By Ingrid Keenan
Program Coordinator, Center for Teaching and Learning
How popular should a person be? How does access to information lead to market fragility? How can theater effect social change? What’s wrong with the Euro, and what do red Solo cups teach us about the body? What, precisely, is “glossolalia?” And what can we learn from Canada?
The sixth annual Senior Symposium will engage a record 129 students in a day-long, inter-disciplinary conversation about their academic passions. Thirty-one panels throughout the day will examine these questions and many more. But the impact of Senior Symposium extends far beyond the day of the conference, say faculty who incorporate participation or attendance into their classes.
This is Assistant Professor of Music Katherine Walker’s first year at HWS, but she is already seeing how preparing for Senior Symposium is making her students take the long view of a research project: “They started developing topics in late February, and they are already beginning to research them. This is a more appropriate timeline for a large-scale project than one that bunches the work into the final weeks of the semester.” Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Beth Kinne has sponsored students for four years, and now requires students in her capstone course to present: “It forces them to frontload enough of the work so that they are ready to present something by the third week in April, and makes them take the work more seriously.” This year, students from Kinne’s and Professor Tom Drennen’s capstone course will present several proposals for innovative uses of the new HWS farm, from greenhouses to composting to a “Farmester” Abroad on White Springs Road.
Associate Professor of Sociology Renee Monson has been a moderator four times since the first Senior Symposium in 2009. She is a big proponent of participation for several reasons: “One, having to think through how to communicate their work to a non-specialized audience always forces [students] to clarify their ideas, trim away the fluff, and focus on key points, arguments, and evidence. This is great preparation for any occupation and any program of graduate study. Two, it is a tremendously affirming experience for our best senior students to present their scholarly work to their peers, their faculty, and (often) their family members.”
But Senior Symposium isn’t just for seniors. Kinne gives extra credit to her first-year students who attend. “I do this because I want them to see some of the best work coming out of our students so they can imagine what they might be able to do in a few years. I think it raises their expectations for their own work, and broadens their awareness of the types of things students can and do study here.” Professor of Dance Donna Davenport regularly brings classes to Senior Symposium, and says that besides inspiring them to present in the future, attendance affords them a “revelation about connections among disciplines—for example, how "creativity" is critical across disciplines and careers, or how "environment" isn't merely relevant as research to ENV majors or science students. One of the great things about the Symposium is the intentional interdisciplinarity of the panels, such that academic relevance (to individual interests) is pretty hard to miss anywhere.”
Assistant Professor of English Rob Carson will be bringing his first-year and sophomore students to the event because he wants them to be thinking about their oral presentation skills. “We often describe Goal 1, ‘Effective Communication,’ as ‘the writing goal,’ when in fact communication involves a good deal more than writing. I decided to bring my two sections of Critical Methods (the core class for English majors) to Senior Symposium this year not only to give them some exposure to the best work that our students have to offer, but also to give them an opportunity to reflect on oral presentations, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations they see at Senior Symposium.”
Carson also sees Senior Symposium as an opportunity to prepare students for life after HWS: “Certainly one of the things we've heard from employers is that they value liberal arts graduates because of their oral communication skills, and so perhaps we would do well to think a little bit more about how and where we're actually teaching these skills in our classes.” Professor of Sociology Jack Harris describes Senior Symposium as a bridge between HWS and the “real world”: “I use the Symposium as one of several staging grounds to prepare the students to exit HWS into the world of work. The skills that they practice, both the sociological research and consulting, and the public presentation of their work, are the kinds of tasks that enhance their value to employers.”
Donna Davenport sums up the special value of the event: “I believe it is the most important academic event we organize at HWS… At the Symposium, evidence of intellectual curiosity and growth is demonstrated concretely by every student, especially the seniors. It's a moment of pride for the institution.”
The sixth annual Senior Symposium will be held on Friday, April 18th from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. A full program of panels is available here.