2020 Great Conversation Table Topics - University of Houston
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2020 Topics and Conversationalists

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  • What’s Funny? Cartooning in a Polarized World

    What’s Funny? Cartooning in a Polarized World

    Nick Anderson and Bill Kelly

    You look’n for the best table? Boom. We gots art, we gots laughs, we gots it all. Nick Anderson and Bill Kelly will be discussing political cartooning in the era of Trump, the creation of Counterpoint (a free email newsletter and innovative new way to distribute editorial cartoons), and working in the Government Relations office for the City of Houston.

  • The Sacred Flame: The Olympic Games, Ancient and Modern

    The Sacred Flame: The Olympic Games, Ancient and Modern

    Michael Barnes

    The summer Olympic games—or to give it the grand title that it claims for itself, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad—are only a few months away. Once again, even as an international viewing public thrills to the competitions themselves, we will face the usual array of modern issues and controversies that have become as much a part of the games as, well, the games themselves: the influence of money, cheating, the ‘intrusion’ of domestic and international politics, tabloid scandals, the status of amateurism, the glorification of athletes, the fetishization of the fit body, and more. How does all this—the contests and the spectacle, as well as the controversies—compare to the ancient Olympic games, which took place in a sleepy and remote Greek sanctuary every four years, as part of religious festival in honor of Zeus? If you guessed—or hoped—that the answer is “every bit as controversial and scandalous, and then some,” then you’re at the right table. Join Prof. Barnes for a freewheeling discussion of the Olympics, as we explore the intersections of sport and religion, politics, sex, money, and more—then and now.

  • Wannabe RBG? Four Cases Facing the Supreme Court

    Wannabe RBG? Four Cases Facing the Supreme Court

    Michelle Belco

    Play the Supreme Court game and sit in the shoes of a current Supreme Court justice. We will read the facts and listen to short excerpts of oral arguments from four important and undecided cases from the Court’s current docket. Props, costume features, justice bios, and scripts will be provided.

  • Beyond Profit? American Corporations and the Common Good

    Beyond Profit? American Corporations and the Common Good

    Jeffrey Church and Gerald McElvy

    The traditional understanding of the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder profit. That understanding might be changing. Corporations-- especially in the tech industry-- regularly take public stands on issues of social justice. In August 2019, 181 CEOs signed a "Corporate Responsibility" document, committing them to caring not just for their shareholders, but for the well-being of customers, workers, and society at large. Can and should the purpose of the modern corporation be changed in this way?

  • "Alexa, you're creeping me out!"

    "Alexa, you're creeping me out!"

    Rafe Colburn

    Over the past decade, online advertising and personalized content on the Internet have become almost creepily accurate. YouTube knows which videos you're likely to watch, Instagram knows which photos you want to look at, advertisers know what you want to buy, and political campaigns know exactly who to target with their advertising. At the same time, we read more in the media every day about the opportunities and threats presented by improvements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. In this conversation, we'll talk about how these systems really work, what they're good at, and how they keep getting better.

  • Welcoming the Stranger: Refugee Resettlement in Houston

    Welcoming the Stranger: Refugee Resettlement in Houston

    Martin Cominsky

    Martin Cominsky (’80) serves as the CEO and President of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. Martin is responsible for directing the IM’s efforts to bring Houston’s diverse community together for dialogue and service. Previous to his work at Interfaith Ministries, Martin served as the Director of the Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, which is headquartered in Houston. Martin oversaw the League’s efforts to combat prejudice, hate and anti-Semitism in this dynamic region.

  • How Much is a Picture Worth: Photography Now

    How Much is a Picture Worth: Photography Now

    Robert Cremins

    In the 1970s, Susan Sontag wrote, “Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.” Now, in the age of smartphone ubiquity, that articulation is even stronger. Why do we take so many photographs? Just because the technology allows us to do so? Does our society have a healthy or toxic relationship with photography? To help answer these and related questions, the table leader encourages participants to bring along a photograph that is meaningful to them.

  • The 1960s, Sixty Years Later

    The 1960s, Sixty Years Later

    Lawrence Curry

    Lawrence Curry, professor emeritus at the University of Houston, received his B.S. and M.A. degrees in history from the University of South Carolina in 1957 and 1959. He joined the University of Houston Department of History in 1968 and received a Ph.D. in history from Duke University in 1971. He officially retired in 2001 but continues to teach at least one course in American history each semester. This is his twenty-third year to lead a Great Conversation table.

  • Waters of Life: Whisky's New World Order

    Waters of Life: Whisky's New World Order

    Andrew Davis

    Tour the famous single malt whiskies of Scotland with McGovern College of the Arts Dean (and whisky enthusiast) Andrew Davis. Learn about Scotland’s whisky regions and their distinguishing characteristics, the whisky production and distillation process, and the wide variety of whiskies from around the world today—all while tasting five different single malts from Scotland.

  • Did You Hear the One About the Lawyer? Humor and the Law

    Did You Hear the One About the Lawyer? Humor and the Law

    Jeff Dodd

    Humor comes to us naturally. We are hardwired for laughter. Many are the subjects for humor, including sex, politics and the like. Many are the explanations for why such matters have been the grist for humor for time out of mind. But why are there so many jokes, anecdotes and humorous tales about lawyers, judges and the legal system? Lawyers and judges also use humor—more or less successfully—in the course of proceedings and transactions that can have very serious, even grave, consequences. Humor itself also can be the subject of legal scrutiny and regulation—and sometimes give rise to punishment or liability. We will talk about humor about, in, and as part of the law.

    Please bring your favorite joke or story about lawyers and the law to share with the table. Collect some from your friends. We will also take a look at cartoons, perhaps scenes from books or movies, and even some cases where humor goes on trial, as we examine what is so funny about the law and lawyers.

  • Florence and the Emergence of the Modern World

    Florence and the Emergence of the Modern World

    Doug Erwing

    Florence during the 1400s and 1500s was the epicenter of an explosion of creativity and curiosity that produced much of the world's greatest and most treasured art and architecture, ushered in the Renaissance and led to the Enlightenment. A farmer on his cell phone owes a debt of gratitude to Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed the dome atop the Duomo. Modern medicine and its anatomy books owe a debt to Michelangelo. Florence is where modern banking began and it was a center of entrepreneurship at the forefront of the production of textiles. In its day, Florence was a combination of New York City and Shenzhen, larger than London, with international connections greater than any city but Venice.

    We will begin by discussing what made Florence unique among all the cities of the Western world then shift to a conversation about what makes Houston unique as well, and what is necessary for Houston’s continued reputation as the most diverse and interesting city in the United States.

  • My Dinner with Ted

    My Dinner with Ted

    Ted Estess

    Ted Estess was the leader of Honors education at the University of Houston for thirty-one years, first as director of the Honors Program, and then, in 1993, as founding dean of the Honors College. He is a proud recipient of the University of Houston Teaching Excellence Award. Though he left the deanship in August of 2008, Estess remains a member of the Honors College faculty. He has published a book on Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel and a number of articles on various writers and topics. Most recently, he has been writing and publishing non-fiction life stories—his collections The Cream Pitcher: Mississippi Stories, Be Well: Reflections on Graduating from College, and Fishing Spirit Lake.

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

    What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

    Sean Fitzpatrick

    The hope for peace, passion, and fulfillment that sells millions of Valentine’s Day cards each year is only part of the experience of love. June Carter Cash wrote that “love is a burning thing/and it makes a fiery ring.” At this table, we will reflect on experiences of love that do not easily fit our redemptive and transcendent fantasies.

  • Mindfulness in a Mad World

    Mindfulness in a Mad World

    Brandon Lamson

    In a world of unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty, many people are flocking to mindfulness practices as a way of finding equilibrium. Join us as we discuss how these practices can be of benefit, how they can be utilized for personal and social transformation, and the role they can play in higher education.

  • Truth and Consequences; Does Truth Matter?

    Truth and Consequences; Does Truth Matter?

    Alison Leland

    Does truth depend upon the lens through which we view it? When is truth unconstitutional? A discussion and assessment of truth, including business, foreign policy, politics, media, and other instances where there may be alternative facts.

  • American Democracy: A Failed Experiment?

    American Democracy: A Failed Experiment?

    Christine LeVeaux-Haley

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    Over 230 years ago, with these lofty goals in mind, 55 delegates convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to redesign the United States government and create a Constitution, the supreme law of the land. Well, how did they do?

  • Characters We Love to Hate: Tales of Bad Behavior

    Characters We Love to Hate: Tales of Bad Behavior

    Robert Liddell and Aaron Reynolds

    It’s no secret that we’re drawn to – and even find ourselves identifying with – fictional characters we presumably would never associate with in our daily lives. What is it that we find so compelling about characters who flout moral conventions, and behave so badly? In particular, what might the continued proliferation and popularity of such characters in the 21st century – think The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Gone Girl, The Americans, Joker, Killing Eve, and many, many more – reveal about our own real-world notions of family, relationships, politics, success, and more?

    Table participants are encouraged to share their own examples of such characters from any element of literature and pop culture – the badder, the better!

  • The Wine Business in Texas

    The Wine Business in Texas

    Jost Lunstroth and Jason Sherman

    There is much more to wine than tasting it - how it is sold in Texas, how to store it correctly, and much more. While tasting some special wines, we'll discuss the Three Tier Distribution model in Texas, how restaurants and country clubs evaluate and price wines, the proper climate to store wines for long periods and anything else that comes up.

  • E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Inclusion

    E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Inclusion

    Bill Monroe

    William Monroe is professor of English and dean of the Honors College at the University of Houston. His book Power to Hurt: The Virtues of Alienation was selected as an outstanding academic book of the year by Choice magazine and nominated for the Phi Beta Kappa/Christian Gauss Award. His other publications include the play Primary Care, which deals with personhood issues related to Alzheimer’s Disease, and articles on T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and Willa Cather. In 2004 the University of Houston awarded him its Teaching Excellence Award. He directs The Common Ground Teachers Institute and founded the Medicine & Society Program at Houston.

  • The Most Fun You Can Have with Your Clothes On: A Thoughtful Discussion of Golf

    The Most Fun You Can Have with Your Clothes On: A Thoughtful Discussion of Golf

    Iain Morrisson and Danny Wallace

    Iain Morrisson is an Associate Instructional Professor of Philosophy in the Honors College. He works largely in the history of ethics with a focus on Kant and Nietzsche.

    Daniel Wallace (’16) is a Human Situation professor in the Honors College, and a staff writer for the communications department.  He has a master's in Fiction from Columbia University and a doctorate in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. 

  • Here It Comes: The 2020 Election

    Here It Comes: The 2020 Election

    Richard Murray

    President Trump is on a glide path to an easy re-nomination as the Republican standard bearer, but faces a challenging re-election campaign in November. Meanwhile, the Democratic field remains fragmented with two very different Jewish candidates contending with several more traditional competitors. This creates the real possibility that the party nomination will have to be decided in the July convention in Milwaukee. After record voting in the 2018 midterm elections, we have every reason to expect very high participation in the November General Election. President Donald Trump seems to be a veritable “turnout machine”, motivating both his supporters and opponents to go to the polls. Finally, for the first time since 1988, both parties seem likely to make major investments in Texas led by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg who has pledged to spend lavishly in the Lone Star State whether he is or is not the Democratic nominee. So, grab some popcorn and settle down for a slam-bang year in Texas politics.

  • The Mighty Agave: Tequila, Mezcal, and Beyond

    The Mighty Agave: Tequila, Mezcal, and Beyond

    Temple Northup

    When most people think of alcohol coming from agave, it's Tequila that comes to mind. Indeed, Tequila is the most famous of all Mexican alcohols and has only continued to grow in popularity over the past two decades. The truth is that Tequila comes from one very specific type of agave—the Blue Weber—that is produced in a specific region of Mexico. There are many other agaves, though, each having its own unique flavor and, depending on the distillation process and location, producing many different types of alcohol. In this dinner conversation, we will discuss—and sample!—some of the best examples of what the agave can produce, including Tequila, Mezcal, and others.

  • "Reds": Russia Through American Eyes

    "Reds": Russia Through American Eyes

    David Rainbow

    Have you ever wanted to travel in Russia? Have you been there and experienced Russia's distinctive culture and dramatic history for yourself? We'll discuss what it's like to visit or live in Russia as an American. Bring your sense of adventure and burning questions about Russia and the Soviet Union you've always wanted to ask. I'll share a few stories from history about some prominent Americans who had incredible and formative experiences in "Mother Russia," such as John Reed, Langston Hughes and Matt Taibbi.

  • Beer through the Ages: A Cultural and Historical Tasting

    Beer through the Ages: A Cultural and Historical Tasting

    Ben Rayder

    Beer is more than just a drink. Beer is a 5,000 year old witness to the world around us. As times change, so does the beer that we drink. From Trappist brews to mass-produced, industrial beverages, every beer has a unique story behind it. This table will examine some of those beers and the context in which they were developed. By the end of the evening, guests will gain a deeper knowledge of the cultural, historical and political influences behind the world’s most popular malt beverage. Of course, we will taste several of the styles on our journey.

  • The Mandalorian: A Study in Unlikely Leadership

    The Mandalorian: A Study in Unlikely Leadership

    Brenda Rhoden

    Brenda Rhoden (’98, ’05, ’15) is the director of the Leadership Studies minor and assistant dean for student success in the Honors College. Dr. Rhoden oversees the student lifecycle in Honors, from recruitment and admissions to advising and leadership development to graduation. She works closely with a variety of academic and co-curricular cohorts, including but not limited to Terry Scholars, Houston Premedical Academy, Club Theater, Honors Ambassadors, Honors Leadership Council, and the Honors Biomedical Sciences program. Dr. Rhoden is a proud graduate of the Honors College with a B.A. in History and B.S. in Psychology; her research interests include leadership, student retention and persistence, mentoring, and engagement. (Ed.D., University of Houston, 2015).

  • Angels (and Cameras) in the Outfield

    Angels (and Cameras) in the Outfield

    Dave Shattuck and Stuart Long

    The Houston Astros were recently found to have “cheated” by stealing signs using electronic equipment. Join two electrical engineers as they talk about the following questions: What is wrong with using electronic equipment? Is this cheating worse or better than using performance enhancing drugs? Were the penalties too severe? Were the penalties too lenient? Does it matter if other major league teams were doing the same thing? Does it matter if all the other major league teams were doing the same thing? Should A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow have been fired? Should they have been banned from baseball? Will Jose Altuve ever get into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Even if he pays for his admission? What does it mean to cheat in professional sports? Does the Astros' behavior in this kind of thing affect your rooting for them? Will it affect your attendance at games?

  • Good Chemistry? Science, Government, and the Media

    Good Chemistry? Science, Government, and the Media

    Rita Sirrieh

    Only a fraction of scientific discoveries are broadly shared with or understood by the public, but scientific discoveries impact the lives of everyone, whether evaluating climate change outcomes, health and environmental impacts of new pesticides, or evaluating dietary recommendations and disease prevention. Scientists are increasingly advocates of their work, even if just to lobby for funding! How does a scientist balance the role of an impartial observer while educating and advocating? What responsibility do scientists have to simplify their findings for mass consumption? On the flip side, how closely should the general public follow scientific discoveries? How do our leaders incorporate scientific findings into their legislation and governance? Join Rita as she discusses these and many other questions!

  • Media: Social, Anti-Social, and Otherwise

    Media: Social, Anti-Social, and Otherwise

    Steve Smith

    Super investor Warren Buffett sells all his newspapers, calling that historically vital industry “toast.” If Facebook, Twitter and their cousins are now the chief news sources for most Americans, how informed are we? Do we know enough even to care?

  • The Tyranny of Metrics

    The Tyranny of Metrics

    Tamler Sommers and Michael Twa

    “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Goodhart’s Law

    Recently, a scandal rocked higher education, as multiple universities' efforts to increase their rejection rates in order to move up in the US News college rankings board came to light. Whose fault was this? Was it US News for using rejection rates as a metric for “good” education? Was it the fault of college administrators trying to game the system? Over the last two decades, there has been an increasing obsession with metrics in domains as diverse as education (e.g. standardized testing), criminal justice, social science research, medicine, and management. What are the cost, benefits, and hidden assumptions behind this new emphasis? Do metrics offer more accurate, less biased information or merely a veneer of objectivity that crowds out human judgment and discretion?

    Have you ever looked at a dataset and thought, “how did they come up with these numbers?” Have you ever wondered how a business can claim to be ranked #1 in customer satisfaction? How is satisfaction measured, anyhow? At this table we will discuss all of these problems and many more.

  • When is an Ounce of Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure?

    When is an Ounce of Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure?

    Steve Spann and Virginia Moyer

    How many letters have you gotten in the mail with the bold heading: “Why wait to get screened?” urging you to Call Today! For their ONE DAY ONLY screening event, where for a mere $149, you can “verify your good health so you can be worry free!” Or maybe you’ve been bombarded by offers of free PSA screening at your local gym. Everyone believes in prevention – “a stitch in time saves nine”, right? Why, then, did the most authoritative US committee on prevention say that most men don’t need a PSA test? Or that we shouldn’t screen for pancreatic or ovarian cancer? Or that most of us shouldn’t have an EKG as a routine test? At this table, we’ll explore how it is that some “prevention” strategies can make us sicker and poorer instead of healthier and wealthier, discuss how to balance the potential benefits and harms of different prevention recommendations, and how to make informed decisions when those offers come along.

  • Aliens to Zombies: Horror from A to Z

    Aliens to Zombies: Horror from A to Z

    Marina Trninic

    Are horror movies to be dismissed as a low-brow genre, as mere titillating entertainment or a cheap catharsis for the emotionally numb? Maybe some, but as a whole, they can certainly be much more interesting than that. Besides having a rich cinematic history, going back to the silent era with Nosferatu or talkies such as Frankenstein or Dracula, as the latter titles suggest, horror movies have a literary past reaching back to nineteenth-century gothic tales and certainly earlier popular forms and myths. From classics like Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Silence of the Lambs, to more recent movies such as The Cabin in the Woods, Babadook, and Get Out, the horror movie genre has experienced both exciting waxes and underwhelming wanes. To those of us who don’t consider ourselves arm-chair adrenaline junkies, what psychological and sociological perspectives on the human situation do they offer? Why are they such a mainstay in our culture? What makes a horror movie a horror movie? And what makes it good? Answer the call--ring, ring-- “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

  • The Two Americas: How Did We Get into This Polarized Mess?

    The Two Americas: How Did We Get into This Polarized Mess?

    Jonathan Williamson

    Political polarization in the United States seems to be spinning out of control. Who is to blame? Some argue that the politicians are at fault. Others will point fingers at the media. Is there an argument that the American people themselves are at the root of our division? What does the source of polarization tell us about our prospects for bridging the divide?