Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology, insisted he had almost nothing to do with TEDxSwarthmore. It wasn’t his idea, he didn’t coin the theme “What makes a good society?” and when asked about the content of the speech he’s slated to present, he was totally noncommittal.
“It’s not so easy to just generate TED talks, you know,” he said with a smile.
But as hard as it is to write a TED talk, an 18 minute presentation on any “idea worth spreading,” Schwartz seemed equally impressed by the difficulties of running a TED conference. He speculated that the last TED event he attended required “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of volunteer time” to put together.
Despite these potential barriers, when three students in Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s Practical Wisdom class asked him to sponsor their application for a TEDx license last spring, he agreed. Since then, two of these undergraduates—current seniors Michael Xu and Walker Stole—have channeled the support of Julia Karpati ‘13, Nimesh Ghimire ’15, and much of the College administration into mobilizing their own idea worth spreading: a TED conference designed to inspire students to compose their own socially-astute solutions. TedxSwarthmore will take place on March 31st.
The event speakers—12 altogether—include alumni, current faculty members, and parents from across diverse disciplines. To name just a few, lectures will be offered from the perspective of a high tech CEO (Corinna Lathan ’88), a Princeton sociologist (Paul Starr, parent of Abigail Starr ’13), a choral director (Associate Professor and Chester Children’s Choir founder John Alston), and even a Hollywood villain (actor and playwright Stephen Lang ’73).
While many of these speakers will be familiar to students, Xu is confident the TED format will concentrate debate in a way rarely experienced on campus. “We have a lot of lectures, we have a lot of performances, and panels and conferences. And a lot of them tend to be traditional,” he said. TEDxSwarthmore hopes to disrupt that monotony not only with the TED talk format, but by incorporating student voices more thoroughly into conference dialogue.
The most visible step in this direction is the Student Challenge, in which Swarthmore students can nominate a friend or apply to be a speaker themselves. While the deadline for applications is midnight on Monday, January 30th, the Student Challenge winner will not be announced until February, when a board of TEDxSwarthmore speakers reviews submissions and second round auditions. As of Wednesday afternoon, Stole has received 24 peer nominations and 8 self-applications for the Student Challenge.
“There are just so many things going on at Swarthmore that I feel like could be in a TED event any given day,” said Stole, explaining the impetus behind the Student Challenge.
That’s not where student engagement ends. While tickets are free to TriCo students, those hoping to attend the physical event will be required to complete a short survey outlining their expectations for the event. Applications for tickets, which will become available February 17, will then be chosen by lottery. Xu hopes this process will help students to “start thinking about questions and things they want to get out of the experience,” while preventing them from ordering tickets and then deciding not to attend.
Non-students may order tickets and lunch on a first come, first serve basis for a $15 fee. There will also be a simulcast in Science Center 101 and a livestream on TEDxSwarthmore.com.
While students and friends of Swarthmore College vie for seats in the audience, Schwartz is still undecided about what viewpoint he’ll offer from the stage.
“I’ll work something out,” he said offhand. “Maybe I’ll talk about the Super Bowl.”