Acclaimed UMass Dartmouth Professor Jennifer Mulnix: Philosophy is an art of life

Jennifer Wilson Mulnix, PhD, chair of the Philosophy Department at UMass Dartmouth, says she was deeply honored to receive the Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching June 15.

She is among five professors — one from each UMass campus — to receive the award which was established in 2016 by UMass Lowell alumni Rob and Donna Manning. Each honoree also received a $10,000 award as an acknowledgement of their dedication to students and service to the university.

Other winners of the 2022 Manning Prize are Lorraine Cordeiro, PhD, from UMass Amherst; Hugh Charles O’Connell, PhD, from UMass Boston; Khalilah Reddie, PhD, from UMass Lowell; and Pang-Yen Fan, MD, from UMass Chan Medical School. 

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Mulnix grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and political science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and her master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy at the University of Iowa. Upon receiving her PhD in 2006, she came to UMass Dartmouth to begin her teaching career.

The Manning Award is not the only acclaim Mulnix has received. The UMass Faculty Federation presented her the 2021 Leo M. Sullivan Teacher of the Year award. In 2012, when she was concluding her time as associate director of the University Honors Program, Mulnix received the Robert G. Darst Service Award for outstanding service to the program by a faculty or staff member. The professor says she is particularly proud that at the same time, the University Honors Program Service Award for outstanding service by a student was renamed the Jennifer W. Mulnix Service Award.

Mulnix, who has served in national leadership roles within the American Philosophical Association and in the Office of President of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, mentors and trains philosophy teachers.

Much of her current research focuses on the scholarship of teaching and the philosophy of happiness and well-being. Other interests include Buddhism as well as theories of knowledge and the mind. In addition to numerous academic papers, Dr. Mulnix has co-authored two books with her husband, M.J. Mulnix of Salem State University: “Happy Lives, Good Lives: A Philosophical Examination,” and its companion volume, “Theories of Happiness: An Anthology.”

In her leisure time, she enjoys comedy, watching movies and sports, playing tennis, watercolor painting, and traveling.

New Bedford Light: As a young person, what drew you to the study of philosophy? Was it your declared major before you began your freshman year?

Jennifer Mulnix: Actually, most students don’t get philosophy in high school. I fortunately had a wonderful opportunity in between my junior and senior year of high school. I was able to attend summer college at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and I took two summer classes. One was called Introduction to Philosophy and the other one was Introduction to Political Theory, which was a political philosophy class. And immediately, I was hooked.

I think what drew me to philosophy is that other things kind of came easy to me, but when I started doing philosophy there weren’t easy answers. You know, in philosophy, there are better and worse answers, but it’s not an obvious easy answer to these difficult questions. So you really had to dig in and sink your teeth into it. For me, that was exhilarating. At the same time, I had dreams of being in the field of law, and so I still declared a political science major when I went to college, but after some time I quickly added philosophy as a second major.

And after a while I just realized that I would rather contemplate meaningful questions than go into law, and so I was hooked on philosophy, and then I decided I wanted to be a teacher to help facilitate that passion for others.


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NBL: Your research centers on the philosophy of happiness and well-being. Can you explain the distinction between those two things?

JM: Sure. So the first thing I’ll say is that happiness is a concept that everybody cares about. We all want to be happy. It’s important to our lives. We think we have a right to pursue it. And yet, it’s a word we throw around, and I think oftentimes we don’t really know what we mean by that concept.

I think that for something that is so important to our lives, it’s really important that we get clear on what it means, instead of resting on vague, hazy notions, because how are we going to really pursue our happiness and achieve it if we’re not really sure what we’re looking for.

So, one thing that we do in a Philosophy of Happiness course is we first start out by examining the nature of this thing, what is this thing we call happiness.

I have students start with their own initial sort of intuitions about what that word means, and I find that there’s a wide range of answers. We actually use the word sometimes even in contradictory ways. So we’ll say things like ‘I was unhappy this morning but I’m happy now,’ or ‘I’m happy about this, but I’m unhappy about that,’ and that suggests that happiness is something fleeting that comes and goes.

But then other times we say things like ‘I’m happy with my life’ and that suggests that happiness is actually something much more stable and might have to do with my life in total. And so, how do we sort of resolve that tension? There are actually different ways to think about the concept of happiness. I think the most popular idea is that happiness is a feeling. Happiness feels good. So it’s a kind of mental state, either it’s a positive state of some kind, like pleasure, or an emotion like joy or cheer.

Still other philosophers think that maybe happiness isn’t so much a feeling as more like a positive attitude you have about your life, like a positive appraisal of your experiences. Maybe you’re happy that your desires are being satisfied, or that your life is going well. So all of those sorts of ways of thinking about happiness pick it out as a way of experiencing life — some kind of mental state. Yet there are still other philosophers who don’t think that’s enough. That happiness is more than just the way we experience life. That there are things that contribute to your happiness that go beyond just your mental states, such as your health or your relationships, friendships, family, security, your agency.

So there is a legitimate disagreement within philosophy about what that concept, happiness, means. One thing I try to have my students do is, by the end of the semester, articulate what that concept means for itself.

Aside from that, there’s still also the question of what is the value of happiness. Once you know what its nature is, it’s still a question of how much value it should hold in your life, and that’s an open question.

There are other values we have. Happiness is self-regarding. We want it for ourselves, and when we want it for others, we want it for them because we think they will enjoy it. But we have what I would call other regarding values, things like commitments to morality or justice or love of others.

And I think it’s reasonable sometimes that we sacrifice our private happiness in the service of these other important commitments, and so now I think we’re getting into this other sort of important concept called well-being.

Well-being is the idea of, you know, what is good for a person, how well that life is going, what is of benefit to somebody. So we can judge whether or not a life is good by looking at whether the features of that person’s life make it desirable or advantageous to them.

So, well-being is a broader concept about a life that goes well for a person, and I think happiness plays a central role in that. But, most people think that happiness isn’t the end of the story …

NBL: Like that coach who once said, ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’ So in this case, happiness isn’t everything in making a successful life.

JM: Yes, exactly. Although I will say some philosophers, especially in the ancient Greek tradition, people like Plato or Aristotle or the Stoics, would argue that happiness as a concept involves all of these other important elements to life. So for them, happiness is about flourishing, fulfilling your positive human potential. So you can’t truly be considered happy unless you have these sorts of other elements in your life. For them, happiness is the final overarching end and goal in our life that really structures everything else that we do.

But the social scientists, they usually assume a concept of happiness that focuses on it primarily as a mental state and usually a positive mental state. In that sense, I think it should be clear that that’s not always the most important thing. In fact, sometimes feeling good can be bad for you. People take pleasure in doing bad things, and sometimes we need to experience ‘negative’ emotions like compassion, which can feel painful and yet which are really important.

NBL: On the UMass Dartmouth website, you have a great video that sort of encapsulates what philosophy is and what learning about philosophy is. A lot of people think of philosophers as sort of dreamy thinkers. Tell me about some of the practical applications of philosophy for students.

JM: I think there are a lot of benefits to studying philosophy. On a very practical level, philosophy is actually a great field for students interested in postgraduate work. Students who are philosophy majors actually score some of the highest scores on admissions tests to medical school, business school, law school, and other types of graduate programs. In fact, philosophy majors score among the highest on the LSAT [Law School Admission Test].

So there’s often a good pairing between wanting to go into law and studying philosophy in college. On top of that, philosophy is actually valuable to any number of careers — in fields like business, medicine, artificial intelligence, information sciences, engineering — the list could go on.

Philosophy provides great training for that, primarily because it develops critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, written and communication skills. Research shows that majors in philosophy see higher job growth and pay raises throughout their career. I think that’s in part because the skills that they develop allow them to easily adapt to changing circumstances and technology.

So those are some incredibly practical applications of philosophy, but I actually think the benefit and the practical application of philosophy is even more broad.

When I talk about philosophy in class, I love to refer to it as intellectual self-defense.

So often, all of us have all these beliefs that we were taught by our family or our society, and many of us don’t really stop to think ‘why do we believe what we do?’

And so what philosophy enables you to do is really find the reasons behind why it is you think what you’re thinking. What are the reasons? What are the strengths and weaknesses of various positions? So either you change your beliefs or now you have a way to further strengthen and defend them. It also helps you win arguments.

But even more significantly, I think one chief purpose of philosophy is to use the knowledge that you learn in the service of living well. I really think philosophy is an art of life. And so, one thing I like to focus on in my courses is having students understand what it means to live well and then give them the tools to succeed at doing so.

My goal essentially is to produce that kind of transformational, sustained influence on how students understand their lives, and what it means for them to live well.

NBL: Do students come into your classroom for the introduction class with one concept of philosophy and leave at the end of the semester with a whole different outlook on things?

JM: Honestly, I actually think students have no idea what philosophy is when they first enter the classroom, and that’s because it’s not taught very often in high school. So I don’t know so much that they change their concept of philosophy, but that they learn what it is. In fact, I actually spend the very first day of class telling them what makes philosophy unique, because it really is different than most other disciplines.

Philosophy is something that you do. You don’t just learn a set of facts. The other thing about philosophy is it really involves questioning basic assumptions of existence, looking at those fundamental questions. So while other fields might take certain things as its starting point, philosophy wants to question those foundations.

So, for example, psychology will study your mental states and your behaviors. A philosopher will come along and say, ‘Well, wait a minute. What is a mental state? Are you purely physical? What is consciousness?’ Frankly, ‘What is a mind, and what is the connection between your mental states and behavior?’ So we really sort of get to the bottom of that. That’s what makes philosophy unique. It’s really a set of skills that you learn about critical thinking and evaluation [versus] acquiring a bunch of facts.

The best way I like to refer to philosophy is ‘Thinking about how to think about what you don’t know how to think about yet.’ A lot of these other disciplines were originally philosophy until the questions were settled enough that they became their own branches of science. We’ve already talked a little bit about how happiness is this fuzzy term that we throw around, but the same is true for things like free will, person, morality, justice, ethics. So what philosophy courses do is say ‘OK, we’ve got this concept, you know — [for example] ethics. What are the various ways we can understand our moral obligations to others?’ 

Then we look at various answers to that question, and then we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of those views, so that hopefully by the end of that examination, you can come upon your own settled view about that thing. So, at least I hope that my students understand that by the end of the course.

NBL: One of the descriptions of your teaching style says it’s a learner-centered approach. Can you explain a bit about what that means?

JM: Sure. As the name suggests, a learner-centered approach to teaching really focuses on students as learners: What do we want students to learn in the classroom and what can I do as an instructor to facilitate those students achieving those learning outcomes in the course. So the student is a very active participant in the classroom. For example, instead of me as an instructor approaching a class session saying ‘What am I going to talk about today?’ a learner-centered teacher would say ‘What skills do I want my students to work on today?’ or ‘What are my students going to do today?’

And then that’s reflected in your course assessments, in your activities. So instead of talking at the students, I’m really trying to encourage the students to reach those conclusions themselves.

Typical of learner-centered teaching, I think, is this sort of active classroom — repeated practice and feedback, because if you’re teaching students skills, they need a lot of time and practice to develop them.

I also think scaffolding is important. This is the idea of introducing skills to students in a piecemeal way, gradually, so that they can master one before they move on to the next.

It gives students more ownership over their own learning, so often learner-centered teaching will ask students to reflect on what are they learning, how are they learning, why are they learning.

All of which really enhances student motivation and allows them to become more self-directed learners, but then also to see why what they’re learning is valuable and what significance it might have for them. That would be how I would describe learner-centered teaching …

When I was in college, my experience was typically you learn the information through the textbook or through the instructor’s lecture, but if you can get students engaged in the learning process themselves in an active way, they’re actually going to retain it longer.

NBL: I also read that you were serving as a mentor to philosophy teachers. Is that something you still do?

JM: I’ve had the great privilege of working with the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, which is our flagship organization in philosophy dedicated to teaching. One thing that organization does is it provides an outlet for research on the scholarship of teaching, forums for conferences, and workshops for instructors to work on their teaching.

One of the things I think I try to do, whenever possible, is put myself in a group of like-minded people who are thinking about their teaching and wanting to improve their teaching. So that’s what this organization does. And part of that commitment is to mentor and develop up-and-coming young teachers. I served as the president of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers and tried to work on those initiatives. 

And one thing that we do in that organization as well is we offer these one-day teacher-trainer workshops across the country. It’s a crash course in how to think about course design.

Specifically, I’m a big proponent of backward course design, where instead of starting with ‘What sort of content do I want to teach?’ you think about what skills and activities you want the students to learn, and then work backwards from that.

So, if I want my students to have this learning outcome and this learning outcome, then what kind of assessment will show that I’m being successful? And then, what do I need to do in the classroom in order to ensure that the students have a chance of success at those assessments.

I’m no longer president of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, but I’m still on the board, and I actively attend all of their things, and then I facilitate these workshops when possible.

NBL: I understand you have used a Netflix series in teaching a course in a sort of non-traditional approach. Can you tell me a bit about that?

JM: The course is called Philosophy and ‘Black Mirror.’ It was a special topics course that I offered this past year. [Netflix describes ‘Black Mirror’ as a sci-fi anthology that ‘explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.’]

I find that one nice foray into philosophical questions is through popular culture. There’s a way in which especially science fiction and these narrative stories really sort of allow an entry point into philosophy that’s manageable.

As a fan of the Netflix ‘Black Mirror’ show, I found a great opportunity to — through comparing episodes with philosophical articles — get at questions like ‘What is the nature and purpose of punishment?,’ ‘What is a person?,’ ‘What are the ethical implications of technology?’

So it was actually a really fun, exciting course to teach, and one that I hope to teach again soon, because it is such a great way to get students into these difficult questions.

NBL: The Manning Award honors professors who excel in teaching and service. The nomination is partly based on student and peer input. How gratifying is that?

JM: Immensely gratifying, obviously. I’m really honored and blessed to have read the nomination letters by my peers, but even more so, my students. It’s just really humbling and touching to see the impact I’ve had on students, not just in the classroom and outside of the classroom, but well beyond their time in college.

In particular, I’m very grateful to those students who wrote those nomination letters. They actually recently graduated. They were exceptional students. They’re successfully pursuing their postgraduate dreams. They really embody the pride and spirit of UMass Dartmouth, and we’re proud to call them our alumni. So I’m incredibly grateful to sustain relationships with them, even now. But you know I’m also just generally grateful to all of the students in my courses.

Really, that’s what makes my job worth it. That’s why I do it, and I take my role as mentor very seriously, and I appreciate those relationships that I form with my students not just in the classroom but well beyond their time with me. So I really want to thank them in receiving this award.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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