First TEDx Showcases Amherst’s Thought Leaders

Submitted on Monday, 11/18/2013, at 12:48 PM

By Brianda Reyes '14

On Sunday, Nov. 10, Amherst College hosted its inaugural TEDx event, featuring speakers who were all affiliated with the college. Four alumni, two professors, one staff member and one student presented their talks to an audience of 350 people in Kirby Theater. (View TEDx Amherst photos here.

Sign saying "TEDx Amherst College"

TEDx events are independently organized but modeled after conferences hosted by TED, a nonprofit devoted to helping people share "ideas worth spreading." Videos of TED talks often spread virally online, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

“[Amherst's] event, more than a day of TEDx talks, was the result of extensive collaboration among different people in the Amherst community: a local sound and video recording company [Amherst Media], Amherst College’s stage designers, the Office of the President, Dining Services, Facilities, speakers from all over the world, the Center for Community Engagement… the list goes on and on. The event was a result of all these new interactions, and that in itself makes it successful,” said David Beron ’15, a leader in organizing the conference. “The speakers were all great, and people seemed to be excited about the talks.”

The theme of the event was “Disruptive Innovation.”

“One of the ways that we wanted to tackle this theme,” said Nicole Chi ’15, director of speaker relations, “was by inviting speakers from a bunch of different disciplines and areas, in hopes that their ideas and the innovations they have within their own disciplines can help Amherst students think about issues outside of the areas that they’re comfortable with.”

From home births to lie detection, the presentations’ topics incorporated the theme.

The MCs, Reilly Horan ’13 and Ricky Altieri ’15, started the day by introducing Provost Peter Uvin. He gave the opening remarks, talking about the different ways in which the event’s theme manifested itself at the college.

The first talk was led by Karti Subramanian ’07, co-founder of Vera Solutions, who discussed how data collection and analysis can be improved to provide better results for organizations focusing on social impact. Data, he said, could be only as good as the questions it was used to answer. His last line set up a thread that would run through the remaining talks: “Asking better questions is the real innovation.”

Karti Subramanian '07 speaking

Karti Subramanian '07

Following Subramanian was Bryn Geffert, librarian of the college, whose talk centered on Amherst College’s recently-announced digital press and the issue of open access. Geffert said, “I want to see a world in which a student in Kenya has the same access to information that students in Cornell would.”

Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson presented after Geffert, discussing the concept of telematic music, which he described as music performed from different locations simultaneously, by musicians connected by video and extremely high-quality audio networks. How the audience perceives the music depends on which of the locations they are in, and musicians themselves have discovered that they can work around the Internet’s 50-millisecond audio time lag by improvising around what Robinson called the “fat beat.”

After Robinson’s talk, the audience was invited to Coolidge Cage to enjoy lunch provided by Valentine Dining Hall’s catering staff. After the lunch break, The Zumbyes, one of Amherst’s a cappella groups, performed.

Saraswathi Vedam ’78, P’09, an associate professor of midwifery at the University of British Columbia, gave her talk on the debate over home births versus hospital births. She explained that in the United States, we think of “institutionalized,” or hospital, births as the disruptive innovation, because they are supposed to be better and safer. But her presentation offered a different perspective: according to Vedam, the disruptive innovation should be planned home births, which she referred to as “humanized” births. (Read an Amherst magazine story about Vedam here.)

The next presentation was given by Kenneth Danford ’88, co-founder of North Star, a self-directed learning program in Hadley, Mass., aimed at teens who have decided that school is not the right fit. Danford’s talk expanded on the goal of North Star, arguing that school is optional and that programs like his should be more readily available and encouraged.

The MCs prefaced the talk by Marisa Parham, associate professor of English, by saying it would be about two things: ghosts and robots. Although it was not about literal ghosts and robots, Parham did use the two terms to represent the past and the future. She prompted the audience to think about why we try to frame our future in relation to the past, but do not actually try to fully analyze and think critically about the past.

Parham’s talk was followed by Yilin Andre Wang ’14’s presentation, the only one led by a student. The TEDx team had held a contest for all students interested in presenting during the event, and Wang was the panel’s unanimous choice. A senior psychology major, he presented a talk about the pitfalls of human biases when trying to detect lies. Asked what he hopes the audience took away from his presentation, Wang said, “I hope my audience will realize how easily our judgments can be skewed by environmental and personal factors, and even start to reflect on the ways biases affect their lives in unexpected ways. I also hope that they will become smarter consumers of psychology as represented in popular media, because its immediate appeal sometimes leads to dubious claims and sensational products in the market that misinterpret research.”

The Bluestockings, an all-female a cappella group, performed before the final talk, which was given by Rosanne Haggerty ’82,  a life trustee of the college. Haggerty spoke about the valuable lessons she has learned as the founder of Common Ground, an organization focused on finding solutions to homelessness. Haggerty’s talk returned full-circle to the first talk, given by Subramanian, as she explained that one must always ask the right questions to obtain the best results.

Rosanne Haggerty '82 speaking

Rosanne Haggerty '82

The event ended with all of the volunteers and planning team members onstage, as Molly Mead, director of the Center for Community Engagement and mentor to the TEDx team, thanked them for a job well done.

Members of the Social Innovation Leadership Team (SILT) decided a year ago that they wanted to host a TEDx conference. They knew that this would be a large-scale event, so they hired a team to deal specifically with bringing TEDx to Amherst.

“We [in SILT] seek to foster innovative approaches to social problems, provide skills and resources to students who want to make a change and provide connections that can lead to sustainable collaborations,” said Shane Zhao ’14, SILT team leader and license holder for the TEDx conference. “Given SILT’s mission, we thought a TEDx event with the theme of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ could catalyze innovation at Amherst and provide a platform for people from the Amherst community to share their innovative ideas.”

The team wasted no time in beginning the plans for the event. They sought speakers from all over the world, with connections to Amherst, to share their ideas.

One of the main obstacles arose during the summer, when the members were dispersed throughout the world. “The team was spread around five or six different time zones, so coordinating effective meetings became a problem. Nevertheless, we accomplished most of our summer goals and made sure to step it up in the fall,” said Beron.

The team faced some other small obstacles along the way. For example, one of the desired speakers had already given a TEDx talk at a different location; since one of the goals of TEDx is to give speakers a platform to discuss previously unheard ideas, that potential candidate could not speak at Amherst. Later in the planning process, the TEDx team discovered that each speaker had to own all the rights to each image in his or her presentation; speakers had already submitted their presentations—therefore the team had to send them back to the speakers to fix.

To reach their goal, the TEDx team sought and received funding from SILT, the Office of the President, the Center for Community Engagement and the Association of Amherst Students. Tickets to the event sold out in two days and left almost 100 people in the waiting list.

The team plans to host a TEDx event annually. This year, much of the planning process was laying groundwork for future events, so team members believe that in future years, the planning process will be much smoother.

All of the TedX talks were recorded by Amherst Media, a local production studio, and will be submitted for possible inclusion on TED.com. The team leaders expect that the video recordings will be on their own website in a few weeks.

Photos by Hao Liu '16 and Eugene Lee '16