Professor, philosopher, scholar, musician, author, family man…is there anything Stephen Asma can’t do?
Written by Margaret Smith, Journalism
Photography by Kelsey Wright ('10)
Dr. Stephen Asma is, by his own admission, a regular Joe six-pack. He appreciates red meat, good whiskey, and baseball. His office, however, tells a slightly different story.
Located in the 624 S. Michigan Ave. building, the calming sound of soft jazz regularly fills the room. It’s a fine fit if you consider that, in the early ’90s, Dr. Asma was a professional musician in Chicago, most notably playing a residency at Buddy Guy’s Legends with the Chicago-based blues band Howard and the White Boys—a band he help create.
Along the walls of his office sit four brown bookcases, where different selections of philosophy, Eastern religion, and other texts are sprawled in disarray. Behind his desk are boxes filled with some of his own six books, including The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in Land of Tattered Buddha, and his latest book, Why I Am a Buddhist, which was published this past March.
“Buddhism is not about magical-thinking, and yet so many Americans think it is,” Dr. Asma says about his newest book. “So that’s partly the mission of the book—to sort of try to give people what the real Buddha was saying, and then also try to show how an average schmuck like me puts it into practice.”
As a published author, scholar, musician, Eastern religion expert, and philosopher, Dr. Asma brings a wealth of knowledge to the students he teaches in Columbia’s Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences (HHSS) in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Steve is a wonderful teacher, scholar, and colleague,” says HHSS Chairperson Dr. Lisa Brock. “He is a philosopher of the people, a Buddhist, and a blues musician who speaks Chinese. He is Columbia College’s own renaissance man.”
Dr. Asma’s interest in philosophy began when he was in college at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Illinois. Originally an art major specializing in painting, he began to find that philosophy was his real passion. He switched majors and received both his BA and MA in philosophy from NIU. He then went on to earn his PhD in philosophy from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. The switch from art to philosophy was natural, Dr. Asma says, and he strongly believes that most artists have a special bond with the subject.
“I found that artists really like philosophy,” he says. “There’s some connection. I don’t know whether it’s the bohemian spirit or what, but when artists hit philosophy they recognize something in it. It does something for them…”
It was this connection between philosophy and the arts that originally drew Dr. Asma to Columbia. He began working for the college in the early 1990s as an adjunct professor, and earned a full-time position in ’94. He’s been with the college ever since. “Right away I liked working here at Columbia,” he says. “I really felt like these were my people, so to speak.”
Much of Dr. Asma’s work in Buddhism is a result of his experiences traveling throughout Southeast Asia. He’s also taught across seas at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In addition to drawing from his interests and scholarly work when he’s in the classroom, Asma relies on combining the Socratic method, which structures learning around a question and answer format, with traditional lecturing.
Columbia’s approach to curriculum also has allowed him to create classes he probably wouldn’t be able to teach at other institutions, such as “Philosophical Issues in Film,” one of his most popular courses. Dr. Asma also teaches another course he developed, called “The Evolution of the Mind.” In it, students explore both the biological and cultural development of the human psyche.
“One of the great things about Columbia for the faculty members is that they encourage and value creativity in the faculty,” Dr. Asma says. “That’s something you don’t find as much of, I think, in other schools.”
Today, when he and his wife aren’t taking care of their son, Julien, Dr. Asma pursues his artistic and musical interests. He plays gigs around Chicago with Doctor Swing, an acoustic swing quartet. And, in ’96, he wrote and illustrated the book Buddha for Beginners, a graphic novel that explores the key tenets of Buddhism.
With six books under his belt, Dr. Asma says he’s currently working on this seventh—a text for professional philosophers that poses questions about ethics, fairness, and social justice. He also plans to continue his work with a think tank called “The Mind, Science, and Culture Research Group,” sponsored by the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The group “emphasizes a cross-disciplinary dialogue between psychology, philosophy, the biological sciences, evolutionary science, history, and the humanities as a means of connecting the many levels of the human mind,” according to its mission statement.
“That’s been a very exciting development both for me and for the students here, because we’re sort of building up a little group of LAS students who are excited about these ideas,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that if you were to go back five years, you wouldn’t get this sort of stuff at Columbia.”
The story above appears in the annual magazine of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, @LAS.