Every week, while other members of the Tech community are performing experiments and testing the tangible, a group of Tech students and faculty gather to accomplish something slightly less tangible. Each Tuesday at 11 a.m., a group meets in the Neely Room at the library to participate in “Open Forum: A Topical Intellectual Discussion,” during which participants discuss anything and everything.
The program was created “for a couple of different reasons,” said Dr. Dana Hartley, the faculty founder of the program and the director of academic advising for undergraduate students.
“I was hearing groups ask for this kind of thing, and I noticed that during interviews, Tech students were having a difficult time answering subjective questions. I wanted to create something that could help Tech reach a global scale,” Hartley said.
The program began during the Summer 2010 semester with a variety of test runs conducted to find the most effective discussion formats, discussion group sizes and method of sharing.
“We set up a sort of trial-and-error process,” Hartley said, “We found that smaller groups of five to six students worked best in each discussion group. We also found that it is really interesting to have each discussion group share with the others what their group discussed, because the variety of discussion topics was astounding.”
The depth of conversation was apparent at the meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Undergraduate Student Body President Corey T. Boone opened the meeting with a speech inspired by ‘This I Believe,’ an “international project engaging people in writing and sharing essays describing the core values that guide their daily lives,” according to the website, which can be found at www.thisibelieve.com.
At every third meeting, the topic of discussion is ‘This I Believe,’ in which the discussions focus on different aspects of beliefs and morality. Based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the website provides numerous essays on topics of discussion in Open Forum.
In the format of the website, Boone detailed the axioms of his late grandmother in his speech and spoke of the moral debt he owed her for her wisdom, support and generosity.
This speech was the springboard for the meeting’s discussion, “What Debt Do You Owe?” During this meeting, table discussions diverged to topics such as service-learning, moral obligations and compulsory altruism.
“These are important things to talk about. It is so easy to get caught up in the superficiality of college. You can’t always talk about these things with your friends, but [Open Forum] is an avenue to do that,” said Michiel Shortt, a table discussion facilitator and fourth-year MATH major.
Members of the faculty agree that these discussions are important to the expansion of one’s outlook.
“I enjoy attending events such as the Open Forum where students, faculty and staff can intermingle and discuss the ‘big ideas’ that impact everyone. I also see the Forums as a great opportunity to meet a diverse group of faculty, students and staff in an inspiring place within the Library and engage in meaningful conversation,” said Ameet Doshi, a member of the steering committee for Open Forum and a Tech Librarian.
In order to have such meaningful discussions, Hartley and her staff created three tenets to protect the interests of the participants and the discussions. There are three guidelines for meetings: “This is a safe space to express your opinions; Respect the views of others; and Stay concise so everyone gets a chance to contribute.”
With the help of these guidelines, participants are able to have very meaningful, philosophical discussion with others about topics they may otherwise not discuss.
The purpose of Open Forum is to create an environment in which topics that are not normally discussed can be examined thoroughly, according to Hartley.
“Everyone owes something to the designer of the system you move through,” said Dustin Watts, a student facilitator for table discussions and a third-year ME major, in accordance with the resolution of his table discussion.
The group meets weekly to cover one of a variety of different subjects. The five specific topics of discussion covered this fall are: Service, Diversity, Elections, Cheating and Appreciating the Holidays.
Sub-topics that are highlighted at each particular meeting include “Leadership and Decision-Making: If Everything Matters, What Matters Most?” and “Government Intervention: Does the Government Have an Obligation to Correct Societal Wrongs?”
Though the meetings have remained rather small in size, Hartley believes that there is always room for expansion. There are currently plans to move the weekly meetings’ locations from the library after the opening of the G. Wayne Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons in Fall 2011.
“We have already expanded greatly, and there is definitely room for further growth,” Hartley said. “I am quite happy with the direction of this group. I want to continue to emphasize the importance of everyone’s contribution, and the global aspect of all of this.”