On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Buffalo State University’s Cleveland Hall, Kimberly Blessing, professor of philosophy, shared her thoughts on “Death or Marriage and the Meaning of Life,” as portrayed in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and its most recent film adaptation.
Showing a clip from Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film, Blessing demonstrated how in Alcott’s time, heroines were expected to be either married or dead by the end of a novel. This is a hard truth the character Jo, an aspiring writer based on Alcott, learns early in the film.
This rich discussion was not a class but part of the Buffalo State Philosophy Colloquia, which has been offering free, thought-provoking talks—many of them presented or moderated by students—to the campus and general public since 2006. Blessing founded the colloquia as a way to encourage critical thinking and introduce students to the philosophy conference model—a paper read aloud followed by remarks from an appointed commentator.
In this case, the commentator was Winifred Benson, a junior philosophy and speech-language pathology major. The floor then opened to participants, a mix of students and faculty members who asked questions and shared their opinions on the topic.
“Jo finds meaning in meritocracy,” said Elise O’Donnell, a senior psychology major, speaking to Jo’s marriage to an older man in the novel. “I’m a huge feminist, and while it’s OK to fall into traditional roles, it’s not what I want. I did see growth in Jo in the movie.”
Another student asked if your actions have to be seen or benefit society to be meaningful.
“We encourage students to think about ancient truths and contemporary culture in a new way. That’s instrumental in their overall development as scholars and critical thinkers in today’s complex world.”
It’s these kinds of questions that the colloquia are intended to spark. Blessing noted that one purpose of sponsoring the talks is to encourage critical thinking and oratory skills, which are crucial in a multitude of academic majors and professional careers.
Jason Grinnell, chair and professor of philosophy, said the colloquia also help students see professional philosophers accepting criticism and incorporating suggestions to improve their work.
“It functions as a sort of scaffold—students can serve as a commentator one semester to get a bit of practice speaking to a group, then work on polishing a paper that may not be quite ready for presentation,” Grinnell said. “When they do present their paper, they can use that supportive feedback to prepare for an undergraduate conference, which will give them further feedback to submit to undergraduate journals.”
Since the colloquia series’ inception, more than 125 talks have taken place, including papers from almost 50 students representing a variety of majors, and an additional 50 student commentators. Topics often relate to popular culture, such as “Metallica’s Fade to Black: Absurdity, Suicide, and the Downward Spiral”; “How to Escape Your Own Groundhog Day”; and “Cosmic Justice and the Meaning of Life in AMC’s Breaking Bad.”
Extra credit is occasionally given to students who attend, but usually they show up because they’re interested in the subject or are supporting their classmates, Blessing said.
“Everyone is more interested in sharing ideas and seeking knowledge than in being right. That’s what philosophy is all about. And it’s also refreshing to discuss issues that matter to our daily lives without the combative nature of so much of our other platforms for discussion.”
That support extends to faculty as well.
“We have almost 100 percent attendance from the Philosophy Department at nearly all sessions,” Blessing said.
Faculty can dive into the follow-up discussions but must follow a strict rule: students first.
“We open up the Q&A to the students first, encouraging them to participate before the faculty start talking,” she said. “Back in the day, Jim Grunebaum, professor emeritus of philosophy, used to have to sit on his hands so as not to talk before students.”
Leigh Duffy, assistant professor of philosophy, said she explains to students that the colloquia provide a friendly, nonthreatening environment.
“Everyone is more interested in sharing ideas and seeking knowledge than in being right,” Duffy said. “To me, that’s what philosophy is all about, going back to Socrates. And it’s also refreshing—as a professional, as a student, as a human being— to discuss issues that matter to our daily lives without the combative nature of so much of our other platforms for discussion, such as social media and politics.”
Two more talks in the colloquia are scheduled this spring: Wednesday, March 8, and Wednesday, April 12, both from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. in Cleveland Hall 418. The first one features the paper “Violence and Crime in the Black Community: Freedom and Systematic Oppression,” by senior philosophy major Terrell Alexander. John Torrey, assistant professor of philosophy, serves as his faculty mentor.
The second talk features two papers, “Guilt and the Experience of Emotions in Video Games” by Olivia Evans, senior philosophy and criminal justice major, with Duffy serving as faculty mentor; and “My Body, Whose Choice?” by Elizabeth Evans, senior sociology major and philosophy minor, with Grinnell as faculty mentor.
What’s kept the colloquia going strong for 17 years?
“We just love doing philosophy,” Blessing said. “We love to discuss ideas together and encourage students to think about ancient truths and contemporary culture in a new way. That’s instrumental in their overall development as scholars and critical thinkers in today’s complex world.”