Nandi Theunissen poses for a photo outside the Cathedral of Learning.
Nandi Theunissen poses for a photo outside the Cathedral of Learning.
Liam Sullivan | Staff Photographer

Nandi Theunissen: A teacher of philosophy and self-value

Nandi Theunissen grew up as “a great reader of literature,” but as she progressed throughout high school, she no longer found that it fully satisfied her interests. When Theunissen went to college, she discovered her true fascination — philosophy.

“When I went to college, I was doing English, and I realized that what I liked about literature was the philosophical content of the material I was reading,” Theunissen said.

Theunissen stumbled into a philosophy class at the University of Western Australia and noted how alienating the field of philosophy can feel at first, especially for a young woman learning about ancient texts written by men. Despite this difficulty, Theunissen said she never gave up on her true interests. 

“For me, it was something of an acquired taste,” Theunissen said. “All of my professors were men who were almost 50 years older than me, but I thought, ‘No, there’s got to be more in this field for me,’ and I persisted.” 

Despite a lack of connection, Theunissen transferred to a bigger university — the University of Sydney — where she found great professors who acted as even better mentors to her. 

“That mentor relationship was so important for me,” Theunissen said. “It was sort of getting me in the door and making me realize that my instinct was right — this is what I want to do.”

When she came to the United States for graduate school at Columbia University, Theunissen felt “so fortunate” to find mentors who trained her relentlessly. These mentors became a huge part of how she found her way within the discipline of philosophy. 

“I think I would not have ended up pursuing philosophy as a vocation, had it not been for mentors who took the time to take my work seriously and take me seriously,” Theunissen said. 

Because mentorship acted as such an important part of Theunissen’s professional growth, she continues to make it a part of her life now. While she’s an associate professor of philosophy at Pitt, she is also an adviser for five different graduate students pursuing higher education. 

“The graduate students at Pitt are phenomenal. They’re so smart, but not only that, they’re supportive, they’re community-minded and I think with them. It’s genuinely a cooperative, symbiotic relationship … I get so much from them,” Theunissen said. 

Rajiv Hurhangee, one of Theunissen’s graduate advisees, said he felt like he and Theunissen had “a spiritual connection” the first time they spoke. From that moment, he said he knew “This is someone I, in some way, want to work with.”

“It was [like] somebody saying, ‘I get it. I get what you’re about, and I’m about it too, so let’s talk.’ It was very natural and a really dynamic development,” Hurhangee said.

Both Theunissen and Hurhangee are interested in the ethical field of value theory. 

“A lot of my work is about the value of humanity,” Theunissen said. “So, what is it that makes human beings valuable and such that they should be treated in certain ways and not in other ways? The answer I give to that question is that each one of us is a center of our own life … [and] we should always relate to others in such a way that treats them as the center of their own life.”

This point of connection is what originally attracted Hurhangee to work with Theunissen, making her a “natural adviser.” But this professional overlap isn’t the only reason they bonded — Hurangee highlighted Theunissen’s personality and how she “really draws you in.” 

“She’s a very inspiring, elegant person,” Hurhangee remarked. “She has a mesmerizing way of speaking and it really pulls you in and makes you very interested in what she has to say. I find that makes it easy for me to think of her as a philosophical model.” 

For Hurhangee, Theunissen is “the best adviser [he] could ever ask for.” He says that an adviser is someone who determines what path of study one takes and that Theunissen does this in a gentle, supportive and encouraging way.

“She’s a very caring adviser, a very committed adviser,” Hurhangee said. “She respects her students very much and really values their ways of thinking. The exploring, trying to figure things out and taking your time to work through things can be very difficult, but she really supports that.”

As an associate professor, Theunissen teaches a range of ethics classes for introductory and advanced philosophy students. Alhanoof Albishi, a sophomore philosophy major, has taken both lecture and seminar-style ethics classes with Theunissen. Albishi reflected on how no matter the class size, she really “takes the time” to listen to her students.

“It comes through that she cares about what she’s teaching. She cares about students’ views and incorporating that into the lecture,” Albishi said. “In such a big lecture, you would think that she might not answer students’ questions, but it isn’t one-sided at all.”

Theunissen strives to make historical philosophical texts more understandable for her students. One way she fosters an organic understanding of fundamental yet hard philosophical texts like Aristotle and Kant is by teaching her students to break them down into outlines. 

“I really try my best to be responsive and meet students where they are,” Theunissen said. “I also really try to make texts and the history of philosophy come alive for my students. I’ve always found philosophy really hard to read and no one ever talked about that … so one of the things that I really teach is how to make a reading outline of a passage and how to break it down so you really hear the music for yourself.”

Nandi Theunissen poses for a photo outside the Cathedral of Learning. (Liam Sullivan | Staff Photographer)

Eithne Maro, a junior philosophy and classics double major who took an ethical theory class with Theunissen, recalled the professor’s openness to self-reflection and spirituality. Maro recalled that for a class project, students got to record things such as gratitude journals to foster self-awareness. 

“Nandi is very open about the spirituality aspect, yoga and centering yourself,” Maro said. “It’s nice having encouragement from a professor that’s like, ‘Specifically take time to look at your relationship with your school work and yourself.’ I think it’s really all about being in touch with your body and the world around you.”

A huge part of understanding ethics for Theunissen begins with how individuals relate to and care for themselves, which she said “is the closest relationship that we have.” To build this relationship, Theunissen turns to yoga for a sense of relief in her busy life. 

“There was a yoga studio in Baltimore … it was like a temple to me,” Theunissen said. “It was this place of community. It wasn’t super social in the sense that you were talking to people, but everybody was coming there, looking for something, breathing and moving. So that was such a grounding and just a source of strength, joy and stability in my life.” 

Since coming to Pittsburgh, Theunissen now practices at the Shala in East Liberty, which teaches Ashtanga yoga in the Mysore style. 

“The way that you practice is by showing up and there’s a small window where the teacher will show you the sequence. Then, everybody does their own practice and no one is directing you. There’s no voice and it’s in silence, the teacher will just come around and adjust you,” Theunissen said. “I’m just so grateful to be a member of that community.” 

Theunissen’s commitment to a range of disciplines is something that Hurhangee hopes to adopt in his own professional life. Her influence as both an academic adviser and a life mentor has guided Hurhangee in his own aspirations. 

“It’s not an overstatement to say that I am the philosopher I am today thanks to Nandi,” Hurhangee said. “She is the philosopher I aspire to be, not just in terms of the stuff she works on and the way she thinks about them, but as someone who is very committed, very careful, very attentive and very charitable.”