February 15, 2011 — Eight University of Virginia professors will take the stage next week. Their assignment: Speak on the topic of their choice. The catch: Deliver their talk in 12 minutes.
Chosen by students, the professors are part of the first-ever "Look 'Hoos Talking" program, which premieres Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium.
Created by Student Council, the program is based on the renowned "Technology, Education and Design," or TED conferences, held annually since 1984 in California, which require experts to explain their best ideas in a short time-span. TED speakers have included Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Steve Jobs, and talks have ranged from "Spaghetti Sauce and How it Relates to Happiness" to "The Mathematics of War" to "How to Grow Fresh Air."
The Academic Affairs Committee of Student Council proposed the idea of hosting its own TED-inspired conference after hearing of Harvard University's TED spin-off, "Harvard Thinks Big."
"When we heard that Harvard had hosted a similar event, bringing professors in front of the student body to discuss the ideas that mattered to them, we thought it would be the perfect format to bring to U.Va.," Tatiana Matthews, chair of Student Council's Academic Affairs Committee, said. "Our faculty are some of the nation's most cutting-edge thought leaders, and U.Va. students are passionate learners, but we don't always engage in the intellectual life that exists here beyond the classroom – often because we don't know where to begin."
Student Council decided to put together its own version of the TED talks to push students' intellectual lives beyond the confines of the classroom, Matthews said.
"U.Va. students are incredibly engaged, interested in their professors, interested in learning new things. Look 'Hoos Talking will be a place to harness that energy," she said. "Our hope is that, like TED, the night will spark discussion, and might inspire students to look for that intellectual vibrancy in other, smaller arenas."
Student Council asked students to nominate professors. Invitations were extended to those who were requested most frequently.
The nominations yielded an eclectic group of scholars. English professor Elizabeth Fowler, economics professor Kenneth Elzinga, anthropology professor Richard Handler, history professors Gary Gallagher and Claudrena Harold and psychology professor Tim Wilson will represent the College of Arts & Sciences. Materials science and engineering professor Dana Elzey will represent the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The eighth professor will soon be announced.
Harold, who specializes in U.S. and African-American history, will deliver a historical address to students. Her topic will be: "The Amazing Grace of Aretha Franklin."
A lifelong fan of the gospel singer, Harold was inspired to discuss a musical topic after teaching a class last year on "The Evolution of African-American Music."
"We used music as a text to understand the world," Harold said. "I want to use her album, 'Amazing Grace,' as a way not to just talk about music, but to talk about theology and notions of God. I'm staying with this theme of using a small idea to grapple with bigger issues."
But, there's nothing small about Franklin's album, Harold said.
"Some of her songs are longer than 12 minutes," she joked, "which will ultimately present a challenge of keeping to the 12-minute time limit."
However, Harold remains excited by the challenge. "It's an honor anytime students feel as if they want to hear you outside the classroom in a non-required setting," she said.
It appears that students and community members are excited about the opportunity to hear Harold and the other professors. All 800 tickets available were reserved within 24 hours of the event's announcement, and a lengthy waiting list continues to grow.
Valerie Shuping, a third-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, is one of the many students eager to get off the waiting list. She first heard of the event through a University e-mail and found the event appealing.
"So often we take classes with brilliant professors, but it is easy to get caught up in the tests and the homework and the discussions, rather than appreciating or taking advantage of the knowledge standing at the front of the room," Shuping said. "I am most excited to hear these professors – especially my own – talk not about which chapters to read or the date of an exam, but instead about their passions and curiosities."
And the professors are passionate. Elzey plans to discuss a "unified field theory," an idea he has been working on for the past several years.
"We face open-ended problems – problems that do not have one correct answer – every day, every time we want to make a change," Elzey said. "I've discovered a process that maximizes your probability of succeeding in making these changes."
The process, however, is not taught in schools, nor do students or teachers fully understand it, he said.
"It's pocketed away in all of the various disciplines we teach across the University and each academic department talks about in their own language," Elzey said.
The process, it turns out, is design.
"Design provides a framework for understanding the relationship among our disciplines," Elzey said. "I want to have a conversation and talk about it together. We should be cultivating it as a basic skill, so while I'm teaching engineering, I can help engineers understand why it's important to have a sociologist, an anthropologist, an economist."
These other disciplines play into how problems are solved, he said, but right now they have their own design dialects. He insists that the University – and society – need a standardized language to facilitate the collaborative design of solutions.
The real problem Elzey must solve, however, is how to explain his idea – developed over a period of several years – in a mere 720 seconds.
"It's a daunting task," he admitted, "but I'm very honored."
For those who could not secure tickets, Student Council will live-stream the event on its website and later post a video of the full event on YouTube. There also will be an alternative viewing site in Wilson Hall, room 402, Matthews said. The secondary location will live-stream video of the event and is open to all on a first-come, first-served basis.