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The lecture circuit

Attending public lectures is a great way to sharpen the intellectual saw, as our correspondent discovered after spending a month attending free public lectures at Toronto universities


In the digital age of instant information, the public lecture might seem an anachronism. There’s the travel time, the effort to locate the right room, the strangers you’ll be sitting beside (with the lights still on), the absence of a single course credit, and no salty snacks to fill in the boring moments as you listen to a single, live human being… talk.

After a month attending free or nearly free public events given by Toronto universities, I can report that the public lecture is both plentiful and popular. My goal was to discover whether the time and effort a member of the public devotes to this activity is time well spent. Would the speakers engage me after a long day of work? Would I feel out of place back in a university lecture hall?

Here’s a taste of my month on the public lecture circuit in Toronto.

Friday, Sept. 12 – My intimidation level is high as I enter the wood-panelled George Ignatieff Theatre at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. Not many people have arrived yet for the afternoon’s roundtable discussion on Cultural Difference and Reasonable Accommodation (the group grows to about 30), but I’m certain everyone else is smarter than I am. The discussion is supposed to examine questions raised by the controversial provincial government commission of the same name that went around Quebec in 2007 and 2008 to diffuse rising ethnic tensions. The fear factor subsides after an old friend spots me, an academic herself from another university. The four panelists are introduced and we’re off. I’ve chosen this panel because it’s about an issue I’ve read about in the news, but it’s still tough to keep up. Daniel Weinstock, from Université de Montréal and a member of the commission’s advisory board, throws us off with his frequent use of the term laïcité, roughly translated as “open society.” My friend and I trade notes: How do you think it’s spelled? Laissité? Les cités? What does it mean?

Dr. Weinstock is critical of the commission’s process, saying it suffered from “deep politicization.” The other panelists weigh in on issues around gender, whether the commission missed something more fundamental in the socioeconomic challenges that ethnic minorities face and whether we’ve reached the limits of an open, secular society. “Could a Muslim definitely assume impartiality by a Jewish judge?” asks Audrey Macklin, a professor in U of T’s law faculty.

My brain still spinning, I happily accept the moderator’s invitation to the audience to join the panelists upstairs for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and more conversation. All this for free? Sign me up for more!

Wednesday, Sept. 17 – Most university lectures are open to the public, but not all are presented with the public in mind, as I’m quickly learning. Some are presented in such a way as to make you feel as though you’ve walked in on a conversation that’s been going on for years. So it is an enjoyable and stimulating experience to attend the U of T’s faculty of arts and science’s inaugural lecture tonight in its new public series, Research with Impact.

The roots of the series are “our commitment to public education,” Sean Bettam tells me. Mr. Bettam, the series producer, has about 400 names on a mailing list of people interested in public lectures, and some of them are walking around with the flyers Mr. Bettam sent them. “People are really keen for it,” he says, “which is amazing in the face of everything there is to do in 24 hours.”

In an audience of about 100, from teenagers to retirees, I learn about the online anti-censorship work of the university’s Citizen Lab, led by political science professor Ronald Deibert. The lab is staffed by geeks with a conscience, who ferret out the ways some foreign governments limit their citizens’ access to politically sensitive websites, including ordinary Western news sites.

Dr. Deibert, looking like an older version of the geeks, sporting a beard, dark-rimmed glasses and casual all-black clothing, hooks us with a slide presentation about Myanmar’s “Saffron Revolution” of 2007. Despite a high level of censorship, pro-democracy activists there smuggled in cell phones from Thailand to get satellite images out to the world of the government’s crackdown on protesters.

Our blood nicely boiled, Dr. Deibert segues into Citizen Lab’s antidote to the bad guys: psiphon. This downloadable software allows censored citizens to scale the online firewalls their governments create and gain access to forbidden websites.

By the lecture’s end, I know more about what’s going on in other parts of the world and feel inspired that such an impressive group of people is working in my city. I talk to Hal Swann, another attendee. A semi-regular at these things, the filmmaker says what he likes about public lectures is that they bring him to the most up-to-date source of information and ideas.

“There’s this illusion that there’s a wonderful bath of information on the Internet. But the Internet doesn’t teach critical thinking and that’s what universities do,” says Mr. Swann. “If [universities] want to be seen as relevant institutions, they have to make sure they run these things.”

Wednesday, Sept. 24 –
York University’s observatory is not a lecture in the strict sense. But York’s astronomy students have plenty to teach the viewing public and, at Toronto’s only remaining public observatory, they make it worth the long trek to the city’s northwest from downtown. Public viewing nights are every Wednesday, with times changing along with the sunset.

Through a warren of hallways and up several flights of stairs inside York’s Petrie Science and Engineering Building, I’m finally inside the observatory, and my eyes are adjusting to the darkness. I take careful steps up a short, winding metal staircase to the observatory platform (unheated in winter) and its 40-centimeter Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector. Already, a murmuring group of a dozen people are lined up to take a look. When it’s my turn I peer through the glass and there they are – banded Jupiter and its four large moons first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago. I drove 40 minutes and get to see something that’s 588 million kilometres away. Stunning. Throughout the evening, the telescope and the observatory dome’s portal to the sky are repositioned with the touch of some buttons by several York astronomy students, who also answer questions and provide commentary. We see a ring nebula, a double star, our next closest galaxy Andromeda, and learn that this is a good time to launch satellites because it’s a low point of solar activity.

Another repositioning and third-year astronomy student Eden Grenier announces we are looking at “the Dumbbell Nebula,” the first planetary nebula – formed when stars die – discovered by Charles Messier in the late 18th century. “This,” she says excitedly, “is what our sun is going to turn into in five billion years.”

Ezra Moro, a network cabling specialist, and his friend Rob have been coming to the observatory every week for the last month because it’s “a fun way” to socialize. “I’m looking forward to the winter,” says Mr. Moro. “There’s better viewing and no one comes here.”

Thursday, Oct. 2 – Francis Broun is the most entertaining of the lecturers I’ve heard in my month touring the Ivory Towers. That makes it easier to cough up the $10 it cost me as a first-time attendee.

Professor Broun has earned a loyal following of grown-up groupies who delight in his knowledge, enthusiasm and irreverent sense of humour about art history (“He never changed his socks,” he quips of Michelangelo). His students at the Ontario College of Art & Design think he’s great too – they have nominated him in this year’s TVOntario Best Lecturer Competition.

I fall in love with his public lecturing venue, an elegant 19th century house in Toronto’s tony Yorkville district that serves as headquarters for the Women’s Art Association. At break time, our group of about 20 students, working folks and retirees is ushered to a long, linen-covered dining table for tea, coffee and lemon pound cake.

Dr. Broun’s weekly fall lecture series covers the history of high Renaissance art, from the techniques used by the artists to the social and political context they worked in. On this rainy, wind-swept night, he gives the first of two lectures on Michelangelo, using many of his own slides taken on trips to Europe. Of Michelangelo’s heart-wrenching Pietà statue of Mary holding a crucified Christ in her lap, Dr. Broun reveals it was “one of the plummiest commissions of 1498. It was all about who you knew.” He also points out that “if you stood the figures up, either she is a giantess or he is a midget.”

About Michelangelo’s famous David, Dr. Broun directs our attention to the fact that “his thumb is bigger than another part of his anatomy,” to peals of laughter. On the four years it took Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel nearly single-handedly, it was “a super-human project. It took me far longer to do my basement, for Godssake!”

Friday, Oct. 3 – I head over to Ryerson University’s Vari Engineering and Computing Centre for a lecture series advertised as “one of the most popular general audience art events to take place in the city.” Sounds accessible. But the next hour and a half on Documentary Re-enactment: Recreating the Typical and Not So Typical Past, with film scholar Bill Nichols, stretches the limits of my intellectual reach and interest. Terms such as “phantasmatique,” “desubjectivisation,” “typification,” and “Brechtian distantiation,” could mean something if I had time to digest them. But it seems like Dr. Nichols and his attentive crowd are familiar enough with the terms that there is no reason to slow things down. About 45 minutes in, I’m drifting. To be fair, though, by the lecture’s end I am more alive to questioning what a filmmaker is doing when he or she stages a re-enactment of events. And the audience of about 300, mostly Ryerson film students and faculty, seem suitably impressed.

Wednesday, Oct. 8 – I muscle my way through afternoon rush-hour traffic from downtown Toronto to the suburbs with great anticipation. My final lecture will be presented by Italian literary giant Umberto Eco at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. Mississauga is not known for big-deal intellectual events, which is probably why his lecture, on the history of beauty and ugliness, draws about 1,000 people.

“We’re homemakers – we’re dying for some culture!” fellow audience member Mikki Trigiani tells me as we wait for things to get started.

After half an hour of official introductions, Dr. Eco begins to speak. It is wonderful to have him right in front of us – but what a disappointment. The combination of this powerhouse’s Italian accent, his sometimes gravelly voice and his quick-paced reading of a prepared talk make him hard to understand.

He finds ugliness attractive because what we consider ugly and our reactions to it are “unpredictable,” while beauty is “boring.” And he has plenty of slide examples to illustrate his points, images from his two most recent books. He shows an example of Adolf Hitler’s art work – a sentimental painting of Mary and Jesus. Knowing what we know about Hitler, is it beautiful or ugly? Dr. Eco suggests it’s just bad art. With the lecture finished, a line-up of hundreds forms at the book-signing table.

So, my lecture tour is done, but gauging from the events calendars on university websites, the season is just warming up. Even in the short time I’ve spent doing the circuit, there were nights I’ve had to choose between two compelling topics. Professor Broun on Michelangelo? Or a Ryerson media presentation on Violence and Splendor?

Granted, Toronto is home to four universities, some with multiple campuses, so there’s a cornucopia of choices. But in any Canadian city, chances are there’s a professor or student eager to share their intellectual passions in a public lecture. Many universities make these events available through web-casting – but if it were me, I’d go in person.

Some didn’t live up to my expectations, to be sure. But the lectures were sociable and offered an excellent opportunity to get a serious mental work-out with no strain on the wallet.

The unexpected bonus to all these outings was an excuse to see new buildings, to hear what’s going on inside the walls, new or old, and to feel, if only briefly, that I too am a part of the university community.

The community of idea lovers is a big tent. I might be back before long.

Tips for public lecture-going

  • Many lectures are advertised on the main “events” page of university websites, but not all are. If there is a particular subject you are interested in, you may have better luck visiting departmental websites.
  • Lectures happen throughout the year, but the high season coincides with the busiest times of the academic cycle – October and November, as well as January, February and March
  • Be adventurous! Try a lecture topic that seems out of your comfort zone, visit a venue you’ve never been to before, check the bulletin boards while you’re there for other lectures that may not have made it onto the websites.
Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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