Not every college course gives students the opportunity to discuss philosophy, one of America’s most esteemed bands and the connections between the two, but not every college course is Philosophy School of Phish.
Stephanie Jenkins, assistant professor of philosophy in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oregon State University, started the class in 2014 as a way to explore philosophical concepts as they relate to the band, its music and its fans.
“Usually as a philosopher, if you go to a social event and you tell people you’re a philosophy professor, it’s a conversation stopper,” she said. “At Phish shows, it’s a conversation starter … It’s a community where there’s this strong undercurrent of philosophical dialogue that I think is really conducive to this kind of work.”
This term’s course culminates in a trip to the Gorge Amphitheatre for the band’s trio of shows Friday through Sunday.
Phish – guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist/vocalist Mike Gordon and keyboardist/vocalist Page McConnell – formed in Vermont in 1983.
Jenkins became a fan after hearing the band’s 1995 live album “A Live One.”
“I, before listening to this album, primarily listened to classic rock music and what I love about Phish is that it combines all of my favorite musical influences into very powerful, creative, improvisational rock music,” she said.
Jenkins estimates she’s seen the band between 125 and 150 times, including following the band’s summer tour around the country in 2014.
Jenkins got into philosophy around the same time she got into Phish and said both influences developed alongside one another.
She got the idea for the Philosophy School of Phish course in grad school where she heard about a professor who was rumored to be the band philosopher for R.E.M.
“As soon as I heard that, I was like ‘That’s a thing? You can be a band philosopher? How do I do that?’ ” Jenkins said.
Her first year at Oregon State University, Jenkins pitched the idea for her course to friends and colleagues, who suggested she talk to her school’s director.
He sent her to the dean, and in 2014, Philosophy School of Phish, more formally called Philosophy of Art and Music, launched as an online class.
The class is taught online because requiring students to be in Corvallis for the summer would prevent them from attending live Phish shows, and the e-campus allows non-OSU students to enroll in the course.
This term, there are 15 students in the class. Jenkins said every year there are one to three non-OSU students who enrolled because they are fans of the band, and the rest of the class is evenly divided between students who have never heard of Phish and those who may have heard a song or two but don’t consider themselves fans.
“It creates an interesting community in the class,” Jenkins said. “The students that are fans take on a role of introducing the bands to the students that aren’t familiar with it. But the course material’s all written from the perspective of assuming the students aren’t going to have a working knowledge of the band. I put a lot of work into thinking about how to navigate differences in exposures to the band.”
Along with weekly reading assignments and written responses, students must interview an artist in the Phish community and are required to attend three Phish shows during the course, either in person or via webcast.
The band’s trio of shows at the Gorge marks the first time Jenkins has taken students to see Phish.
About half of the class is making the trek to the Gorge where they will have to complete a variety of assignments including interviewing a Phish fan and learning rituals fans have developed over the years.
“I’m really trying to take advantage of the fact that there’s going to be a lot of people out there that will be interested in helping them,” Jenkins said.
Students, and members of the community, will also get to take part in the first Phish Studies Colloquium, which will be 1 p.m. Saturday at a to-be-determined location in the Gorge campground.
The conference features presentations from eight Phish scholars from across the country that explore the class itself, the Phish community and the Phish experience.
Jenkins will present “Concepts We’ll Ponder: Why Phish Studies?,” and Jnan Blau, associate professor of communication studies at California Polytechnic State University, will present “A Performance Studies Scholar on Phish and Phandom: Some Useful, Generative Key Terms and Concepts.”
Denise Goldman, adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University and Long Island University, will present “Phamily Ethos: An Exploratory Analysis of Communication and Community Building on the Social Media Site ‘Phish Chicks’, ” and Paul Jakus, professor of economics at Utah State University will present “That was Awesome! Predicting a Show’s Rating Using Setlist Information.”
Phish, its music and the Phish community lend itself to a philosophy course for a number of reasons, Jenkins said.
Anastasio majored in philosophy in college and the band incorporates many philosophical themes into its lyrics. Some of these songs feature the teachings or activities of a character named Icculus, known as a great philosopher in the fictional land of Gamehendge, where many Phish songs are set.
Phish, as an improvisational rock band, also never plays a song the same way twice, which Jenkins said creates a sense of surprise for fans, who will then follow the band around the country and the world to hear each version.
“It creates this really closely connected community of people who share their love of the band from all walks of life, all different professions,” Jenkins said. “But the thing that unites us is the music.”
It’s this community that Jenkins is excited to introduce her students to, knowing just how much they’ll get out of talking with fans who are “inquisitive and intellectual in their passion for the band.”
“It’s wonderful to be able to share this with my students and have them be embraced and welcomed so openly,” she said. “They’re going to have a lot of fun, and they’re also going to learn a lot about philosophy that they’re never going to forget.”