Last summer, three Southwestern students stood near the head of a patient undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. Viewers of medical dramas on television might be surprised to know that “there was not a lot of blood involved,” says Karen Rativa ’20. Athena Pinero ’20 agrees: “It’s fairly contained. There are a lot of tubes, a lot of tools, and a lot of machines, though.” The third student, Kirhyn Stein ’20, adds, “The only surprising thing was the smell of the cauterizing.” Apparently, surgeons must literally burn patients’ flesh to decrease blood loss during incisions. All three students confirm that the odor is off-putting at first. “But after a while,” Stein assures me, “you get used to it.”
Ever cool under pressure, even when a human life is at stake, Rativa, Pinero, and Stein were the first Southwestern interns participating in the Undergraduate Summer Research Curriculum of the Sciences Research and Education Program, hosted by the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center of Houston (UTHealth). The internships were created by Dr. Eyal Porat, a professor of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery at UTHealth. “I saw that a lot of students at Southwestern are seeking a career in the medical field, and it just made sense to create an opportunity for them.”
The internship program lasted eight weeks and entailed three parts: attending talks at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School, shadowing and observing clinical and operating-room (OR) procedures, and conducting medical research. Although their schedules varied throughout the summer, the work day usually began around 7 a.m., with Rativa, Pinero, and Stein watching classroom lectures, presentations by fellows, or morbidity and mortality conferences. Rativa, a biology major and certified nursing assistant who hails from Colombia and has wanted to be a doctor since childhood, enjoyed this didactic component even though the atmosphere in the lecture halls sometimes turned tense: “the residents are explaining each step in a patient’s care, and the surgeon would jump in and bombard one of the residents, making them think and connect the dots.” Watching such interactions served as eye-opening preparation for the rigors of medical school and residency, which Rativa plans to pursue after graduating from Southwestern.
From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the interns were often shadowing Porat during clinicals, learning more about the patients who would soon be undergoing surgery. Otherwise, they were scrubbing in on complicated open-heart surgeries, including aortic repairs and coronary bypasses. Despite being undergraduates, the three students were invited to watch at close range, often standing near the anesthesiologist or peering through a paper screen around the patient’s head. “Dr. Porat would teach us about the heart, explain that this is a smoker’s lung, and show us what he was doing,” recalls Stein, a biochemistry major who also hopes to attend med school after graduation—and who, coincidentally, is Ayala Porat’s resident assistant this year. “You want to ask questions, but you don’t want to get in anyone’s way [because] someone’s life is literally right there. But as we got more familiar with the surgeries, we got more comfortable, and we knew when to ask. But it was still shocking to watch them open the chest, cranking it open so [the surgeons] could see everything.” For Stein, observing surgeries was the most valuable and enlightening part of the experience.
Pinero, a biology major and psychology minor, notes that surgery in an OR is much different from what occurs in an emergency room (ER). “I’ve volunteered in an ER before, and it is as gruesome and bloody” as you might expect, she says. But in the OR at UTHealth, “if there are no complications, it’s nice and pristine,” primarily because surgery requires extensive sterilization. In fact, because the patient is “covered up—even their face— [and] the surgeons are only working with a small area of the body,” she and the other interns could focus on the organs and tissues without any squeamishness.
Rativa, who is already considering orthopedics as a specialty down the line, loved witnessing the teamwork required of such extensive surgeries, but she also appreciated Porat’s mentorship and the learning process taking place in the OR. “He’d have us right near the patient, explain the whole process, [and] ask questions,” she says. “[We’d realize] we needed to study the anatomy of the heart, which would encourage us so we’d be prepared for his next patients.”
All three interns did laughingly admit that the surgeries tested their stamina and/or their bladder control. After all, observing four- and five-hour operations meant a lot of standing without going to the bathroom.
The third component of the UTHealth experience was medical research. Heading back to McGovern Medical School each afternoon, the students embarked on individual projects under the supervision of Dr. Harleen K. Sandhu, assistant professor and director of clinical research and development in the Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery Department. Stein worked on a systematic review of literature about the incidence and outcomes of aortic dissection in women of childbearing age—a project that is still underway. Rativa worked on aortic aneurysms in the same demographic. If all goes according to plan, the interns’ research will contribute to a grant that will help open a clinic for women who suffer from these potentially fatal conditions.
Unlike science research at Southwestern, much of this work took place not in a laboratory but rather in front of a computer. The literature review required methodical keyword searches, detailed documentation of every article, evaluation of each paper’s relevance, and excerpting of material that fit into the topics at hand. Stein found the work challenging because it was not a kind of research she had engaged in before: “When we started the research, it was really hard because we didn’t know what to do at all.” Rativa echoes Stein: “It was a lot of data analysis. I wasn’t used to that kind of research, … [but] I got to see things I’d never learned before. Later, our PI [principal investigator, Sandhu] said, ‘You’re doing stuff that graduate students are doing.’ So this is something I really value.”
Pinero, meanwhile, worked with Sandhu on developing and validating an aortic disease quality of life survey—a collaboration that may lead to coauthoring a paper. “The research part was just really cool because I love research. I really enjoyed that, even if I was just entering data and learning how to use Excel, because it will help with my capstone. Reading up on the literature on the quality of life survey and medical research is a lot different from the research we do here [at SU]. The research we do here is intense, but medical research is just different.”
For Stein, the internship initiated by Porat furthered her understanding of how medical schools, hospitals, and ORs work. “It also helped me develop my skills in talking to doctors. It’s really different talking to them sometimes because they’re so busy.” In addition to the interpersonal skills she learned, Stein reflects on how the internship connects with her coursework and future plans back at Southwestern. “It solidified my decision to go premed because I love chemistry so much, and I can see [how] different drugs and pharmaceuticals that we learned about in class were coming up as we saw different heart problems [in the clinic].”
As she looks forward to future internship and career opportunities, including possibly returning to work with Porat and Sandhu, Stein says, “I feel stronger in my own abilities. I was nervous going in because I didn’t know anything, but I was able to jump in. I just taught myself stuff, I talked to people a lot, and I just ended up overcoming it. … Now I feel confident. Even if I don’t know enough, I can continue working on it, and I’ll get it eventually.”
Pinero says, “It was all amazing. Going to the lectures and just immersing myself in the medical school at McGovern was helpful.” Being able to witness surgeries and study the human body in a way that cannot be conveyed in textbooks—such as physically feeling how a smoker’s lung compares with that of a nonsmoker or seeing up close how fatty deposits develop in healthy versus less healthy patients—was a highlight for Pinero. “A lot of times in undergrad, you focus on a molecular level, but seeing things on a macro level—like if a patient complains, ‘my arm hurts’—that can mean more. It helps me piece things together in class better.”
But part of her discovery was also learning what she does not want to do: “I learned it’s OK to be uncertain about medical school. This experience helped me decide I want to be a physician’s assistant [PA] in grad school instead.” Pinero credits Porat with giving her the confidence to change her mind and valuing the ability to choose not to pursue certain paths. “He made it sound like not knowing was OK. We’re under so much pressure to … have a plan in place, but you don’t have to follow the order that you think you should. He taught us to follow our dreams because nothing else matters.”
Rativa is grateful for the professional experience as well as the chance to network. “I was able to talk to residents, surgeons, doctors, medical students, undergraduates [from UT, Baylor, and Rice], PAs—all of these professionals who I wouldn’t have met just doing research at a university,” she says. “It was really cool to see the knowledge gaps and how everybody works together to fill those.” The internship has already had a tremendous impact on Rativa’s schoolwork. “Coming back to SU, it made me use these techniques in the everyday activities I do,” she says. “So in my upper-level classes, when I have to look up an article, I know the keywords I should be using; I know the databases; I can see how results are manipulated by the keywords. And I can share with other students how this experience has changed my life. This has given me the tools to keep trying to achieve my goals of getting to medical school.”
And as for the surgeon who put this new program together? All three students gush about Porat’s character and willingness to share his expertise. “He is a very caring physician,” Rativa says. “I learned so much from him, but the one thing I won’t forget—he kept telling us this—[is that] we’re here to serve people. That’s the thing that’ll stick with me forever. It’s not about students who know everything by the book; it’s about students who know that medicine is about caring.”
Unlike the stereotypical surgeons who divorce themselves from the humanity of their patients, Porat modeled genuine interest in and compassion for the individuals under his care. Rativa was impressed that he could share facts about his patients’ lives that weren’t found in their medical records. “He’s very involved with his patients. In the clinical area, you just know he goes above and beyond to connect with his patients, and that’s something. I think he was the biggest lesson I learned.”
Pinero agrees about Porat’s dedication to providing exemplary care and caring. “He and Dr. Sandhu are just so down to earth and really care about their patients, not just their status. They were just so inspirational in so many ways. He’s very passionate about what he does. It’s important that you’re passionate about it because people’s lives are in your hands.” That sensitivity extended to Porat’s mentoring of the SU interns as well. “He was so helpful,” Pinero continues. “He always stressed to us, ‘This is your experience. … I will try everything to help you have the experience you want to have.’ We always felt comfortable talking to him about anything. He taught us a lot, too. He was definitely a teacher, a role model, and a resource for sure.”
Stein also appreciated Porat’s mentorship, especially because he exhibits the interpersonal skills that she has seen lacking in some of the physicians she has encountered in her job as a standardized (or simulated) patient. “All he wanted was for us to be learning something. When we did clinics with him, he would do postsurgery follow-ups. He would ask patients, ‘How are you doing? How have you been walking? Are you taking your meds?’ Then, he’d debrief us and tell us why he was asking those questions and share the backstory so we weren’t lost. Doctors in other internships sometimes don’t care, so he made sure we understood and also genuinely asked us how we were doing. He was really, really accommodating the whole time.”
The respect is clearly mutual. Porat says that working with the intrepid undergraduate trio was “refreshing” compared with teaching medical students and residents: “Undergraduates are much more curious, and that’s a very good thing. I told them, ‘Never lose your curiosity. There are no silly questions; there are only silly answers.’ … If someone is curious about something, someone wants to learn something. Respect that. Undergraduates are empty pages: they want to learn, they want to know, and that’s what I like about them.”
And even though they were there to learn during their internship, Rativa, Pinero, and Stein nevertheless contributed to Porat’s surgical team. “They’re amazing, bright young students. They were very hardworking, and they were very dedicated,” he says warmly. “We benefit from their presence as well because it brings the best out of everybody.” Because of the success of this summer’s experience, the SU team hopes to reunite with their mentor and his colleagues either over winter or spring break or else in a future summer. Porat is delighted to keep the door open for them.
For this parent, role model, and teacher, then, providing the SU interns with clinical and theoretical knowledge was only part of the new program’s goal; giving them the opportunity to engage with multiple members of his medical team would hopefully expand their perspectives and teach them to pursue their ambitions, regardless of obstacles. “Try to go as far as you can with your dreams,” Porat says. “Don’t set limits; set goals.”
If you ascend the stairs to the architecture studio on the third floor of the Fine Arts Center, you’ll inevitably glimpse a number of posters featuring designs by Julien Meyrat ’98. A senior designer and associate at Gensler, the world-renowned architecture and design firm, Meyrat has played an important design role on a wide range of iconic projects around the globe: his signature is on Legacy West urban village and food hall in Plano and Hope Cottage Pregnancy and Adoption Center in Dallas. In major cities in China, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates, Meyrat and his colleagues have helped create towers that soar above the skyline and promenades that stretch down sandy beaches or bustling urban districts. Soon, you’ll be able to see his team’s vision realized in glass, steel, stone, and greenery at Indigo Ridge, an “urban oasis” in nearby Cedar Park.
Considering his 16-plus years as a licensed architect, his creative versatility, and his facility with the latest 3-D modeling and digital rendering tools, one might be surprised to learn that Meyrat majored in political science and French at Southwestern. But he is proof of the liberal-arts adage that a student’s field of study does not dictate a particular career path; rather, a degree prepares you for a range of professional pursuits. “The way I saw school was that undergrad was a time to explore, to absorb, to try out different topics and subjects,” he recalls.
So he first elected a major in political science because he was well-versed in geography and history and was interested in “current events and what was going on in the world.” The French major came from not only his heritage—his father is French, and Meyrat himself was born in Paris—but also his love of reading classic authors as well as a semester studying abroad at the Catholic University of the West, in Angers, France. He also managed to squeeze in several semesters of Chinese as electives—”just for fun,” he admits. As a professional skill, speaking multiple tongues is helpful, he says, “if you’re working in an international practice like architecture. … It always makes a good impression if you try to reach out and speak to them in their language.” But beyond the practical aspects of being able to translate design concepts and working with technical teams across the world, Meyrat values his study of languages more for how it shaped his thought process and perspective. “Learning languages helps you understand different points of view,” he reflects. “It’s helpful as a designer to think outside the box but also to consider different approaches to solving a problem. If you study languages, it trains your mind to think creatively and to arrive at solutions more quickly.”
Meyrat’s passion for architecture was kindled just before he arrived at Southwestern. During his final year of high school in 1993–1994, he was an exchange student in Germany. More specifically, he was sent to live with a host family in the former German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany), which had only reunified with the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a. West Germany) three years before. Living in a town 20 miles outside Chemnitz, formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, the third-largest city in the Free State of Saxony, young Meyrat observed that even then, “the Soviet sphere and the American theater were very different in terms of freedom, political expression, and, most glaringly, the quality of infrastructure.” The landscape was dotted by shabby and monolithic Soviet architecture and prefabricated concrete slab apartment blocks erected quickly amid the ruins wrought decades earlier by World War II bombing—all of which, he recalls, “had such an impact for me visually. I saw something so monstrous, it made me realize the power of architecture to affect one’s impression and concept of a place.” But Meyrat realized quickly that whether the effects of a design were positive or negative, he could learn from both reactions and make an impact. “Architecture can inspire great feelings, but you also learn what not to do, what to stay away from,” he says. “You know what kind of places make you feel not so great and how to make them better. I like to have a hand in making places better. I wanted to be part of that influence on people.”
His desire to study architecture was encouraged by Professor and Chair of Art History Thomas Noble Howe, who lectures in architectural history around the world and leads introductory architectural design studios at Southwestern. “Dr. Howe was a cherished mentor of mine,” Meyrat remembers. “When I was a freshman, I was curious about pursuing architecture as a career because I always had a talent for drawing and illustration. So when I saw in [Howe’s] description that you could major in anything and still get a master’s degree In architecture afterwards, I chose political science and French but also decided to do the architecture and design minor.”
Meyrat would go on to help the SU minor boast its 100% acceptance rate of students admitted to graduate schools in fields ranging from architecture and engineering to industrial design and urban planning: he was accepted to and, in 2002, completed his master of architecture degree at the University of Texas at Austin, then and now a top-10 school in the field. He credits Howe with seeing him through his applications to graduate programs, a process which included assembling a successful portfolio of well-documented drawings, models, and designs from his SU studio courses. Howe’s comprehensive survey courses in architectural history also proved quite valuable, allowing Meyrat to test out of taking all three required history courses at UT and to take on the job as a teaching assistant, in which he immersed undergraduate students in the study of influential movements and notable works of the 20th century. When specifically requested by certain clients today, Meyrat can employ a multitude of historical styles, a skill he thanks Howe for teaching in a studio that is very rarely offered elsewhere.
Those of us who are unacquainted with architects might imagine that their work primarily consists of hunkering down over a drafting table, outlining blueprints. However, Meyrat clarifies that although “drawing teaches you how to convey information graphically, helps make sense of a design to builders, and prevents mistakes from happening,” it’s not a talent one must be born with to be a successful architect. Instead, techniques of illustration can be learned, and a lot of it can now be done with the assistance of a computer rather than just by hand.
Well beyond drawing, the daily work of an architect entails developing the initial design and form of a structure, specifying its minute dimensions and details, from height and area to the meticulous placement of its smallest recesses and glazing. The architect’s career requires years of arduous training in internships, and licensed architects are required to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of safety and environmental regulations by keeping their certifications up to date through a lengthy series of exams covering all aspects of planning sites, designing buildings, and understanding their underlying mechanical and structural systems. “We play an important role in ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of [a building’s] occupants,” he explains, “because buildings can fail in various ways—through leaks, mold, fire, or poor on-site execution—that can lead to structural collapse. They can also consume a tremendous amount of energy and resources. So every day, we’re problem-solvers, studying how a site might work or how one can configure spaces to make them work within a specific budget, performing efficiently while maintaining comfort.” Such creative problem-solving is done in collaboration with a large team that also includes owners; civil, structural, and mechanical engineers; landscape architects; contractors; and many other consulting specialists.
Although he continues to be engaged with the routine technical demands of any built project, much of Meyrat’s day-to-day work as a designer centers on responding to a project’s abstract challenges. These include analyzing sites to determine what kinds of structures would best suit those spaces as well as the client’s overall goals, thinking about how a structure will affect its physical setting or how to lay out a public space comprising residential and retail spaces, and strategizing how to combine a range of different functions in a single building. “Every morning, I wake up and have no idea what I’m going to create that day,” he says. “I have to define the problem, and I might have a gut instinct about what should be done or how. Then, I sketch quickly to develop a rough concept, and then I jump on the computer to work it out in a 3-D model”—a digital version of the cardboard models that Meyrat remembers practicing in Howe’s studio courses. “It’s fun because I do a little bit of everything.”
Whether Southwestern molded him or he chose the University because it fit his interests, Meyrat inevitably speaks like a graduate given how he describes the varied interests and perspectives that define his profession: “Architecture is all around us. It’s inescapable. It straddles the worlds of art, math, technology, and engineering. But you choose to do architecture because you love the chance of solving problems in an original way. And those problems that you solve are making an important and positive difference to the people who live in your creations. It’s playing a major role in creating a cultural reality for the people around you.”
Once Howe’s mentee, Meyrat now gives back to Southwestern by lending his own expertise to Howe’s architecture studio students, presenting highlights from his own portfolio before providing feedback on the undergraduates’ building plans and offering suggestions for how to improve. When he speaks about his own projects and engages with these aspiring architects and designers, his enthusiasm becomes contagious. “What gives me so much pleasure is to provide a space that people love, that they’re excited about, that they’re happy to share with friends,” he tells the current students. “It’s this welcoming, good feeling when you know people are coming back here, that they’re making memories here. And I’m proud to be part of the team that brought this wonderful thing to existence. Doctors and lawyers? They have to deal with people’s problems. I work in a dream factory.”
Election day was Tuesday, November 6, and Uncle Frank and Cousin Margaret got into another fight over the midterm outcomes over Thanksgiving dinner, so this article is going to be about politics.
No, wait! Come back! Hear me out.
Hearing people out and letting people have their say are exactly what students at Southwestern are aiming for in a new initiative advocating civil discourse on campus. In this era rife with political animus, pundits regularly shout down their guests on 24-hour news networks, politicians endorse attack ads and even physical attacks on their opponents, social-media users block “friends” and flag posts by anonymous strangers after flame wars erupt on Twitbook, professors are compelled to alter their syllabi by livid protesters, and speakers are turned away from invited lectures because outraged community members have sent them death threats. But hope for more respectful, thoughtful political debate nevertheless resides on the campus of Southwestern University.
As when confronting any challenge, participants in the Southwestern initiative will need to begin by diagnosing the problem. Of course, even defining civil discourse presents its own difficulties.
“I’ll tell you what civil discourse is not,” says Southwestern Professor of Political Science Shannon Mariotti. “[It’s] not just being polite; it’s not just being nice. … It is trying to speak your mind about something in a way that is simultaneously open to revision based on somebody else’s perspective, …trying to take an idea and walk around it and look at it from as many vantage points as possible.”
Southwestern students demonstrated this concept of inhabiting diverse perspectives in Mariotti’s Contemporary Democratic Theory course last fall, which garnered attention in the New York Times as a model of political debate: Students who represented a range of partisan views argued assertively about volatile topics but also engaged each other mindfully and empathetically. “We’re all always works in progress; we’re all always hopefully changing our minds and enlarging our perspectives,” says Mariotti. “I think that civil discourse is that balancing act between speaking your truth but also recognizing that other people are speaking their truths and trying to hear [those] other people at the same time—really hearing them.”
Southwestern Assistant Professor of Political Science Emily Sydnor, who specializes in political communication, behavior, and psychology, adds that the meaning of civil discourse changes depending on who you ask: “It is a contentious definition, in part because there are a lot of people who study it and conceive of it as politeness,” such as avoiding name-calling and insults. According to this denotation, the term civil refers to subjective standards of etiquette rather than relating more generally to citizens in a society (as in the phrases civil law, civil ceremony, or civil strife).
A second and perhaps more substantive definition of civility lies in “not using racial and homophobic slurs” and intimidation tactics but also “not trying to restrict rights for certain people,” says Sydnor. This elevates the concept of civility from a question of tone to “the context of this commitment to democratic goals and equality”—that is, civility becomes nothing short of a foundational principle of a system of government.
A third definition is perhaps the trickiest because incivility becomes an ad hominem attack by detractors rather than a constructive ideal for discussion: it’s “not actually about whether or not you’re polite at all,” says Sydnor, “but whether or not I call the language that you’re using polite or impolite.” So the label of incivility can easily become a rhetorical weapon against one’s political adversaries, suggesting that an opponent’s arguments are invalid because they are not delivered in a courteous, genteel manner.
We can see this weapon deployed throughout America’s tumultuous past. “‘Civility’ has historically been used to blunt challenges to the status quo,” says Visiting Assistant Professor of History Joseph Hower. “We remember the eminently respectable version of the civil rights movement, for instance, but forget that even the most peaceful activists marching in their Sunday best were widely criticized as radical, insurgent threats.” From abolition and women’s suffrage to disability-rights groups and ACT UP, social movements and demonstrators have often been criticized for uncivil disobedience but were nevertheless crucial in achieving inclusivity. “Whether or not the calls for civility are in good faith,” says Hower, “it isn’t always valid. It is a lot to ask someone whose basic humanity and dignity are denied to respond with calm, kind, open-minded debate.”
And then again, as Mariotti points out, “For some people, civil discourse is the avoidance of political topics.” Of course, bowing out of the conversation entirely isn’t viable on either a college campus or in a participatory democracy, “so civil discourse has to become a learned way of talking about charged issues in a way that’s productive.”
So as SU students embark on their initiative, they will be striving for a civility that culturally remains ill-defined, historically has been used to mask serious social problems, and ironically has veiled ideological divisions. They will have to do so while remembering that, as Sydnor puts it, “incivility can be productive.” In a sense, then, the students will need to get comfortable with discomfort, debate about compromise, model productive civic behavior without positive civic role models, and be civil while struggling to define civility—and discovering whether civility is even the right goal.
The civil discourse project is also challenging considering the height of emotions—and the fact that citizens can’t even agree about the magnitude of the country’s divisions. Some have suggested that political rancor has escalated to unprecedented heights over the past several decades.
But many experts argue that partisan vitriol has existed in the Divided States of America since the country’s founding. American philosopher, poet, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The two parties which divide the State, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. … Now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.” That was in a lecture Emerson delivered in 1841.
Today, scholars tend to agree that hyperpartisanship is nothing new. “You can look to the distant past—the 1790s, the 1820s, and the 1850s—to find plenty of cases in which politics was anything but civil,” says Hower. For example, in her book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, historian Joanne Freeman has documented at least 70 physical altercations—from fist-fights to brawls—on the floor of Congress in the decades preceding the Civil War. Between the late nineteenth century and the end of the Great Depression, battles between labor and management spilled beyond the workplace and into the streets. Throughout the social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks became shockingly common. So “it is hard to say that the country has never been more divided,” says Hower. “Contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom, history doesn’t actually repeat itself, but there are recurrent patterns and problems that wax and wane over time.”
Sydnor agrees: “Incivility has always been around. We can look at portions of U.S. history that are full of insults by politicians from opposite parties.” So what has changed? “The ease with which we as average citizens are exposed to that [hostile] language,” she says. “When Jefferson and Adams were hurling horrible insults at each other in the early 1800s, that was being picked up by newspapers that were not being read by the majority of people. It wasn’t popular in the same way. But now the president can go on social media, or his rallies are picked up and covered on Facebook Live, and we know exactly what’s happening and know what he’s said 30 seconds after he’s said it. It’s difficult to assess whether the amount of incivility has grown, but the access to it has changed.”
From Mariotti’s perspective, what’s also new is that this 24-hour, real-time access “normalizes and legitimates beyond-the-line rhetoric,” some of which might “violate the core values [of a university] on a regular basis.” That is, reconciling the vituperations trotted out by political leaders, who some might expect to be role models of civic engagement, with the cardinal virtues of an institution can be an immense challenge these days. And as Sydnor remarks, “normalizing and mainstreaming [ideological invective] provides a platform for other people to think it’s OK, too.”
And so citizens do as their elected representatives do: they fight, they denigrate, and they bully. It’s no wonder, then, that in a 2016 Pew Research survey of Republicans and Democrats, majorities in both parties expressed “very unfavorable views of the other party,” stating that they felt not only frustration and anger but outright fear. Among the 4,385 adults surveyed, Republicans and Democrats ranked closed-mindedness as the strongest critique against their opponents.
If accusations of closed minds are the most-cited complaint against the opposition, then where does one go to reopen those minds? In 1987, prominent political philosopher Allan Bloom published the bestselling polemic The Closing of the American Mind, an indictment of higher education. Bloom argued that contemporary colleges and universities were weakening undergraduates’ capacity for curiosity and exploration, which was part of a larger crisis in American democracy and society.
However, many philosophers and historians of higher education would assert that universities play an important—if not indispensable—role in preparing undergraduates for informed citizenship and civic engagement. In a poll of 1,000 adults nationwide commissioned by Allegheny College in 2010, 44% of the respondents aged 18 to 29 years old said that colleges and universities should take the lead in making politics more civil. This call is unsurprising given that higher education is supposed to be a welcoming environment in which young minds learn, interrogate, and challenge ideas, critically evaluating their own and others’ worldviews. “I really think that the hallmark of what we do is to teach students critical thinking,” says Mariotti, “and critical thinking is that work of recognizing that your beliefs, your values, are built into you by your context and … shaped by who you are.” Teaching undergraduates the importance of listening to and learning from other people because individuals are born of different experiences is “part of the work that we fundamentally teach our students and is key to our contemporary political climate.”
For political science major Natalie DeCesare ’19, universities are promising sites for developing and questioning political viewpoints, especially compared with the world beyond college campuses. “It’s an amazing place to experiment. You can do things with support and mentors. … Here, people understand that you’re growing, you’re changing, you’re trying to find your voice,” she says. “That’s exciting … [but] a lot harder after you leave college.”
Key to universities’ role in political engagement is the teaching of academic argument (the skill of contributing to ongoing dialogues using techniques of persuasion) as well as information and media literacy (the ability to understand, process, and evaluate information and information sources). “Part of what we’re doing … is giving them the tools to sort through all the information,” says Sydnor. “The challenge to civility is the constant access to information. Ideally, we can teach [students] what is good and bad information … . We can be cognizant of the ways in which we react to that information and how we contribute to it. [We can] stop when someone says something nasty, think about why they’re doing that, and decide if we need to engage with that.”
College campuses are also a bastion for hope because, as DeCesare says, in politics today, role models of multifaceted thought are lacking. “Show me a role model who … who can think in multiple ways and knows how to interact with all types of people,” she says. “Professors are great role models at this school in showcasing diversity of thought because I’ve had classes in computer science, in history, in theater, and in a lot of poli[tical] sci[ence], and it’s amazing all the different connections they can make.” Faculty, then, can serve as exemplars of civic engagement because they are trained to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds, and they model the research skills and ability to integrate ideas that help students become informed citizens.
Contrary to popular belief, the “liberal arts” have nothing to do with liberal politics. As Southwestern students and alumni know all too well, professors do not tell undergraduates what to think; instead, students read the works of a wide range of thinkers from various fields of thought and are asked to critically analyze them.
Thus, “a liberal arts education is,” as political science major Camille Martin ’19 says, “incredibly conducive to civil discourse.” After all, the liberal arts are founded on the Socratic concept of recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge. Having humility in our attitudes toward truth and knowledge and owning what we do not know enable us to reflect on others’ viewpoints and then do the hard but crucial work of revising our opinions without acquiescing to unconscious biases or assumptions.
The liberal arts also encourage constructive inquiry through various disciplinary lenses, which enriches our perspective on a range of questions, from democracy and politics to culture and identity. Civil discourse is “related to politics, economics, geography, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, [and] literature,” says University President Edward Burger, “because the idea is that you’re supposed to welcome different strands of thought and engage, debate, reflect, and analyze them and then change. You’re introduced to a diversity of thoughtful perspectives and try to make meaning of them.” Vice President of University Relations Paul Secord agrees: the liberal arts “are all about thinking through things and teaching empathetic listening and the ability to see things from multiple perspectives.”
DeCesare adds that studying the intersections between those multiple perspectives is crucial: “Civil discourse is so much easier at a liberal arts school because everyone … share[s] the same educational values. … The liberal arts are modeling the behavior of making connections.” DeCesare has had numerous conversations with her brothers, who attend a state research university, about the differences between their campuses. “At a nonliberal arts school, I don’t think the students have the same respect for all the other students there,” she says, “because it’s a competition between departments”: English competes against biology, business students face off with kinesiology students. But because the liberal arts train us to make connections between disciplines and with students and faculty across multiple fields, they allow us space for uncertainty, ambiguity, and open-mindedness—the ideal mindset needed for the active listening and compromise that facilitate civil discourse.
With its core values of “being true to oneself and others,” “respecting the worth and dignity of persons,” and “encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good,” Southwestern is taking its role in promoting civil discourse seriously. Supported by a significant gift to the University, students at SU are designing and implementing a long-term project in which members of the campus community “are going to talk about tough issues,” says Secord, “intentionally breaking those walls down” between parties and around echo chambers.
From workshops over breakfast tacos and town halls in the residence halls to courses and speaker series, students will engage in serious political discussion, but the goal is to elevate the voices that are often drowned out by those spouting inflammatory rhetoric. “I want to help provide for a campus where everyone’s thoughts and opinions can be heard,” Martin remarks. “I want to find a way for people who don’t normally feel they can speak up in dorms, at parties, and in class to know that there are no repercussions and feel that their opinions really do matter.” She cautions that if people feel like their voices aren’t heard, cynicism and apathy might win out over civic engagement.
DeCesare sees the same danger at the local, state, and federal levels. “Our whole system is [based on] the most powerful people having the biggest voice,” she says. “There’s not really room to compromise or negotiate or show agreement because you look less powerful. So we really have to change the way we have those conversations. [You are not] less of an advocate just because you agree with someone on the other side of the aisle.”
Getting out the vote is one important way for the civil-discourse advocates to assure that all those voices are heard. In 2016, DeCesare was instrumental in reinvigorating SU’s Voter-Friendly Campus Committee, an organization that promotes voter registration and on-campus voting. Martin has collaborated with that committee, recently contributing to a video promoting voter turnout on campus that won third place in a contest sponsored by the Texas Voting Summit and Young Invincibles.
DeCesare is excited to help organize programming that promotes civic engagement on campus. She’s been working with Secord on coordinating a debate between prominent speakers from both sides of the aisle on a controversial topic, such as what free speech means, especially on a college campus. “We want to show other schools that you can have civic events without getting hostile [because] we’ve seen protests without perspective at other schools. We want perspective in protest because protest by students is important.”
SU community members will also engage with empathy; for example, a student doesn’t have to like what their peers are saying about term limits, campaign finance, or disenfranchisement, but they’ll at least learn why they believe in those ideas. And they won’t come to the table with any assumptions that a person who doesn’t share their views is simply a troll looking to start a fight. The initiative may even culminate in a statement of shared values, not unlike the Honor Code for academic integrity, that reflects campus community members’ commitment to not hurt other people and to not assume that others are trying to hurt them.
The small size of SU’s campus is certainly a boon to this endeavor. “There are only 1,500 students here, so there is no anonymity,” says Secord. “We can’t attack each other in a vacuum because we know each other, we eat together, we live together. We’re not big enough to not get along.” In a sense, SU’s tight-knit community emulates the environment of neighborhood meet-and-greets—a setting DeCesare approves of after working as an assistant campaign manager for a congressional candidate. In such a setting, citizens engage with one another and with political representatives directly, away from the anonymous and remote environment of the Internet and social media. “We need to get out of the echo chambers and get back to town halls and town rallies,” she suggests. “When you have a block party and you’re looking at your neighbor face to face, you’re going to have a different conversation. Live in the present and in reality instead of living virtually.”
As the students coordinate new programming, civil discourse will undoubtedly become one of the many practices Southwestern students develop and hone during their years on campus. Like lifelong learning or intellectual curiosity, civil discourse is a transferable skill across the disciplines, beyond the walls of the University, and into civic life. The stakes are certainly high: in addition to not fighting partisans on the other side of the aisle, the students will be working to combat the emotional exhaustion, passivity, and apathy that so easily arise from dogmatism and political entrenchment. But given their reputation for collaborative learning and problem-solving, it’s not surprising that Southwestern students are taking on the challenge to make positive, long-term change. “We’re all oxymorons in some way, shape, or form,” says DeCesare. “We’re so multifaceted. We have to have politics that reflect our different layers. Otherwise, we’re one-dimensional. Us versus them gets us nowhere.”
Samantha Rao ’19
When you walk through Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Building, the floorboards groan beneath your feet. The wood is old and has been well weathered by the soles of students, faculty, and staff for more than a century. There’s history in the hallowed halls of Cullen, and if you listen closely, you can hear it over those creaky old floors.
A spirit of community and generosity has been infused into the building’s foundation since its inception. Construction of what was originally dubbed the Administration building began on September 8, 1898, and was completed in the spring of 1900. Despite the building’s speedy assembly, the construction process proved taxing. After completion of the building’s first floor, funding ran low, and there were concerns about completing the project. A number of individuals devoted to the University, including teachers, trustees, and friends, altruistically lent the necessary funds to finish the building’s construction. However, having spent every penny on construction, the University had nothing left to furnish the building’s interior. Forced to make do with what they had, the University’s teachers descended on some of the other buildings around campus at the time to scavenge for spare and unused furniture.
Once completed, the building was said to be the finest educational structure in the South and became the anchor around which the rest of Southwestern’s campus developed. Today, Cullen is the oldest surviving structure on Southwestern’s campus and plays host to an array of University operations and administrative offices, classrooms, and the office of the President. Moreover, it’s more than just a building. As the symbol of Southwestern, Cullen represents the University’s long history and commitment to providing quality education.
If you could travel back in time and walk across the building’s floorboards in 1900, you’d probably wonder whether you were even in the same building. The layout of Cullen has changed considerably in its 119 years, most notably during a renovation in 1975. Infested with bats, lacking air conditioning, and partially shut down, the Administration Building was in poor shape after 75 years of use. Thanks to a $1 million donation from the Cullen Foundation, the Administration Building was updated and rededicated as the Cullen Building on October 14, 1977.
Over the years, a number of tales have surfaced about strange pranks and ghost stories occurring within the building. According to legend, some students at one point used a ladder to climb to the roof of Cullen with mischief in mind. Armed with paint and brushes, they set to work painting a smiling face on one of the building’s ventilation turbines. Confirmed by several staff members, evidence of the masterpiece can be seen in various photographs of Cullen taken through the years.
One of the building’s more famous and revered structures is its tower. The Cullen Tower holds a special place in the hearts of Southwestern’s graduates, serving as the site of passage from students to alumni. For more than a century, seniors have ascended the tower’s hidden staircase and signed their names along its walls. The oldest known signature in the Cullen Tower belongs to Hal Corry and dates back to 1912. However, the origins of the tower-signing tradition are undocumented and open to speculation. According to Southwestern alumnus and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Dr. Bob Bednar ’89, signing the Cullen Tower hasn’t always been a University-sanctioned tradition. He reports that during the 1980s, when he was enrolled at Southwestern, signing the tower was an illicit activity that only a select few rebellious students ventured to do.
However, within the last 20 years, Southwestern created the Tower Society in order to make signing the tower an official University tradition. Today, gaining membership to the Tower Society remains something to look forward to for graduating seniors like Marissa Morin ’19. Reflecting on her tower-signing experience, Morin reports, “It felt really special to sign the Cullen Tower because it is such an established symbol of Southwestern. Looking at all the signatures of students that came before me was really exciting,” she notes. “I recognized the names of many friends that have since graduated, and now I get to share membership in the Tower Society with them.” As members of the Tower Society can attest, this tradition further connects graduating seniors within the Southwestern community. Despite their imminent departure from campus, signing the tower symbolically connects all students—past, present, and future—to the University.
Signing the tower not only marks the celebration of graduation but is also a way for seniors to leave their mark on campus. Recent graduate Katie Rouse ’19 recalls how “signing the Cullen Tower was very surreal. It is one of those traditions that you hear about before you are even a part of SU, and getting to be a part of such a long-lived tradition is really amazing.” But for Rouse, the best part of signing the tower was the vast quantity of names haphazardly scrawled across every available space. “It is so cool to see all of the names, find some people you know, and place your name in a spot where you know you will remember,” she comments. Rouse’s vision of coming back to campus and finding her name again is an example of how the tower-signing tradition generates a greater sense of attachment to the school and inspires alumni to come back.
As the cornerstone of Southwestern’s campus, the Cullen Building has stood as witness to more than a century of academic achievement and prosperity. The floorboards may strain and groan and creak underfoot, but those sounds just echo the milestones and traditions Cullen’s history.
As a child, Sarah Barton ’20 spent a lot of time watching Animal Planet. She often tuned into shows on African safaris and animal rescue, and her favorite program was Animal Cops, a reality-TV series documenting the work of animal-cruelty investigators. “I’ve always just loved lions, just to hone in on a specific African animal,” she says. “I was always fascinated with them and the big cats in general, and three of the big cats are in Africa: the lions, the leopards, and the cheetahs.”
Now a psychology major and animal studies minor at Southwestern, Barton has never lost her passion for animal rescue and conservation. So when she learned about a study-abroad program in Africa with the School for Field Studies Center for Wildlife Management Studies, she knew she had to apply. “Tanzania was the greatest opportunity to see [the cats and other animals] in their natural habitat,” she recalls. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could study exotic animals, and my top two choices were Tanzania and Australia. When I looked at the catalog for Tanzania, I saw that we’d get to study wild African mammals, like lions, leopards, and elephants—all of my favorite animals—so that was my greatest dream come true.”
Located on the plains of East Africa, where buffalo, rhinos, and yes, big cats roam beneath the distinctive baobab and iconic acacia trees, Tanzania is home to the continent’s largest mountain, Kilimanjaro, and ecologically rich landscapes, such as the Serengeti. During the month she spent there, Barton engaged in a course about the country’s wildlife conservation efforts and had the opportunity to study baboons and elephants. Her group traveled to Tarangire and Ngorongoro National Parks and then camped in the Serengeti, where they conducted animal and conservation-related studies. Such studies often involved expeditions to scout for and observe specific species: her team would travel around a park, locate a group of animals, and then take note of their behaviors. She remembers that during one four-hour trip, the students watched baboons “grooming each other and a mother and her baby suckling. We’d see what they were eating and [whether] there were any fights or playtime or mating going on—we did see that.”
But observing the animals was not the only objective, Barton adds: “It was also focusing on ways of having environmentally friendly communities, [such as] finding out how many plant species next to a river have been devastated because of human encroachment.”
When I ask what her favorite part of the month-long program was, Barton doesn’t skip a beat: “Camping in the Seregeti!” she says enthusiastically. During their four-day excursion, she and her classmates embarked on different activities, such as identifying and documenting carnivores and birdwatching. “Our last day, we saw a cheetah right after she had hunted,” she recounts. “She was resting on the side of the road, and she had a little Grant’s gazelle. We could see that she had grabbed it from behind. Obviously, you’re sad that the gazelle died, but, really, you gotta be rooting for that cheetah because that’s her food source!”
Barton describes with equal relish her various other animal encounters. There was the herd of elephants who ventured up to their campsite to drink from a nearby pool. And at night, hyenas would close in. Barton didn’t see the catlike carnivores herself; her classmates who got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom did. But aside from their better-known “laughter,” the hyenas could be heard making distinctive vocalizations that Barton says resembled a cross between a man cheering at a football game and a dog’s clipped howl. “I would hear that sometimes at night at camp,” she recollects. “It’s kind of cool—but at the same kind of terrifying.”
Barton’s experience was not without its challenges, as any study-abroad veteran would admit. For her, the academic and field work were enjoyable, dream fulfilling, and life changing, but adjusting to Tanzanian culture sometimes required greater forbearance.
“The food was good, but I had never wanted a burger so badly,” Barton giggles. “I ended up almost going the vegetarian route, but I am not a vegetarian, so that was kind of hard for me.” When it came to cuisine, she was often offered ugali, which is comparable to Italian polenta cakes but is made from coarse-ground white cornmeal and often accompanies some sort of meat dish and pineapple. She loved the fresh fruit and appreciated alternative carbohydrates, such as rice or pasta, but she often found that the community’s pastorally raised, free-range cattle were often quite lean and produced rather gamey-tasting meat, unlike the fat, tender livestock available in the U.S.
Language barriers sometimes came into play as well. Although they spoke some English proficiently, two of her native Tanzanian professors had particularly thick accents, which sometimes proved difficult to understand. Similar obstacles sometimes arose at her homestay. Living with a local family while studying abroad is a rewarding opportunity for cultural exchange, but occasionally, “some of them didn’t know the English word, and we didn’t know the Swahili word,” Barton says—leaving both sides a bit mystified.
Thankfully, an onsite course in Swahili enabled Barton to improve her speaking skills. Before her trip, she says, “I did two days on Duolingo [a popular language-learning app], and it was not enough,” she laughs. “I know greetings and numbers, but that’s it.” It was enough to get by, for the most part. When she would visit the local market, she could ask how much items cost, and she could say “thank you” or “no, thank you.” That latter phrase came in handy especially with the teenagers and children who would swarm customers and try to sell bracelets, necklaces, or other items—often the youngsters’ only source of income. Although such sales tactics could sometimes feel overwhelming, Barton says she couldn’t always resist. “I ended up buying four of them,” she concedes laughingly.
Perhaps most eye-opening to Barton were the local women and the evident intermingling of Western and African cultures. “My mom told me it was a Muslim country and that it was really conservative, but I didn’t find that be the case,” Barton comments. For example, although the women still had to dress modestly—low-cut blouses were taboo, and pants had to be full-length—her homestay host would don both traditional Maasai clothing and modern garb, such as pairing a T-shirt and hoodie with a tribal skirt. “It wasn’t as strict as I thought it was going to be,” Barton says.
Barton also appreciated the Tanzanian’s approach to life and work—one that she thinks Americans and other Westerners could benefit from. “They have a system that works, in my opinion. They have this saying in Swahili, polepole, which means ‘slowly.’ Their everyday lifestyle is just chill,” she reflects. While at her homestay, for instance, Barton noticed that the family members would do their chores and work, eat lunch, and then spend the afternoon napping or sitting and chatting while drinking tea. “It was a nice relief compared with back here, where everyone is in a hurry even though they don’t have to be,” she comments.
Barton helpfully offered advice to students interested in studying abroad:
1. Learn the language where you’re going, at least try to invest yourself in the culture, and try to see the situation through their eyes.
2. Get a souvenir (beyond photos and a travel journal). Having something physical from another country was a great reminder and a little home away from home away from home.
3. Keep in touch with your friends and family so that they knew you are OK. Also, make friends with your international classmates, and then keep in touch with them.
Barton treasures her experiences in Tanzania, especially given that her dream job would be to work at a branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) as an animal-cruelty investigator, not unlike those profiled on Animal Cops. She says that studying at the School for Field Studies “opened my eyes to the different methods of conservation and different ways of studying animal behavior.” For example, she worked with professionals analyzing the migration patterns of lions using Global Positioning System tracking collars, which helped them identify the most dangerous areas for prides. She learned that in Tarangire National Park, one section is designated for cattle farmers whose herds were sometimes preyed on by lions, so local wildlife conservationists had to develop strategies for both protecting the endangered cats while protecting the pastoralists and their profits. And because of the threat of poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks or rhinos for their horns, scientists and advocates were often tasked with inventorying all the wildlife to make sure the national parks were sustaining healthy populations. Barton has no doubt that learning about these complex perspectives and problem-solving strategies in Tanzania will no doubt be a boon to her future career in animal rescue here in the U.S.
Back at Southwestern, Barton continues taking courses in animal studies, where she appreciates learning about how nonhuman animals are represented in different cultures, what their biology and psychology are, and how they behave—all of which better enables her to work with them, both now and in the future. She complements her coursework by working summers at the Bird of Prey Center, where the team takes in injured raptors, rehabilitates them, and makes sure that they’re able to hunt for themselves before releasing them back into the wild. She finds the work beyond rewarding, recalling how her coworkers’ birthday present to her was to allow her to release a juvenile barn owl: “I almost cried; my cheeks were hurting because I was so ecstatic!”
But her brief sojourn in Tanzania will stay with her indefinitely: “This was my first time studying abroad, and I would definitely recommend it because it gets you out of your comfort zone. You’re able to study in courses that either have to do with your major or can just be electives, but it will open your eyes to a different culture, and you’ll see the world in a new light. You’ll be more open-minded and less conservative about thinking your ways are the best and there is no other right way.”
The Southwestern University Sarofim School of Fine Arts (SSFA) presented this year’s Theatre for Young Audiences production, Fluffytales, on campus on Saturday, April 21. It was a free event, open to the public, and in addition to students and other campus members, local families brought their children to this delightful, heartwarming production.
Fluffytales is a play written by the students of Southwestern University’s Creating Theatre in Schools class. It tells the story of students who, while looking for paper to line the class pet’s cage, end up destroying the class’s fairy tale anthology. The students are then transported into the world of fairytales where things have gotten a bit mixed-up. As the students work to get the fairytales back to their original state, they learn about collaboration, compromise and creativity.
The Creating Theatre in Schools class also took the play to five local elementary schools during the month of April. Assistant professor of theatre Bethany Corey-Ekin emphasizes the fact that “Many children are first introduced to theatre during school as part of a tour or a field trip.”
For the participating SU students, the experience was an ongoing lesson in adaptability. At each school performance, the Creating Theatre in Schools class had to resolve how to perform in untraditional theatre spaces that presented unique technological constraints and considerations. However, as Corey-Ekin maintains, “being able to tour a production to schools brings challenges, but it also allows hundreds of students to experience live theatre as a community.” In each performance, Southwestern theatre students rose to the occasion with enthusiasm, enthralling local schoolchildren by the fun, farcical race to get the land of fairytales put back in order.
Study guides designed by Corey-Ekin’s students also complimented all of the performances by augmenting the play with activities that directly connected to things that the elementary students were currently learning about in their classes. Additionally, SU students collaborated with one of Round Rock ISD’s Arts Integration campuses, Berkman Elementary, to have the Creating Theatre in Schools class work alongside Corey-Ekin in a pre-show workshop for Berkman’s first-grade classes. These workshops were designed to cultivate the grade-schoolers’ interest in the Fluffytales play while deepening their understanding of relevant theatrical dynamics. This level of critical engagement, Corey-Ekin says, allows SU students to “think about the role theatre plays in schools and imagine the possibilities for engaging young people through theatre.”
The Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) series originally grew out of a staging of “Androcles and the Lion” by associate professor Desi Roybal’s 2006 “Scenic Elements and Stage Properties” class. In addition to other funding and grants, the TYA series received a generous five-year gift commitment from former parents in memory of their daughter who received a bachelor’s degree in theater at Southwestern in 2004. This sustaining gift added the new course to the theatre curriculum last fall to specifically focus on play development, directing and set and costume design for young audiences. While a main-stage TYA play is produced every other year, in alternating years, the Creating Theatre in Schools class will continue to offer community elementary schools with a no-cost traveling production that, as Roybal says, “introduces live theatre to children who otherwise might have little or no opportunity to have such an experience.”