Sunday, September 15, 2019

Academic symposia showcases importance of liberal arts

Esther Shittu `17


In celebration of the inauguration of the 22nd president of Trinity College, President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, four academic symposia were held last week. Two were held on Thursday, Oct. 23 and two were held on Saturday, Oct. 25.

In the discussion titled, “Engaging with a Diverse World,” there were three panelists and a moderator present for each of the symposia. For “Engaging a Diverse World,” the panelists present were John Agard, Richard Eichenberg, and Irene Mata, with moderator Zayde Antrim. Antrim is the Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History and International Studies and International Studies Program Director at Trinity College.

Each panelist spoke about the various ways that their fields as well as being a member of a liberal arts college relate to “Engaging with a Diverse World.” John Agard is a professor of Tropical Island Ecology and head of the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies. Agard mentioned that as someone with a science background, he wonders about the limits of science because science tends to make students concentrate on measurements, whereas other subjects require other ways of thinking and assessing information.

“This is where the liberal arts context comes in,” Agard said, “I know in universities and colleges such as this, there’s a big emphasis on diversity, getting people from different cultures and backgrounds and so forth because that helps to stimulate thinking.”

Agard said that it is important for students who study science to appreciate the arts and vice versa. He said each institution should strive to create a place where stimulation is taking place and students are molded into people who exercise moral and ethical judgments, who can appreciate art and who have a have a broader thinking. “In an institution like this, you want to create a culture with rules with these characteristics… a culture is normally when you have a petri dish and you get a nutria medium… depending on the things you put in, you can get all types of things to grow,” Agard said, “Diversity, having people from different backgrounds, different countries, different ways of knowing, are all essential elements to increase thinking and discussion amongst so that the perspectives are broader.”

Irene Mata, the second panelist to address the audience, spoke on how liberal arts colleges are integrating diversity in the classrooms. Mata is a professor of Women and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. “It’s not enough to just incorporate bodies that look different from us and histories that look different from us, if we are not critically engaging with those histories to challenge our own ideas of what we think we know,” Mata said.

She continued that it is important to incorporate into the each student’s history into the curriculum in the classroom. “For us as educators in liberal arts institutions, we have the opportunity to train our students to engage critically with each other,” Mata added. She also said that it is dangerous to throw around the term diversity with the assumption that incorporating more diverse students is enough because it is not enough. She urges educators to learn from their students a lot more than they do.

“For me using the classroom…not only questions the validity of certain narratives but also, when we open up the space for students whose narrative may not necessarily be represented in a traditional curriculum becomes an incredibly empowering experience, not just for the students themselves but also for the students who are listening to these narratives, for the professor who is engaging in these narratives,” Mata mentioned. She said this type of curriculum leads students to go out in to the world with the more open understanding that the world they live in is not just black and white but it is a more complicating and changing environment.

After Mata, spoke, Professor Richard Eichenberg was asked to speak on why engaging the world’s women is important to the topic. Richard Eichenberg is an associate professor of Political Science at Tufts University. Eichenberg also teaches International and Gender studies at Tufts. Eichenberg began by mentioning that the pursuit of global gender equality is a strategic priority of the United States. According to Eichenberg, the U.S. government is working almost every day is working in different parts of the world in pursuit of global gender equality. He believes that many students are not aware of this and that they do not study it. He said that this subject should be implemented into the classroom.

“We need to engage the interests more of our female students; teach and research more about subjects that interest them,” Eichenberg said. “But we also need to engage our male students, to get them studying these issues from whatever disciplinary perspective as well.”

After this section, the discussion shifted focus from gender studies to climate change, something that Agard says that it is one of the challenges that the climate change. He said that globally, it has been established that there is an increase frequency of extreme events.

Agard continued that the complication of climate change comes from the socio-economic aspects. He gave the example of Haiti and the impact of a hurricane of category four compared to category four in Barbados.

He said the Barbados is more organized so the impact of the earthquake was not as exaggerated as the cause of Haiti’s hurricane. He argues that it is not the physical action of climate change but it is the cost of inaction that increases vulnerability. Unfortunately, he said that the vulnerability increases for the poor.

To wrap up the discussion, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. An audience member asked about the importance of studying abroad since they are not rigorous in the academic sense.

Eichenberg suggests that students should look at academic rigor in study abroad as secondary. “The recommendation I will make a student is go someplace for study abroad that’s as different as who you are and where you are as possible because you really do need to see the world from a different perspective,” he said.

Mata said that since students are studying with other students in different countries, they have the chance to see different perspectives on a topic that they believe they knew.

This symposia was an opportunity to examine the values of a liberal arts education. The events of the symposia were part of many other weekend events that took place in celebration of President Berger-Sweeney’s inauguration.

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