College Hosts Its First Annual TEDx Conference
Issue   |   Wed, 11/13/2013 - 02:11
Photo Courtesy of Office of Public Affairs
Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson gave a talk on telematic music.

A professor of midwifery, a saxophonist and an Amherst College senior were among the speakers who took the stage this Sunday at Kirby Theater, where several hundred people gathered for the first ever TEDxAmherstCollege event.

The event, which featured eight speakers affiliated with the College, is one of the hundreds of TEDx conferences that are organized each month worldwide. TEDx is an offshoot of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, which dedicates itself to “ideas worth spreading.” TEDx events are independently organized by members of local communities and feature a combination of live speakers and videos of TED talks from other locations.

On Sunday morning, Amherst College Provost Peter Uvin welcomed attendees by introducing the event’s theme, “disruptive innovation.”

“We tend to associate [disruptive innovation] with technology and the private sector,” Uvin said. “But there is so much more going on in terms of disruptive innovation everywhere.” Uvin cited the art, social change, science and education as examples of fields in which disruptive innovation occurs.

“In a way, I think that even what we do at a liberal arts college like Amherst College, if we do it well … that, too, in a way, is disruptive innovation,” Uvin said.

Following Uvin’s remarks, emcees Reilly Horan ’13 (now a graduate assistant in the Theater and Dance Department) and Ricky Altieri ’15 welcomed the first speaker, Karti Subramanian ’07, to the stage.

Subramanian is the co-founder of Vera Solutions, a technology company that helps NGOs and other institutions make a social impact using the power of data. He discussed how his experience at Vera has led him to appreciate the transformative potential of high-quality data in helping such organizations to effect social change.

Subramanian was followed by Amherst College Librarian Bryn Geffert, who discussed the crisis faced by academic publishing.

“This industry is on a trajectory that is not going to end happily,” Geffert said, pointing out that a one-year subscription to an academic journal can cost more money than a Honda Civic. Geffert warned that rising industry prices are restricting access to high-quality academic literature. He thinks that the solution to the publishing crisis may come if more university presses follow in the example of Amherst College Press, which makes all information that it publishes freely available on the Internet.

“The purpose of a university press is to make good literature as widely available as possible,” Geffert said.

Jason Robinson, an assistant professor of music at the College, gave the next talk. Robinson spoke on telematic music, which allows musicians in different locations to give concerts together through the use of sophisticated video and audio technology. Robinson spoke of an experience in which he and two local musicians were able to improvise live with two musicians located in La Jolla, Calif. Robinson said that telematic music is particularly exciting for him because it illustrates “our need for true connection to one another.”

After breaking for lunch, the event resumed with a talk by Saraswathi Vedam ’78, an expert on midwifery who is currently on faculty at the University of British Columbia. Vedam challenged common assumptions about home birth, pointing out that in many cases home birth can be just as safe as hospital birth and can provide women with a more comfortable environment in which to deliver their babies.

“Which is disruptive innovation: hospital birth or home birth?” Vedam asked the audience. She argued that although many people in the United States see hospital birth as the disruptive innovation, home birth has value as a disruptive innovation as well.

Kenneth Danford ’88 followed Vedam by discussing a disruptive innovation of his own, in a talk called “School is Optional!” Danford described his experiences founding North Star, a self-directed learning program for teenagers. He exalted the value of allowing teens to leave traditional high schools and pursue alternative forms of education.

“There’s nothing you can do with a traditional high school diploma that you can’t do without one,” Danford said.

After Danford, Associate Professor of English Marisa Parham spoke about, in her words, “how we build a future when we already have a past.” Parham used the metaphors of ghosts and robots to examine our attitudes toward the past and toward disruptive technological change.

Andre Wang ’14, the lone student speaker, opened the event’s final session with a talk on lie detection. Wang, whose senior thesis in psychology relates to the topic of lie detection, beat out seven other students in a competition to speak at the event. Wang explained that many of the methods we use to detect lies are in fact deeply flawed and that personal biases can often get in the way of accurate lie detection.

“I realized that there’s this gap between what the public knows about lie detection and what is known in academia,” Wang said in an interview. “It is this gap that motivated me to give this talk, because I think a lot of the research in this area should be more available to the public.”

The final speaker of the afternoon was Rosanne Haggerty ’82, who is known for her work in combating homelessness. Haggerty outlined five steps to solving a social problem, which included advice to “do the most obvious thing” and “set a measurable goal and a scary deadline.”

For the team of students who organized the event, Haggerty’s talk was a satisfying conclusion to a conference that they deemed an overall success.

“Based on feedback from students I was talking to at lunch and after the event, people seemed to really enjoy the talks,” said Nicole Chi ’15, who was in charge of speaker relations. However, Chi noted that she was disappointed that so many Amherst students preregistered for the event and then failed to show up. Although Kirby Theater appeared to be at full capacity in the morning session, attendance dwindled in the afternoon. Chi speculated that many students who had not preregistered might not have come because they did not know they would be able to get in.

“We’ll probably change up our registration process in the future,” Chi said. The organizers hope that TEDxAmherstCollege will become an annual event.

For Chi and the other student organizers, these registration difficulties seemed to be one of only a few hiccups in a process that they described as being immensely rewarding. David Beron ‘15, another one of the organizers, described his satisfaction at being able to realize an ambitious vision shared by seven other dedicated students.

“We wanted to bring speakers from all over the world and offer them a stage to share their stories, and we wanted these stories to be heard everywhere,” Beron said. “Our team of eight students was fully committed to making it happen.”

Diego Recinos ’16 also relished the opportunity to bring a TEDx conference to Amherst College, reflecting that the College was a particularly appropriate place to host the event.

“I think that TED’s mission of ideas worth spreading fits really well with the liberal arts education we receive at this institution,” Recinos said. “There are so many people related to the Amherst College community with brilliant ideas and initiatives that others should hear about."