Last week I had a lovely time at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, TX, near Austin. I’d mentioned earlier that I was taking part in their annual Brown Symposium, and judging a composition contest that was part of it.
My role, apart from the composition contest, came in the discussions. There were three. The one I wasn’t part of was on art and technology. The two I was asked to join were, first, “Arts – Sciences – Religions: Conflict or Convergence?” and, second, “Ethics, the Arts, and Public Policy.” My title, in all this, was “conversant,” and I was dazzled by my fellow conversants, a mix of academics, professionals, and best of all, Southwestern students.
In fact, if I had to name one highlight (for me, anyway) of what went on, it was student participation. Which speaks really well for Southwestern University, a liberal arts school I hadn’t known anything about until I visited. Many schools might organize high-level lectures and conversations. But how many would ask some of their students to take part on an equal basis — and how many would have students who clearly felt empowered to do that?
Maybe I don’t get around enough in academia to know how common this might be. But I was impressed.
The other highlight was the salon format of the three discussions. This was the brainchild of John Michael Cooper, professor of music and Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts at Southwestern, who planned and organized the whole thing. He came up with a discussion format that was meant to imitate — or evoke — a salon. Or maybe provoke one, by easing something salonlike into being.
First, as he planned it, a group of us would sit on stage, at our ease in armchairs, conversing. This wasn’t the normal panel format we’ve seen a thousand times, where panelists make presentations, and then comment on what’s been said. We had no opening statements. We just conversed.
After a bit, we were told to leave the stage, one by one, and take seats reserved for us in the audience. And then the audience was supposed to continue the conversation. Would this work? Nobody knew, least of all Michael (he goes by his middle name). But it did work. It worked spectacularly. It was as if by moving into the audience, we conversants seeded everyone with the spirit of conversation. Or empowered them.
Whatever. Dozens of people in the audience jumped in to talk, including many, many students. I won’t deny that we conversants added further thoughts, from our seats in the middle of the crowd, But people from the audience mostly had the ball, and ran with it.
The discussions were valuable. Good things were said. Bringing the audience in seemed to help the conversation. You might worry that this would diffuse the talk, but it didn’t. Instead it seemed to focus it.
This was a triumph for Michael. He wanted to recreate the feeling of a serious salon, but a democratic one, one not dominated (as we might imagine historical salons were) by star thinkers and conversationalists. And he did exactly that. I wouldn’t have predicted it — my shortsightedness, maybe — but it really worked.
The winner of the composition contest was Agnieszka Stulginska, a Polish composer. We had entries from many countries. If you follow the link from Stulginska’s name, you’ll end up at her MySpace page, where you can hear her winning entry, the third movement of a piece she calls “lets meet.” Entries were supposed to embody the spirit of conversation, and this piece certainly did, with terrific spirit.