Food for Thought

Freshman, Sophie Qi, reflects on our first virtual Food for Thought webinar during the time of the coronavirus: 


On Caring and Grieving for the Dying and the Dead

On Wednesday at 5:40PM, I prepared to attend Food for Thought, as usual. Only this time, I travelled from the kitchen to the living room, to attend Collegium’s first virtual Food for Thought seminar. The first part of the seminar was a casual check-in. We discussed our current feelings of helplessness, our coping mechanisms, and our concerns about the long term impact of COVID-19 on society. Dr. Lydia Dugdale, who led the seminar, shared her thoughts on how restricted public gatherings affected funeral services. I had not previously considered how current services being put on hold, or held online, would affect the in-person grieving process… 


Food for Thought (originally Coffee with the Classics) is an informal dinner seminar where students engage fundamental questions in community without the stress of grades or papers. It provides an opportunity to read and discuss some of the most influential and provocative thinkers of the past and present. Our discussions are co-sponsored by Harrison College House, which provides the space and dinner for the seminar. All readings are also included free of charge. 

Spring 2020 Modules

Module 4 : Memory, History, Identity 

Wednesdays, January 22—February 5

As we begin the new year and (re)assess our resolutions, we may confront the question: who do I want to become in 2020?  That may seem like a bigger existential question than we may have bargained for on New Year’s Eve. But to what extent does it depend on other questions, no less profoundly existential, that we may be more likely to take for granted; that is:

  • How do I know who I am to begin with?  
  • Do I not sometimes (or regularly) forget important aspects of my life?  
  • How does what I choose to remember — and to omit — in the narrative of my self determine my identity?   
  • How simple is that ubiquitous piece of advice to “just be yourself”? 

And that might lead to some other pressing, difficult questions:

  • On a broader scale, how does what we choose to commemorate determine our community?  
  • Must there be some basic level of agreement about which past events and people to honor or dishonor in order to maintain community? 
  • When, if ever, do societal relationships and reconciliations depend upon a collective responsibility to forget?  
  • To what extent does the digital age pose new challenges (or opportunities) to forget what should be forgotten and to remember what should be held firm?  
  • And under what circumstances can and should we harness the new power of technology to recall things about others that prevent them from becoming whom they might aspire to become in 2020?

Join Collegium and Harrison College House for dinner as we reflect together on these questions with the help of brief, provocative texts from the past and present. Full reader here

Module 5 : Living with Death 

Wednesdays, February 19 — April 1    *dates adjusted due to Covid19

Death has been alive and well in the world since the Fall of Man. Since that time, Death, the concept, the actual event, the figure, has permeated and haunted the human imagination.  From the cave paintings of Lascaux depicting hunting scenes to Death as narrator in Markus Zusak’s 2005 bestselling novel, The Book Thief, death has shown his face from prehistory to the current day. How do we then live with the knowledge of death? How are death, health and mortality entwined? Can we overcome death or must we instead make space for it within our daily living? To what extent is it the one answer to every deep question about life?  

Join us as we explore these questions and more, from historical approaches to dealing with death, to caring for the dying, and grieving with the aggrieved. In this 4-week module of Food for Thought, we’ll delve into this quintessential topic and explore it with the help of voices like Montaigne, Plato, Dorothy Day, Lydia Dugdale, Christian Wiman, Emily Dickinson, and more.  This module will culminate with a special event , our second annual Ars Vivendi Lecture, featuring award-winning poet Christian Wiman and director of Columbia’s Center for Clinical Medical Ethics Lydia Dugdale, as they explore “The Art of Dying” in an evening conversation. 

* Due to the outbreak of Covid19 the last two sessions have been moved to an online webinar platform and “The Art of Dying” event has been postponed. Also session III  will now be led by special guest Dr. Lydia Dugdale.

More details on webinar RSVP link below. Full reader here. To RSVP click here.

Fall 2019 Modules

Module 1 : Whom Do We Trust…? Or…How Do We Know What We Know?

Wednesdays, September 4—September 25

Our first Food for Thought module of Fall 2019 engaged with Penn’s annual Academic Theme, the Year of Data, in order to assist the university in pursuing its new objective of integrating learning. This module explored the meaning of knowledge, self and trust, with readings and discussions that addressed topics such as big data and epistemology, whether the foundation of knowledge lies in trust or doubt, knowing and being in the world, and attention and practical wisdom. As always, students explore a variety of diverse, interdisciplinary texts. Readings include selections from by Cathy O’Neil (author of the Penn Reading Project book associated with the Year of Data, Weapons of Math Destruction), Augustine, Descartes, Aristotle, A.A. Milne, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and John Henry Newman. Full reader here. To RSVP click here.

Module 2 : In/Justice

Wednesdays, October 2, 16 & 23

Talk about justice abounds. We are deeply concerned with what others—or perhaps we?—are due.  Yet, for all this, we have deep disagreement about the nature of justice and its import for the world.  What does it mean to be just, and how can we develop that virtue as individuals and a society? For this 3-week module we will dive into justice from a different angle each week through the voices of figures like Dorothy Day, Plato, Aquinas, Josef Pieper and Martin Luther King Jr. Full reader here. To RSVP click here.

Module 3 : The Marvel of Creation

Wednesdays, November 13, 20 & December 4

What does it mean to be an animal, and what does it mean to be a person? What is life? How ought we think about and relate to God’s Creation in light of these things? These weighty questions will be central to the third Food for Thought Module of the Fall semester. Dr. Janice Chik, Barry Foundation Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of Collegium Institute’s Magi Project, will facilitate this module, drawing from diverse thinkers and texts to help students explore these ideas both philosophically and scientifically. Potential topics for discussion include animal and human consciousness, the possible role of a creative deity within the evolution of creaturely life, questions about “natures” or “essences” in Creation, animal ethics, and the roles of and relationship between science and philosophy in exploring these ideas. Full reader coming soon. To RSVP click here.

Spring 2019 Modules

Module 4 : Work & Play: An Exploration of Labor, Luxury, and Leisure

Wednesdays, January 23 – February 13th

Why do we work, and why do we need leisure? Do we really need leisure, or is that just a luxury?  What counts as leisure, and what would we need leisure for?  Just to be able to work more productively and efficiently?  Or do we lose something of our humanity when we become work machines?  For that matter, what is the significance of work for human beings? Would we be less human if we could find others (or other things) to do our work for us?  Is work simply a means to an end or is there something else to it? What can the humanities tell us about the right relationship between work and play, both here on college and thereafter? To answer these questions, we engaged with multiple sources – philosophical, journalistic, and literary, which included Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” article, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, David Steindl-Rast’s Essential Writings, Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, Charles Péguy’s poem “Sleep,” and Josef Pieper’s celebrated work, Leisure the Basis of Culture.

Module 5 : Double Lives

Wednesdays, March 13 – March 27th

Many of us — due to complex identities, competing obligations, dueling loves, and the plurality of social environments — find ourselves leading double lives. The main question posed in this module was, “How does one cope with a fragmentary existence, and is there hope for unity in the midst of plurality?” In this module, we consulted the experience of racial and ethnic minorities, confronted challenges women and men face to balance professional and domestic life, and engaged social and moral theory on the formation of identity. Our readings included William Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s A Stage” speech, Alasdair MacIntyre’s, After Virtue, Erving Goffman’s sociological work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami, W.E.B. Du Bois’ important work The Souls of Black Folk, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” and Christopher Lasch and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s Women and the Common Life. For one of the sessions, we invited Penn’s Assistant Chaplain, Sana Saeed, to lead the discussion on the experience of the “double” in our daily lives.

Module 6 : On Beauty and Being Just

Wednesdays, April 3 – April 24th

In this final Module of Food for Thought in the Spring, we explored Elaine Scarry’s “brave and timely book,” On Beauty and Being Just. In the book, she not only defends beauty from recent political arguments against it but also argues that beauty continually renews our search for truth and presses us toward a great concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry writes an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums and classrooms. For one of the sessions we invited Professor Terence Sweeney from Villanova University, who gave further elucidations about qualities particular to beauty, and for one of the last sessions, we invited Dr. Delia Popa, also from Villanova, who led a discussion on how beauty assists us in our attention to justice.

Fall 2018 Modules

Module 1 : Why Does Tragedy Occur? The Problem of Evil. 

Wednesdays, September 5th – September 25th

Our first Food for Thought module sought to answer important questions: Why does tragedy occur? From whence does it come, and what purpose – if any – does it serve? What does it imply about God? To understand a large element of tragedy – the problem evil – our texts and conversations sprang from a variety of authors to get a multi-dimensional approach to this question. The four sessions of this module were split up into four central themes: Tragedy, Moral & Natural Evil, Theodicy, and Coping with Tragedy. Mixing together important texts from the past and present, our curriculum included excerpts from Sophocles’ Antigone, Augustine’s Enchiridion, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Seneca’s “On Providence,” Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Module 2: The Righteous Mind

Wednesdays, October 10th – October 24th

In light of the November 2018 elections, Module II of Food for Thought explored another why: Why are good people divided by politics and religion? This is the question that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sought to answer in his recent book, The Righteous Mind. It is a reality that in our pluralistic society, we must learn to live with disagreement, so why do our disagreements devolve so frequently into vilification and conflict? Is it really possible, now or ever, to disagree constructively about matters of fundamental importance? For these sessions, we invited guest faculty facilitators familiar with Haidt’s research, like Professor Samir Nurmohamed from the Wharton Management Department and Professor Jonathan Zimmerman from the Penn Graduate school of Education.

Module 3: God, Aquinas, and the Search for Alien Life

Wednesdays, October 10th – October 24th

Before 1995 we only knew of nine planets, one of which has recently been demoted to ‘planetoid’. Since then the Kepler space mission has discovered and confirmed 2,327 extra planets beyond our Solar System. On March 21st 2017, Congress passed an act which requested a strategy for “the search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the Universe.” from the National Agencies. Our final and most popular Module of the fall explored fascinating questions associated with the intersection of science and religion – particularly: How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect the beliefs and practices of the human race? Would the discovery of alien life affect our ideas about God? Facilitated by Dr. Marisa March, a Penn astrophysicist and director of the Magi Project, our texts and discussions centered around the current state of the Universe, its many planets, and the implications for religious belief if we find life on one of them