Stirring the Kettle

Walther Zimmerli, a professor of philosophy and of philosophy of science and technology at Otto-Friedreich University in Bamberg and Friedreich Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, is explaining how a four-level model of procedural ethics capable of allowing for various value systems can be useful in identifying acceptable courses of action with respect to technological advancement. The lively discussion following Zimmerli's presentation attests to the attentiveness of his audience. They are not philosophers, however, nor are they scientists; Zimmerli's audience is composed of about a dozen Indiana University Bloomington faculty members from departments including theatre and drama, English, music, and Germanic studies. This diverse group of scholars is drawn together by an interest in cultural theory, and they meet regularly to explore this topic through a faculty seminar series sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

The faculty seminar series serves several functions. For the IAS, faculty seminars are a way to "broaden the base of our faculty involvement," IAS Director James M. Patterson says. He explains that while most IAS initiatives involve only a small group of faculty and their graduate students, faculty seminars "appeal to a broader audience and engage them in ongoing and meaningful ways." Currently, the institute sponsors only the seminar series in cultural theory, but Patterson plans to organize two additional series--one focusing on immigration and the other on governing nongovernmental organizations--in the near future. Although Patterson is naturally eager to further the aims of the IAS as an institution, his primary purpose in sponsoring the seminars is to encourage "cross-fertilization of ideas" among seminar participants. "My interest is in stirring the kettle," he says, noting that at large research universities such as IUB, faculty members tend to focus on very narrow areas of knowledge.

The seminar participants are equally enthusiastic about the benefits of mixing with scholars from other disciplines. Associate Professor of Music Jane Fulcher, a member of the steering committee for the cultural theory seminar series, views it as "one of the most valuable intellectual resources at the university. . . . I always leave greatly stimulated and anxious to apply the insight I have gained to my work." Like Patterson, she also sees the seminars as a way to combat the compartmentalizing that can occur in a large institution. "It is extremely difficult to meet or to come into regular contact with colleagues in other fields who share similar interests. Ironically, it is possible to feel intellectually isolated in a university so rich in faculty resources." She points out that new faculty members in particular find the seminar series "a most useful way to integrate themselves into the intellectual community here." Another member of the steering committee, Professor of Folklore Mary Ellen Brown, says that the seminars, in combination with other intellectual stimuli in the university environment, "have made it possible for me to grow and develop as both scholar and human being." She says that reading and discussing articles as part of the seminar has been "a real eye opener for me. I [have] heard perspectives from a number of other disciplines. I didn't and don't necessarily like them or adopt them, but I believe that knowing perceptual frameworks from various disciplines is enormously useful."

The seminars vary in format: sometimes participants listen to the presentation of a paper by a member of the group or by a visiting scholar, sometimes they read and discuss a paper by a scholar not connected with the seminar series or with IU. Patterson points out that the former format provides "a collegial setting for testing drafts of papers and research proposals in their beginning stages." Brown, however, prefers reading and discussing "neutral" papers. "There is genuine collaborative work going on in that situation, without the need to respond to a particular person and his or her paper," she notes. Discussing material that is new or relatively new to all the members of the group "frees up and expedites a multivocality, a dialog that is, to me, more expressive." Fulcher notes that, ironically, in discussing reading selections for the seminar series "several of us have found that we are all reading the same authors or texts, although from the perspectives of our different disciplines and interests." Discussing their various interpretations and views of these works "can open up new insights for each of us into these texts," she says.

The seminar series is also valuable as a vehicle for integrating IAS visiting scholars and fellows into IUB's intellectual life. Visiting scholars can "feel somewhat isolated here," Fulcher says, and the seminar series gives them the "opportunity to meet and talk with a broad range of faculty members." Zimmerli, who was a visiting professor and then visiting scholar during the fall semester, agrees. He points out that the contacts made through the seminar series allow the visiting scholar to encounter "a kind of second circle around the inner circle of the institute seminars" as seminar participants introduce the visiting scholar to colleagues in their departments who are not directly involved with the seminar series.

While visiting scholars can bring new ideas and perspectives to Indiana University's faculty, they too come away from the seminars with new ideas. Zimmerli, who attended three seminars (leading one of them), says that his work on a forthcoming book, To Know is to Do: Philosophical Theory of Technological Civilization, was directly affected by his participation in the seminars. "What I used to do was just look at the authors dealing with theory or criticism of civilization. I didn't concentrate that much on criticism of the theory of culture, but at least in the field of literature, that approach is very promi nent here. I was somehow forced to think about the relationship between civilization and culture with respect to technology. Now, after I have been forced to do that, I suddenly find that all the authors I have read do the same thing; I just hadn't paid attention to this before." Fulcher likewise says that readings from the seminar series have been important to her work. She cites as an example a piece by Jacques Derrida on Paul Valery and his perspective on the idea of "Europe" in the 1930s that seminar members read last fall. Fulcher, who is currently at work on a book that concerns French culture and politics in the 1930s, says the insights gleaned from reading this piece were "directly relevant, for they helped me understand the conflicting perspectives of the far Left and Right on the question of France's place in the 'new Europe.'" Had another seminar series member not suggested that they read this text, she adds, "I would not have even been aware of it, and my work would have lacked these insights."

Although the direct affect the seminars have had on some scholars' work is impressive, it is probably the general intellectual stimulation that is most valuable and that keeps the regular participants coming back for more. The discussion that follows Zimmerli's presentation strays quickly from his four-level model: someone mentions ethics and the media, someone brings up the "invisible" technology of agriculture, someone else asks about the affect of World War II on the dialogue of academic disciplines in Europe. It gets late, the participants settle more comfortably into their chairs, someone pours the sherry. Hours go by, and someone suggests adjourning. But as evening becomes night, the participants linger, and their animated discussion shows no sign of waning.

--Heather Shupp