The Colgate Scene
July 2007

Living learning

Nazia Moqueet '08 listens intently to the faculty panel discussion, "Revisiting the Clash of Civilizations," featuring political science professors Robert Kraynak, Barry Shain, and Bruce Rutherford, and moderated by Noor Khan, instructor in history, which was sponsored by the Muslim Student Association. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Correction appended

The questions scrawled on the futuristic-looking flier designed by Collmann Griffin '09 blared loudly: How can we stop China? Why does society need religion? When is terrorism OK? Why can only a white male become president?

Those loaded questions served as topics for the spring SLF Asks series, informal discussions led by students for students in the O'Connor Campus Center. The first event drew more than 20 students, for an intriguing discussion on why global warming is good.

"We want people at the discussions who truly care about the topic, and controversial questions are one way to encourage them to come," said Shannon Young '09 of the Student Lecture Forum, which sponsors SLF Asks. "The questions are usually just springboards for a broader debate, and it is exciting to see what perspectives people will bring."

Many bemoan the tendency of today's college students to compartmentalize their academic and social lives, even on the nation's most prestigious campuses. The Christian Science Monitor examined that phenomenon ("Deep thinkers missing in action," Jan. 21, 2003), citing among other issues the pressure to achieve resume-building grades and credentials that leads to a mentality of studying hard, then turning off their minds after class and blowing off steam, as well as American social culture — that it isn't "cool" to be "brainy."

At Colgate, several student groups are challenging that notion, taking it upon themselves to integrate their intellectual and social lives in ways both structured and spontaneous. Take the Student Lecture Forum, a core group of about 10 students with a variety of majors and interests who organize programs that draw in many others, students and faculty alike.

Grass roots intellectualism
As Student Lecture Forum director Brendan O'Connor '09, puts it, "it's a grass-roots campaign for intellectualism." A philosophy and religion major, O'Connor is also a drummer with an interest in funk and blues, and manager of the campus sound company for events. The SLF Asks series is one newer development for the group, which began by hosting an annual essay festival where students submit papers they have written for particular classes. The finalists (chosen by student SLF members), who receive cash prizes, gather with their professors and invited guests for a soiree in Merrill House, where they deliver a one-minute speech about their work.

This year, in order to make the fruits of the essay festival — arguably some of the best student scholarship of the year — available to others in the future, they published the first Colgate Academic Review featuring the writings of 13 finalists.

"Intellectual diversity was high on our priority list," said O'Connor. "We made sure we got somebody from each class, from a bunch of different disciplines, classes, and types of papers, as well as from different perspectives. For example, we read papers from truly religious perspectives on not-so-religious topics. We also read some strictly science papers that were extremely empirical."

O'Connor once half-jokingly predicted that Colgate students will someday be footnoting previous students in their core papers. But Pat Kabat '06 — who founded the Student Lecture Forum — had to agree: "I can just see it: `As Brandon McKenzie '06 argued in his 2005 study of constitutional theory . . .'" he wrote in an essay about his experience.

The papers and essays covered topics from Descartes' practical philosophy, a senior thesis on archaeoastronomy, the Polish Solidarity movement, and French poet Joachim du Bellay, to trace metal trends in Payne Creek in Hamilton, form and meaning in a chapel in Rome, Italy, the Danish welfare state, and contesting traditional perceptions of Moses Mendelssohn in modern Jewish history.

The SLF, which has about a dozen members and is sponsored in part by Paul J. Schupf '58 in honor of Kabat, also organizes what they call University Scholars dinners, where professors are invited to share, in advance, a paper they have written, and then discuss it with students over a meal. The gatherings have become popular among students and the faculty participants, and conversations have been known to become intense. On a night when the group discussed a paper about a little-known bombing campaign in Ireland in the early 1900s, O'Connor recounted, laughing, "We ended up having an hour-long debate about the definition of terrorism and got kicked out of the [Colgate] Inn because we were yelling. We just got so into it."

Zach Mancher '08 makes a point during the SLF Asks discussion, "Why can only a white male become president?"

Colgate Speaking Union
The Student Lecture Forum is one component of the Colgate Speaking Union, the umbrella student organization that also includes the Harry C. Behler Debate Society as well as Model United Nations and Mock Trial teams.

Matt Greeson '09, who participates in Model UN, said he appreciates his involvement because while "a lot of college is working for the grades, the CSU gives us a chance to pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake."

The speaking union members meet to distribute available resources amongst their organizations; costs are currently funded through support from an anonymous donor. The groups provide choices for students to engage in the kind of intellectual discourse that best suits them, although a number of students participate in multiple groups. More than 20 students are regular members of the debate society, which dates back to the early 1900s at Colgate and competes primarily in the British parliamentary style. This year they participated in seven competitions around the country and in Canada.

Participants in Model UN delve into realistic international relations scenarios, and practice problem solving, conflict resolution, and research skills through conferences that are authentic simulations of the United Nations. As delegates, students assume the roles of ambassadors to the United Nations. The nearly 20 core members of Model UN traveled to four events this year, including the WorldMUN conference in Geneva, Switzerland, with members garnering at least one award and verbal commendations at each.

The Mock Trial team, which had approximately 10 members this year, simulates and practices all parts of both civil and criminal trials — from opening and closing statements to direct questioning, evidence submission, and cross-examination. Cases are determined annually by the American Mock Trial Association.

"These programs have a nice way of bridging the gap between social activities and academics," said Jeannine Privat, coordinator of competitive speaking programs. "It's fun, but the students are challenging and pushing each other, and put a lot of energy into practicing their speaking styles, studying, and their meetings."

"There are a lot of kids involved, and beyond the regular CSU members, there are the students and professors who come to the events, as well as professors who have gotten more involved," said O'Connor. "It's become a really tight-knit community."

Students, staff members, and professors brainstorm new ways to publicize opportunities for intellectual interaction at an "intellectualism council" sponsored by the Colgate Speaking Union.

Food for thought
A Spanish proverb says, "The belly rules the mind." If you want to entice college students — or professors, for that matter — to come to something, make sure you're offering good food. For the past two years, Michelle West '07 and her 11 housemates have lived out that philosophy. One of several groups who took advantage of residential options that help further their interest in blending their social and academic lives, they created the "intellectual diversity and leadership townhouse."

One of the key tenets of the opportunity to live in the new university townhouses on Rt. 12B is having a common theme or community goal. The modus operandi for West and her friends was to foster discourse through monthly potluck dinners with professors. The events quickly became a big hit.

"We have very diverse intellectual interests," said West of her housemates. "We span the majors and minors at Colgate, and most of us have leadership roles in the different organizations we're involved in. We have majors in Japanese, neuroscience, biology, English, history, psychology, and philosophy, for starters, so we can have conversations from a lot of different perspectives." A psychology and philosophy double major, West was an officer in the philosophy club, revived Amnesty International on campus, served as a psychology research assistant, participated in fencing, volunteered for admission, and worked as a monitor at the athletics department's climbing wall.

"Everyone is allowed to invite their favorite professors to the potlucks, so that leads to a very eclectic group from different departments, and some bring their spouses or significant others," said West. "We usually have about 30 people come. The conversations are really cool — they go all over the place. We'll talk about professors' research, for example. Once we had this discussion of how it doesn't mean you disrespect a professor if you call them by their first name, it just means you're comfortable enough around each other, but with others you would feel weird doing it.

"We'll take three hours to eat dinner and have dessert, and everybody feels completely sick from eating too much by the end," West said, chuckling. "It's a lot of fun and we've had compliments from professors."

Scott Kraly, professor of psychology, became an avid participant. "These were by far the nicest, most relaxed student-faculty events I've ever attended," he said. "They are terrific students, and really interesting people. Because they held them fairly often, a comfort level developed — our conversations ranged from really serious to absolutely goofy. And there's something about sitting down to food that someone has prepared for you, and then having a conversation with them. It was important to them in the same way that when I went to my grandmother's, it was important that she cooked for us and that we came to eat her food. The food becomes meaningful, and sets the stage for what this is all about."

Their townhouse also served as the central location for special club events, from the aikido and equestrian club dinners to a Japanese Club cooking activity, to Mock Trial team parties.

A second "intellectualism townhouse" this year was composed of students whose common interests were either music — mostly Pep Band or orchestra members — or classics majors. Sarah Miller '07, involved in both, was the lynchpin. The group blended their two affiliations through events like a French salon where they cooked, ate, and chatted about current affairs, and a listening party.

"We asked people to bring music that was less well-known," said Miller. For example, Brian Hinrichs ['07] brought Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Neruda Songs, John Yao ['07] had a piece by John Cage, and Christian Savage ['09] had a baroque horn group. We listened to each song and discussed it; for example, are the Neruda songs romantic, or modern? It was a really good conversation."

This coming fall, one group of students will have a chance to blend their social and intellectual lives in another fashion.

Tim Byrnes, professor of political science, is an enthusiastic supporter of students' out-of-classroom intellectual endeavors; for example, he accompanied the debate society to their competition in California this year. A resident of one of several apartments among the townhouses, he had been looking for chances to contribute to the intellectual-social student dynamic. He sees the townhouses as "places where student intellectual life can be enhanced because they are homes that can bring in larger events.

"We put out the idea that if students wanted to live together and take a course," he continued, "I would teach it in their house, and we'll also bring it to the community in some way."

So this coming fall, timed to coincide with the upcoming election, Byrnes will teach his Presidency and Executive Leadership course in a townhouse. The residents will also organize related events open to the community, such as watching and discussing the political debates.

"The four years of college are a chance for students to make books, learning, and argument central parts of their lives," said Byrnes. "The more they can think about it as an integrated experience, the better off it is for them."

Practice for life
"To me, college is a practice for life," said O'Connor. "We're learning the things we should use in life. And of course, I also do this because it's fun."

His statement was echoed by the students who gathered in April when the Colgate Speaking Union held an "intellectualism council."

They had invited students and members of the faculty and staff to brainstorm with them ways to better publicize the opportunities for intellectual interaction that are such an important part of their Colgate experience, and asked Jerry Balmuth, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of philosophy and religion, to speak about the value of intellectualism. Student representatives from each speaking union organization also spoke about their involvement and what it means to them. Their goal: to make stronger connections with other groups on campus and also to cast a wider net within the student body and the faculty, eager to share their thirst for knowledge and living a life of the mind.

As Hannah Robinson '10, PR officer for the debate society, said: "We're trying to elevate our knowledge so we can employ it to improve peoples' lives. The more you learn, the more you learn how much there is to learn."

Upon publication, Zach Mancher was incorrectly identified as Zach McCollum. In addition, winning essays in the essay festival were chosen entirely by student SLF members. These errors have been corrected in the text above. The Scene regrets these errors.

Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: Looking back/looking forward >>