for both film screenings: Peer Mentor Center, Royce Hall (first floor)

Each film will be followed by a brief, informal discussion.
I will provide refreshments!

The Seventh Seal (Wed, Sep. 29, 8-10 pm)
Harold and Maude (Wed, Nov. 17, 8-10 pm)



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