Verbum Ultimum: Our Unattended Lectures

Students need to work with faculty and staff to attend more lectures.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/5/17 12:35am

This week alone, the College is holding almost 40 lectures, not counting those at its professional schools. These include presentations by a noted novelist, an expert on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a federal judge. All of these talks are free to students and the public. Most students will not have regular opportunities to go to events with speakers of this caliber ever again.

Jonathan Franzen, Cornel West, Neal Katyal ’91 and Eric Fanning ’90 are just a few of the notable speakers who already have or will come to Dartmouth this term. They are leading names in their fields and are available to speak to undergraduates because of the academic force that this institution holds and the financial resources it commands. Franzen, who spoke on April 17, addressed a standing room-only crowd. West, speaking 10 days later, drew such a large audience that there were multiple overflow rooms for spectators. Katyal and Fanning, coming on May 10 and May 18 respectively, will likely draw sizable numbers of both students and Upper Valley residents as well.

These are among the most notable speakers coming to campus this term. Yet there are dozens of others, speaking on behalf of essentially every program and department. Their talks will, for the most part, not be heavily attended by students. Like many of the College’s guest lecturers, they will speak to an audience composed mainly of the Upper Valley’s senior citizens and Dartmouth faculty members.

Students pay for speakers to come to campus — our tuition dollars contribute to the fees, transportation costs and accommodations required for these individuals. Dartmouth students are incredibly fortunate. Less than 7 percent of the world’s population receives a college degree, and only a fraction of them receive degrees from highly prestigious institutions with resources like ours. We have much to gain — personally, intellectually and culturally — from a wide variety of lecturers. Students would be well-served — as citizens, intellectuals, students and human beings — by attending talks given by brilliant academics, political leaders and artists.

Yet students do not attend these lectures in anything like the numbers that we should. There is no excuse that justifies this in its entirety, or even mostly. Being busy, having conflicting commitments and being unaware of certain events mitigates the apathy students have shown, but it does not eliminate it. We are not as engaged as we could be. In the early 20th century, the Sunday night literary discussions hosted by former English professor Sidney H. Cox were once campus’ prime intellectual event and its most notable social event each week.

While the onus for participation rests most heavily upon ourselves, we are not without credible reasons for this low attendance. Many factors at the College — including some decidedly out of student control — combine to make the current scheduling system for visiting speakers troubling.

First, when incredibly popular speakers do come, students are not always assured seats. At West’s lecture, scheduled for 5 p.m. in the 221-seat Filene Auditorium, those who arrived 30 minutes early found themselves in an overflow room, while those who came 15 minutes early were in the overflow room’s overflow room. Many students left classes or academic commitments and arrived on time — or even early — but were still unable to see West speak. Solutions that address this concern raise problems of their own — for example, letting students are allowed to reserve seats in a lecture via an RSVP, undermine the public nature of the event. However, it is unfortunate that not all Dartmouth students interested in attending are able to see the most notable guest lectures in person.

There is also a scheduling problem. When departments and programs at the College schedule most lectures for 3 p.m., 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., they handicap many students. Students are more likely to attend evening lectures, when they do not have classes or other commitments. Student-athletes, who make up almost 25 percent of the student population, often have practice that conflicts with these times. Students in 3A or 3B courses — or in 2A courses with X-hours — are similarly unable to attend. Others have lab work or other academic commitments. Of course, students are responsible for scheduling their own lives, and some professors prefer afternoon lectures so they can return home to their families earlier in the day. Still, it is worth exploring a reasonable compromise. Could lectures be held immediately after all classes end each day? Could athletic teams create flexible practice schedules that allow athletes to attend lectures more freely? Perhaps more lectures could occur on weekends, or, if the College continues to insist on holding events in the mid-afternoon, it could create a designated period without classes scheduled.

A problem in events also exists in a lack of promotion. Some programs do excellent work sending emails to students, posting flyers on campus and advertising digitally, while other efforts are more lackadaisical. The lecture given by West was well attended in part because it was well advertised. However, many interesting speakers do not get the same treatment. While students should seek out interesting opportunities, hosting entities should also advertise events rigorously, and academic departments should promote their lecturers through faculty, who have the most access to student attention, more often. At present, advertising for events is sporadic. Some programs — like the French and Italian department — send frequent emails, but other event offerings seem to fall beneath the radar.

There is no single solution that will increase student attendance at lectures, but certainly students, departments and programs that host guest speakers can do better. Dartmouth students have unique opportunities for intellectual advancement, but we must act on them. Together, we can make a more intellectually engaged, curious and fulfilling Dartmouth.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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