TEDx Speakers Burst Middlebury Bubble


Dr. Helen Riess addresses the power of empathy. (Campus/Kyle Finck)

By Hye-Jin Kim

Just like in the online videos, at the beginning of every TED talk, a sonorous round of audience applause in the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts (CFA) is a prelude to a brilliant idea. TEDxMiddlebury screened three TED talks and hosted 10 speakers, including a current student, Alec MacMillen ’14, in the CFA this Saturday at 10 a.m. The speakers came from a wide range of expertise and backgrounds, but all focused on this year’s theme of “Research, Rethink, Rebuild.”

The speakers were diverse, from spoken word poets, like Big Poppa E and Alok Vaid-Menon, to psychiatrists, like Helen Riess who championed the “power of empathy,” to college professors, including Dickson Despommier, an eight-time winner of the “Best Professor” award at Columbia University. Many speakers questioned social norms; from the ethical cost of academic success to the unsustainability of our current agricultural system to the importance of making mistakes to accelerate the learning process. Some speakers used spoken word poetry to engage the audience, which was primarily made up of Middlebury students. The speakers and TED talk screenings brought new perspectives and growing global initiatives to the campus.

TedxMiddlebury Board Member Amanda Wiggans ’14.5 said that the selection process for this year’s event was more focused than last year’s.

“Last year, the feedback [from students] was that speakers gave great ideas, but that they were not easily applicable to college students,” she said. “This year, we tried to pick speakers and topics that were centered around not having to be a professional to implement these ideas and make a difference. We wanted the talks to be more applicable for college students.”

The variety of topics covered seemed to resonate with different people in the audience, from first-years to seniors.

One of the organizers of the event, Moria Sloan ’15, said the committee this year worked to incorporate more talks on the sciences, an element missing from last year’s talks.

“The goal was to spark conversation and inspiration that was tied into the process of innovation,” Sloan said.

Fiona Rodgerson ’14, a science major, said she had attended science lectures but had never experienced an event like this before.

“I’d never been to TEDx. I decided to go this year because I didn’t think I could graduate without going,” Rodgerson joked. “I felt like the talks spoke to things I’ve been thinking about senior year, like the first speaker’s [Alok Vaid-Menon] message on how making connections and personal relationships is more important than individual success.”

Although students were the main audience for this TEDx event, faculty were also present and found the talks to be pertinent to their lives, as well.

Professor of Geology Peter Ryan said, “Listening to Hal Calston [who gave a talk on how he came up with the idea of Good News Garage] made me wonder what should I be doing at this stage in my life? How do you come across such a simple idea that is so effective and beneficial to society?”

Adhering to TED tradition, none of the talks were followed by a Q&A session, but by a brief moment of reflection and discussion. Some controversial topics were raised, and these ideas were explored from different perspectives that facilitated discussion.

The liveliest discussion came after MacMillen’s talk on “How the Extrovert Ideal Shapes ‘the Best Four Years of Your Life.’”

MacMillen was chosen out of nine student speakers who auditioned for the spot. He believed the event was important because it “exposed students to college-relevant ideas that student’s weren’t aware of before.”

“I think it’s easy to be entrenched in our own views. These talks challenged our perceptions of the world,” he said.

MacMillen spoke directly after a video of Steven Johnson’s TED talk, “Where Good Ideas Come From” was aired. While Johnson claimed great ideas came from sharing ideas through a “liquid network” of collaboration, MacMillen debated the under-appreciated value of introversion on college campuses and the workplace in generating great ideas. Many student attendees could relate to wanting to spend a Friday night “curled up with a cup of tea and a good book,” as MacMillen said.

“College is one of the most social environments you’ll ever be in, so it was reassuring to know that if I want to sit down and read the New York Times alone for two hours on a Sunday morning, it’s okay,” said Cole Bortz ’17.

Although TEDxMiddlebury brought many outside issues and ideas for inspiration to campus, MacMillen talked about an idea that stemmed from his experience at the College that challenged widely-accepted outside perception of what college should be and how students should act.

“It really made me question why I’m here,” audience member Kelsey Hoekstra ’17 said. “College weekends don’t always have to be about partying, like TV shows and advertisements claim it should be.”

Hoekstra echoed MacMillen’s point that TedX had a “bubble-bursting” effect on the College.

“The TEDx event provided alternate viewpoints because the speakers had no connection to the College,” she said. “They brought undiluted views that we’re not normally given on campus.”

To aspiring future student speakers, besides “rehearsing in circles for 12 hours” on the night before the event, MacMillen advises, “Make sure you have a message that comes from the heart. When you have a genuine interest in your topic, words just come out.”

And the most rewarding experience of being a speaker at this year’s TEDxMiddlebury?

“Getting on stage and being able to share a message I really care about,” he said.