​Speaker Series Serves Laid-Back Knowledge

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer
Expert speakers, stimulating topics and a relaxed atmosphere is the recipe for a new monthly talk series at the Blue Chair Café.
Thirst for Knowledge debuted on Sept. 12 with Katie McGhee, a Sewanee biology professor, expounding on carnal fish with “What Disney Didn’t Tell You About Nemo: The Amazing Sex Lives of Fish.”
People drank beer and soda and were able to ask questions and get answers in layman’s terms; the idea being to reduce the social barriers of more formal lectures, organizers said.
“The goal is to engage and let your brain go somewhere it wouldn’t go on its own but at the same time not polarize the crowd, but engage the crowd in a way that’s unique,” said Becca Loose, who along with Diane Fielding and Stephen Burnett make up the brain trust behind Thirst.
“There are so many in this community doing fascinating things and that’s really what we wanted to highlight with this,” Fielding said. “There’s no shortage of lecture series in this town, so it wasn’t that we needed another lecture series. I just thought what I wanted was something informal and not tied to the University, necessarily.”
Fielding said the idea was inspired by similar talks she saw in cities such as Raleigh and Denver, events akin to Café Scientifica, an international effort that features talks by scientists in comfortable settings like pubs and restaurants.
A different moderator will lead each Thirst for Knowledge gathering, but that moderator will not be from the same field as the speaker. For instance, Lauryl Tucker, an English professor, moderated McGhee’s sex lives of fish presentation.
“We don’t want the moderator to be an expert at all on the topic. We want them to be somebody who knows the speaker on a personal level, but we don’t want two experts in the same field,” Loose said. “We’re hoping that the dynamic between the speaker and the moderator is engaging in and of itself.”
Other alterations compared to some traditional lectures are increased dialogue with the audience and the speaker lacking a common tool, Fielding noted.
“I think what is different about this series is there’s not a PowerPoint, which sounds like a small thing, but I think it can be a hurdle for speakers,” Fielding said. “They’re very reliant on that sometimes, I think unnecessarily, so we feel like we need to kind of groom the speakers to feel comfortable to be able to talk to someone as if you would if you ran into them at a party.”
Organizers plan to host speakers in a variety of fields, not only academia.
Loose’s husband Remington, a computer network architect, will talk about the “perils of social media” on Nov. 7.
“I’ve been involved with network engineering and computer networks for the last 20 years,” he said. “I feel my experience gives me a strong understanding of the ‘under the hood’ situation facing average people in using the internet and social media.”
His expertise is in designing and implementing computer networks for a variety of customers, including hospitals, financial institutions and other industries. Remington said he’s both humbled and excited to share his knowledge.
“I’m privately, but very passionately, concerned about online security and I think most people would like to do more and know more but are unsure how to do so,” he said. “I hope the community enjoys the entire series and learns something too!”
Mark Hopwood, an assistant professor of philosophy at Sewanee, is slated to speak on microaggressions on Dec. 5.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.”
Hopwood gave an example of a microaggression being a professor asking an Asian American student, “No, where are you really from?” after they say they are from Nashville.
“In the presentation, we’ll talk about what microaggressions are and how they connect to philosophical questions about moral responsibility,” he said.
Hopwood added that he is grateful for the organizers’ work in creating the speaker series.
“I love the idea of Thirst for Knowledge,” he said. “Socrates didn’t write a single academic book or paper—he just went out into the streets and started up conversations with people. Talking about big ideas in a casual environment is what philosophy used to be all about, and I think it’s probably still what it ought to be about.
“Having said that, Socrates eventually annoyed the Athenians so much that he got arrested and executed for corrupting the youth, so bringing philosophy out into the public square didn’t end that well for him. I’m just hoping Sewanee will be kinder...” he joked.
The event is sponsored by the Sewanee Civic Association and the University of the South’s Office of Civic Engagement. To nominate a speaker or moderator, or for more information, email <ThirstySewanee@gmail.com>.