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Undergrads Discuss Life, Literature and ‘Being Human’ at TED-Style Talk

Nostalgia for childhood. Lessons from favorite books and authors. The spread of digital technology. The limits of language. A group of University of Virginia students talked about these and other topics, relating them to what it means to be human, before a crowd of more than 200 peers Wednesday evening in Nau Hall auditorium.

An undergraduate advisory board, fostered by the Institute for the Humanities & Global Cultures, came up with the idea to hold an event modeled on the format of the famous “TED talks” and “Look Hoos Talking,” a program where U.Va. faculty members give short lectures on a subject of their choosing. Institute director Michael Levenson, William B. Christian Professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences, gave one of the latter talks last spring.

On Wednesday, seven students each spoke for approximately eight to 10 minutes. A video of the forum is posted on the institute’s website.

Third-year student Eric McDaniel, a member of the advisory board and founder of the Leadership Network, which co-sponsored the event, organized the group with help from fellow students Hillary Hurd, a fourth-year student, and Charles Tyson, a third-year, who also agreed to join the lineup of speakers.

Other participants were fourth-year Aaron Eisen, who spoke about the late contemporary author David Foster Wallace and how his fiction shows what it means to be a human being, and third-year Emma DiNapoli, who used Shel Silverstein’s story, “The Giving Tree,” to challenge the audience to choose giving, not taking, as a way to express their humanity. Fourth-year Zainab Al-Sayegh and second-year Katy Hutto filled the list of seven.

Hurd, who recently won a Marshall scholarship and is the student member of the Board of Visitors, offered her remarks in poetic form: “When trying to pin down with purpose and rhyme/our eternal musings in slippery time,/ I wonder what ‘human’ does even convey ...”

She reeled off a list of words and phrases in other languages that express ideas and feelings for which English seems inadequate, such as the Danish “hygge,” meaning “great comfort by fire” and the Brazilian Portuguese “cafune,” which describes “running fingers through hair.”

Being human is “about inventing and searching when we can’t find the phrase” to describe our experiences, even while knowing language – part of what defines us as human – will always come up short.

McDaniel spoke about searching for meaning in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot.” The play may seem meaningless, because nothing seems to happen. Two men sit on stage, talking in disconnected, circular, sparse conversation as they wait for another person who never comes.

Rather than saying life has no purpose, McDaniel said the play points to another interpretation. “By living in a world with no innate or objective meaning, you have been granted the ultimate freedom. ... You are the ultimate arbiter of value and meaning, and you can shape your life, purpose, journey, story accordingly.”

Tyson talked about how using technology also defines us as human, from making the first tools from bones and rocks to extending our physical abilities and minds through sophisticated devices. The most recent technological advances lead some people to worry we’re losing our humanity and others to believe we’re on the verge of a truly democratic world – the views of cyber-pessimists and cyber-optimists, respectively, he said.

“The Internet is exhilarating and terrifying. For some, the Internet is a monumental vista, a grand landscape. For others, it is a tool of solipsism, a retreat into subjectivity and isolation,” he said.

Tyson proposed that instead of being totally negative about the changes being wrought, we should use digital technology “as a tool to extract meaning out of embodied existence.”

“As a separate world, the Internet, our computers, our phones are hollow, artificial and constricted by design,” he said. “The real world is all around us, and it’s beautiful. We’re not computers – and that’s a wonderful thing. It’s time for us to build a better world where we are, not go into the cloud to find one.”

How people choose to remember their past also is part of what it means to be human. Al-Sayegh discussed the lack of history about marginalized groups, such as women and minorities, in Western society. Excited to be at U.Va. for college, she said the inscription on the old gateway to the Grounds across from the Corner reminded her it would not have been possible about 40 years ago. The inscription says, “Enter by this gateway and seek the way of honor, the light of truth and the will to work for men.”

Now a fourth-year student, Al-Sayegh talked about having to look deeper into the University’s white male-centered history to find narratives of minorities and women. In her remarks, she put her search in a global and literary context, weaving ideas from feminism and postcolonial studies, as well as novels, such as South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s novel, “Foe.”

Coetzee, a male Afrikaaner, brings a female character to the island of Robinson Crusoe and Friday to portray stories of those left out of history or barely mentioned.

Inspired by poet Adrienne Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Al-Sayegh found a meaningful framework, she said, for looking with fresh eyes at U.Va.’s history and that of people marginalized from history.

At U.Va. – a place drenched in traditions – Al-Sayegh said it is necessary to break their hold to find more stories of the diverse people who were part of the University’s past.

Hutto, a second-year student, also talked about the past: her childhood, and the nostalgia for childhood among her peers. She mentioned that hers has been called “the Peter Pan generation,” because they don’t want to grow up and let go of the past.

Being a child is another level of what it means to be human, she said. Memories are comforting and are often common cultural touchstones, even if they seem silly now – think boy bands, styles of clothes, certain toys.

Young people, however, can choose what to pick out from their past to be nostalgic about as a way of partially defining who they are at a time when they’re not sure yet who they’re going to be, she said.

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