Humanities Symposium

Humanities symposium brings big names, big ideas to campus

By TARA KNOTT, sophomore journalism major

Against a backdrop of changing colors and late September winds, Belmont University hosted discussions on “Nature and the Human Spirit” during its eighth annual humanities symposium.

The symposium is organized by the English department, and though it’s relatively young, it’s already attracting national attention.

People from across the country came to see the symposium’s high-profile speaker, acclaimed poet Mary Oliver. Of about 1500 people at Oliver’s poetry reading at Belmont Heights Baptist Church, only about 550 were Belmont students.

Among them was freshman Callie Compton.

As an English major, I was delighted at the chance to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning words directly from their author,” Compton said.

Compton was required to attend some of the symposium’s events, but she said she got more out of the symposium than just class credit.

While it definitely spurred me to take notes, the grade just wasn’t as stimulating or fun as the experience it stood for,” Compton said, adding her only regret is not having enough time to attend all the events.

Over the course of the 10-day symposium, the English department organized 30 lectures, demonstrations, and performances designed to appeal to a larger audience, said Sisson.  “There’s something for everyone,” she said.  “Don’t pigeonhole the humanities symposium as just a lot of talking professors.”

One of the more unconventional events was a nature walk around campus with author John Tallmadge, who helped students appreciate the beautiful landscape they often overlook as they rush to class. Other speakers focused more on the spiritual aspect of the symposium, such as Adrienne Young, a folk singer and Belmont alumna who demonstrated a unique style of dance combining martial arts and movement therapy.

But no matter how obscure the event, each presenter centered on the symposium’s theme.

We really wanted to focus on human beings’ place in the larger context of the world — on the one hand, presuming the importance of human beings; on the other hand, exploring the extent to which human beings are part of a larger whole, part of a larger family, said Sisson.

The English faculty tries to tie the theme of the symposium with the university’s theme for a given year.  “Nature and the Human Spirit” was an easy fit with the 2009-2010 theme at Belmont, “Paradise Lost?”

For the 2010-2011 academic year, Belmont has chosen the theme “Creativity and Invention,” and will explore “Imagined Communities during the symposium.  Another award-winning writer – Margaret Atwood, author of “A Handmaid’s Tale” – will be the keynote speaker.

Atwood and Oliver are the most well-known speakers Belmont has ever had at the symposium, and Sisson said many people can’t believe there is no admission fee to attend any of the events.

But the symposium wasn’t created to raise money; it was created to raise awareness.

“The humanities just seemed to be kind of not on anybody’s radar screen,” said Sisson.

“So we decided we needed to do something that would draw the public in.”

And when the English faculty members realized they could start a discussion on “perennially important” issues between people at Belmont and beyond, they knew they had found their solution.

Humanities are “about what it means to live as a human being in the world, and so we aren’t really exclusive about it,” said Sisson. This is just kind of a gift that we want to give to the community.”

To find out more information about the humanities symposium, visit


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