Last Thursday in the Memorial Chapel, Wesleyan thought big—again. Wesleyan Thinks Big, an hour-long series of talks given by five professors from diverse academic backgrounds, aims to inspire students, alumni, faculty, and Middletown residents with engaging, thought-provoking lectures followed by a Q&A session.
The event was conceptualized last spring by the student group Wescapades. Modeled after TED talks, the now-semesterly event aims to foster learning for the sake of learning.
“Having been inspired by the talks, students [may] try some courses in a discipline that they might not have spent much time on,” Wescapades co-organizer Arianna Fishman ’13 said. “That happened to me after the first Wesleyan Thinks Big. I took an academic risk on Modern Christian Thought [RELI220] after hearing the professor’s incredible talk.”
This semester’s lineup consisted of Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Jeff Rider, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Balu Balasubrahmaniyan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Film Studies Jacob Bricca, and Mansfield Chair of East Asian Studies and Professor of History Vera Schwarcz. Though the event had no official theme, the talks all considered the idea of storytelling in some capacity.
Fishman believes that the event is a refreshing platform that allows professors to speak to a wider audience and showcase their interests outside of their specialized field. Professor of Economics Gilbert Skillman, the emcee for this semester’s event, agreed.
“It’s an opportunity [for the presenters] to go as desired beyond the constraints of course material or discipline, and just engage whatever topics occupy their attention,” Skillman wrote in an email to The Argus.
Matthusen, the first lecturer to take the stage, spoke about how acoustic spaces can bridge the past with the present in a talk titled “Sounds in Remembered Spaces.” To illustrate how sound can echo the past, she discussed a recent project she worked on in Westchester, N.Y., where she explored and recorded the sounds of the Old Croton Aqueduct. What she found there was a deep, rich soundscape that had a story of its own.
Rider’s lecture also discussed how the past resonates with us. He spoke about the importance of stories—stories about things outside ourselves and beyond our own cultural and personal contexts. He expressed his belief that it is crucial to consume all kinds of stories in order to stay in touch with the past and expand our stores of knowledge and understanding.
Bricca discussed a very specific cinematic mode of framing a story. He spoke about the development of cinema verité, a documentary filming technique that aims to fully and objectively unveil its subjects in their truest forms. He discussed the exploitative nature of reality television—a phenomenon that is a guilty pleasure for plenty of viewers. During his presentation, he screened some clips that showcased how cinema verité can at times be construed simply as a more sophisticated form of reality television.
Following Rider’s presentation, Balasubrahmaniyan took the podium to discuss the life of E.V. Ramasamy, a pioneering social activist in India who lived until 1973. Ramasamy sought to defy the inequities he found in his society, campaigning against caste-based social inequality and advocating for women’s rights. He also talked about social activism in India on a broader scale. At one point during his lecture, he mentioned that brahmins in India aren’t supposed to grow mustaches…“But I have one,” he said after a pause, pointing to his face and drawing laughs from the crowd.
The last professor to speak was Schwarcz. In her talk, entitled “A Jewish Wanderer Listening for the Unsayable in China,” Schwarcz recollected the historical and cultural complexity involved in being in China as a Jewish traveler. She recounted three moments that changed her view about China and deepened her understanding of herself: meeting Zhou Peiyuan, a physicist and the president of Peking University who had nearly been beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution; Wang Guangmei, the widow of the former premier of China; and philosopher Zhang Dainian.
Wesleyan Thinks Big coordinator Hannah Vogel ’13 said that she was impressed by the way the topics of these different talks came together to form a cohesive event.
“We didn’t give them a theme…it just worked out,” Vogel said. “The thing about these short talks is that they can stick with varying degrees without [the kind of] overarching message that happens in a conventional lecture.”