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Concordia Forum and intellectual egalitarianism

March 29, 2019

Around the bar at Moderation Brewing on the first Friday in March, 10 students and 10 professors discussed the purpose of American colleges. The group, formally titled the Concordia Forum, had departed from the couches in the Massachusetts Hall Faculty Room and walked to Moderation Brewing to continue their conversation, which lasted for over two hours.

Mollie Eisner ’21, Ben Ratner ’19 and Visiting Assistant Professor of German Andrew Hamilton founded the Concordia Forum in hopes of creating a space for intellectual discussion between members of Bowdoin’s community—staff, faculty and students alike. Eisner and Ratner reached out to professors and posted in the Student Digest asking students to apply. The selected participants, who specialize in different departments and disciplines, will meet three times this semester to discuss the purpose of higher education in the United States.

On March 1, Ratner facilitated the group’s first discussion on the origins of higher education, guided by two articles by novelist Marilynne Robinson and historian Andrew Delbanco. Fitting with the goals of the forum, the conversation revolved around collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

“We’re put in these silos—we’re doing our own work, and we’re doing our own teaching, our own research and all of that, but we’re not thinking about how a class that we teach is part of students’ overall education,” said Hamilton.

The group pushes its members outside of their social comfort zones as well as their intellectual ones.

“Even for me, as a faculty member, I’d never met Professor Hamilton before,” said Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal, who was present at the Concordia Forum’s first meeting. “And it’s very rare that I talk to Professor Kohorn because he’s a scientist—those aren’t my friends … we’re such a small college and yet, I don’t even know [them].”

The dynamic in the room was “very respectful,” said Eisner. “But it also felt different than a classroom setting,” she noted, citing the choice to sit on couches rather than around a table and to address professors by their first names. Within the egalitarian parameters of the group, participants actively and politely disagreed with one another as they debated the week’s articles.

For some members, the relationship between students and professors was especially welcome.

“Part of graduate school is interacting with professors in a more collegial [way],” said Sam Lewis ’19, who attended the first meeting. “So I wanted to also get some more experience with that, which I absolutely got out of it.”

Professors also appreciated the opportunity to forge more personal, intellectual relationship with students.

“One of the things about higher education is that it’s about being in the classroom, the course, the grades and all that stuff,” said Chakkalakal. “But it’s also about learning how to have conversations with people. First, your peers obviously, but then also your professors.”

The Concordia Forum helps satisfy what Chakkalakal called a “hunger” on campus for non-academic discussion of ideas. It resembles other debate groups on campus, such as the Merciless Debate Society and the leftist-oriented Reading Group, both of which were created this past fall. All three were founded without the aid of an administrative office on campus and, in the cases of the Concordia Forum and the Reading Group, began as student-led initiatives.

Though the forum’s discussions at its two remaining meetings this semester will revolve around the present and the future of higher education in America, Eisner and Hamilton anticipate that the group will evolve over the coming years as students come and go and introduce new topics. Hamilton hopes that future discussions will raise questions that, when asked, “you wouldn’t immediately know what department would have the answer … We’re looking for other questions, other ideas, where everyone will be able to contribute something and everybody will be able to learn from the others.”

Eisner noted that the group will be looking for new members, both students and professors, for the coming year and that there will be a post in the Student Digest when the group is accepting applications.


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