Oct 26, 2014

The "Glimpses into Existence" Series So Far

Last night, I wrote a short post about a Simone de Beauvoir talk in one of my other more specialized blogs, Sadler's Existentialism Updates (SEU) -- an electronic forum originally intended for me to set down ideas about the online course on Existentialist Philosophy and Literature which I was (and admittedly still am) developing.  There's an interesting story to be told about that, of course, but it's already available over there on SEU, so no sense reposting it here -- at least not until I've actually got a course up and running.

Instead, I'd like to write a bit about the monthly series of talks on Existentialism -- the recent de Beauvoir talk being the tenth session -- that I've been providing at the Kingston Library this year.  We decided to call the talks "Glimpses into Existence," since each session would introduce a general, library-going (so educated and interested) audience to some of the main works, key ideas, and contributions, as well as the times and cultural setting of one important Existentialist thinker.  Devoting one-and-a-half to two hours of discussions to thinkers like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, or Sartre -- well, that really is just a glimpse into their thoughts, writings, and lives.

It's been an interesting and enjoyable project, as well as one from which I've learned quite a bit over the last ten months -- and I've been thinking quite a bit about what those lessons are, and what their implications might be for the future, about which I'll write more in a moment.  Before that, I'd like to post a set of links.

The Glimpses into Existence Videos

Since we recorded these sessions, the series has also generated a gradually growing playlist of videos.  Very few of the people who regularly follow or subscribe to me on my various social media -- let alone my YouTube viewership (we're now past 15,000 subscribers) -- can make it to a physical site like the Kingston Library, so this lets them enjoy the lecture and discussion, at least as spectators who can them weigh in with comments.

Here's the video sequence available so far (I'll update this post as the last two get recorded and uploaded these coming two months):

Once the entire series has been filmed, we'll also turn them into a set of 12 podcasts as well.

Some Interesting Lessons about Popularizing Philosophy

In addition to doing the sorts of activities you can typically expect out of college professors who actually enjoy their job -- teaching students enrolled in classes, writing papers in one's areas of academic research, presenting them at conferences and (hopefully) securing them some settled form in publications, and the occasional invited lecture to faculty or students at another school -- for quite some time, I've also engaged in philosophical activity in more public and popular modes, ranging from blogging to shooting videos, from radio interviews and appearances to giving talks and workshops.

In the past, although I'd often get invited back to a venue, those talks and workshops would usually be "stand-alone," so to speak -- not part of a larger, connected series or course.  The only exceptions up to this point would be some of the inmate-organized summer seminars I provided to inmate students at Indiana State Prison back in 2005, 2006, and 2007. 

I'd wondered how well a series of connected lectures would actually work under the aegis of an institution like a public library.  Would local resident really be interested in attending an entire year worth of lectures, or would that be a bit much?  Could a series like the one I had in mind cumulatively develop key themes of a movement, if people mainly participated in them a la carte, you might say?

As it turned out, over the months, a group of fairly regular lecture-goers did coalesce around the series -- some people coming in, some going out, some showing up for nearly every session.  So, that lesson's learned -- basically, when it comes to philosophy-focused content, if you do build it, and people feel that it has something to offer them, they will indeed come. . .  and keep coming.  We've learned a few other important things as well -- arriving by trial and error, mistakes and reflections -- that we'll be applying to lecture and workshop series in the next few years.

One of these simply reinforces what I'd already long come to suspect and then articulate, based on the popularity of my long, low-tech philosophy-focused YouTube videos:  there is a widespread and palpable hunger out there in our culture for genuine intellectual engagement.  If you know what you're talking about -- and care passionately about it -- and if you can communicate about it in ways that non-specialists can understand and appreciate, there is a vast pool of people who are interested in and ready to listen, think, and discuss.  For the most part, the school systems, the entertainment industry, and the broader culture in general are simply not supplying real intellectual engagement.  So, if you are willing to do so, people will come and tune in.

Of course, they have to know its available -- and that's another important lesson.  We're fortunate that people look at the event posters as they walk through the library, that a few local public announcement sites picked up our information, and that participants in the early lectures gave us good word of mouth, because we really didn't do much as far as publicizing events goes.  I did create notices and descriptions on my social medial sites -- mainly on Facebook and Google+, but given the non-localized nature of those networks, they didn't draw any physical bodies in seats.

On the other hand -- and here's a last lesson about popularizing philosophy -- what posting those events out there in cyberspace did accomplish was to get a much wider range of people interested in those talks, their topics, even the thinkers upon whom they focus.  They were then primed to take a look at the videorecordings of the sessions, and to keep watching if they were enjoyable, engaging, or interesting enough -- and then perhaps to watch more of the series, going back to videos from past months, looking ahead to new videos coming in future months. 

When you think about it, the talks attain a sort of permanence precisely because they've been video-recorded and uploaded into a service like YouTube.  Participants who came to more recent talks and who expressed disappointment they'd missed the earlier ones could simply be directed to videos of the earlier ones.  It's not unimaginable that students and lifelong learners might start perusing the series a decade from now -- though that's a good reminded for me that I really ought to start adding useful resources to those relatively bare-bones videos!

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