2024 Great Conversation Table Topics - University of Houston
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2024 Topics and Conversationalists

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  • Take A Seat, Kentucky! The Rise of Texas Whiskey

    Blair Ault, M.L.S., Honors Alumna and National Brand Ambassador for Milam and Greene Whiskey 

    Bourbon is America's national spirit and until the last couple decades, the Kentucky region had a strong grip on its reputation in production. As prohibition-era laws ease, craft distilleries are popping up all over the nation and Texas is home to 190 active whiskey distilleries, with many of them producing award-winning whiskies that are beating their Kentucky competitors in world competitions. We'll discuss the process, history, and culture of whiskey-making as we sample through a few of Texas' best bottles.

  • Role of the Dice: Sustainability in the Casino Industry

    Ki-Joon Back, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership

    A conversation with a leading consultant to the United Nations on issues of hospitality and tourism about Environmental, Social, and Governance Practices dealing with UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the Casino Industry.

  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Interactive Theatre

    Jeffrey Baldwin, Senior Vice President and Entertainment Director of the Texas Renaissance Festival

    In traditional theatre, performance is limited to a designated stage area and the action of the play unfolds without audience members, who function as passive observers. In interactive theatre, the performance engages directly with audience members, making them active participants in the piece.  Join a conversation about how interactive theatre changes the performer/audience dynamic with the Entertainment Director of the Texas Renaissance Festival, a ‘grand spectacle’ which will soon celebrate its 50th year.

  • What Makes Houston Entrepreneur Friendly?

    Jacquie Baly, UH Alumna, President of BalyProjects, and Chair of the Harris County Women's Commission

    Houston's robust economy, supportive business environment, access to funding, networking opportunities, skilled workforce, strategic location, quality of life, and innovation clusters make it a compelling choice for entrepreneurs looking to start or grow their businesses. How did Houston come to have this combination of competitive advantages? Let’s discuss how each one contributes to a hotbed for entrepreneurship in Houston.

  • Living With Marvin: What (Or Who) Would You Take On A Trip To Mars?

    Olga Bannova, Ph.D., Director of the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture, Cullen College of Engineering

    Join the Director of UH’s Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture for a conversation about living comfortably in space.  What would you want to take with you to the red planet?  What creature comforts would you need to boldly go where no one has gone before?

  • Beyond Bitcoin: The Future of Money

    Michelle Belco, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College
    Adam Suhr, Senior Vice President of Frost Bank

    Be prepared! Cryptocurrencies are changing the banking industry, the investment market, and the economy. Join the discussion led by Adam Suhr, Senior Vice-President of Investment Banking at Frost Bank, on the future of cryptocurrencies as a commodity and a purchasing tool.

  • Nature on Tap: A Botanical Approach to Beer

    Laura Bland, Faculty, The Honors College
    Marc Hanke, Faculty, The Honors College

    Explore the wonders of beer as we smell and savor grains, hops, yeast, and other botanical ingredients. We will discuss, taste, and showcase varieties of beer with different botanical and yeast contributions. From the smooth and tropical to the spicy, herbal, and evergreen. A discussion of beer history, science, and appreciation. What glass are you using for your great discussion?

  • From Vine to Glass: Exploring Quality and Business Dynamics with Jackson Family Wines

    Tyler Calvin, UH Alumnus and Region Manager, Jackson Family Wines
    Jesse Cantu, Vice President, Jackson Family Wines

    What does quality mean and why does it matter? We will explore and taste through an industry leader’s wines and discuss the different functions of the beverage business.

  • Oppenheimer and Apocalypse

    Jeffrey Church, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Political Science

    At this table, we will discuss the film Oppenheimer, the clear front-runner for Best Picture (Academy Awards will air March 10).  We will discuss the themes the film raises, particularly the vexed relationship between democracy and greatness or genius, and technology and the risk of the end of the world.  We will also connect the film to Christopher Nolan's broader oeuvre.

  • Is the Novel No Longer Novel?

    Robert Cremins, Irish Author, Faculty and Director of Creative Work: A Preprofessional Program, The Honors College

    In the 18th century, writers discovered a "new province of writing"--the modern novel. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the novel had undeniable cultural prestige. But these days do we still turn to novels for visions of how we live, or are they just the raw material for what we watch on streaming services?

  • The Waters of Life: The Whiskies of Scotland

    Andrew Davis, Ph.D., Dean, Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts

    Tour the whisky regions of Scotland with McGovern College of the Arts Dean (and whisky enthusiast) Andrew Davis. Taste expressions from the Scottish Highlands to the Lowlands and compare examples of whiskies with varying amounts of peat. Join us for proof that “peated Scotch” can really appeal to all tastes.

  • Approve, Strongly Approve: How Does Polling Actually Work?

    Michael Dimock, Honors Alumnus and President of the Pew Research Center

    We’re headed into another election year when questions will swirl around what polls – if any! – to believe. Public opinion expert and president of the Pew Research Center (and Honors alum, 1990) Michael Dimock will answer all your questions about polling, what to believe and what to ignore.  In addition, he’ll provoke conversation about what good polls do us in the first place. Would our democracy be stronger without polls? Why does polling draw so much coverage and attention when we’re so frustrated with it? Other countries put limits on polling that America doesn’t, should we change that? You’ll get an inside look at how the survey-sausage gets made and be a more informed citizen and conversationalist for the rest of the election season.

  • Bad Words—What to Do About Censorship and Free Speech on Campus

    Emran El-Badawi, Ph.D., Program Director and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies

    In the wake of a new war in the Middle East, public opinion is divided, and some university campuses have become battlegrounds, testing the limits of America’s first amendment right to freedom of speech. The toppling of presidents from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania followed congressional hearings in December of 2023 attacking hateful speech on campus. What should universities do about hateful speech, and how can they allow students to grow outside their comforts zone, while feeling safe?

  • Renaissance Time: Florence, Italy, and the Making of the Modern World

    Douglas Erwing, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College and Director, UH Energy Leaders

    Let's talk about the trips we have made and the trips we dream of to Florence, Italy, and Tuscany.  Fabulous wines, famous art, home to the beginnings of modern banking and business come and share and learn about Florence and share your good stories of visits to Florence or begin to plan that next vacation to Tuscany.

  • College Football: The Times They Are A-Changin

    Willie Fritz, UH Head Football Coach

    The conversation will focus on several aspects impacting the current state of college football. These factors include conference realignment, NIL, transfer portal and playoff expansion. The discussion will examine how each is impacting the game and business of college football.

  • Politics by Design: Did the President Really Wear That??

    Irene Guenther, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    From Donald Trump's lengthy red tie to Melania Trump's stiletto heels, from President Biden's Ray Bans and Hillary Clinton's pantsuits to the black uniforms of the Nazi-SS and the "uniforms" of punk rockers, hip hoppers, and no-more-war protesters, it's clear that the clothes we wear serve as a public poster of who we are or of who we want people to think we are. Since it’s an election year, let’s take a dive into the fashion choices of some of our past and present politicians (and a few celebrities, to boot) to figure out what they are trying to tell us by what they’re wearing. Winner of the evening’s big quiz gets more than a paper doll cut-out!

  • #ForTheCity: 100 Years of Stories and Memories of the University of Houston

    Debbie Harwell, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College and Managing Editor of the Houston History magazine, UH Center for Public History

    UH has been at the forefront of community engagement, social change, technology and innovation in the arts, education, science, and politics. Join us to share your favorite stories and memories of UH and where you see it going in the next 100 years.

  • Are We There Yet? Great Road Trips

    Alison Leland, Director of the Prelaw Program, The Honors College

    Borrowing from Seth Meyer's Family Trips podcast, what are your favorite childhood memories of family vacations? Where did you go, how did you get there, and was there fighting in the back seat?

  • An Empire, If We Can Keep It…

    Christine LeVeaux-Haley, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    There seems to be major upheaval afoot in our American political system. Is this to be expected? Or should we be concerned? What comes before the fall? How do democracies die? Are we just experiencing growing pains or are we in full existential crisis?

  • From “Wolf” to “Woof”: The Origin of Dogs

    Stuart Long, Ph.D., Associate Dean, The Honors College

    According to a long-standing myth, dogs came into existence when humans adopted wolf pups and raised them in captivity, and over many years these animals were gradually converted into dogs as we know them today. In reality, this is extremely unlikely. Clues to a more likely scenario come from a 1950s Soviet project in Siberia where Dmitri K. Belyaev, a Russian scientist, was given the task by the state to improve the efficiency of Soviet fox farms in producing pelts for fur clothing. Armed with Balyaev’s results, today’s scientists believe that dogs came into being about 14,000 years ago, but opposed to typical evolution, these changes occurred over a very short period of time. 

    Over the last 150 years man has intervened in dog breeding much more directly. There are now over 400 recognized breeds with more variation in size, color, structure, and shape than any other mammal in the world, but all come from the same source 14,000 years ago.

  • ChatGPT Wrote My Performance Review: Navigating AI’s Social and Ethical Impacts

    Michael Lore, Honors Alumnus and Principal Architect at SAP Concur

    Generative AI tools are being used in everything from cars, photo editors, online support systems, materials research, medicine, deep fakes, grading papers, and of course crime. Bring your fears and hopes, and let’s explore the social and ethical implications of this promising technology.

  • Rumors Had It: The Death of Scandals

    Iain Morrison, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    This semester’s theme for Team Alpha in the Honors College’s signature course, The Human Situation is Scandal. Ascandal is defined as an action or event that is seen as morally wrong and causes broader outrage in a community. Given the way that our sense of community is constituted these days, are such things even possible? Could the table agree on what counts as a scandal these days? Join the faculty team leader for Team Alpha in conversation to consider these questions and more.

  • Lead in Life, People, Passion, and Persistence: Succeed in the New Era of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

    Laura Murillo, Ed.D., UH Alumna, President and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Best-Selling Author

    Engage in conversation with Dr. Murillo, who through her experiences as President and CEO of the award-winning Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, best-selling author, daughter of immigrants, a woman, a Hispanic, a minority, (and more) has become a leading authority on guiding corporations, organizations, and institutions to adopt a genuine culture of DEI. In this new era of DEI, corporations must make a solid, lasting commitment to full representation, fairness, and inclusion of all voices in every decision at every level of a corporation, all the time. Consider how to ensure that everyone in a corporation has value and a voice that must be heard.

  • The Ultimate Visa: Your Global Citizens Credential

    Ambassador Michael Pelletier (retired), Founding Executive Director, UH Institute for Global Engagement

    Every semester, UH awards global citizens credentials to students who have met the requirements for global engagement through their course work, their international experiences, their extracurricular activities and leadership, and other factors.  Join us to consider and evaluate your own international experiences and expertise; see if you've earned our global citizens credential; and share stories and insights with your tablemates.

  • A Growing Problem: What to Do About Invasive Species

    Tina Petway, Associate Curator of Malacology, Houston Museum of Natural Science

    Are the number of species extinctions in the last three decades related to the expansions of Invasive Species' ranges?  How did these Invasives get here and what can be done to stop or arrest their progress?  Why should we care?!

  • Putin Died Last Year? Scandals, Conspiracies, and Myths about Russia

    David Rainbow, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    Have you heard that Putin died last year and his body is being refrigerated in his apartment? How about that Russia is planning to reclaim Alaska? Or how about that Trump is a Russian asset? This table will discuss scandals, conspiracies, and myths involving Russia and why the American media can't get enough of them.

  • Cardboard Gods: Trading Cards and Their Meaning Beyond Sports

    Ben Rayder, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards, The Honors College

    Originally included as a marketing gimmick in cigarette packages, the baseball trading card business has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry with no shortage of scandals and intrigue. For many, though, baseball cards symbolize heroes, memories, and dreams. This table will examine the personal stories of collecting baseball cards. Each guest will receive their own pack of 2023 Topps Archives baseball cards to open, assess, discuss, and trade with others.

  • Birds of a Feather Sit Together

    Max Rayneard, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    With around 10,000 bird species all over the world, birds are languages all of their own. This is especially true of bird nerds, who have stories to tell about their favorite sightings: where, when, and what it meant to them. This table is a gathering of bird lovers who want to talk about their favorite feathered friends, and the happy moments they shared together.

  • Apocalypse…. Now? How We’ve Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dystopia

    Aaron Reynolds, Ph.D., Academic Advisor, The Honors College
    Robert Liddell, Faculty, The Honors College

    Is it just us, or are those depictions of far-off dystopias that we all grew up on (think 1984, The Terminator, Hunger Games, Idiocracy, The Last of Us, and many more) starting to feel, well, a bit *closer* to our current reality these days?  Whether it’s the rise of AI, rampant misinformation, an ongoing epidemic, everyone glued to their phones, extreme weather events (and much, much more) it can certainly seem so. Where have these dystopian visions been correct about the world we live in now – and where has humanity (and technology?) proven to be even stranger, wilder, more depressing, more absurd – and maybe even more resilient? -- than we ever could have imagined?  When the “nightmare future” simply becomes “now” – what lessons (and maybe even relief?) can we find in such stories as well?

    Table participants are encouraged to share examples of dystopian literature and pop culture from their own experience   – and real-world parallels, of course! — as we consider the decidedly non-utopian implications of the future in (possibly?) still-hopeful ways...

  • The Eras Talk: All Things Taylor Swift

    Brenda Rhoden, Ed.D., Assistant Dean, The Honors College

    Are you exhausted always rooting for the Anti-Hero? Dreading another Cruel Summer? Come join us for a table that will be Better than Revenge as we discuss all things Taylor Swift. From friendship bracelets to the NFL, we’ll discuss the impact of Taylor Swift on music, popular culture, and the economy. Welcome to the Great Conversation (Taylor’s Version). Are you ...Ready for It?

  • Unfinished Symphony: The Future of Classical Music in America

    Katie Salvatore, Development Officer at Houston Symphony

    Artists, intellectuals, and concert-goers have lamented that “Classical music is dying.” since at least the time of Beethoven – if not earlier! While orchestral music-making certainly faces several challenges in the modern era, there have been many recent indicators that the genre can grow and attract a new generation of concertgoers and supporters. Join us in a discussion about the music sector and the role each of us plays in facing these challenges to enable symphony orchestras to thrive and continue to serve as the cultural cornerstone of their communities.

  • Does this Count as Hummus? Food and Authenticity

    Rita Sharp, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    Food is a conduit of culture and also a social glue that brings all human beings together. Recipes from specific cultures are often adapted into new countries or cultures, and then the dish evolves. New flavor profiles and dishes evolve as a variety of fusion cuisines are developed with new recipes and flavors. At this table, we will talk about whether recipes should be maintained in their original or traditional format and at what point variations of a recipe become a new recipe entirely.

  • Terror or Genius: Should Bobby Knight be Emulated?

    Dave Shattuck, Ph.D., Faculty, Cullen College of Engineering

    Pull up a (folding) chair. Almost everyone seems comfortable with describing Bobby Knight as fiery.  Was he fiery in a good way, or in a bad way?  We will discuss the positive and negative aspects of his life and the way he coached basketball and try to decide how he should be remembered.

  • Effective Altruism: Give as Good as You Can Give

    Tamler Sommers, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    We'll trace the evolution of the effective altruism movement from its humble beginnings in the late 2000s to the multi-billion dollar silicon philanthropic empire embroiled in crypto currency scandals that has alienated many of its most enthusiastic supporters. Founded by a small group of Oxford Philosophy graduate students who were inspired by Peter Singer’s famous article on famine and affluence, effective altruist organizations raised billions of dollars to prevent suffering and extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. In the last 8-9 years, more resources were diverted towards “longtermist” goals like stopping evil AI.  How did this happen? Was it inevitable?

  • Syphilis: A Dangerous Love Affair

    Nicole Temple, Vice President of Youth Education, Houston Museum of Natural Science

    Join Nicole Temple for a love story. Discover how she fell in love with syphilis while curating HMNS's popular exhibit Death By Natural Causes. This microscopic bacterium was world-changing; from fashion, art, and medicine, to literature, history and political boundaries, your life has been influenced by syphilis. You are guaranteed a fascinating and entertaining introduction to, what will soon be, your favorite spirochete.

  • Hoop it Up: NCAA Women’s Basketball

    Lesli Vollrath, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    The 2023 NCAA women's basketball national championship game recorded 9.9 million viewers to set new records for the most-watched women's basketball game in history and the most-viewed college basketball game for men or women ever on ESPN platforms. During this season, new records continue to be made as the game continues to evolve as a sport. At this table, we will talk about our favorite NCAA women’s basketball moments and personalities from this past season as well as history of the game. Lace up your high tops and start working on your game (aka watch ESPN and search it up on Google), we have some women’s hoops to discuss.

  • Life in the Big Leagues: A Conversation with Astros Legend Larry Dierker and Trey Wilkinson

    Trey Wilkinson, Honors Alumnus, MLB Official Scorer, and President and Chief Executive Officer of Trinity Legacy Partners
    Larry Dierker, Astros Player, Manager, and Legend


    What is it like to throw a no-hitter in the Major Leagues? What is the difference between a hit and an error? Why does every baseball team have a manager? Why is there an official scorer at every MLB game? Come have a conversation with two guys who know what it's like to be in the Hot Seat: Astros legend Larry Dierker and MLB Official Scorer Trey Wilkinson.

  • From Seed to Cup: What Matters for a Great Cup of Coffee

    Jonathan Williamson, Ph.D., Associate Dean, The Honors College
    If you've had too many mediocre cups of coffee, this table is for you. If you are ready to set aside the milk, sugar, or syrups required to make your coffee palatable, join us. Let's discuss how every step of the process of growing, processing, roasting, and brewing affects the experience of enjoying a great cup of coffee.