Students, alumni, faculty, and Middletown residents gathered in the Memorial Chapel on Tuesday to attend the University’s second Wes Thinks Big event. The hour-and-a-half-long event gave five professors an open floor to speak for nine minutes about topics they chose, after which questions were solicited from the audience.
Wescapades, a student group also known for creating a campus-wide scavenger hunt that begins in Usdan, hosted the event. The eight Wescapades members prompted the professors to speak specifically about what “keeps them up at night.” Professors were nominated to partake in the panel via a Facebook group and were then selected by the eight members of Wescapades based upon their availability and interest in participating in the event. The group sought to create a panel of professors with diverse interests to attract the broadest section of the Wesleyan and Middletown communities.
Wescapades Coordinator Ari Fishman ’13 said that she was impressed with the event’s 350 attendees.
“I think it says something about how awesomely nerdy this school is that we can sell out the Memorial Chapel for optional professor lectures,” she said. “People really love new ideas here.”
The lineup of professors consisted of Associate Professor of Government Elvin Lim, Associate Professor of Film Studies Scott Higgins, Associate Professor of Physics Greg Voth, Visiting Instructor in Public Policy Dar Williams, and Professor of Economics Gil Skillman. Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Mary-Jane Rubenstein, who spoke at last year’s Wes Thinks Big, was the emcee for the event.
Lim began the event with a controversial lecture topic: “The Case Against Marriage.” He argued that it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is legalized in the United States. However, he found two tenets of the argument in favor of same-sex marriage to be overreaching: that marriage should be legal if it is between consenting adults and if no harm is done to others. He noted that these two points also justify incest in marriage and plural marriages. Many find those two alternatives to be morally wrong, just as many find same-sex marriage to be morally wrong. Lim argued that the reason that people can find no indisputable reason to support same-sex marriage is because the whole institution is arbitrary. He said that neither the people in a country nor the state itself should have the right to endorse one type of relationship over another.
“The state shouldn’t be in the business of telling us what is morally preferable… For example, should I choose to spend the rest of my life watching endless reruns of ‘Family Guy’ trying to determine the proper rendition of Cool Whip…the state must not get to tell me that I am wasting my time,” Lim said.
Lim concluded that marriage does not encourage love, but rather restrains it.
“If you choose to marry, do it in spite of the institution of marriage,” Lim said. “It will be weird—Wesleyan weird—but it will be right.”
Several students praised the controversial tone of Lim’s lecture.
“I thought Elvin Lim’s talk went somewhere that might be interesting or controversial to go, and it would be cool if even more speakers went that direction more explicitly,” said Anwar Batte ’13.
After Lim’s lecture, Higgins began his talk entitled “Fighting Familiarity with Form, or Why We Should Look More Closely” by telling students what really keeps him up at night.
“It’s usually either bad sushi or crippling self-doubt,” he said.
Higgins then proceeded to examine why his crippling self-doubt about the significance of teaching film at a liberal arts university keeps him up at night. In other words, he intended to justify why art is worth studying. He argued that art’s intention is to astonish and excite, and to recover one’s sensation of life from one’s otherwise habitualized existence. Higgins claimed that through the sensory structures of art, one can see and know things. Film, he said, is important to study because it fights familiarity with its unfamiliar form, and in doing so, loosens the shackles of the known and allows one to see in new ways.
“Thinking big begins by seeing…by bringing ways of seeing to the problems you will encounter,” Higgins said. “That is the promise of the liberal arts. To get myself to sleep at night, I tell myself that.”
After the event, Higgins offered The Argus his perspective on what it means to think big.
“I think the whole title and TEDTalk thing is a little self-congratulatory,” Higgins said. “You don’t actually get anything done without thinking big, but a program called ‘Doing Big’ wouldn’t bring anyone because we’d have to like, stay all night and accomplish something.”
In his lecture “The Paradox of Modern Physics,” Voth suggested that the audience think of the future of science as a paradox.
“On the one hand, our theories of physics are so amazingly successful that we cannot detect any issues from them that have any practical relevance,” Voth said. “On the other hand, we can’t solve the theories that we have to predict the behaviors of the billions of systems that are important to us in practical circumstances.”
Voth said that those who can think creatively will overcome the barriers to complexity in the two key scientific theories, which he outlined in layman’s terms for the audience: the standard model of particle physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Voth said that just because heat and air have chaotic properties, that does not mean that we should give up trying to predict the weather. He also pointed out that a huge barrier to complexity arises when one attempts to evaluate how human intelligence will respond to a problem, such as what humans will do when the impact of our actions on our ecosystem becomes more and more obvious.
Wayne Ng ’16 said that he was inspired by the physics professor’s lecture.
“After I saw his lecture, I wanted to go into his lab and try out the machines he’s working on,” Ng said. “I loved how he specified that the definition of relative changes so much. Everyone thought that Einstein’s theory of relativity was insane, and now we use it every day to track particles in our GPS systems.”
In Williams’ presentation, entitled “Positive Proximity: What I Discovered by Touring In and About 500 Cool American Towns from Rockland, Maine to Fairbanks, Alaska,” she explained that positive proximity—or positive relationships with one’s neighbors, environment, and/or towns—is created by nonmotorized outdoor activity, regional beauty, and sharing of food. The success of positive proximity, Williams argued, depends upon one’s willingness to ingratiate oneself with a larger community.
Williams also made some suggestions for ways that the University can encourage positive proximity. She encouraged more guerrilla offshoots of WILD Wes, such as growing bean plants on the CFA walls and hosting a Pestofest every summer. She said that the University could provide spaces for simultaneous tactile crafting and conversations. She also suggested on-campus disco, with Russell House as a potential locale.
Williams concluded her lecture by advocating for the creation of a social gathering space where professors and students could come together to talk.
“I’ve been a student, and I’ve been on the faculty, and we both think about each other a lot,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of mutual respect, which I don’t think I understood when I was here.”
Nina Stender ’16 said that Williams’ lecture was her favorite.
“All of the professors were really great, but I especially loved Dar Williams,” she said. “I wanted to cuddle with her!”
The lectures concluded with Skillman’s “Wesleyan 2050,” in which he outlined the future for liberal arts universities in the face of market forces. He said the University and similar institutions are economically irrational because the essence of the liberal arts—which he defines as a community of teacher-scholars and residential students studying a liberal arts curriculum in the context of relatively small classes—has nothing to do with meeting the bottom line. Instead, the bottom line of such institutions is the unmarketable study of critical inquiry and why it matters. Though entering the job market with a degree from this University can produce economic benefits, Skillman pointed out that University tuition will only rise in the future to keep up with new technologies.
“Central to what we do is having a diversified student body,” Skillman said. “The University’s financial aid budget must go up in order to continue what we do the way we do it, instead of just teaching, for instance, those of an affluent background.”
Skillman later pointed out that financial aid has doubled as a percentage of the University budget over the last 15 years.
He also argued that policies such as getting rid of tenure, eliminating the nexus between teacher and scholar so that only teachers who look good online will be hired, and increasing the percentage of the student body who are affluent will compromise the essence of the liberal arts without preserving it. He also offered one magic bullet to thwart this trend: an increase in alumni donations, which currently make it possible for University tuition to cover 83 percent of the total cost of attending the university.
Skillman ended his lecture with a call to the students in the audience to act.
“The degree to which Wesleyans of the world will need to accommodate market rationality will depend on extent to which you and your contemporaries pay it forward,” Skillman said.
The floor was then opened to questions from the audience. Skillman clarified his point that though he sees technology as having a positive potential as a new method of learning, using it as an alternative to face-to-face interactions with professors cannot truly replace a liberal arts education.
When asked how positive proximity could be implemented in low-income towns, Williams argued that one does not need financial means to translate oneself into the larger context of his or her community.
Skillman responded to a question about why he omitted publicly financed education from his talk with a statement that he was analyzing the effect that market forces would have on a liberal arts education, and he was not implicitly endorsing the existence of those market systems.
Voth commented on a question about the limited scope of the world allotted by a particle, and Lim answered the last question of the night by posing his own to the audience.
“In other words, what’s wrong with the world?” Lim said in response to the question regarding what other unconventional opinions he holds. The audience responded with cheers and applause.
At the end of the event, students gave the speakers a standing ovation.
Students who are interested in getting involved in Wes Thinks Big can contact Wescapades Head Coordinator Hannah Vogel ’13 at email@example.com.