The following is a guest post by Amanda Lahikainen, teacher of art and art history at Aquinas College and a 2013 Kluge Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.
After participating in last June’s #ScholarFest at The John W. Kluge Center, I became inspired to create a similar event at my home institution, Aquinas College (AQ), a small Liberal Arts College in Michigan. I named the event the “AQ Lightning Talks” and it occurred on March 17, 2016.
Fourteen conversations between Aquinas faculty members and students took place in two different rooms over the span of one hour. Twelve academic disciplines were represented: art history, bioethics, biology, communication studies, economics, history, mathematics, physics, political science, psychology, sociology, and visual art. Designed to include faculty and students from as wide a range of disciplines as possible, the event encapsulated the same wonderful spirit of interdisciplinarity that I experienced at the Kluge Center as a Kluge Fellow in 2013 and a #ScholarFest participant in 2015.
As a Kluge Fellow, I conducted researched on the large collection of British graphic satires held by the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, including a relatively unknown genre of prints called satirical banknotes. These prints, which mocked the small denomination notes printed by the monarch, have a fascinating relationship to the growing culture of paper money in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century and are the subject of my forthcoming book manuscript. In my book, I suggest that paper money is an understudied aspect of print culture, and attempt to position the concept of satirical imitation as an important characteristic of knowledge formation.
During my conversation at #ScholarFest with literature scholar Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director of the Folger Institute, Dr. Lynch discussed her book project on protestant autobiography and the importance of narrative in creating identity in seventeenth-century Britain. While I considered talking about paper money as an aspect of cultural identity in late eighteenth century Britain–which would have synched neatly with Dr. Lynch’s work–I was struck at that time (and still am) by the vandalization of the ancient city of Palmyra (a largely Roman city in modern-day Syria) and decided to frame my remarks in the context of material culture and world heritage. My central observation, following Dr. Romila Thapar’s comments about nationalism at the #ScholarFest dinner the night before, was that material culture can, and often does, serve as the basis for building national identity. Reflecting on the broader goals of the Library of Congress and Kluge Center, I observed that although the Library and Islamic State take opposite positions on the preservation of material culture, they both recognize and respond to its importance. The Library of Congress preserves material objects and facilitates their study, while the Islamic State and similar groups actively seek to destroy them. Discussing preservation and world heritage were important ways for me to tie my background in art history to current events, and reveal how the study of art and material culture can help us evaluate our own value systems.
Based on this model of an exchange, I gave participants in the AQ Lightning Talks 7-8 minutes for their discussions. The overall purpose of the program was to demonstrate the value of a liberal arts education. During my event introduction, I defined ‘liberal’ as “being open to new opinions or ideas, and the broadening of knowledge.” On our campus, a number of initiatives have recently been discussed for how to increase student engagement with academic research and the broader community. Pairing faculty with students was a great way to expose students to real-world public speaking, as well as showcase student involvement in research and discipline knowledge.
The participants were instructed to engage with current events and recent peer-reviewed literature in their field. The content of the conversations, however, was entirely driven by the faculty member and student. A number of ideas and themes were discussed, including: Dominican inclusivity on campus; Malcolm McLean’s shipping container – “The Box” – as central to globalized trade and increased prosperity; the possibility of objectivity and “unfinished Empire” in relation to the history of Britain; how the origin of gold is a recently solved mystery in physics (it formed in dead stars, apparently); and site-specific art in “ArtPrize”, an event held annually in Grand Rapids. We also discussed the idea of “just war” in relation to the Middle East, the role of genes in understanding schizophrenia, and one “BRIC”-related topic: Chinese contemporary art. The talks combined to last just under ninety minutes and received glowing reviews from students, faculty and staff. To my surprise, most students seemed shocked by how many connections there were among disciplines seemingly as different as math and communication studies. Several students said: “We want conversation parings between different disciplines next time.” Next time? Well, we might make it a tradition.
I ended my opening remarks that day with a comment about contemporary culture, attempting to de-naturalize the presence of social media that had clearly given rise to the format of both #ScholarFest and the AQ Lightning Talks. I noted that in a culture dominated by speed dating, TED talks, and social media, we want to recognize the trends in culture and participate in them, but also wish to be open to analyzing and criticizing them. Though nobody needed my permission to criticize our event, I wanted to ensure such critical thinking was central to the spirit of our conversations.
Amanda Lahikainen teaches at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was a 2013 Kluge Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center and participant in the first-ever #ScholarFest, June 10-11, 2015, at the Library of Congress.