This April, the University will host its first symposium on the topic of “RISK.” Professor and Chair of the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies department Victoria Pitts-Taylor will moderate most of the discussions along with a group of six members of the class of 2015: Gabe Frankel, Nayan Ghosh, Kelsey Henry, Coady Johnson, Stellar Levy, and Hibiki Mizuno.
A daylong event, the symposium will stretch across all disciplines, including the natural sciences, social sciences, performance arts, and the humanities.
Frankel brought the idea to campus from the University of Oxford, where he studied abroad during his junior year. Although the event will be similar in some ways to previous University lecture series, he emphasized some key distinctions: The event is meant to feel like a retreat (it will span the entire day with three meals provided), it will be capped at approximately fifty people, and it will create a collective thought process and a constant dialogue between audience and presenter.
“When it’s a faculty member or professor, you take everything they say as right and correct; you can ask questions, but you’re not breaking down the presentation,” Frankel said. “With student presenters, mixed in with a couple faculty, the idea is that you can take bits and parts of what they say throughout the day…and start generating your own thoughts about what risk means in these different contexts.”
The organizers thought the theme of “RISK” was politically relevant and would be exciting to both students and faculty.
Henry was the first to suggest this topic, specifically due to her interest in the concept of “social death,” a key topic in discussions throughout the humanities. She explained that certain populations are consistently at risk, situated below the threshold of respectable humanity or citizenship, because of their race, gender, sexuality, or religion.
She gave some examples of topics that could come up in the symposium looking at RISK from her perspective.
“Think about immigration, or the precarious position that so many black men are in when they take a walk or decide to leave their homes,” Henry said. “You can also think about risk…in terms of a genetic predisposition towards particular diseases…thinking through the lens of bio-medicine and statistics…[and] about at-risk populations in terms of embodiment and genetic variability…. What happens when you know you have a predisposition to develop breast cancer or Huntington’s, how does that change the way that you live your life?”
Pitts-Taylor further emphasized how vulnerable people such as undocumented immigrants and poor women of color find themselves at risk in medical situations.
“I’ve written a little about neoliberalism and medicine and how the focus on risk affects the treatment of patients as populations rather than as persons,” Pitts-Taylor said.
Frankel, speaking as a history major, pointed to the risk involved in economics and politics.
“I think one highly politically relevant topic is something like Obama’s counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism strategy,” Frankel said. “That comes most to my mind when thinking about the topic of risk in terms of the troops on the ground.”
Rather than presenting, Pitts-Taylor decided to participate as a moderator due to her specific interest in drawing connections between themes and presentations and across disciplines.
Pitts-Taylor spoke to how the symposium will benefit the University community.
“It will be a transformative experience to have deep, ongoing, and focused conversation with peers and professors on a substantive issue,” Pitts-Taylor said. “Because the event is capped at 50 participants, it will be big enough to have a variety of views and perspectives but small enough to feel intimate and have true dialogue.”
Henry explained that the organizers hope that students will feel that they have just as valuable a capacity to contribute intellectually to the University community as professors. She emphasized that being in the company of members of the University from different disciplines with various degrees of credentialed knowledge is a unique opportunity, especially at higher and more focused levels of learning.
“We come to college, and we become eventually so specialized…that we’re not always there for conversations happening in disciplines that we’re not a part of,” Henry said.
The organizers expect to attract students and faculty who are passionate and committed to the idea of the symposium, not only the theme and various presentations, but also the more collective, discussion-based structure.
Frankel spoke to what he thinks University students will take away from the symposium.
“I think there is just a lot of interest in creating this environment…and asking the broad question of, ‘What are we, as a community, collectively thinking about?’”
The organizers are hopeful that this symposium will become annual and that professors and upperclassmen will not dominate the event. Underclassmen are not only encouraged to participate, but to submit presentation proposals as their participation will increase the probability that the symposium will continue.
Henry specified that all types of proposals are acceptable, understanding that underclassmen will not have dissertation-level understandings of their respective disciplines.
“[Submissions] can be the beginnings of a thought, anything that you want to discuss in an intimate group that is at all related to risk, vulnerability, precarity, or security,” Henry said. “We really want to attract people that are just beginning to think critically in addition to people who are highly experienced professors.”
Proposals can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.