The Colgate Scene
November 2004

Common conversations
A web of related activities gets people talking about contemporary global issues

A student takes a closer look at Guy Limone's "840 People Per Day are Killed in Armed Conflict" (a detail of which is shown on the table of contents of this issue) in the Bang! weapons and war art exhibition in the Clifford Gallery. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

A Nobel Peace prize winner, a former UN troop commander, and many others help to enhance the conversation.
The Weapons and War programming also includes art exhibitions and a film series.
Conversations related to this year's Center for Ethics and World Societies programming are taking place in many areas of the curriculum.
A closer look at texts and student questions from PEAC/CORE 322
Late on a Wednesday evening in early September, a group of students and professors are gathered at Bunche House. This small gathering has been given a rare opportunity to have an intimate discussion with a distinguished visitor -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams. Although tired from a busy day of appearances on campus, Williams sinks into a chair and jumps into an intellectual, yet casual conversation. Facilitated by debate coach Miranda Weigler, curious students invited for their leadership and interest in social justice or peace studies pepper Williams with questions about her life and motivations as an international activist, organizer, teacher, and writer.

Williams received the peace prize in 1997 along with the organization she helped to found, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).Today, she is ICBL coordinator and editor of the annual Landmine Monitor Report. Millions of landmines still plague the landscapes of more than 80 countries in the world, causing 1,500 new casualties a month, so Williams continues her mission to advocate their elimination, which includes occasional appearances at colleges and universities.

While on campus, Williams also gave the Center for Ethics and World Societies keynote address in Memorial Chapel, conducted an in-depth question-and-answer session in an academic class, and conversed over dinner with professors and students at Watson House.

Williams's visit, which also was sponsored by the peace studies and sophomore-year experience programs and integrated into several academic classes, was a connecting strand in an intricate web of campus conversations -- a spotlight example of the coordinated programming that Colgate fosters to engage students and other members of the community in issues of global importance.

Weapons and War
This year's CEWS theme, "Weapons and War," serves as the linchpin for these particular related conversations. Through public lectures, a film series, art exhibition, classes, and other activities, participants have been exploring the meanings, effects, and ethics of weapons and war worldwide.

"We're trying to get at the penetration of global military issues through the tools of war," explained Nancy Ries, associate professor of anthropology and peace studies and co-director of CEWS. "People know very little about the tools of war and how they work and what they do."

In the case of landmines, which fit perfectly into the theme, Ries was determined to bring Williams to campus because she "is an inspiration -- a really smart person with whom any of us can identify, who lands on a fabulous idea, creates a model for social action, and follows through on it with total determination."

"What is crucial about Jody Williams is that she defied the normative story about the impossibility of disarmament," said Daniel Monk, director of the peace studies program. "She showed that conventional wisdom was wrong and that it is possible to reduce the proliferation of these weapons."

Monk compared the student conversation with Williams at Bunche House (which serves as the peace studies and international-themed residence in the Broad Street community) to a violin master class. "Activism is a craft and Jody Williams is a master," he said. "You have people with the same goals who speak the same vocabulary and understand the history and the background behind a particular issue, talking shop."

Students in several academic courses were required to attend Williams's lecture, including those in the CEWS-affiliated course, Weapons and War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, who also engaged in conversation with her both in a class session as well as in online discussions afterward.

Nancy Ries, co-instructor of the Weapons and War peace studies/Core course (rear center), moderates a Q&A discussion with Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams. See sidebar for some of the questions the students asked her.

Academic rigor
More than 70 students are taking the Weapons and War class, which is cross-listed as both a Core Distinction and upper-level peace studies course. The class is team-taught by three instructors who come at the topic from different disciplines but who have all taught in the peace studies program: Ries; Karen Harpp, CEWS co-director and associate professor of geology; and John Knecht, professor of art and art history.

Ries, who proposed the topic of weapons and war for CEWS, said she brings a range of social science approaches to encourage students to look at weapons systems in broad social, economic and political terms, while analyzing the less visible effects of weaponry on communities, families, and individuals.

Knecht, an artist whose expertise is in film and media studies, wants to build his students' media literacy. "I'm interested in the insidiousness of weapons, and the language of weapons, in our culture and pop culture. For example, I'll show an image of a table lamp that's based on a military tank -- it's a decorative object that has some function. I'll pass out Atomic Fireballs at some point. I want to take popular images and the language of popular culture and deconstruct them with the students."

As a geology professor, Harpp has two goals for the students: to teach them the science behind weapons and to give them a sense of the simplicity -- or complexity -- involved in building them. In the first class meeting, she incorporated a hands-on demonstration with blasting caps, firecrackers, and gunpowder into her in-depth presentation on how landmines work, in order to prepare the students for Williams's visit.

"I think you are better equipped to address the kinds of really complex questions that are brought up with this course if you have some basic knowledge of how weapons work," she said.

Their teaching approaches come together in "putting forward weapons as a total social product," said Ries. "Any weapon or weapons system is the product of all kinds of historical, political, economic, social, and structural forces."

It is a rigorous, wholly interdisciplinary course. In addition to class meetings and projects, the students attend all CEWS events -- including visiting lectures such as Williams's, weekly films, and the art exhibition -- and must participate in the online discussions.

That it is a Core Distinction course also raises the academic bar for students. A limited number of these upper-level interdisciplinary courses, which focus on ethical issues with contemporary significance and provide an integrative capstone experience that extends the four-course required core program, are offered each semester. To be accepted into a Core Distinction course and eventually earn distinction in the core upon graduation, students must earn a G.P.A. of 3.00.

"Core Distinction allows highly motivated students to design their own way of entering, living, and exiting a course," said Lourdes Rojas, director of the Core program and professor of romance languages and literatures. "You might have students coming from the sciences, sociology and anthropology, and political science. That enriches the conversation and encourages participation," she explained, because students can bring into their analysis, research papers, and class discussions everything they have learned before.

"This particular course is on a topic that touches our daily lives -- the issue of war and the question of weapons," said Rojas. "The students in that class are really in touch with what is happening right now. There is an interconnectedness and an excitement and vision that comes from that -- you see a film, you hear a speaker discussing it, and then you listen to NPR and it's happening.

"At convocation this year, I talked about social responsibility, so this fits in very nicely. We are a privileged group, and there is a responsibility for that. I see a growing awareness at Colgate; students feel that they can make a difference, even in their own small world. The students are doing that themselves, and our peace studies program is designing a plan to give a more formal structure to their courses dealing with issues of social justice."

"It is easy for the fortunate few of us to feel bad about what is happening in war-torn countries, but never actually do anything about it," Paul Bowes '05, a member of the Weapons and War class, remarked. "Jody Williams took it upon herself to understand it, and I think that is one of the key issues that I took away from her."

Bonnie Vanzler '05 agreed. "I feel this course is an opportunity to come full circle and reevaluate those instances in our lives and academic careers where we've been challenged to truly think critically -- and do something about it," she said.

After Williams's visit, the class continued the conversation via the Blackboard online discussion board. The forum provided an opportunity for students to voice their agreement -- or disagreement -- with what Williams had to say. Williams herself generously participated in the discussion.

"Core Distinction allows highly motivated students to design their own way of entering, living, and exiting a course," said Lourdes Rojas, director of the Core program and professor of romance languages and literatures, seen here teaching one of her own courses.

Integrating academics and residential life
Some students were present at all three events with Jody Williams. According to Raj Bellani, dean of sophomore year, this is an example of the deliberate integration of academic and student affairs taking place at Colgate. "Since the creation of the residential education vision, we have gone to a holistic approach to programming," he said. "So when you have Jody Williams giving a keynote address, it's co-sponsored by CEWS, peace studies, and the sophomore-year experience. Then we have students talking with her afterward in Bunche House about her lecture, and the next morning she is meeting with a class. This allows their conversations to evolve over time, because they have more time for reflection. And, it is a community-wide effort to create common conversations."

Another set of related conversations took place during orientation in August, when the entire first-year class, along with their student Links, was divided into groups for faculty-led discussions of their summer reading assignment, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a memoir-esque work of fiction about U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

The book was chosen in part "because in some small way there is a parallel between what the students decide to bring to campus -- what's important to them, what they'll put on their walls -- and what the soldiers chose to bring with them," said Beverly Low, dean of first-year students. "It has relevance, particularly with the current situation in Iraq."

It seems a heavy conversation for a first-year student's first days on campus, but there is a purpose. "Orientation is about getting students acclimated, but it's also about being clear about academic expectations and setting an overall tone," said Low.

"I really enjoyed the book. It was pretty deep and emotional, like going away to college," said Natali Plesniarski '08. "When you first get here, everything is thrown right at you. It gets emotional, it gets hard, it gets deep. When I thought about it, I felt like they were trying to tell us that it's not going to be a piece of cake. I felt like I was getting started into the Colgate work ethic."

The summer reading discussion also gives new students a chance to meet other professors besides their first-year seminar instructors, "to make other academic connections right off the bat, and have a unifying academic experience," according to Low.

The trio teaching the Weapons and War class joined other professors whose scholarly interests are somehow related to the topic, as facilitators at the Saturday night discussion. They included Monk, Lesleigh Cushing and Rob Figueroa of the philosophy and religion department, and Carolyn Kissane from educational studies.

"Raj Bellani and I were having lunch with Nancy Ries and Karen Harpp," said Low. "They were picking our brains about how to get the first-year students involved in CEWS." Low mentioned the choice for this year's summer assignment, a serendipitous tie-in.

"In the beginning of the book, the author lists the things that the soldiers in Vietnam are carrying as they slog through the jungle, including Claymores (landmines)," said Ries. "So, it starts with the weapons, very concrete objects of war, but then the things they carry are also their memories and their fears and their connections to the homeland and many other abstract things. Somehow that captures what we're trying to do -- to show weapons as part of this total context, connected to the world in myriad ways."

On the stark white walls of the Clifford Gallery in Little Hall, a black-and white photograph shows Xieng La, a Hmong war veteran, gingerly tapping a live mortar shell to extract gunpowder to sell. The image is part of a series by artist Mike Greenlar that depicts how postwar Laotians dealt with unexploded ordinance left behind by American forces during the "secret war" in Laos from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s.

Bang!, the exhibition co-sponsored by CEWS and the art and art history department, followed on the heels of Williams's keynote address, providing another way to enter a conversation about the topic. Among the works were authentic bible, book, and suitcase bombs (without the explosive material), and a shelf of tiny, khaki-green figurines representing the number of people who die in armed conflict each day.

"If we want to have a discussion about weapons and war, it's a good idea to have it on as many levels as we can," said Linn Underhill, associate professor of art and art history, who curated the exhibition. "Art gives us a different way of talking, thinking about, and explaining weapons and war. It gives you an immediate experience. When you see a suitcase bomb, you think about that object and what it can do, and how easy it is to make it. Seeing those 840 little figurines on the wall, who look like people you might know, makes you think about the statistics in a different, more immediate way."

Postings to the Weapons and War class Blackboard discussion thread about the exhibition show firsthand how works of art can add to the conversation.

"The line of green figurines caused me to back physically away," wrote Aubrey Graham '06. "There is something about the color that leads one to believe that they are all soldiers, killed in their duty to a cause they believe in. However, I reacted because there were skiers and civilians in that mix; in fact, most of them did not look like soldiers. And who is to say that just because they die for a cause means that they believe in it?"

"It seems weird that they're all Westerners (white mainstream Americans) wearing Western-style clothing, doing Western things," Heather Angstrom '05 replied. "Perhaps the artist used these figurines because it hits home more for us to see people that look like us and imagine them dying from gunfire (`That could be me')."

In addition to the CEWS programming, Bang! was incorporated into studio art and art history courses. The exhibition provided the Colgate community access to works of art by artists of note that would normally only be seen in large cities. Of the works she chose, Underhill said, "Each of these examples brought to the forefront of my thinking some aspect of weapons and war that caught me up short, that I was surprised by, or that was about something I hadn't thought of in a while."

A desire to inspire
Looking back on the conversation with Jody Williams at Bunche House, Ilyse Morgenstein '05, the house's community coordinator, said: "A lot of the students who were there are going to go on to do something in their own community. It was nice to see someone `normal' — she told us vacuuming is like her 'zen' moment — who started small at a grassroots level, brought a major issue to the fore, and brought it to the absolute climax of what you can do."

And that was her motivation behind participating in so many conversations at Colgate, said Jody Williams. "In the context of this yearlong programming, I really wanted to do this. If every time I speak, one or two people end up in their lives doing more than I've done on the planet, isn't that awesome?"
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