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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

College: Where friends come to learn from each other

<st spring I ran an event called “College” for my friends and acquaintances, where we would get together and cook a nice dinner and drink some wine and talk, and then two people would give 15-20 minute presentations on a topic they were interested in.

Topics included: Traditional Zen sandal-weaving, the history of comics, urban exploring in China, and John Mayer among other things. Presenters often had something to demonstrate or show, whether it was hands-on or a movie, audio clip, or photo on a computer. The presentations were engaging in the style of a TED talk, and the question and answer section that followed often led to rich discussions.

I decided to call it “College” after a similarly themed group that existed my freshman year (’07-08) and had since died out. The premise of the original group was that when we thought of college in high school, we imagined a circle of students and a professor sitting in a field of tall grass passing around a bottle of wine and discussing the finer points of mortality and the meaning of a life well led.

As we all know, college is much different than that. There are registrars and credits and grades and graduation requirements and all sorts of systems that seem to be pulling us away from the field of tall grass and big questions. The point of College! was to get back at that romantic idealization of college and make it a reality as best we can. This was the idea I tried to resuscitate last spring, and for the most part, I think I succeeded.

I’m writing this mainly because of the regret I feel for not keeping College going this year. It was hard to find a date everyone could make it, and I was busy, and that made me let a good thing die. But I think it’s something that should exist. We all have our private passions, however nerdy or embarrassing, but we rarely take the time to really teach each other about them. I agree that discussion is important, but so is creating a space where one person can talk and others can respectfully listen. I learned so much from these weekly sessions, much more than the equivalent amount of time I would spend in classes. I also renewed my passion for and deepened my understanding of the things I decided to present about. It’s a good thing.

So if this sounds compelling to you, like something you might want to do next year, here are my tips for holding a good College session. Come to think of it, you may even want to change the name, to something like “The Symposium” or “The Eating and Drinking and Knowledge Adventure” that might be less confusing.

Anyways, here are my guidelines:
• Hold it in a large room, preferably near a kitchen, where 10-12 people can comfortably sit and look at each other. I recommend a town house or off-campus house, but bigger dorm lounges can work fine
• Meet outside as often as possible. The grill outside of Parrish or the Hill of Three Oaks are great spots to cook and hang out
• Invite people from outside your typical social circle who you think would enjoy this. It’s a great icebreaker.
• The week before each meeting, have people sign up to cook food and to present. This will give presenters a week to get their presentation together. People can chip in for alcohol as desired
• Open up your schedule. Have this become part of the routine, maybe for a Sunday night. Long, leisurely dinners have been shown to have a significant correlation with happiness. Finish most of your work before hand so you have time to leisurely eat and listen and discuss. It’s so absolutely worth it.
• And finally, take notes and follow up! If someone presents on something you’re interested in, ask them how you can find out more and where you should go.

I think College is a great way to have interesting conversations with your friends, and also get to know people better. It’s a shortcut around small talk into talking about real things, things we really care about. If you think you’ll like it, give it a try! Get some presenters and some food together and see how it goes.

I hope that whenever I visit Carleton again in the future, there’s a meeting of College that I can attend. Make it happen.

Note: This piece is also appearing this Friday in the first publication of Dialogue, a group of students interested in discussing the value and purpose of higher education. Try to get a hold of a copy, or contact Peter Berg or Kate Athens to learn more.

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