All posts by Matt Paolelli

At Home with Death: Reflections on a Residential College Tutorial

Balberg Tutorial at Movies

Death is a difficult topic to tackle, but Mira Balberg, assistant professor of religion and Willard Faculty Fellow, found an intriguing way to make the subject accessible to students living in the Willard Residential College. With plates of cookies handy and a variety of ancient and modern texts as guides, Balberg created a powerful 21st-century academic learning experience. Modeled on the Greek symposium, the residential college tutorial brought together a small group of avid learners in a lively conversation in a non-classroom setting. In designing the tutorial, Balberg was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, “who famously believed that an awareness of death and an ability to look death ‘in the eye’ as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living.”

As in many other things, the ancient Greeks were the first to get it right: they considered the most meaningful and enjoyable form of learning to be a conversation, which takes place not in a classroom but in a banquet hall. The Greek symposium was essentially a small gathering of friends who dined together while discussing a topic of choice, considering intellectual stimulation to be the flavor of the evening. The Greeks thought of the process of learning itself as a feast, in which, as Plato described it, “wisdom flows from one to the other like wine into glasses,” and found it only appropriate that it would be conducted as such.

Can a college class in the twenty-first century follow the model of the Greek symposium? Insofar as wine, sofas and hired musicians in the background are concerned, probably not: but insofar as genuine, lively conversation taking place in a non-classroom setting among a small group of avid participants is concerned, I discovered that the answer is a resounding yes. It’s called a Residential College Tutorial, and as a faculty fellow at Willard Residential College I had the fortune of teaching one of those in the spring of 2014.

A Residential College Tutorial is a small class, 8 to 10 students, which is offered specifically in one of Northwestern’s 11 residential colleges and is usually designated for the students living in that college. In some ways, it is no different from other college classes: tutorials count for credit and include obligations such as homework and paper writing. But it differs from a standard class in time, in place, and most of all, in feel. Tutorials take place in the late afternoon or evening, in the residential colleges themselves, and as such they generate continuity between two aspects of the college experience that are often conceived as completely disparate from one another: learning and living. A tutorial brings those two together, and therefore generates what is the key both to good learning and to good living: a sense of community. This sense of community is maintained not just during the formal part of the class, but also in going to dinner together as a group afterwards, or in going out to see a class-related movie together, as we have done. It is these seemingly inconsequential things that melt the boundary between disparate areas of college life and make it all the more meaningful – for students and professors alike.

And so it was: once a week ten students and I would gather in the Willard Library. Notable in their absence were laptops, tablets, smart phones and any other modes of distraction. Notable in their presence were cookies, which were a staple of our meetings – not just because of the usual peckishness of 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon, but also to make the point that we are, at least symbolically, partaking in a feast of learning. More notable, however, was what every student brought with him or her to each meeting: a well-crafted and pre-meditated series of thoughts and insights on the readings we were about to discuss that day, which each student wrote down and sent to me ahead of time. The students’ written responses provided the fuel for a lively and vibrant discussion, at the center of which stood a three-way encounter: between the students themselves, between them and me as an instructor, and between us and the third “participant” in our meetings – a silent participant which we have gradually started befriending – Death.

Indeed, the topic of the class was death. More accurately, it was the manner in which human beings confront death, their own or their loved ones’. In this choice of topic, too, I was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, who famously believed that one’s entire life was essentially a preparation for death, and more importantly, that an awareness of death and an ability to look death “in the eye” as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living. In our own society, in which death is very much ignored if not entirely denied, and is removed from the realm of everyday life into the specialized care of professionals, this wisdom seems to have been forgotten. But death, as we know, remains a reality that we all, at one point or another, encounter nonetheless, now oftentimes without any conceptual or emotional tools to deal with it. As a scholar of Religion, I find the manners in which different religious and philosophical traditions confronted and explained death to be absolutely fascinating. I see death as a particularly potent and powerful prism through which we can explore the diversity of human communities and the development and change in modes of thinking and behaving across time – two issues that I consider to be at the heart of any discipline in the Humanities. However, my interest in this topic is hardly purely intellectual. I fully subscribe to Socrates’ statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and since I view death as a part of life – perhaps the most definitive part of life – I believe it must be examined rigorously, honestly, and courageously. This was the purpose that I set forth for this tutorial.

“Is it really possible to discuss death so openly and forwardly with a group of 19 and 20 year olds, who are in the prime of their (allegedly) care-free youth?” I asked myself before the tutorial started. But from very early on, I was surprised by how intensely engaged and committed the students were to this examination of death (and, naturally, of life). For some students, who have suffered losses of close family members, this topic was very personal; but even for those who did not experience death in their immediate environment, the questions we discussed were poignant and, I dare say, emotionally and cognitively urgent. This was a journey on which everyone was eager to embark, and fortunately for us, we had great guides to lead us through this journey. From the Greek poet Homer to the Roman philosopher Seneca, from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to American journalist Mary Roach, we spent each session with the works of wonderful (and very different) writers who spent a lot of time contemplating death and who gave us much to think about, with, and against. However, as fabulous as these guides were, I believe much of the success of the journey had to do with the fellow travelers: with the fact that we explored these texts and questions together, looking at and listening to each other, sharing thoughts, fears, and doubts, and no less importantly – sharing laughter. A lot of it.

Throughout this entire quarter, one sentence kept on recurring to me in respect to this tutorial: that’s how it should be. College education, at its best, is an opportunity to examine the world audaciously from within a supportive, warm, and friendly community of like-minded examiners. Residential College Tutorials prove that in can be this way, and that putting emphasis on human contact – between students and professor, between one student and another, and between students and powerful ideas of people from other times and places – has the power to make higher education truly significant for all those involved.

Live in Purple: maeve & quinn perform “Fusion”

The Northwestern University Class of 2014 features a double dose of musical talent in the form of Bryce Quinn (violin) and Maris Maeve (piano and vocals) O’Tierney, twin sisters from Anchorage, Alaska who perform as maeve & quinn.

Before they graduated in June, the duo’s song “fusion” was selected as this year’s student-produced Niteskool music video, and the sisters were featured among Northwestern magazine’s “Senior Standouts.”

“We love making music together and we love people,” Bryce said. “The goal is always to keep finding new people to share the music with and new ways to do that.”

After graduation, Bryce, a creative writing (poetry) and violin studies double major, will pursue a master’s in creative writing at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Maris, a vocal performance, art history and political science major, will work at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., as one of the selected interns for the Katzenberger Art History Internship Program.

Although they will soon be on separate continents, Bryce and Maris plan to continue performing whenever possible and plan to compose an album together.

Students Feed the Hungry with ‘Points for a Purpose’

Points for a Purpose

Throughout Reading Week and Finals Week, students can donate their leftover meal plan points to help feed the hungry through “Points for a Purpose.” The student group uses point donations from students to raise money to provide food for the homeless and homebound in Evanston and the Chicago area. Read more about how Weinberg sophomore Dean Meisel and McCormick sophomore Bryan Berger started the organization and how to get involved.

Points for a PurposeMy friend Rachel had just finished her last final of freshman year and was heading home early for summer break. Rachel had gone through the quarter without resorting to her meal plan, so as she headed home, she was leaving behind not only a year of memories and friends, but also $400 worth of equivalency meals and meal points. Determined to not completely waste this money, she handed me her WildCARD and suddenly I had my ticket to a freezer full of Ben & Jerry’s. But after a few days of Norris sushi, Frontera Fresco and way too much ice cream, my consciousness started to overcome my stomach.

I approached Bryan Berger, who agreed that there must be a better way to deal with the excessive amount of unused – or misused—meal points at the end of each quarter. Together we thought of the idea to connect the inevitable waste of the Northwestern meal plan with the food insecurity of the Evanston area. What if students had the ability to donate their leftover meal points to people who could use it more effectively?

Our idea’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity. To help feed the hungry, all a student needs to do is ask the cashier at any C-Store to donate ‘X’ amount of points to Points for a Purpose.  The WildCARD is swiped, and the food is later assembled and delivered.  Bryan and I spent the summer dreaming of the possibilities.

Fast forwarding to fall quarter of this year, Bryan and I e-mailed the entire list of contacts on the nuCuisine website. We were pleasantly surprised by their receptiveness to the idea, and a couple meetings later, Points for a Purpose was born.

Our quarterly drives run during Reading Week and Finals Week, and since we did not officially begin until Reading Week during Fall quarter, we had low expectations as to the success of our first drive. However, our friends helped us spread the word and the campus responded with enthusiasm. Only 11 days after our kickoff, the Northwestern community came together, sacrificed their finals week Cheetos binges and donated $1,246 to our beneficiary—Campus Kitchens at Northwestern University.

While Campus Kitchens at Northwestern provides an amazing service to the community—taking leftover food from dining halls and preparing it for many of its deserving clients including Evanston individuals, the YWCA, the Salvation Army and Connections for the Homeless—they often lack the funds to package anything other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their clients. With the help of the Northwestern community, they are now able to provide more balanced meals for homebound seniors, homeless people and other Evanstonians who depend on these services.

Since then, Bryan and I have been working passionately with Sodexo, Campus Kitchens and other groups on campus to attack food insecurity as effectively as we can. In addition, we have officially become a chapter of Swipes for the Homeless, a non-profit based in California with a similar mission. We added eight more students to our team and are looking for ways to not only expand our efforts at Northwestern, but to other campuses as well.

Points for a Purpose has not only contributed over $2,500—the equivalent of 1,000 meals—to fighting food insecurity in the Chicagoland area, but it has united the Northwestern campus and made many students aware of the harsh realities that our neighbors face on a daily basis.

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Bollywood Beats

bollywood850

Sometimes, taking a risk and thinking in new and creative ways can lead to big things. That’s exactly what happened for Northwestern University’s A.NU.Bhav Hindi film fusion dance team. On April 19, it took home the 2014 Bollywood America championship, winning the nation’s collegiate tournament for “filmi” teams. Priyanka Mody, a sophomore in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, chronicles her team’s risk and ultimate reward.

In less than 10 minutes onstage, more than 20 Northwestern dancers, clad inbedazzling silk shirts and sequined skirts, tell a story through leaps and turns in a marriage of music and dance. It is the essence of Bollywood — and it brings collegiate dance teams together from across the country to compete on the national stage.

Founded in 2008, Northwestern A.NU.Bhav (pronounced ah-new-bhav), the co-ed Hindi film dance — or filmi — team, is one of the best in the country. For competitions, our team prepares an eight-minute choreographed routine, mixing together styles of traditional Bollywood, Indian classical, hip-hop and lyrical dance.

Bollywood dance found its way into my college career unexpectedly. I auditioned for the team at the start of last year when I was a freshman, simply for the fun and novelty. Yet, when our team qualified for the first time this year in Northwestern history to Bollywood America, the national championships of collegiate “filmi-fusion dance,” we all felt both a sense of pride for our school and ourselves.

The dance revolves around a central theme or plot, and over the course of the show, the performers become characters, and the dance’s story comes alive. Typically, as is true in Bollywood, the themes follow the structure of a romantic comedy or drama. However this year, we wanted something different—something that would push the envelope for both Bollywood and the South Asian community. Our team decided to bring to life the story of a young man who admits to his soon-to-be wife that he loves another man — a narrative of heartbreak, love and, ultimately, acceptance.

When our captains first announced their vision to the rest of the teammates, I’ll admit we were all a bit surprised by its originality and boldness. But any feelings of hesitation quickly turned into compassion and energy as each one of us came to an understanding and appreciation for the message we would send. At each of the competitions throughout the year, audience members, judges and other dancers complimented us on both our choreography and especially our unique storyline.

It was a risk, though. And while not every judge could appreciate the theme in the same way, the outpouring of positive support and commentary both at competitions and through online forms were enough to fuel our passion and maintain the strength of our performance.

We won the ultimate award when A.NU.Bhav won Bollywood America on April 19 in San Francisco.

“Winning Bollywood America with this kind of show makes it that much more meaningful,” said Yuri Doolan ’13 MA, a co-captain on the team who won the individual award of “Best Male Dancer” at Bollywood America. “Over the course of this year, so many people in the South Asian American dance community have stood by our side, believed in usand cheered us on this year.”

Doolan, a doctoral student in Asian American studies, said he hopes that more teams will continue to address the issues relevant to his generation and the community through dancing.

The final competition brought together 11 collegiate teams from all parts of the country, and our team also won the awards for best choreography and storyline.

The Bollywood collegiate circuit is filled with talented and creative individuals with a competitive edge, and serves as an outlet that is unparalleled in any other setting. I never imagined that the intersection of college and my culture would happen in this way. But, fortunately, it did. I have gotten to represent Northwestern with my closest peers on a national stage doing what I love most.

Watch a Wildcat on ‘Wheel of Fortune’

Emily Fagan on Wheel of Fortune

Emily Fagan, a junior in Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, never knew she wanted to be on “Wheel of Fortune,” but that’s exactly where she’ll appear for the show’s College Week series. You can watch Fagan’s episode on Tuesday, April 8 (check local listings for exact air time), and read below about her journey to game show fame.

It was a run-of-the-mill summer night, and I was eating dinner at a restaurant with my mom. As fate would have it, it was 6:30 p.m. and we were sitting close to a TV. When Wheel of Fortune came on, I didn’t think much of it. I had always enjoyed the show, but we weren’t regular “Wheel Watchers” in my house. That night, however, changed everything.

I was on a roll. The guys at the bar thought they had all the answers, but I was sitting at my table answering every puzzle way before anyone in the restaurant. My mom said, “Hey, Em, you’re pretty good at this.” Not thinking anything of it, we moved on with our meal.

Later that night, as I was surfing the web, I remembered our experience at dinner and I thought about trying to get on the show. My search led me to the Wheel of Fortune website, where I filled out the simple online application and promptly forgot about it.

Nine months later, I got an email asking me if I would like to continue with the process. If so, I needed to submit a picture and a one-minute video explaining why I would be a good contestant. At this point, I still never thought being a contestant on “America’s Gameshow” would be a reality, but I began contemplating what would set me apart from the rest of America. My thoughts immediately turned to my oboe, already sitting next to me. I quickly recorded a video of me playing the original Wheel of Fortune theme song, “Changing Keys,” by Merv Griffin. I sent off my video, fully expecting to never hear anything about this again.

The next morning I woke up to an email inviting me to the live auditions at the Palmer House in Chicago. Obviously I was excited, but still didn’t think I could possibly ever be on this show.

Two weeks later I was on a train to the Palmer House to go through the rigorous audition process for Wheel of Fortune. The producers made it very clear that there were multiple days with multiple audition times, and actually getting on the show would be very difficult. When I arrived at the hotel, the line of people for my audition was going out the door and down the hall. I almost left, thinking this was a huge waste of time, but a few of my friends convinced me to stay. “Hey, you’re already there, why not have fun? Either way, it’ll be a great story to tell!” Luckily for me, I stayed.

About 200 of us sat down in chairs lined up in one of the Palmer House salon rooms. The audition started with us filling out another application. Then they spun a fake wheel, put up a phrase and called on everyone to guess a couple letters. This was to see if we were loud, articulate, and enthusiastic, and did not guess letters like Q.

Next, we were given a timed written test. It had several different categories, each with a few blank phrases. We had to figure out the phrases to the best of our ability in the allotted time. I remember thinking I had failed the test, but so did everyone around me. They gave us a half hour break for the grading. When they came back, they called the names of the people they wanted to stay. I remember being one of the last names called. This was getting real.

The last part of the audition was playing actual simulated Wheel of Fortune games. We got up in groups, pretended to spin a wheel and guessed letters. I had won a (fake) trip to Hawaii; it seemed to be a pretty good day. When everyone finished, we hoped for an announcement of who would be on the show. The producer then explained that everyone will get a letter in the mail – if you’ve been accepted as a contestant, the letter will come within two weeks. If you weren’t, you will get a letter after two weeks. For the first time, I was starting to imagine myself on this show.

Two weeks went by, and I had received no letter in the mail. I just figured, oh well, and waited for my rejection letter. The day before week three, I opened my mailbox and found my Wheel of Fortune letter. I didn’t even get excited – obviously it was a rejection, after this amount of time. However, I opened up the letter to find that, surprise, I had been accepted!

Running through the dorm screaming, I read the letter about 20 times. It informed me that I would be placed on the show sometime within the next 18 months, and that I would receive a letter in the mail two weeks before my show telling me when and where to arrive. I had no idea waiting would be so hard!

Nine months later, on Jan. 18, after months of playing WOF on my phone and watching reruns, I got an email instructing me to fly out to Sony Studios in Los Angeles for my taping on Feb. 14. Luckily, it was the one weekend of the month I didn’t have something going on.

On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 13, my mom, dad, and best friend from high school, Amanda, flew to Los Angeles with me. We were able to do some sightseeing for the day, but I could barely contain my excitement about what was to come.

At 7:15 a.m. that Friday, I was picked up with 19 other university students dressed in our respective college sweatshirts and driven to Sony Studios in Culver City. We all immediately clicked and became great friends. I could tell this was going to be an amazing day! Once we were at the studio, we were ushered into our green room. Throughout the morning we were read the rules of Wheel of Fortune as we had professional hair and makeup artists get us camera-ready. We learned that Wheel of Fortune is filmed every other Thursday and Friday, and that all the shows for the week were filmed in one day (hence there being 20 of us there at the same time). Two local students were there as alternates, in case one of us got sick, and they would come back as real contestants another day.

We also received wheel-spinning lessons. The wheel is about half the size it looks on TV, but it is extremely heavy. The first time I spun it, it only moved two spaces! We were all shocked by how much larger everything looks on TV. The room, the wheel, and the puzzle board are all about half the size everyone thinks!

We filmed our “Hometown Howdys,” which are promotional videos that our local news channels play of us on the days leading up to the show. Then, at about 11 a.m., the audience filed in and we started filming. I was randomly drawn to be in the second show filmed.

The shows go by so fast…it’s incredible! We contestants have to be on our toes every second. There is a used letter board that allows us to see which letters have been taken and a prize board to keep track of how much money we have. It takes a lot of logic to figure out when to solve and when to spin or buy, and there are lots of tricks to figuring out which letters to call. For example, if the subject is “What are you doing?” you are probably wanting to guess an I, N or G.

I cannot tell you how I did yet—you will have to stay in suspense until April 8, when my show airs. However, I can tell you how honored I was to represent Northwestern at such an exhilarating event, and how exciting it was to meet so many different and amazing college students. Plus, hanging out with Vanna White and Pat Sajak wasn’t too bad of an experience either!

Please watch me spin away on Wheel of Fortune on April 8!