UNCP5550: Building a Life

David McMenamin

Adjunct Associate Professor of Philosophy

Once upon a time there were three little pigs and the time came for them to leave home and seek their fortunes. Before they left, their mother told them, "Whatever you do, do it the best that you can because that's the way to get along in the world."

The first little pig built his house out of straw because it was the easiest thing to do. The second little pig built his house out of sticks. This was a little bit stronger than a straw house. The third little pig built his house out of bricks.
—Children's folktale

New work comes out of old work.
—Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities

Can we plan our lives or, on the contrary, do our lives just happen to us? Or is there a third alternative, something between the myth that we can plan it all and the powerlessness of not being able to do anything other than move forward with the currents and take what comes as it comes?

This course will explore that middle ground between the two extremes. Based on the notion expressed above by Jane Jacobs, we will approach the question of life as a work and as the process of working, a process of building or creating the works which are our lives. Lives are not created ex nihilo. Lives are built in the context of the places in which we live and have lived; they are built on the foundations that we have already laid; they are constructed by us in and through our interactions with the world around us. Building on the past, they are our place in the world, situating us in the present and orienting us toward the future.

Using the metaphor of "building," this course is examine the existing components of our lives, the cultural influences which shaped them, the cultural influences and the counter-cultural sources of inspiration for deciding on the ultimate construction.

Course requirements

Seminar leadership: Each week's seminar will be led by two of the students, working together to prepare, based on the question of how the reading for that week can be understood in relation to the theme of the course.

Writing assignments

  • two initial autobiographical exercises
  • a weekly writing assignment done in conjunction with the readings (except for the two leaders of that week's discussion)
  • mid-term project
  • final paper

Course plan

Exploring the past: written exercises

  • a written autobiographical exercise covering the period before Boston College
  • two written exercises covering your first three years of life at Boston College; an academic autobiography and a personal autobiography of the time spent at BC.

Building in the present: foundations for building, as a way of exploring the future.

Note: The following reading list is a work in progress.

Weeks 1-4
Architecture as a metaphor for thinking about life

  • Christian Norberg-Schulz, selections from Genius LociThe Concept of Dwelling; and New World Architecture
  • film, Life as a House
  • Larraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Weeks 5-7
The social and cultural context, the American Dream

  • Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (selections)
  • Richard Lewis, American Adam
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ethan Brand (short story)
  • Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream

Weeks 8-9
The structure, and construction, of a city as a metaphor for building a life

  • Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
    Growing an economy as a metaphor for personal growth
  • Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities (selections)

Weeks 10-12
Resources, design sources for constructing a life: religious, interpersonal, community, human nature

Short stories

  • Raymond Carver, Cathedral
  • Leo Tolstoy, Master and ManThe Death of Ivan Ilych


  • The Gospel of John
  • The Acts of the Apostles
  • excerpts from Exodus and Deuteronomy

Projecting the future

  • written assignment (final)
  • autobiography of the future