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Convocation selection process should bring challenging, diverse speakers to campus

My first experience with convocation was the Argument and Inquiry Convocation given by Professor McKinsey this fall, which focused on the value of a liberal arts education.  To be honest, I did not think very deeply about the convocation as I was listening to it.  My argument and inquiry seminar spent the entire class period that day discussing the convocation.  It was then that I realized the irony of my approach—a liberal arts education is supposed to be about critical thinking, but instead of scrutinizing the convocation, I had simply accepted it.  It took a discussion with my classmates for me to recognize the complications, challenges, and mistakes inherent in the argument that a liberal arts education is necessarily the best education.  This taught me my first lesson about convocation:  you get the most out of it when you discuss it.

This term, I attended a convocation by conservationist Niall McCann.  Later, in my anthropology class, my professor told us she wished we had all attended McCann’s talk—precisely because she strongly disagreed with McCann’s entire approach to conservation.  She explained her disagreement and how it applied to anthropology, opening up a whole range of ideas that I had never even considered.  This taught me my second lesson about convocation:  you do not have to agree with a speaker to learn from them.

I have attended every convocation so far this term.  I did not plan this – in fact, there were a couple convocations I planned not to attend, but each time, a friend convinced me to go.  These two convocations ended up being extremely informative and challenged me to rethink my views.  This taught me my third lesson about convocation:  the convocations you need to hear the most are not always the ones you would choose for yourself.

This term, the Carls Talk Back movement has brought the discussion about convocation selection to the forefront.  I agree that a change in the speaker selection process has the potential to be very positive for Carleton.  The question is, what change is necessary, and how do we achieve it?

Carls Talk Back wants to increase the diversity of convocation speakers by administering surveys to assess on-campus approval ratings of potential speakers, and by including the collective student body’s opinion in the selection.

 
I agree that we should increase the diversity of convocation speakers.  However, if we select the most popular speakers based on collective student opinion, wouldn’t our choices tend towards the most mainstream, the most comfortable, the most generic, the speakers who no one can object to?  Couldn’t such an approach tend to exclude speakers who are popular mainly with minority groups on campus, as well as speakers presenting about challenging or unfamiliar topics?

 
We are not always capable of recognizing what we need to learn.  Relying on collective student judgements based solely on blurbs about potential speakers could lead us to discount important speakers unfairly.

If our goal is to increase the diversity of convocation speakers, we should think carefully about the effects of any changes we propose to make in the speaker selection process.  If changes are implemented, we should monitor their effects and collect student feedback.  I would suggest administering a survey after each convocation so that students can give feedback after having actually listened to the speaker.  This feedback could then be used to improve the selection process.

We also need to think about what exactly it means to increase speaker diversity.  I examined the past four years of Carleton convocations—a total of 85 speakers—and found some interesting results.  In terms of race and gender, this year was clearly the least diverse of the past four years.  This year, people of color made up between 25% and 35% of speakers (I have included a range because I was unsure how some speakers would identify themselves), and 60% of speakers were male.

 
Over the past four years as a whole, however, Carleton has done better.  Female speakers slightly outnumbered males, and 36% to 41% of speakers were people of color.  Just last year, 60% of speakers were people of color, and two years ago, 65% of speakers were women.  These year-to-year changes could reflect the direction of the convocation committee, but they could also be due to chance.
I also examined convocation topics.  I assigned each convocation to multiple categories and found that the most common were, in order, politics, the United States, international issues, social justice, and race.  Nineteen percent of convocations dealt with race, with 83% of these convocations being given by people of color.

 
In striving to make convocations more diverse, we should be aware of these numbers.  Race is already a common convocation topic, so are we interested in simply increasing that number, or are we interested in choosing speakers who will make these conversations about race more meaningful?  Or are we interested in hosting more people of color to speak about topics other than race—speakers who have been successful in fields such as science, technology, health, and environmentalism?

I also found that in the past four years, only one convocation speaker (a gay NFL player in 2015) has focused explicitly on sexuality.  While we have certainly had speakers of queer identities who have focused on other topics, we clearly need to strive for more representation of these identities and issues in convocation.

 
Gender and environmental issues were also addressed less frequently than I had expected (7% and 8% of convocations, respectively), so we could certainly expand these.

 
Finally, in the past four years, only two convocations have focused explicitly on conservative viewpoints.  For a campus that is often described as a political echo chamber, it is disappointing that convocation so rarely gives us the opportunity to listen to speakers whose political views differ from the Carleton majority.

I will end by saying that many Carleton convocation speakers are like ice cream (frequently vanilla): they are people (frequently white) whose opinions are sweet and pleasant to the ears of the majority of students, whose views do not truly make us think, precisely because so many of us agree with them already.

 
We do, absolutely, need more diversity in convocation speakers.  This means inviting more speakers who represent marginalized groups—people of color, queer people and speakers from low socioeconomic backgrounds, for example.  It also means inviting more speakers whose opinions differ from the majority opinion on campus.

 
The convocations that fall short are the ones that fail to expose us to new ideas.  The convocations that succeed are the ones that force us to think, to discuss, to talk with one another.  We need, more than anything, more of the second kind of convocation.

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