Talking about the big issues

Posted by Jean-Ann Kubler

The spirit of creative thought has taken a new form at the college: an interdisciplinary series of panel discussions.

A series of topical panels, collectively called "Intersections," began Nov. 2 with a discussion of religion in the Spa. The second panel, which focused on gender, took place Nov. 17 in Emerson auditorium.

Most panels include a combination of faculty, staff and students who are engaged in that installation's topic. Future panel topics will include class, sexuality, race and nation.

"The discussions aren't linear. The panelists speak for about 10 minutes each, discuss a related topic of concern and then encourage audience participation," said Winston Grady-Willis, an associate professor of American studies and director of intercultural studies at the college who organized the majority of the Intersections series.

The series is co-sponsored by the Committee on Intercultural and Global Understanding, the Bias Response Group and the Committee on Diversity Affairs

The goal of the series, according to Grady-Willis, is not only to spark conversations about each individual panel's topic, but also to encourage attendees to talk about the topics in relation to each other.

As an American studies professor, the Intersections topics relate strongly to Grady-Willis' discipline. "American studies is very interdisciplinary and most of the courses that are taught in the department deal with every single one of these issues, if not all of them," Grady-Willis said.

Other members of the American studies department have been involved in the formation of Intersections. Allison Dell Otto '12, an American studies and gender studies double major, and professor Beck Krefting, will serve on the sexuality panel in February.

Contributions to the Intersections panels are not limited to the American studies department. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Rick Chrisman served on the religion panel along with Rabbi Linda Motzkin, a Jewish chaplain, Imam Ghengis Khan of Schenectady and Marla Segol, assistant professor of religion.

Future panelists will include professors from the English, religion, history, economics, management and business, Spanish, sociology and anthropology departments, staff from health promotions and admissions, and students from the junior and senior classes.

Audience participation is as much a part of the Intersections series as panelist contributions. During the religion discussion, panelists spoke for about 40 minutes, followed by an additional 40 minutes of questions and comments from the audience.

"The first panel took place on election night, right in the middle of midterms, and we still had about 55 people turn out and participate in a really engaged way," Grady-Willis said.

The panels encourage audience members to share their insights and personal anecdotes in relation to each topic. A first year student at the religion panel commented on her feelings of isolation as a practicing Muslim student that embraces a secular culture.

"It was a powerful moment," commented Grady-Willis, "And even more powerful and great a moment was afterwards when each of the spiritual leaders on the panel spent between five and 10 minutes talking with the student about resources and individuals she could contact on campus."

Discussions are not necessarily Skidmore-focused. Conversation about each issue may begin at the college level and then extend to national and global issues, depending on the preferences of the panelists and audience members.

"It's very much a group dialogue," Grady-Willis said.

Grady-Willis said he was impressed with the turnout at the religion panel, and the audience for the gender panel filled Emerson Auditorium.

"Even if audience turnout is not as high in the future, due to overscheduling or any other factors, I'll be satisfied as long as the panels produce substantive conversations and encourage the audience to connect the dots between the different topics," Grady-Willis said.

The next four panels will take place throughout the academic year, culminating with a capstone lecture presented by Cornel West of Princeton University in April.

While there are not currently any plans for Intersections beyond this year, Grady-Willis believes the capstone lecture might shed light on additional topics worthy of panel discussion.

"As an amputee, I'd like to see some discussion of ability and disability in the future," Grady-Willis said. Issues such as age and privilege are also potential topics for future panels.

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