Gaudino Scholar Susan Engel: Cultivating Conversations

I came to the position of Gaudino Scholar with a long-standing interest in conversations that changed people’s minds. I’ve experienced wonderful conversations that led me to change my own mind (sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly). I’ve also had far too many conversations that went nowhere.  I know the tremendous power of good conversations, as well as something about what can go wrong. In the past few years the need for people to have conversations with one another has become even more pressing and, it seems, more challenging.  I wanted to use my time with the Gaudino Fund to explore this theme more deeply.

Over the spring of 2018, I hosted a series of dinners with Williams students, to mull over what makes for a good conversation, and what gets in the way. Our discussions were filled with surprises and insight. People talked about their longing to really get to know others in the Williams Community, why that doesn’t happen more often, and what would lead to better or more conversations about things that really matter. Those dinner discussions changed my mind completely.

I had begun this project with visions of an old-fashioned British style red phone Booth on our campus and a second one on another campus, in another part of the country. I thought students could go into the phone booth and talk to one another about important topics. The group cooked up the idea of a Café on campus, where the price of a basket of baked goods and a cup of coffee would be talking for twenty minutes to someone you didn’t know. We thought all kinds of wonderful ideas about how to invite and provoke conversations between people who might not otherwise talk to one another. And yet, by the end of May I had come to realize we weren’t ready for phone booths or café tables. As I have so often realized, the best first step was to invite students to lead the way. So, beginning in September 2018 The Gaudino Fund has selected 22 Student Fellows to collect ten conversations each. By May 2019 we expect to have approximately 220 conversations. Some have taken place over pizza, some on the steps of Paresky, some in the library, and some, no doubt, in places I cannot imagine. Students talked about food, prayer, and success. Some talked about Israel and Palestine, others talked about gender. One student invited others to talk about how and if people acknowledge one another on the Williams Campus. The topics people chose, and the nature of the exchanges, were all over the map.

The project is far from over, and we’re not even sure yet what its next phase will look like. One thing has become clear. There is lots to talk about at Williams, and all of the intellectual and personal stretch we might seek is hiding right here, in plain sight.