Ask any SOU faculty member or student to name the professors who make them think the hardest and the deepest, and Prakash Chenjeri will likely top that list. When science professors want someone to grapple with over questions about the philosophy of science, they bring Chenjeri into dialogue with their students. When colleagues in the Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department are researching a topic that requires heavy-duty analysis, they gather at Standing Stone for a heady philosophical debate with Chenjeri. As Alma Rosa Alvarez says of a recent project that has led her into philosophy of religion territory, “I’m also consulting Prakash Chenjeri because I find that when I am illogical, he is more than willing to point out my illogical assertions, so he’s a great guy to have on board.”
As a college student at Bangalore University in India, Chenjeri first began as a science student under the influence of his father, a professor of physics. The instant he stepped into his first philosophy class, he knew that was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. And he has. Since he began teaching in America nearly three decades ago, Chenjeri has been inspiring students and colleagues to ask the big questions, to contemplate the nature of existence, to think critically, and to become fully engaged citizens in the larger society.
Doing his own part as an engaged citizen, Chenjeri puts his philosophy training to practice in the community by serving on the Ethics Committee at Ashland Community Hospital. He was also invited to participate in the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project as one of Oregon’s most respected humanities scholars—a distinguished group that also includes SOU Professor of French Dan Morris and Professor of Biology Charles Welden. The Conversation Project’s goal is to “engage community members in thoughtful, challenging conversations about ideas critical to our daily lives and our state’s future.”
In addition to serving as coordinator of the Philosophy Program, Chenjeri is director of SOU’s Honors Program, for which has been teaching a series of courses in ethics for years. He also presides over the annual campus theme, bringing dozens of world-class scientists and scholars to Southern Oregon University throughout the course of each year. Past topics have ranged from “Imagining America,” which explored de Tocqueville’s perspective on America, to 2010’s sweeping “On Being Human.”
He compiled the textbook Concise Introduction to Logic, one of his many areas of expertise, which also includes moral philosophy, philosophy of science, and issues at the intersection of science and religion. He has traveled the country lecturing on philosophy-related topics such as “Science Friction: Controversies and Decision Making in a Democracy,” “Preserving the Blessing of Liberty for Posterity: Why It Matters,” “Teaching Citizenship Through Scientific Debates,” and “The American Character: The Power of Individualism and Volunteerism.”
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in February 2011 (based on excerpts from a 2008 video interview)
(clockwise from left to right, top to bottom) Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (by AndrewHorne); Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) in a detail from The School of Athens (by Raffaello Sanzio); bust of Aristotle (by Lysippos); portrait of René Descartes (by Frans Hals); portrait of Immanuel Kant (courtesy of Wikipedia); Confucius (courtesy of Project Gutenberg); and portrait of Georg W.F. Hegel (steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers)
MM: How did you first become interested in the discipline of philosophy?
PC: Sometimes I tell my students: Now and then, I wake up in the middle of the night terrified thinking I could be doing something else, meaning I could be in some other profession. I started out as a science student. My father was a professor of physics, so he wanted me to pursue something in the sciences. I started out in that and didn’t have any problems with it, but soon I got interested in the philosophical questions associated with both science and mathematics. Then when I took my first philosophy class, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
I also tell my students that I loved learning so much that I never left school. I enjoy asking the big questions—not purely for theoretical or intellectual satisfaction, but also because I think these questions can help one reflect carefully about issues we face in life and because it’s a reasonable way for a human being to conduct the affairs of one’s life.
(clockwise from left to right, top to bottom) Images of Bangalore, India: headquarters of Infosys, India’s second-largest IT company (by Nikhil Kulkarni); Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore College, India’s premier science institute (courtesy of Nikkul); Bangalore Palace (by L. Shyamal December); the glass house at the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens (by PlaneMad); Bangalore High Court (courtesy of Wikipedia)
MM: You’ve been at SOU for more than a decade now. You are originally from Bangalore, India. Can you talk a bit about your background prior to coming here?
PC: I’ve been in this country for over twenty-five years now. I lived the first part of my life in India and more than half of my life in the United States. I did most of my educational work in India. I went to Bangalore University, where I did my bachelor’s, graduate, and doctoral work.
MM: What topics were you most passionate about when you were doing your graduate work?
PC: In India, we follow the British system. I was trained in both Western and Indian philosophies. I am what some call a generalist—I am interested in several areas of philosophy but primarily epistemology and ethics. My master’s and doctoral work focused on the philosophy of religion, where I bring in certain aspects of linguistic analysis to bear on topics in philosophy of religion. For the last eight or nine years, I have been doing mainly philosophy of science, science and values, and issues at the interface of science and religion.
Students and faculty engaged in critical thinking and intellectual creativity at annual Southern Oregon Arts & Research (SOAR) Symposium (by Melissa L. Michaels)
MM: As a philosophy professor, how do you define intellectual growth?
PC: As a philosopher, I can’t help but look at education from a philosophical point of view. I see the goal of higher education as producing an engaged citizen—one who is involved with the affairs of society by combining the intellectual knowledge one has gained with the practical needs of contributing to a healthy society. I mean this in an Aristotilean sense. Towards that end, what we do at the university—especially as it relates to philosophy and all of the other disciplines—is combine critical thinking with practical reasoning.
The ability to think is something students come with, which is the basic ability to reflect on things and make judgments. At an institution of higher learning, we take that one step higher to what is called practical reasoning. Practical reasoning is where we bring the academic training to deal with the affairs of society and all aspects of it—not just industry or business or anything particular.
Alumna Nicole Jackman (Class of 2008) during her three-month medical internship in India with Child Family Health International (courtesy of Nicole Jackman)
MM: And what about the larger international society—what is your perspective on the subject of global citizenship?
PC: That’s a phrase that has been used—or overused, if you will—quite frequently in the past two decades. As a philosopher, it is difficult for me to take anything at a face value and start talking about it. Rather, I prefer to unpack the meaning of a term a bit. So the way I see it is: Yes, global citizenship is a goal we should strive for, but it starts by educating the mind to realize what it means to be a citizen first. Then the issue of globality comes in, or what it means to be a global citizen.
So in that sense, global citizenship is not completely divorced from being a good citizen of a particular nation-state. It’s like keeping our own house clean first before we start cleaning up everything else or pointing out deficiencies that might exist out there. Global citizenship begins with being a good steward of one’s own nation-state and engaging in—actively and responsibly—what is expected of us in our own particular societies.
MM: How does a liberal arts education fit into that equation?
PC: As far as I’m concerned, the goal of the university is to create a liberal mind. By “liberal,” I do not mean in its popular, or what is called the vulgar meaning of the word “liberal.” “Liberal” meaning one whose mind is open and free, not dogmatic or narrow.
Why do we do this? We do this because ultimately the goal is to create a society of which we are all a part and where we can all live harmoniously. The idea of liberal education is to create that kind of a mind, where we combine the arts and the sciences so that when the student leaves, he or she is able to take up an issue or a challenge and is able to make the most informed decision or offer the most informed solution to complex problems.
MM: What, for you, does student success mean?
PC: Obviously, it’s not simply GPA. Rather it must be seen in terms of how well students are able to grasp, understand, articulate an issue or a question and address it from the broadest perspective as possible. Not to be satisfied with simple answers. They should be able to appreciate the gravity of the question, appreciate the complexity, and be able to reflect on that and approach it in a very thoughtful manner, that I believe may be one way to define student success. That is not in any way to minimize the importance of getting a good GPA and other achievements, which are crucial. They are one measure of success but not all of it.
(left to right) Faculty collaborators Charles Welden, Michael Parker, David Oline, Karen Stone, Bill Gholson, Dan Morris, Greg Jones, and Alison Burke (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What has been your experience with interdisciplinary education here? How do you collaborate with other faculty members to integrate other disciplines into your courses?
PC: I am a little reluctant to use the term “interdisciplinary” because I think it is used too frequently without appreciating the complexity of that term. I would rather use the term “multidisciplinary.” Multidisciplinary is something we definitely practice at SOU and something I embrace wholeheartedly. This simply means approaching an issue or question from multiple disciplinary points of view.
I am probably one of the lucky ones on our campus because I have collaborated with colleagues from several different departments. I work with my colleagues in the sciences—in particular, biology professors Charles Welden, Michael Parker, David Oline, and Karen Stone—and in physics with Dr. Tom Marvin. I also collaborate with colleagues in my own Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department—with professors Bill Gholson and Dan Morris. I also work with Dr. Greg Jones in Environmental Studies and Dr. Alison Burke in Criminal Justice Department.
I teach courses where I routinely involve my sciences and humanities colleagues. In Philosophy of Science, I bring in physicists and biologists to talk about the nature of the natural world that they explore as scientists, and I, as a philosopher, raise philosophical questions about these. We study the natural world both from the point of view of the natural sciences and from a philosophical point of view, so students get an enriched understanding of how we go about understanding things. I do the same with my colleagues from the social sciences.
I see the multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning more and more across campus, whether it is in environmental science talking about global warming or in biology talking about the teaching of intelligent design—the controversies that come up with those topics. All of these multidisciplinary approaches are crucial towards, once again, giving our students the best possible education.
Honors class discourse (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You teach a series of Ethics courses as part of the Honors Program, correct?
PC: Yes. The newly revamped Honors Program is in full force now. A student can graduate with honors, taking various courses, including ethics. A number of courses comprise what is called the Honors Program today. We actually offer two levels of ethics courses: a regular ethics class and the Honors Program version, which is a lot more in-depth and challenging. The Honors section is usually limited to twenty students, which allows for more in-depth study and discussion.
The conversation continues after class (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Yes, SOU is known for its small class sizes and the close faculty-student mentoring relationships—and the sort of campus community that has cultivated.
PC: Indeed, one of the things we pride ourselves on at Southern Oregon University is the faculty-student ratio. One of the things we often hear from students who come from bigger places is how relieved they are when they can reach a professor without hassle.
The same is true with our Honors classes also, because the classes are small, the professor is able to devote more time not only to meeting with students but also to in-class activities. I organize them along seminar lines. Many of my students want to carry on the discussion beyond the classroom, which is why they choose to be in the Honors Program.
Honors alumni Heidi Stoner, Nick O’Neill, and Todd Regh (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Back to the topic of intellectual growth, how do you see your students transformed over the course of taking one of your classes?
PC: It’s unlike other disciplines—let’s take mathematics, for instance. When a student studies mathematics, at the end of the term, he or she can take a test and we can evaluate whether or not the student has mastered the basics. In philosophy, it’s not that straightforward because it’s conceptual. Whether it is ethics or philosophy in general, we see the transformation in how well they’re able to take an issue or question, unpack the question, and examine the assumptions behind that and critically analyze.
Say we’re discussing capital punishment. Instead of a simple response like, “Oh, I am for it or against it,” the student trained in philosophy will begin to ask, “How exactly do we understand that?” “What exactly does capital punishment mean?” and “What are the reasons behind when people say they are for it or they are against it?”
Hopefully, they will appreciate the value of such careful analysis and begin to apply it in other areas of their life.
Q: Every year, the SOU community explores a different theme—this past year, it was “On Being Human.” Can you talk about the history of the campus theme and your specific role? What were some of the events centered around “On Being Human”?
A: The philosophy behind our campus theme activity is to bring the SOU campus and greater community together around a topic, question, or theme that concerns us all as learners and citizens while exploring it from a variety of perspectives. The goal is to gain an understanding and appreciation of the richness and complexity of human experience by examining issues and questions we face. As an institution of higher learning, SOU offers both a beautiful campus and intellectual treasures to help in these explorations.
The previous year, we “Imagined America” from the perspective of de Tocqueville. In 2010, we explored the theme of “On Being Human.” During fall term, we looked at theme from the natural sciences perspective. In winter, we did it from the social sciences point of view, and then in the spring, we explored what it means to be human from the perspective of the arts and the humanities. Throughought the year, we bring nationally known scholars, scientists, and philosophers to campus centered around the particular theme.
(left to right) Campus theme guest lecturers: Lawrence Krass, theoretical physicist; Nel Noddings, philosopher, feminist, and educator; and Stanley Coren, neuropsychological researcher specializing in dog psychology (courtesy of Prakash Chenjeri)
MM: Tell me about some of the speakers you have helped bring to campus over the years.
PC: For the past several years, I have been bringing nationally known speakers to our campus regularly. Some are part of our Van Dyke Endowment for Professional Ethics series. In 2005, I had brought Dr. Ronald M. Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College. Last year, we had Dr. Robert Audi from the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Audi is an internationally known philosopher. We also had Dr. Nancey Murphy, a theologian and a philosopher of Science from Fuller Theological Seminary. This past year, I brought Dr. Nel Noddings, a leading feminist philosopher. The idea obviously is to enrich the intellectual life of our campus.
Grading papers (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Is there anything else you want to reflect on about your experience of teaching at Southern Oregon University?
PC: SOU is a beautiful place physically and a place which truly nurtures a community of learners. I’m not just saying that because you’re recording me for posterity. I think it is genuinely a good community. The various departments are closely knit, both physically and collegially. I’ve been very fortunate in that I get to work with colleagues in science, social sciences, and the humanities.
At Southern Oregon University, we also get students who are genuinely interested in learning. The professors are here because they genuinely love teaching and learning. The more I interact with my colleagues and collaborate on various projects, the more I am convinced that we have a community that really has a love for the life of the mind. It may not be apparent, but it is there. Look for it, you will find it.