There were 60 people packed into a room in Elon University’s Oaks Commons. Pizza and chips were all over the floor, and now-President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were battling it out on the television screen. After half an hour of cheering, booing and yelling, an executive board member of The Politics Forum turned to fellow executive board member and senior Greg Honan and something that’s stuck with Honan ever since:
“I really feel like I’m at college right now.”
It was moments like this that brought Honan, along with fellow senior Cara McClain, to begin facilitating constant conversations, not about the latest fraternity function or football game, but about the intellectual climate on their university’s campus.
“We all have curiosities and passions in class and are engaged,” McClain said. “But oftentimes, that’s the end of learning. We want to see how we can foster more of these discussions outside of the classroom.”
After many “we should do this” type of conversations, McClain and Honan created what is today known as the Intellectual Climate Working Group.
Right now, the group is made up of about 20 Elon students and faculty who are “passionate about improving the intellectual culture on campus,” Honan explained. At its base, the group hopes Elon students will be able to ‘let their nerd out.’
“Cara and I talked a lot about how we wished Elon was more ‘nerdy’ and that we wished there were more spaces, literally and metaphorically, for intellectual activities to take place,” Honan said. “We felt like many of our peers were apathetic about class and that the current structure and policies of the university ran counter to a strong intellectual community.”
Of course, many of these ideas were prompted partially by the two students’ own experiences, lectures they attended, as well as through reading about other academic institution initiatives, finding best practices, and bringing them back to the group.
The Intellectual Climate Committee at Duke University in Durham, N.C. performed an comprehensive undergraduate study to look at the various aspects of Duke’s intellectual climate. It explores ideas Honan and McClain hope to consider in their expansion of the Intellectual Climate Working Group at Elon.
Right now, two Elon-specific initiatives being taken by the group include a book club and the “Coffee Klatch.”
The book club will focus on both fiction and non-fiction books. The first book club was held during the first week of school and ran out of copies of the book chosen, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years,” McClain pointed out.
Coffee Klatch, an informal gathering of people to have a discussion, usually occurs and will occur after big talks on campus.
“Sometimes students leave these talks feeling curious or confused, without much to hold on to,” McClain said. “Students can come for the entire time or for 10 minutes to further discuss the lecture.”
Many upper-level administrators, including Provost Steven House and President Leo Lambert, had been involved in these discussions calling for a need for an enhanced intellectual and academic climate on campus in the past year. In addition, President Lambert spoke about this need in his recent Opening of School address to the faculty and staff before the beginning of this school year:
When recruiting students to join the group, promotion had so far been mostly through email blasts, word-of-mouth, but also includes fliers and E-Net. Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies, has helped the group with trying to find the best ways to reach students who might really be interested in expanding their academic interests.
“It’s important for the university to foster intellectual engagement,” Husser said. “It’s a very cerebral place already, but we could take it up a notch. We should encourage and facilitate opportunities to encourage even deeper learning.”
While there are many clubs deemed “academic” and “honors” on Elon’s campus, as well as a full
cultural calendar with free events for students, there are discussions at a lot of levels of administration for how to foster even more of a “positive nerd culture,” Husser said.
“Outside of the classroom, sometimes I feel that some students don’t challenge each other intellectually,” said senior Brandon Joyner. “However, my friends are able to have meaningful conversations about the news that is affecting us daily and it means a lot to me that I have that outlet of friends to talk to about events and news that could affect our future. I would think most of the people here at Elon are very intellectual. They have an opinion about very important issues in the world today.”