Pomona College’s HenTalks: A game of liberal arts connect-the-thoughts

A speaker points to a slide during a talk.
Professor of Physics and Astronomy Jorge Moreno gave a 15 minute lecture about astromimicry during the March 7 HenTalk. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

What do astromimicry, mononormativity and alliances between nations have in common? For Pomona College faculty, they are all ideas worth chirping about. 

On the afternoon of Monday, March 7, “HenTalks: Ideas Worth Chirping” returned to Pomona after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Taking place in an Estella lecture hall in the late afternoon, the event offered attendees an opportunity to learn about disciplines and ideas they might not typically seek out. A crowd of about 75 pulled out their notebooks and listened in.

Late Antiquity and Medieval Studies Professor Ken Wolf created HenTalks in October 2018 when an alumnus approached him about implementing a lecture series surrounding “big ideas.” Wanting to avoid figuring out the logistics of flying in lecturers as well as highlight the big ideas already on Pomona’s campus, Wolf decided on creating HenTalks. 

Each iteration of the series features a lecture spotlighting the ideas of three Pomona faculty members, who are asked to speak on any topic of interest for fifteen minutes, giving any necessary background or introduction. This approach allows attendees — no matter their prior knowledge of a specific field — to follow along and consider something new with its low barrier to entry. Packing nuanced content into a brief time frame, HenTalks found its inspiration in the popular online lecture series TedTalks.

I thought that using TedTalks as a loose model would allow for the creation of something more appealing to a student audience steeped in social media and YouTube videos,” Wolf said via email.

This iteration of HenTalks featured the big ideas of Professor of Physics and Astronomy Jorge Moreno, Professor of Philosophy Ellie Anderson and Professor of Politics Mietek Boduszynski. Avoiding the stiffness of a conference-style lecture, the HenTalk took on a more informal and comfortable atmosphere: The question and answer portion felt more like a classroom discussion than attendees addressing a presenter. 

The format of HenTalks allowed for fellow faculty to appreciate each other’s fields and research.

“I love watching my colleagues in action,” Wolf said via email. “As faculty, we almost never get a chance to see each other teach.”

In his HenTalk, Moreno discussed astromimicry, an idea which looks at the universe and what it may be able to teach humans about themselves. 

Explaining the link between astrophysics and his inclusive pedagogy, which addresses oppression and power structures, Moreno used the example of dust-protecting molecules to illuminate how students with privilege might be able to assist their peers lacking those same affordances. He wants his students to be “their full human selves to really enrich the spaces which they occupy” on our campus. This talk was especially relevant to Moreno’s research because he is publishing a paper on astromimicry in two weeks.

Anderson went next, beginning her talk by discussing a friendship of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s which resembled the kind of closeness usually found only in romantic relationships. She then moved on to discuss how monogamy has been largely pushed by settler colonialism, and how this societal norm is far from the sole example of a relationship. Explaining the potential for non-monogamy in our society, Anderson explored many factors which play into relationships, including paternity, sexism, free love, possession and jealousy.

Anderson explained what drew her to select this topic for her HenTalk. 

“I was originally torn between a number of different philosophical concepts, and I thought about going in a more metaphysical direction like a talk on freedom or a talk on the self,” she said. “But I thought non-monogamy would be of particular interest to a wide variety of students, especially those not in the discipline, and I think… it’s a burgeoning area of philosophy [right now].”

Finally, Boduszynski presented on America’s friends, allies and enemies at times of war. He made a timely reference to the UN Security Council resolution to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Evaluating the United States’ past alliances, Boduszynski also explained how vital these relationships are to nations, as well as how the United States has been a poor ally in the past.

None of the presenters knew the others’ topics prior to the event, so any coordination of topics was completely coincidental — and completely complementary to the liberal arts mantra. In his introductory remarks, Wolf asked attendees to think of questions that might apply to all three presenters as well as a linking theme between the talks. 

Boduszynski made connections between his talk and Anderson’s on the fly while he presented, explaining some of the United States’ relations as dysfunctional marriages and others as friends with benefits. During the question and answer portion, Moreno also remarked on a throughline.

“Galaxies are complex systems,” he said. “So are countries, so are people.”

Common humanity was also a tethering ideal alluded to, as well as the concept of partnership: bBetween the natural world and how humans anthropomorphize it; between people in intimate and friendly relations; between nations at war and at peace. 

Anderson made note of another connection.

“I think what was most interesting to me was the way that each of the talks disrupted our [personal] security around stories that have been common in our respective disciplines for a long time — or in public discourse, in the case of the politics talk,” she said.

Maddie Jones PO ’22 has attended every HenTalk to date, having entered as a first-year when they began in 2018. She shared her take on the lecture series as well as what she believed the connecting factor to be.

“I spend every HenTalks trying to come up with a title for the event that captures all three presentations and their connections,” she said. “I think that these connections speak to a larger truth about liberal arts education: ideas overlap in surprising ways no matter what disciplines you study. [My] title for this week’s HenTalks was ‘The Power of Relationships.’”

In a typical year, HenTalks runs three episodes per semester, and the next HenTalk will take place in early April. Certain to deliver three more engrossing talks, future HenTalks will also provide students with another opportunity to connect the conceptual dots and to expand their considerations of disciplines beyond their own. 

“I think [HenTalks] inspire students to see the diversity of human ways of knowing,” Anderson said, “because they expose students to disciplines that they might not initially be interested in exploring.”

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