Campus life, in a word

April 2, 2011

(well, several words really)

One of the things I am constantly talking about in my posts and on my tours is the incredible programming that happens on campus.  The resources floating around are vast, so there are always awesome speakers and concerts coming to campus. And this week in particular, there have been several good ones that I had the good fortune (and time) to attend.

Tuesday I went to a lecture by Cornell alum and former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann (which I was torn about, as it prevented me from attending another on campus lecture at the same time by author Margaret Atwood). Olbermann spoke at length about his own experiences at Cornell, including several hilarious anecdotes about his, ahem, less-than-stellar academic record and work ethic, and then of course some political commentary concerning the labor debate in Wisconsin. I thoroughly enjoyed much of his lecture and found Mr. Olbermann to be a charismatic and entertaining speaker, but at the end when he opened up the floor to questions, a student identifying as politically conservative went to the mic to ask a very reasonable question about Olbermann’s complete dismissal of conservative thinkers as “stupid” without ever addressing any particular ideas. Instead of taking the student’s question seriously and treating it with the respect and thoughtful response that it was due, Olbermann responded by basically calling the guy an idiot and then moving on to another student’s question. The whole point of political discourse is that it should specifically address various arguments to show their weaknesses, and by bullishly stomping on this student’s respectful and reasonable question, Olbermann completely discredits his own political ideology and also insults the institution in which he was asked to speak. And while blind ridicule may make for entertaining cable television, it should really have no place in any conversation occurring at an institution of higher learning.

Moving on…

I returned to Bailey Hall a few days later to see the amazingly talented musician Andrew Bird. I had never heard of him prior to seeing the concert— in fact I only went because a friend’s girlfriend couldn’t go with him so he had an extra ticket and didn’t want to go alone— and was absolutely blown away by his performance. His is a [mostly] solo act that makes use of various instruments including, among others: violin, keyboard, guitar, his own voice, and his impressive whistle (although despite my friends’ ridicule, I still maintain that my own whistle rivals his). Using foot pedals, he plays and records short musical phrases on one instrument and then plays it back on a loop, and then he plays other instruments one by one over the recorded loops that he created. By the end of each song the music is very interesting and complex, with many different layers of recorded harmonies and beats on several different instruments, and the coolest thing is that he created every single sound right there on stage in front of you. It was one of the most interesting and innovative musical performances I have ever seen (another being the Flaming Lips concert that I saw on campus last year).

Last night I saw one of Cornell’s many a Capella groups, the all-women Callbaxx, perform on campus, and today I attended the Cornell Prison Education Program reunion, for current and former CPEP volunteers.  This event featured a series of panel discussions about educational programming in correctional facilities, as well as the challenges faced by those who have recently been released from prison. Among the speakers were a few ex-convicts who participated in CPEP as students while they were incarcerated in Auburn Correctional Facility, as well as Cornell alums who were themselves CPEP volunteers while they were on campus and now work with prison policy or related fields. When I listened to the ex-cons tell their stories about how getting the opportunity to take Cornell classes while incarcerated helped motivate them to turn their lives around, I was struck by the fact that each of the men mentioned that what inspired him to change his ways was the fact that they were, for the first time in their lives, receiving positive feedback on their own ideas from the likes of Ivy League students and professors. I can’t think of a better expression of the significance of personal attention and encouragement in education, especially in communities where excelling in school is seen more as a scarlet letter than something to brag about.

Finally (whew), I saw a play on campus in Risley House, the program house (special dorm) for students who are interested in theater and performing arts. I had only been to Risley once before, for the Rocky Horror Picture Show back in November, and I really like it— it looks kind of like a castle, and has a dining hall and main room that are reminiscent of Hogwarts (I guess my trip to Orlando has rubbed off on me…), as well as a few performance spaces. I was blown away by the production of The Pillowman, a play by Martin McDonagh.  The dark comedy tells of an author whose fictional stories about children dying upset the tyrannical government when it appears that some of his more gruesome stories are coming true.  It was long, nearly three hours, but also captivating and well-acted, one of the best theatrical performances I’ve seen at Cornell.

Winter is being pretty stubborn with its grip on Ithaca, which is annoying, but there are some signs that spring might soon come to upstate New York— it was warm enough after the Andrew Bird concert for my friends and I to climb the fence around the soccer field and hold a few lackluster pick-up rounds  of ultimate frisbee and tag (okay, they were only lackluster because I am quite slow and therefore severely crippled my teammate in our 2-on-2).

I also go to class and work occasionally, really…

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