2023 Great Conversation Table Topics - University of Houston
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2023 Topics and Conversationalists

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  • Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Future of Honors Education in Today's World

    Heidi Appel, Ph.D., Incoming Dean, The Honors College
    Stuart Long, Ph.D., Interim Dean, The Honors College

    Preparing Honors students to succeed in a complex and rapidly changing world requires transdisciplinary thinking and understanding of life beyond their own experience. Where should Honors education land on the universe-to-metaverse continuum?

  • The Future of Whiskey: Breaking Tradition to Satisfy Palates

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

    With whiskey demand on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic, well-known brands are having a hard time keeping their supply on the shelf. While Kentucky and Tennessee have long been the preferred states of Master Distillers looking to bring a new spirit to market, production in other states and experimenting with cask finishes is finding more traction in the market. Join us as we sample whiskies from craft distilleries looking to innovate the market sustainably and deliciously.

  • Artificial Excellence? Education in the World of AI

    Michelle Belco, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    How does education need to change when a chatbot can do your kid’s homework? Do we need to just figure out how to catch this new form of plagiarism? Or does what teachers and professors teach and how they teach it need to evolve like math education did with the introduction of the calculator?

  • Boldly Gone: Do We Still Have a Future in Space?

    Laura Bland, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    The visionaries of the Cold War were sure the future would carry us into the Final Frontier, but despite billionaires in low orbit and buzz about Mars, our cultural love affair with space has cooled off. What does space mean to us now, and what role, if any, do we see the stars having in our future as a species?

  • Just Cause: How We Grow Missions We Care About

    Jonas Chin, Honors Alumnus and Partnerships Lead, FreeWill.com

    Philanthropy remains strong but donors’ journeys are changing, in part because we're in the greatest wealth transfer in American history and a new generation of donors is emerging. We'll discuss causes we care about and share practices to build more support for them.

  • Honey, How Do We Raise the Kids?

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

    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’s Sacred Spaces – A Table-Top Tour

    Martin Cominsky, Honors Alumnus and President & CEO, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston

    Houston has been proclaimed the most diverse city in the United States and with that diversity comes a rich multi-faith community with beautiful worship and prayer spaces. We will discuss a picture book of spaces with facts about each location and the religion that it represents. We also welcome table participants to share their favorite sacred spaces with guests as well. Addresses and details will be provided for participants to visit these spaces on their own in the future or to participate in Interfaith Ministries Faith in our Community tours.

  • "Poetry Makes Nothing Happen": the Place of Poetry Today

    Sally Connolly, Ph.D., Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences

    The line "poetry makes nothing happen" appears in the middle of W. H. Auden's 1939 elegy on the death of W.B. Yeats. We'll be discussing the place and purpose of poetry in the 21st century. Can and does poetry have any relevance today? A recent New York Times opinion piece declared that poetry died 100 years ago in 1922 with the publication of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." Is this in fact the case? Why do we still reach for poetry at major events such as weddings or funerals even though many, if not most, people rarely read poetry for pleasure?

  • Murder Most Cozy: Why Do We Love a Beautiful Mystery?

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

    Scroll through the show categories on any leading streaming service, and between "Doctor Who" and Shakespeare, you'll find the paradoxical heading Cozy Mystery. Why are viewers (and readers) so attracted to foul deeds done in pretty places? Could Edmund Burke's ideas about the sublime and beautiful help us out here? Or George Orwell's thoughts about the "perfect" English murder? We shall investigate.

  • Cruising the River Spey: Speyside Scotland and Its Single Malts

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

    Tour the most famous of all the whisky regions of Scotland, Speyside. Taste the best expressions of the Speyside region and compare examples of whiskies produced in a variety of styles, exploring the range of what’s possible in Speyside yet also the common elements that make it one of the great whisky regions of the world.

  • Picturing Muhammad

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

    Why are pictures of the prophet Muhammad so controversial in modern society, and why are proponents and detractors so passionate about their positions? As the founder of a world religion, Muhammad was depicted by medieval artists out of veneration, but he has also been caricatured by modern cartoonists in the name of free speech. Recent controversies emerging from university campuses have renewed debate about the picturing of Muhammad and whether it constitutes free speech or hate speech. In this conversation, we will discuss both the challenges and opportunities these controversies afford universities today.

  • Creative Destruction: Should We Move Fast and Break Things?

    Jim Granato, Ph.D., Dean, Hobby School of Public Affairs

    Creative destruction — the process where new ideas, new technologies, new organization methods displace the old — has profound consequences. There is also an important ethical element to creative destruction. We will seek answers to the following questions: What are the economic benefits and costs to creative destruction? What are the social benefits and costs to creative destruction? What ethical dilemmas does creative destruction pose?

  • I Will Drink Beer Here or There—I Will Drink Beer Everywhere

    Marc Hanke, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    Beering with style — a discussion for beer enthusiasts. From where it is brewed and how it is brewed to flavours presented based on ingredients and the science behind it, a discussion about production of beer ingredients, implementation of ingredients, homebrew, local breweries, and national breweries. What glass are you using for your great discussion?

  • The Teaching Gig Economy: Educators and Schools Optional?

    Cathy Horn, Ph.D., Interim Dean, College of Education

    The pandemic accelerated a growing trend in learning — online environments and asynchronous learning. These opportunities have also increasingly emerged from nontraditional sources, including Coursera, Amazon, and Google. What are we to make of these expanding choices, both in terms of the ways they may be opening up pathways that were not previously available (because of cost, access, or both) and how they will impact the traditional educational systems in the United States and beyond?

  • Student, Athlete, Capitalist: NIL’s Influence

    Marsha Kowal, Ph.D., Director of the Honors Engineering Program

    Student athletes can now be compensated for their name, image, and likeness (NIL)? How does the nascent NIL-phenomenon affect not just the game but the very identity of individuals as student athletes? It has always been a delicate balance between life in the classroom and on the court or field. With real money at stake through NIL, how do athlete’s sense of priorities and sense of self change? How can their mentors guide them to discover a sustainable and health balance under this new NIL paradigm?

  • Your World after Covid

    Alison Leland, Director of the Pre-law Program, The Honors College

    Three years later, Covid has permanently changed how we live. What is the pandemic’s lasting legacy for how we work? Has our association with our health and how we manage it shifted significantly? How have politics at the national and at the local levels been affected?

  • Let's Talk about What's Right with America

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

    What are America’s triumphs? What challenges are Americans overcoming? Let’s consider first time marathoners and others who have taken on previously unimagined goals. What is right about America is Americans. The table will consider how we can best give them — and us — the attention they deserve. Guests are encouraged to think about their family heroes and folklore and to tell their stories.

  • I, Robot: Will AI Replace Human Beings?

    Heidar Malki, Ph.D., Interim Dean, College of Technology

    Artificial intelligence and machine learning have received tremendous attention in recent years. Every year we rely on more on AI based machines, equipment, devices, and gadgets. In particular, intelligent robots are replacing humans in manufacturing, industrial, and military environments. Will the speed, intelligence, and reliability of these AI based machines ultimately replace human beings? What are the implications of such a shift in how we work?

  • Seeds of Success: Cultivating Attributes and Skills

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

    What about ourselves can we nurture into a successful attribute or skill? What skills — intellectual, athletic, or social — can be acquired through learning, and what skills are fixed by our nature? In watching younger people grow up into teens and young adults, how can promising attributes visible early on be fully realized?

  • We’re All in This Together: Health as a Community Process

    Dan O’Connor, Ph.D., Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences

    Is health a community or social construct, rather than an individual trait or state? Can we understand health as a process, rather than a result? To what degree should we think of health as a combination of individual lifestyle choices and “genetics?” Or are societal factors equally important? The conversation will seek a broader view of health and how helping your neighbors, broadly speaking, become healthier makes you healthier.

  • Looks Good Enough to Eat: Is Food Art?

    Patricia Belton Oliver, Ph.D., Dean, College of Architecture

    Modern cuisine’s range of culinary skill, invention, and interpretation is fascinating. Increasingly experimental and daring, foodies rush to the latest craze in haute cuisine in much the same way that art lovers make the rounds of contemporary galleries. Madeleine Gryznaztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago says, “Food is not art. It can be artistic, however, by which I mean that it can be beautiful, touch you deeply through your senses, and move you emotionally, much as a wonderful work of art can.” Is food meant to simply be eaten? Or can it also be art?

  • All Engagement, Foreign and Domestic

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

    The oath of office for government positions includes a pledge to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In recent years, we have seen increasingly complicated challenges to our country from sources both foreign and domestic, and we have seen ongoing debates over whether the best course of action is to focus domestically or engage globally. Do we follow the path of Brexit, trying to disentangle from international partnerships, or do we work together in partnership? Should we prioritize working at a global level to resolve challenges like pandemics and climate change, or should we focus on what we can do locally and domestically? Or, do we in fact best advance our domestic and international policy goals and strengthen our country and its foreign policy best by improving our domestic situation – politically, economically, socially?

  • Is Resistance Futile? How to Welcome Our AI Overlords

    Dan Price, Ph.D., Director of the Community Health Worker Initiative, The Honors College

    Artificial intelligence is both a promise and a threat. The new advances in artificial intelligence have been in two directions: improving process control (including population surveillance) and imitating human creativity. What can a university do to mitigate the threat while encouraging the promise that AI offers? Can a humanities approach to intelligence save the day?

  • The War in Ukraine

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

    Come discuss the war in Ukraine, how it started, and what it means for the future of Europe and the world.

  • Cardboard Gods: Baseball 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 2022 Topps baseball cards to open, assess, discuss, and trade with others.

  • Focus in the Age of...SQUIRREL!

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

    Let's face it. We live in an age awash with shiny, glossy stimuli. With our eyes perpetually on screens and sophisticated multiplatform marketing strategies competing for eyeballs and clicks, it's no wonder attention spans are shortening and... Where were we? Oh yes. Ours will be a conversation not so much about the psychological or physiological reasons attentions spans vary, as it will be about the cultural phenomena associated with our "Age of Distraction". How have distractions and distractibility reshaped our culture, society, and habits? We'll discuss the obvious and subtle changes and think about their negative and positive implications. Let's see how long we manage to stay on topic.

  • Characters We Love to Hate – Or Hate to Love? Tales of Bad Behavior

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

    It’s no secret that we’re drawn to – and even identify with – fictional characters who flout moral conventions and behave badly. What is it that we find so compelling about such characters we would presumably never associate with in our daily lives? What’s more, how might the continued popularity of such characters in the 21st century – think The Sopranos, The White Lotus, Breaking Bad, Gone Girl, the recent Cate Blanchett movie Tár, The Joker, Killing Eve, and many more – speak to our own changing real-world notions of family, relationships, politics, power, success, and more? Table participants are encouraged to share their own examples from literature and pop culture – the badder, the better!

  • One Bite at a Time: How Did Houston Become a Great Food City?

    Todd Romero, Ph.D., Food Historian & Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences

    Houston’s robust economy, diverse communities, and entrepreneurial spirit produced one of the most interesting culinary destinations in the U.S. What about Houston’s location and unique history make it so?

  • Regenerative Medicine: Have We Finally Found the Fabled Fountain of Youth?

    Amy Sater, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Biology and Biochemistry

    Fabled fountain of youth? Perhaps not. But recent work, some carried out at the University of Houston, suggests that coaxing adult cells into remembering their own lost youth may offer a key to tissue regeneration and repair for conditions ranging from Crohn's disease to heart attacks. We'll talk about prospects for tissue repair and dip into the biology underlying these mechanisms. We'll also share our thoughts about which human diseases might be addressed by this approach, and how regenerative medicine might help us live healthier lives for longer.

  • Tenure In Higher Education: Should We Let Radical Professors Teach Our Children?

    Dave Shattuck, Ph.D., President of the Faculty Senate

    Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently proposed ending tenure at public institutions of higher learning in Texas, stating "I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students." Does tenure support the poisoning of student's minds? Is tenure good or bad or something else? Is tenure worth the costs?

  • Thinking Plants: What's on Their Minds?

    Jack C. Schultz, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Penn State University and former Director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri

    Plants do more things than we imagine. They communicate with each other and with animals in a language of their own. Plants actively search for light. Some are parasites, hunting for hosts to infect. They actively defend themselves against enemies with sophisticated weapons (some of which you'll sample during dinner). Plants sniff the air and can tell us about air quality. They even respond to sound and can tell they're being eaten. These active responses to so many things humans do make us wonder whether plants are 'conscious'. Do they 'know' what they are doing? Are they self-aware? Do they have memories? If you talk to your houseplants, are they listening? Let's talk about the crazy things plants can do and examine the potential impacts on our relationships with them.

  • Sports Analytics: Revolutionize or Hype?

    Zuhair Siddiqui, M.D., M.P.H., Sports Enthusiast and Pediatric Anesthesiologist, Texas Children’s Hospital

    Since the popularization of Moneyball, analytics has been hailed as the great frontier in sport. However, in the last 20 years, results have been mixed. The sports analytics industry has spawned and promoted countless careers, but has analytics made a real difference? Or, is Charles Barkley right?

  • What Am I? Exploring the Self

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

    We think of ourselves as a single entity persisting through time, bounded by our skin, located somewhere in the head. But it’s hard to make sense of that idea philosophically or scientifically. Is the self like a narrative, a story we tell ourselves to interpret our experiences, or should we understand the self more collectively, as constituted by our relationships and the roles we adopt in our communities? Or is the concept of the self merely an illusion, as the philosopher David Hume along with many Buddhist philosophers suggest?

  • Sunny Places with Shadowy People: The White Lotus

    Marina Trninic, Ph.D., Faculty, The Honors College

    Hailed as one of the best TV programs of the last two years, HBO’s The White Lotus has captured audiences and critics alike. From the undulating vibrations of its opening score to the striking beauty of its sea-side settings, what’s not to like about this unique murder mystery anthology? Watch the two seasons before our conversation and come ready with your reactions, questions, and insights about your favorite characters and plot lines as we discuss what sets this show apart from others that also look to indulge our desires to watch the tragicomic foibles, if not deadly flaws and conflicts, of the ultra-rich!

  • The Sport of Philosopher-Kings: Why Do People Fly Fish?

    Jonathan Williamson, Ph.D., Associate Dean, The Honors College

    Flyfishers don’t necessarily limit their enjoyment of the sport to casting their line on local waters with the hopes of landing the next big one. Many tie their own flies, construct their own leaders, or build their own rods. Some travel long distances to for the thrill of the chase of a new species. They might collect antique fly rods made of bamboo or frame an exotic fly with no intention of ever getting it wet. What is the sport’s appeal that leads to these extra pursuits? Is there something about flyfishing that appeals to our intellectual nature? Is it a hobby for thinkers?

  • Restaurants Feed: How Are Influencers And Social Media Shaping Where We Eat?

    Clarice Zehri, Honors Alumna and Legal Recruiter, Baker Botts L.L.P.

    It’s an age-old question: “Where should we eat tonight?” How we answer that question is changing. Our social media feeds are filled with beautiful people eating delectable food in gorgeous spaces. The content influencers create is affects where we eat. But how is that dynamic changing the restaurant industry itself? Do we notice menus changing? Do restaurants look and feel different? Do we experience greater or lesser satisfaction in our dining experiences in this new world of culinary influencing?