Pomona Professors Compete to Stay on the 'Island of Academia'
Jessica Osorio | Oct. 28, 2011, 5:14 p.m.
When most students think of Pomona Student Union (PSU) events, they often picture formal debates in a large lecture hall or theater. Last Thursday night, however, PSU took a break from its typical format in favor of more lighthearted fare. The night's event was titled “Survivor: Pomona,” and consisted of professors from nine academic disciplines fighting to stay on the “island of academia” by convincing the audience of their discipline's superiority.
PSU’s Vice President of Outreach and Development Julius Taranto PO ’12, who co-organized the Survivor event with Kyle Schneider PO ’14, explained the motivation behind this unconventional PSU event.
“There’s a risk when you do what PSU usually does, which is to be informative and debate stimulating issues, and the risk is making the events seem like lectures,” Taranto said. “It was really nice to put on an event that didn’t have anything to prove beyond the premise of the event,” he added.
PSU, a nonpartisan student-run organization, focuses on raising the level of open dialogue on campus. It usually achieves this discourse by inviting prominent speakers from across the spectrum to talk and debate current social, political, and academic issues. Recent PSU events have addressed topics ranging from “Class-Based Affirmative Action at Top Colleges” to “The U.S., Israel, and the Changing Middle East.”
Thursday’s event was a different kind of spectacle. The nine contestants competing for survival on the “island of academia” included Professors Colin Beck (Sociology), Richard Hazlett (Environmental Analysis), Karl Johnson (Neuroscience), Susan McWilliams (Politics), Ami Radunskaya (Math), Joti Rockwell (Music), Colleen Rosenfeld (English), Lenny Seligman (Biology), and Kenneth Wolf (Late Antique-Medieval Studies).
Over the course of the event, contestants were asked to argue on behalf of their discipline and subsequently explain which two disciplines should be voted off the island. Taranto encouraged contestants to engage in what he called “cross-examination” and ask questions of each other throughout the debate, a process accompanied by frequent screams from the audience in support of one contestant or another as well as outbursts of wild laughter.
Professor Lenny Seligman, representing biology, won a particularly enthusiastic response with his opening lines. “I’m a geneticist. Geneticists study mutants. 'Nuff said.” Seligman’s closing remarks again had the audience roaring with laughter. “If you have a lab coat, you can be naked wherever you want to be,” he noted in his final argument for the study of biology.
Professor Karl Johnson, for Neuroscience, was also a highlight of the event, presenting both comical and convincing arguments. “If we’re gonna go all Donner Party on this island, do you want bacon or a Slim Jim?” Johnson said, pointing to himself when referencing “bacon” and to Professor Wolf as the “Slim Jim.”
Meanwhile, Professor Rockwell, representing the Music Department, attempted to win over his audience by singing about the greatness of music theory to the tune of Katy Perry’s “California Girls.”
Professor Susan McWilliams, who argued on behalf of the Politics Major in the event, said she appreciated its lighthearted nature.
“It was fun to see colleagues that I usually see in the context of faculty meetings being funny and interacting with one another,” McWilliams said. “I didn’t come in feeling like I was really going to articulate why politics is important in a serious way,” she added.
McWilliams contributed to the lighthearted spirit of the event by donning both devil horns and a halo simultaneously in order to demonstrate that politics is a discipline that studies “both the devil and the angel within us."
Professor Colin Beck, representative of the Sociology Department, found the event slightly different from he expected. “I thought it might be a little less structured than it was. I thought there might be more opportunities for students to ask questions,” Beck said.
Although Beck stated that his goal for the event was to “get the most one-liners in,” he acknowledged his colleagues' comical cleverness as well.
“Professor Johnson had the best line when he implied that Professor Rosenfeld had seduced him with her poem,” Beck admitted.
At the end of the event, the final survivors on the “island of academia” were decided by what Taranto called an “invisible applause meter,” generated by the audience. It was decided that Professors Rockwell, Radunskaya, Wolf, and Johnson were the final survivors.
Both McWilliams and Beck expressed a bit of disappointment at not surviving on the island.
“It was a lot of fun, but the event was a failure in that politics did not get voted to be on the island,” McWilliams lamented.
“It was enjoyable and interesting to see what other people came up with, even if Professor Rockwell cheated with his music,” said Beck.
Even if some professors were disappointed with how they placed in the event, Taranto indicated that the overall response was positive.
“I think it went really, really well,” Taranto said. “If faculty are interested, we want to do the event again next year with new disciplines... It would just be outrageous—more outrageous than it was,” he added.