Book complaint leads to TV course Philosophy professor gives PBS new view

October 08, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

If Helen B. Mitchell had her way, traditional philosophy teaching methods would be as dead as Socrates.

In Mitchell's ideal world, students would learn about female philosophers as well as male, Eastern philosophers as well as Western. They would learn to apply philosophy to everyday life -- rather than viewing it as an esoteric discipline best fit for graying professors in Ivy League schools.

Thanks to Mitchell, 57, a professor of philosophy at Howard Community College in Columbia, students around the country now have that option. She wrote and was host of a multicultural philosophy television course, "For the Love of Wisdom," that has been picked up by Public Broadcasting Service for delivery to colleges nationwide.

Television courses, or telecourses, have been used by colleges for years to reach students trying to fit school into busy schedules. Students can watch a series of taped lectures at home, at their leisure, rather than going to a college campus. Many colleges supplement the taped lectures with readings and on-campus discussion groups.

This fall, Mitchell's 25-part television course is being used by 19 colleges around the country, and more than 100 others are considering using it, said Fiona Macintyre, a programming director for PBS, based in Alexandria, Va.

"We felt that Helen had done a commendable job in trying to encompass different points of view," Macintyre said.

'Filled a gap'

Before Mitchell's television course, Macintyre said, PBS offered a 27-year-old series, "From Socrates to Sartre," that focused on Western male philosophers. She said PBS had been looking for an updated course to add to its more than 80 telecourses.

"This was a fresh new course," Macintyre said. "It filled a gap in the curriculum."

Mitchell, also director of women's studies at the community college, has, by many accounts, revolutionized a discipline known for its veneration of tradition. She began teaching philosophy at the college 15 years ago, and for a long time, she said, she tried to include female philosophers and Asian and African points of view in her classes.

'Roots of Wisdom'

Then, in November 1993, representatives of a textbook company asked her how she liked the text she was using.

"I hate it," she told them. "You've ruined it."

To her surprise, Mitchell said, the representatives invited her to lunch to describe her ideal philosophy book and suggested she write a book proposal.

Mitchell was floored -- and flattered.

A month later, Mitchell had a book contract and was busy writing. Her multicultural textbook, "Roots of Wisdom," was published in 1995. The next summer, she published readings to supplement the textbook and decided to tape videos to include in her classes.

Studio manager's help

With the help of Cheryl Magill, studio manager for the community college's television station, HCC-TV, Mitchell's modest project mushroomed. Magill, who has television experience, encouraged Mitchell to aim for a national audience.

"For a community college of our size to attempt, this was quite an undertaking," said Magill, who was executive producer, producer, director, project coordinator, project designer and editor. "It stretched our resources to the brink."

Area used as backdrop

Magill said she worked seven days a week for at least 18 months with time off only at Christmas and Easter.

"I really would not put myself in an endeavor like that again," she said. "I lost all my vacation."

Usually, Magill said, it would cost more than $1 million to produce a telecourse. But she and Mitchell managed to complete the project on a budget of $108,000.

They used the Baltimore area as a backdrop, staging a Chinese Taoist skit in Patterson Park and a Greek skit at the Patapsco Female Institute ruins in Ellicott City. They recruited students and community college professors to act in the video. They spliced in poetry readings from a television series in the HCC-TV archives.

Volunteers add to tapes

And Mitchell invited many of her friends to speak on the tapes, people who aren't philosophers but who weave the threads of philosophy into the fabric of their lives. The tape features an acupuncturist, a tai chi teacher, a Zen Buddhist, a musician, an artist and a Jungian psychologist.

"There's a whole realm of people because I know them and I know they all talk about the same kinds of things that I wrote about," Mitchell said.

She said her greatest challenge was learning to put on makeup for the cameras -- and trying to have her hair look the same way for five weeks while filming her portion of the tapes.

Mitchell, who calls herself "a recovering workaholic," said she has no plans to create another telecourse -- or even write another book -- in the near future.

"I want to rest," she said. "I'm tired."

Colleges can obtain the telecourse through PBS and then show it on their own cable stations, on their local PBS stations, or rent tapes to students.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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