A culture of engagement: Using lectures as tools for intellectual vibrancy

Last Thursday, 550 members of the College community took advantage of the unique opportunity to hear renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky lecture on modern humanitarian intervention. While the lecture itself demonstrated the self-interested way that nations conduct these interventions, considering the lecture as an event highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses of the campus’s intellectual culture.

If we are going to assess intellectual culture on campus, lectures big and small seem like a strong tool for our appraisal; they occur regularly and are one of the primary opportunities for students to engage with academic and non-academic issues beyond the classroom. In that vein, it was disappointing that the organizers of the Chomsky lecture did not prioritize student attendance – the failure to allot the vast majority of the tickets to students prevented many from hearing from the in- tellectual giant.

Nevertheless, we can measure the suc- cess of Chomsky’s lecture both by the sold-out MainStage audience and by the extent to which community members dis- cussed the lecture all day. Dinner plans shifted earlier to accommodate the 7 p.m. start time, and “Are you going?” and “What did you think of…?” were common questions posed on Thursday. The lecture allowed wide swaths of people to relate on common ground. Big names generate the kind of buzz on campus that leads to extra-class discussion, a traditional marker of an intellectually healthy campus.

Yet, not every speaker can be Chom- sky. An incredible number of speakers come to campus whose brilliance are not discovered: Smaller events are often not well attended. If the aim of the College is to stretch our minds, then it is a shame that these frequent events do not play a larger part in our daily life. Professors sometimes address this problem by requiring attendance of certain lectures as part of their courses in an attempt to complement students’ own interests. We support a balance of self-motivation and encouragement from professors to in- crease attendance at these events. Students come to this campus seeking mentorship and guidance, and sometimes we do need assistance, or even mandates, to push us towards programming that will nourish us. Just as the Gaudino Scholars program infuses the College with fresh perspectives through uncomfortable learning, so too can lectures allow students to push the limits of their intellect.

Departments as a whole can help to improve students’ intellectual life, and some departments have made great strides in their extracurricular agenda. The math department, for instance, works diligently to inform both majors and non-majors taking math classes about the colloquiums each major must present. And as in other departments, there are also regular profes- sor talks – a facet of programming that can serve as a greater resource for students. Departments can and should take advantage of their own faculty more – and students should not ignore the opportunity to hear College professors speak about their re- search. The faculty’s accomplishments form the academic backbone of our campus, and the prospect of dropping by their offices and following up their lectures with questions at any time is a valuable one.

In the end, it seems not to matter so much whether events are big or small, frequent or rare, but that we create a culture of attendance for them. Events like the Congressional Black Caucus meeting two years ago drew a huge cross-section of the student body not just because of the television crews and big-name speakers, but also because people talked about the event as if it were the thing to do. We can and should transfer that ethos to smaller events. One way to do so might be providing forums and receptions in conjunction with lectures. These would give us the chance not only to direct questions to the speaker, but also to socialize with friends and professors while maybe discussing the lecture. This “event” mindset would boost attendance while also ensuring that students get a glimpse of the types of gatherings that occur beyond the College setting.

As financial scrutiny becomes the stan- dard for evaluating programming – not only for faculty and administrators, but also for students who have become increasingly attuned to budget allocations – it seems appropriate to weigh whether big- name lecturers like Chomsky are worth their price tag, or whether we should capi- talize on less famous, but perhaps equally valuable, leaders. It seems advisable that we do both. As the Lecture Committee prepares to meet tomorrow and plan for the rest of the year, we hope its members will consider how we can maintain intel- lectual vibrancy in the afterglow of a lec- ture and in the creative process of organizing and supporting the next ones.