A day-long symposium explored what Arabic music, climate change, feminism, and Tibetan refugees have in common.

c/o Hannah Norman

Professor of Biology and Neuroscience & Behavior Gloster Aaron has had over 1,200 seizures.

Well, they’re only simple partial seizures, but still, 1,200 is a lot of seizures. Those seizures represent a lot of risk. And risk is exactly what Aaron was discussing this Saturday morning, along with the eight speakers that followed him at the first-ever Wesleyan Symposium on Risk, held May 2.

The symposium, a model that Gabe Frankel ’15 adopted from the University of Oxford, is a series of talks that professors and students give based on a common theme, in this case risk.

Because Aaron’s simple partial seizures didn’t interfere greatly with his daily life, he decided not to treat his temporal lobe epilepsy. Then he had a massive grand mal seizure in his Wesleyan office. And another one. Aaron finally decided that the risk was too large, and he started on medication. After two years, he decided to taper off. He walked his audience through the risk assessment.

On the one hand, the drug Aaron uses, Keppra, is relatively new, and its long-term side effects are untested.

“On the bottle, the risk is one word: ‘Unknown,’” he said. “You’re essentially a guinea pig.”

On the other hand, what about the risk of having more simple partial seizures, which can result in grand mal seizures? And what about the risk he imposes on society?

“Do you really want me to stop taking my medication when I’m out there driving around?” Aaron said.

The audience members shook their heads. No, we didn’t want Aaron driving around if he was not taking his medication. But Aaron, who weighed the risk of taking medication to be less than the risk of going off it, tapered off, and he has not had another grand mal seizure.

After Aaron spoke, moderator and Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker presented Mary Chalino ’15 and introduced her talk as “The RSK Family of Kinases.”

But Chalino, connecting her computer to the projector, announced that she had changed her mind last-minute.

“I want you to forget that title,” Chalino said.

She began with an anecdote from her poetry class, for which she was tasked with writing a sonnet. Chalino, a biology and neuroscience & behavior major, wrote about what she knew: amino acids. As she read the poem in class, her peers stared at her with glazed expressions; after, her professor approached her to ask if that was how she thought through science—by assigning it colors, personalities, songs. Chalino’s next poem for her class took inspiration from a problem set about enzymes.

“What is the risk we face by having dense science classes that focus on grades and numbers?” Chalino asked the audience. “Classes where students can’t exercise their right brains and express themselves creatively?”

In many University science classes, Chalino explained, grades are derived from three exams and nothing else. Chalino projected a picture of a diagram of a complex chemical reaction.

“I picture a set of dancers moving from one side of a ballroom to the other,” she said. “It’s devastating when you’re stating facts, leaving out adjectives and analogies.”

Failing to appreciate the beauty of what happens inside a cell, Chalino said, means risking the loss of creativity from the sciences.

“You’re losing the magic of it all when you condense it into the bare bones,” Chalino said.

She told the story of a rare neuroscience professor.

“She was holding this brain in her hands, and she kept stopping the explanation to ask, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” Chalino remembered. “You never pause and stop thinking about the exam.”

After her talk, Chalino took a question from the audience about what the humanities stand to gain from the sciences. Chalino suggested that perhaps the tangibility that serves as the cornerstone of science classrooms might ground elements of the humanities; another participant added that knowing about the way bodies work can inform dancing, just as knowing the chemistry of color can inform painting. Aaron added his own input as a science professor, asking about the practicality of grading students based on their creativity rather than exams. This practical point, while interesting to entertain, is clearly beside the point: the goal of the symposium is not to bring about reform.

“I’ve found a trend at Wesleyan in speaking in terms of productivity a lot, and thinking about time and our work, in terms of what the end product is,” Frankel said. “I thought one of the aspects that [the symposium] could bring to Wesleyan would be to not be thinking in terms of productivity, to not create a physical object, to not create a website or Twitter feed.”

The symposium’s format also tried to reject models in which speakers are authoritative and unchallenged.

“My idea was to shift away from the Wes Thinks Big model,” Frankel said. “Professors give presentations, and people ask questions afterwards, but they’re on a stage. They’ve thought about it probably for a decade, and if they haven’t, they’re professors and they have PhDs, and the arguments are very logical. Most people are not going into Memorial Chapel [to] challenge them. I think [the symposium] successfully began to create a space that would allow for that to happen.”

Andrea Schindler ’15, one of the other event organizers, remarked that part of the excitement of the symposium was that anything could happen.

“We really didn’t know how it was going to come together,” Schindler said. “We wanted to have an egalitarian setup, with speakers that are students alongside faculty members. And we wanted to have the theme of risk hanging over everything. We said, ‘We don’t know where this is going to go.’”

Professor of Physics and Environmental Studies Brian Stewart, who presented a talk titled “The Metastasis of Risk,” added that not only did Chalino’s talk advocate for interdisciplinary thought, but it also produced that thought by virtue of its participation in the symposium.

“You rarely have the opportunity to talk about this many disciplines,” Stewart said. “In my division, the sciences, interdisciplinarity is when you have a chemist talking to a biologist. Efforts are being made to make that happen, and it’s a good thing, but [the symposium] is way beyond that.”

In his talk, Stewart discussed exponential growth, using humans’ race to secure an energy supply as an example.

“We can’t evaluate in real time how best to proceed and make calculations about the future,” he said.

The tricky thing about exponential growth, according to Stewart, is that assuming that exponential trends such as economic growth will stay the same is troubling. Stewart advocates instead for balanced policy.

“We need to provide security for developing countries and reduce the affluence of rich ones,” he said.

And then Hazem Fahmy ’17 spoke about Arabic music in a talk entitled “Risking Rhythm: Reflection on Contemporary Alternative Arabic Music.” Since the Arab Spring of 2011, Fahmy explained, Egypt has seen a boom in the cultural industries of film and music. Before 2011 the Egyptian music scene was divided into classic, for which there was a small market for young artists; shaabi, or people’s music, on which high cultures looks down; and mainstream pop, which according to Fahmy all sounds pretty much the same. However, the landscape has shifted since the Arab Spring.

“Young artists have started to believe their voices matter,” Fahmy said.

Taking three bands as case studies—a Lebanese rock band whose lead singer is gay, an Egyptian band that writes songs about the everyday struggles of Egyptians, and an Egyptian hip-hop artist whose sound is unprecedented in the nation—Fahmy reveals the risk and simultaneous reward of making new music in Egypt, a society that has, according to Fahmy, never before even fantasized about the possibility of real revolution.

Silvia Diaz-Roa ’15 remarked that Fahmy’s talk prompted her realization that art can support real social change.

“Instead of staying in that bubble that society puts us in—that we let ourselves be put into—test those boundaries,” she said. “Test yourself.”

Although its organizers intended the symposium to be a day-long event, the weather and other events occurring that day prompted them to write a three-hour midday break into the schedule.

“We thought, ‘Look, it makes no sense to trap people in Usdan 108 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. when it’s going to be nice weather and there’s all these great events outdoors,’” Frankel said. “So much of this event is about trying to bridge the academic and non-academic worlds of Wesleyan, so you bring these discussions out into the community. You go to a morning session, and then you go out to VIBES and Holi and come back.”

When the group did reassemble in Downey House lounge, Ben Zucker ’15 took the stage to present “Fail Again. Fail Better. Success Narratives in the Creative Process.” Zucker first turned his attention to the nature of art. Audiences of art, Zucker explained, consume things, which take the form of experiential encounters.

“A great deal of reception is out of our hands,” Zucker said. “This is where risk comes in.”

Zucker went on to explore non-compliance, both formal and qualitative; he discussed the experience of seeing an unfinished work of art that does not comply with the standard that good art is necessarily finished.

Rachel Lindy ’15, a member of the audience, remarked that the presentations less obviously about risk challenged her to make her own connections.

“Because not every topic really addressed what it had to do with risk from the get-go, that was pretty interesting because you had to draw conclusions for yourself a little bit while they were talking,” she said. “You were like, ‘Oh, this is still about risk.’ I didn’t know when it was going to happen.”

The next talk, given by Kate Cullen ’16, was entitled “A Melting Antarctica: What is Our Environmental and Social Risk?” and conceptualized risk in a way that was perhaps more blatant; we were not left in doubt as to what the risk was. Still, though, her talk drew new lines between risk and responsibility.

“We can’t think about climate risk as being separate from social risk,” Cullen said, drawing from her experience as a climate change scientist and activist.

Cullen explained that rising sea levels affect those in coastal areas, who often have the hardest time moving; people who have consumed the least fuel and contributed the least to climate change are most severely affected. Rising sea levels produce climate refugees, a situation that carries its own set of risks.

Stewart noted that the event, while collaborative, focused not on a goal, but on experimenting with thought.

“It’s much more about community and less about specifically collaborating, and yet it made you think about all these different types of ideas that are bigger than what would have resulted from an obvious collaboration,” he said. “There was nothing forced. Sometimes it clicked, and sometimes it was just, well, ‘This is different,’ and that was okay too. There were accidental juxtapositions that were fascinating, and things that were a little jarring.”

Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias spoke after Cullen. “Reframing the Conversation: What At-Risk Students Can Teach Us about Access, Opportunity, and Building Resiliency” addressed institutional, rather than creative or environmental, risk.

“Who has access to a place like Wesleyan?” Farias asked.

Farias revealed that although it is part of his title, he does not find the word “diversity” to be useful—when it is used alone, that is.

“The question should be, ‘How do you put difference to work in the service of others instead of in the service of marketing?’” he said.

Farias discussed an effect that he calls “body-snatching”: students from urban poor communities spotted for their academic potential vanish from those communities in favor of alien situations, be they elite preparatory schools or universities such as Wesleyan. The risk emerges not only for communities, which lose role models in students scouted by these elite institutions for their potential, but also the students and institutions themselves.

At-risk students do, according to Farias, teach universities resilience.

“They understand that success equals commitment, and failure is only partial progress toward a goal,” Farias said.

In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Farias spoke to the way in which institutions embrace risk on a fundamental level.

“Education is a risk,” he said. “Change requires risk. If you want to bring change, you have to get uncomfortable.”

After dinner, Paulina Jones-Torregrosa ’15 presented “The Risks of Bridging: Questions of Allyship in Feminism.” Her  talk was based on her senior thesis, a comparison of “This Bridge Called My Back,” a feminist anthology featuring works by women of color only, and “This Bridge We Call Home,” published years later and inclusive of allies’ voices. Jones-Torregrosa framed her overarching question as one of allyship.

“What are the risks of coalition?” she asked.

Jones-Torregrosa compared the two editions in the “Bridge” anthologies, noting that although the former pictures a woman of color’s body on the cover, the latter features a floating leaf, an image she says could appear on the cover of a self-help book.

“The experience of coalition meant the erasure of women of color from ‘This Bridge We Call Home,’” she said of the two books’ covers.

The risks of involving non-women-of-color in the anthology, Jones-Torregrosa suggested, effectively transformed the text from a totally safe space into one that involved unforeseen risks, even when inviting in seeming supporters of the identity group in question.

“Does the inclusion of other voices have to include the displacement of women of color?” she asked.

Amy Zhang ’15, an audience member, remarked that the plurality of voices at the symposium itself worked to equalize a space—the classroom—usually dominated by professors.

“There was a very diverse collection of speakers, not only [in terms of] gender but also in terms of ethnicity,” she said. “Professors and students were on the same playing field.”

Still, however, Frankel hopes that future audience members take advantage of this equality to a greater degree.

“I’d really like to see audience members state strong opinions and challenge people on their presentations and take those risks that I think are really hard to take,” he said.

Jill Tan ’15 was the last speaker; she presented “Ethnography, Creativity, and Empathy: The Breakdown of Participant-observation,” also about her thesis. Last year, Tan interviewed Tibetan refugees in India before writing an ethnography. Tan acknowledged the twofold risk inherent in asking people about their experiences with suffering and then writing about it.

“I don’t think I began to sit with suffering until I began to write,” Tan said.

Jones-Torregrosa and Tan, who met in their first year at the University and have remained friends since, saw the natural alignment between the two pieces and requested to speak back to back.

“The idea of allyship wasn’t really something that I had put together in my mind,” Tan said after the symposium’s conclusion. “There are certain people in my field who take it upon themselves to make presumptions about a community. It’s never, never ethical to do that on someone else’s behalf. You can say, ‘I am in dialogue with this community; I have a stake in this,: I care for a very many people there, and they are my friends,’ but you can never assume that their experiences line up with yours in any substantial way. And I think that this collaboration was illuminating for both of us.”