2022 Great Conversation Table Topics - University of Houston
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2022 Topics and Conversationalists

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

    Blair Ault, Regional Distributor, Milam and Greene

    Bourbon is America's national spirit but up until the last couple of decades the Kentucky region had a strong grip on its reputation in production (to dispel a common myth, for example, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States). Texas is home to award-winning distilleries that are capturing the hearts and palates of whiskey enthusiasts from around the world. We'll discuss the process, history, and culture of whiskey-making as we sample through a few of Texas' best. 

  • Transforming Tourism

    Ki-Joon Back, Associate Dean, Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management

    As we are preparing for the “new normal” era, tourism industry stakeholders should consider environmental, social, and corporate governance issues to achieve sustainable development goals. At this table, we will discuss the current status of the tourism industry and the requirements of players to make a better world.

  • In a Pickle: The Sandwich Generation Dilemma

    Bettina Beech, Chief Population Health Officer, University of Houston

    The term “Sandwich Generation” is used to describe the 20 million Americans who care for aging relatives while simultaneously raising their own children. These competing pressures have considerable financial implications for individuals, families, and businesses. Join me for a thoughtful discussion about how we think about questions of care, support, and the nature of family.

  • From Wolf to Woof: A History of Our Best Friends

    Michelle Belco, Political Science
    Stuart Long, 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. Join us for a look at the history of dogs. Let us know your favorite breed so we can tell you about its origins and you can share your favorite dog “tails.”    

  • Hip Dips and Dad Bods: How Are We Doing On Body Image?

    Laura Bland, Philosophy of Science

    Marilyn’s curves, the “Dorito body,” Slim Thick: since the neolithic, human cultures have hashed out their own ideal body types for women and men. Yet two decades of backlash against the “heroin chic” ideal of the ‘90s—rib-thin and white—have changed the conversation about bodies from acceptance of changing fads to moral calls for body diversity and body acceptance. Ads have monetized this, featuring curvy bodies, black and brown bodies, non-gendered bodies, and disabled bodies, while COVID launched a seemingly-carefree era of athleisure and pandemic pouches even as body fads dominated social media. How has the awareness of impossible standards changed how we feel about our bodies—if at all? How do we talk about bodies today, and where do we go from here?

  • The Way We Live Now: Work, Life, and Love

    Ruth Bush, Associate Dean, UH College of Medicine
    Helen Valier, Director, Medicine and Society

    What an amazing and exhaustive past 2 years. We have all learned so much about ourselves, each other, hardships and the realities of many, and taken time to reflect on what is truly important in our lives. We have celebrated the small moments and found joy in the midst of uncertain times. While many are getting back to normal, the road ahead to the “new normal” is exciting. Join this table as we reflect and share conversations on collective new found opportunities for a purpose filled post-pandemic life. 

  • How Do You Raise A Kid?

    Jeffrey Church, Political Science

    At this table, we’ll reflect on the conflicts that parents in all times and places have faced, and whether the contemporary age has any answers (or whether we’re worse off): how do you balance cultivating loyalty to tradition with a love of individual creativity?  How do you balance engendering a commitment of perfectionism with a sense of contentment and ease?  Are passion and reflection compatible?  Let’s compare our parenting successes and failures.

  • Houston Cool: The Best of the Bayou City

    Martin Cominsky, President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston

    Get a native Houstonian’s perspective on what hot in Houston – besides the weather! With 64 years of constant adventure and exploration, the moderator will discuss some of the best of the Bayou City.  We will talk about at least 10 special places to see and do exciting things.  We will cover some history along with the latest in current attractions, dining trends, and experiences that demonstrate that what’s Hot in Houston is really way cool!  Bring your ideas, too.  We will do a round robin of the table guest’s additions to Houston’s hottest spots. 

  • Anarchy in the UK? Brexit, Boris, and Buckingham Palace

    Robert Cremins, Director, Creative Work and Irish Writer

    There'll always Be an England, as the old song goes, but will there be a United Kingdom or a Great Britain ten years for now? This spirited conversation will start with a quick clarification of these terms and proceed to discuss the current state of this fascinating, tangled part of the world. Don't worry about objectivity--your conversationalist, a longtime student of British culture, is an Irishman.


  • The Waters of Life: Whisky Appreciation

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

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

  • “You can do without many things, but you cannot do without a teacher”

    Ted Estess, Founding Dean, The Honors College
    Elizabeth Trujillo, Founding Director, Initiative on Global Law and Policy for the Americas

    You can do without many things, but you cannot do without a teacher; wise words by Elie Wiesel. Teachers can not only teach us knowledge and useful skills; they are also masters of inspiration. As Pablo Picasso said, the meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. Teachers can indeed ignite in their students the light that guides their individual search for meaning in life. Did you have a teacher who made a difference in your lives? In what ways, did they shape you? And along your life journey, how have you become a teacher? Please bring stories of the people who have inspired you, shaped you in your life; they may be a teacher from school, or the friend, father, or even a nemesis at work. As we reflect on Teacher-Student relationships and their ever-evolving landscapes, we will discover the teacher within us that shines out to inspire others.

  • Is Self-Care Enough?

    Sean Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, The Jung Center

    Are you struggling? Become more resilient. Exhausted? You need to practice better self-care. Sound familiar? Somehow, these vital ideas have become ways of avoiding the very issues they get deployed to address. We will talk about the surprising origins of self-care and how it is being used, and misused, to address deeply embedded American cultural beliefs and practices around work. 

  • Personal Narrative: The Stories We Save

    Athena Jackson, Dean, UH Libraries

    Memories are often connected to objects. A worn t-shirt, a pocket watch, a cookbook – items like these are often saved to recall those moments when our lives changed dramatically. These items are more than cherished objects. They are physical representations of a significant time in our life or a story worth saving. Join me for a conversation about what stories matter to you, and, if you wish, please bring a saved object from home and gift us with your story.

  • Thought Bubbles: Political Humor at the Present Time

    Bill Kelly, Director of Government Relations for the City of Houston

    You look’n for the best table? Boom. We gots arts, we gots laughs, we gots it all. Join Bill Kelly, the director of government relations for the City of Houston, for a conversation about humor, politics, and the importance of laughter.

  • Add Five to Your Resistance! Peloton, Pandemic, Resilience

    Alison Leland, Director, Honors Pre-Law and Public Service

    What new challenges and practices have you taken up in the past two years? The power, sweat and community of Peloton? Meditation, walking, running, yoga, writing, or something else? Wordle counts too. 

  • We live in the greatest country in the world, so why are we so damn angry?

    Christine LeVeaux-Haley, Political Science

    Almost every year since the Reagan Administration, a United States President has uttered the words, “The state of our Union is strong.” But what happens when it is not? Popular consent, popular sovereignty, political equality, these are all concepts that define our democracy. And the strength of our nation depends on its citizens believing that these tenets of American democracy are intact, and that the government system is legitimate. This conversation is not about partisan politics and opinions, it is about a relatively fledgling nation, less than 250 years old, whose legitimacy is under fire. As children, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily and are taught that America is the greatest country in the world. As adults, do we still believe this is true? And should we?

  • Dad’s Not Dead Yet: Family Dysfunction as Competitive Advantage in HBO’s Succession

    Robert Liddell, Creative Writing
    Aaron Reynolds, Adviser, Medicine and Society

    In the world of Succession, who needs enemies when you’ve got family?   For three seasons now, members of the billionaire Roy family have schemed against, insulted, and turned on each other to a dizzyingly comical extent in their efforts to gain (or maintain) control of a vast media empire. Yet the constant bickering, betrayals, and power-plays can also be traced to warped conceptions of love stemming from decades-old family traumas and abuse.  In this conversation, we will explore both the comic and tragic sides of this equation, and table participants are encouraged to share favorite moments from the show to answer:  who is most (or least?) deserving be named the successor in Succession – and will this be a blessing, or a curse? 


  • Home: Leaving It, Finding It, Making It

    Bill Monroe, Dean, The Honors College

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that every human being, regardless of culture, geography, or historical moment, needs a home.  Homes, whether physical sites or imagined places, have overt, implicit, and complicated identities: Homes and houses are stories in themselves.  Around this table we will describe and discuss our various homes and think about leaving, finding, and making places that we call home.  Guests should feel free to bring pictures and “artifacts."

  • We Just Can't Stop Hacking: Our Obsession with Golf

    Iain Morrison, Philosophy
    Daniel Wallace, Novelist

    What is it about such an inherently difficult game that keeps us coming back for more? Discuss with a philosopher and a writer who think they have an answer to this question.

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

    Laura Murillo, President and CEO, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

    What do a single rose in a crystal vase, a box of tomatoes, a knitting needle, a basketball, and a tingling earlobe have in common? They are all signals to Dr. Laura Murillo to live life to the fullest every day. Dr. Murillo uses her lived experiences as the daughter of immigrants, a woman, an executive, a media producer and host to inform her perspectives and insights as an authority on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), guiding corporations, organizations, and institutions to adopt a genuine commitment to full representation, fairness, and inclusion. Lead in Life illustrates why everyone in a corporation has value and a voice that must be heard. Join Dr. Murillo for a stimulating conversation about people, power, and persistence.

  • The International Crystal Ball: What Will the Big Stories Be in 2022?

    Michael Pelletier, Executive Director, UH Institute for Global Engagement, Former Ambassador to Madagascar and the Union of the Comoros

    We’re adapting to COVID.  The Beijing Olympics are behind us.  For now, diplomatic talks and speculation about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine continue to swirl.  Looking forward then, what are the next big international news stories you expect to dominate the headlines over the coming year?  Where do you see the most hopeful and encouraging stories coming from, and what are your biggest worries for the future?

  • Data Science (with apologies to Marianne Moore) and the Genuine Human Experience

    Dan Price, Director, Data and Society, Community Health Worker Initiative

    Data science - like poetry - often seems to be more of a collection of buzzy words than a practice of real engagement with the world. The new Data & Society Program at the Honors College uses the tools of the humanities - critical reading, context, and the search for meaning - to help students find what is "genuine" in data science. At the table, we'll ask about how everyone sees the intersection of humanities, data, and community, with examples from our students' work in the field and from around the table. 

  • Russiagate!

    David Rainbow, History

    Hacked elections. Manchurian candidates. Russian strippers. What happened to the biggest story of the century that, well, sort of just piddled out? Join the conversation to chat about fact and fiction when it comes to the past, present and future of Russia's place in the world.

  • Cardboard Gods: Why Baseball Cards Matter

    Ben Rayder, Director, Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards

    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 2021 Topps baseball cards to open, assess, discuss, and trade with others.

  • The Great Resignation

    Brenda Rhoden, Assistant Dean, The Honors College

    Flexibility and work-from-home became the new normal for the vast majority of American workers in 2020, with resignation rates across the U.S. plummeting during the first few months of the pandemic.  However, over 35 million Americans have now quit their jobs since spring 2021 and many others are considering job changes in 2022 while also leaning out and disengaging.  What is driving the Big Quit (or Great Renegotiation) and how might this impact work life for years to come?

  • When Should You Change the Team You Root For?

    Dave Shattuck, Electrical and Computer Engineering

    In sports, there exist different kinds of fans, with many different levels of enthusiasm for the team they root for.  Some are diehard fans, who will root for their team forever, no matter what.  Some are bandwagon fans, who just follow teams when they are winning, or otherwise popular.  However, the questions for this discussion are ones for the thoughtful fan:  Is there any transgression or foul act that will cause you to change your loyalty to your team(s)? If so, how do you decide when to change? Where do the Cheating Astros and the Departed Oilers fit into these questions?

  • Does this still count as hummus? Food and Authenticity

    Rita Sirrieh, Associate Director, Energy and Sustainability

    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.

  • Healing Touch: The Therapeutic Power of Relationships

    Steve Spann, Founding Dean, UH College of Medicine

    This conversation will focus on the impact of compassionate, empathic healer-patient relationships on clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction, costs of healthcare, and healer joy, and what can be done to make health care less transactional and more relational.

  • Feeding the Alligators: Why We Crave Horror Movies

    Marina Trninic, Literature and Composition

    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?”  


  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Higher Education But Were Afraid to Ask

    Jonathan Williamson, Associate Dean, The Honors College

    Higher education has many external stakeholders, ranging from students and their families to donors and potential employers of university graduates. Yet, the nuances of how the higher education industry works are often opaque to observers from beyond the hedgerows. How do the incentives faced by colleges and universities shape who is admitted and how much financial aid they receive? Why are some institutions and the activities of their faculty and staff considered more prestigious than others?  Why does tuition keep going up at the same time colleges and universities claim financial exigencies? Why is there such a disconnect between the skills I need in an employee and what students know when they graduate? Why does someone who spends twelve hours a week in the classroom for nine months in the year take so long to grade a paper or answer an email? How does tenure, and its decline, shape how professors do their job and the public’s perception of academia? At this table, we’ll explore the state of higher education in the United States from an insiders perspective. Come ready with questions to ask and the willingness to both propose and to challenge tentative answers.