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It’s not every day that you get to hear from an expert in German and comparative literature, an astronomer and astrophysicist, and a Major League Baseball datacaster all in the same hour. But on September 8, the BU community had the opportunity to do just that when the Rhett Talks series returned to campus. The monthlong series of short, engaging presentations by BU faculty on a wide range of issues resumed then with presentations by Andy Andres, a College of General Studies senior lecturer in natural sciences and mathematics, William Waters, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of modern languages and comparative literature, and Andrew West, a CAS assistant professor of astronomy.
The BU initiative, inspired by the popular TEDx Talks, was launched last year in response to a challenge by Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) to improve the scope of BU’s intellectual ethos outside the classroom. This year’s series follows much the same format as last year’s—each week, three faculty give pithy 15-minute presentations dealing with their areas of academic expertise. Each presentation is followed by a brief question-and-answer session, and the evening ends with an informal reception that gives students and faculty the opportunity to converse over refreshments and share ideas in a casual setting. The program is sponsored by the Dean of Students office, Residence Life, and the Faculty-in-Residence program, and each week’s talk is held at a different residence hall.
For Daryl Healea (STH’01, SED’10), associate director of residential life for student and staff development, the goal of the series is to promote interaction between students and faculty outside the classroom, as well as to stimulate student interest in the range of disciplines BU offers. “We wanted to expose students to the great breadth of rich disciplines that are out there,” he says. “Even though a student might be taking courses exclusively at the School of Management, he or she will have the chance to hear from an elite faculty member from the College of Engineering or the College of Fine Arts. By connecting with faculty right off the bat in September, students find out that there are programs and services here that are serious about their intellectual development and that they’re not simply confined to the classroom.”
Andres’ talk, titled Yes, Watching Baseball Can Be Science!, dealt with the emerging field of sabermetrics. Andres says he chose the topic, which is also the subject of BU’s first MOOC on the edX platform, because he “wanted to explore the crazy idea that I can call myself a baseball scientist.” While baseball is the lens through which Andres explores scientific thought and reasoning, his main goal was to show students that they can apply “hyper-observant and hyper-curious” scientific thinking to any problem they encounter, he says. “The continual hyper-curiosity that leads to more observations is the hallmark of a scientist. We can do it with baseball. We can do it with basketball. We can do it with knitting. We can do it with anything. When we observe closely, we can learn a lot.”
Waters’ talk was on the ways works of literature and art, no matter how old or seemingly out-of-date, can speak to people on a profoundly intimate level. He likens this inexplicable connection to a “letter to your soul” (the title of his talk) that can act as a “reminder of a larger or deeper self that you’d forgotten you had.” Waters says he hoped his talk would inspire students to be more cognizant of these types of hidden messages. “I think this experience is not so uncommon, but because it doesn’t get talked about—maybe least of all in college courses on literature and art—it never occurs to many people that there might be urgent messages of this kind waiting for them in their cosmic inbox,” he says.
West, whose topic was Billions and Billions of Planets: The Ubiquity of Extrasolar Planets and the Red Dwarfs That (Mostly) Host Them, delved into the recent discovery that there are hundreds of thousands of planets outside of our solar system that revolve around other stars. The study of these exoplanets has captivated West and his research group. In addition to speaking about what he calls “one of the largest scientific discoveries in the last few decades, if not the last century,” West wanted to use his talk to connect to a broader philosophical discussion about the human condition. “It’s a fundamental question about our place in the universe,” he says. “Astronomy allows us to think of things that are much bigger than ourselves.”
Last year’s Rhett Talks drew a combined audience of about 1,000 students over the course of four weekly lectures. With a new set of faculty speakers this fall and provocative topics, Healea anticipates this year’s series of 15-minute “snapshots” will appeal to even more students. And while the format of the Rhett Talks series might change in the future depending on student feedback, he says, the idea of finding ways to connect BU’s nearly 16,000 undergraduates with its 4,000 faculty members will remain one of the University’s top priorities.
“The talks bring both intellectual depth and breadth to students, and I think they demonstrate that being a part of a residential institution of higher education is something extraordinary,” Healea says. “You’re thinking about and hearing about research and scholarship in a way that permeates everything you do, not just your classroom experience. It exposes you to so many other disciplines. You may not have that once you depart the University.”
The next Rhett Talks will be held on Tuesday, September 30. Special editions of Rhett Talks will take place on Tuesday, November 18, in honor of International Education Week, and on Monday, January 19, 2015, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Find the full list of dates and locations here. All lectures are free and open to the public. Each talk will be filmed and the videos will be available on the Rhett Talks website.