Intellectual conversation and thoughtful disagreement on literature, ideas, and culture dominated 19th-century France, often taking place in salons—spaces designated for debate and engagement on contemporary topics of the day. In an iteration of that tradition, an intimate space above Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum has begun hosting students and faculty members on Fridays to discuss a topic selected in advance. Here, no notes are taken, and no brains scramble to impress. Instead, students converse over cheese and crackers, and professors from different academic areas debate, and may disagree.
This semester, CMC’s Gould Center for Humanistic Studies debuted Salon as an informal space for academic conversation outside of the classroom, promoting student and faculty engagement.
CMC literature professor Robert von Hallberg organized Salon with the hope of creating an opportunity for students to participate in intellectual conversation without the pressure of an academic class.
“I wanted to see more extracurricular things happening … a richer intellectual and cultural environment in the college outside of classes,” von Hallberg said. “So when you walk around the campus and you get a feel for life here, part of it is the life of the mind.”
While academic conversations often occur on a frequent, more personal level at the 5Cs, Salon creates a unique space separate from daily life for students to discuss ideas.
“Some people want to have those late-night fun dorm conversations where you debate politics, and some people want to wear black and read poetry under a tree,” CMC philosophy professor Alex Racjki said. “There are many different ways of getting your intellectual enjoyment out of college, but … there always seemed to be a certain number of people who always thought it’d be nice to have another way to do that.”
Salon has been held on Fridays throughout the semester, beginning on Feb. 21 with a discussion between CMC literature professor John Farrell and von Hallberg on “The Role of the Author.” Since then, topics have included “Transparency and State Activities” and “Empathy and Need in Markets,” and the discussions featured professors from a range of disciplines.
While Rajcki and CMC economics professor Eric Helland, who led the event on empathy and need, originally intended to discuss health care in their joint discussion, they ended up focusing on empathy. Standing before approximately 40 students, they briefly introduced the subject and raised questions about the role empathy plays in individual and economic interactions. Students then had the chance to mingle and exchange ideas.
Helland values the informal conversations between students and faculty members that Salon promotes, especially because they extend across multiple disciplines—a broad mix of students majoring in philosophy, economics, and other fields attended the event.
“One of the interesting things about being at a liberal arts school is that there’s a lot of interactions outside of class,” Helland said. “[Salon] is a way to facilitate those conversations in a more structured way, where it’s not, ‘Tell me what you think I should do about this internship,’ or, ‘Tell me what I should answer on this problem set.’ For me, it’s a lot of fun to have those kinds of discussions.”
The professors organizing Salon events hope that students become involved in the conversation and benefit from it as both an intellectual and social experience.
“Since it is an activity that’s being organized for the benefit of the students, the real question is, did they get something out of it that they wanted?” Rajcki said. “They said they really enjoyed it. They particularly seemed to enjoy watching two professors disagree with each other.”
Though Salon’s first event focused on an extended debate between two professors, von Hallberg expressed a hope that the conversations will revolve increasingly around student ideas.
“I think more and more we’re going to just open it up to let students talk—talk to each other,” von Hallberg said. “It has been a real pleasure to see how much some of these sessions have caught on. All it took was to just say, ‘Now you talk about it.'”
Student enthusiasm for Salon has been evident, with full attendance at each event and conversations carrying on past the scheduled end time. Over the semester, Salon has been held on irregular Friday evenings, but von Hallberg hopes that the event can become a regular, if not weekly, presence as it gains traction with the student body.
“If you think about what a salon really is, that’s the great tradition,” Helland said. “We’re all going to be here at this particular time, we’re vaguely going to talk about something, and then in 15 minutes we’re not talking about that at all; we’re off on something totally different.”
The Pomona Jazz Trio will perform at tonight’s Salon, which begins at 8 p.m. On Friday, April 11, Salon will consist of a discussion lead by CMC literature professor James Morrison on performance in film, focusing on The Dallas Buyers Club.
Khyle Eastin contributed reporting.