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Hot Seat Asks the Tough Questions

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Sabine Jean '11; John Brady, Professor of Geosciences; and Tina Wildhagen, Professor of Sociology, discussed their opinions on points raised by the audience.

In 2003, Smith alum Sadie Miller began the Hot Seat program, an ethics panel that meets twice a semester to discuss contentious ethical issues that affect our community. Last Thursday, the 17th, the Hot Seat panelists were Sabine Jean '11, geosciences professor John Brady, and assistant professor of sociology Tina Wildhagen. Hayat Abuza, Smith's Interfaith Program Coordinator, moderated as usual. The panelists sat before an audience of thirty or so students, all munching on the lunches they had brought.

The questioning started off on a collegiate note, as a student pulled a question from the basket that Hayat had prepared and directed it to Sabine: "Should unpaid community service receive academic credit?" Sabine was in favor, as was Professor Wildhagen, who said, "We don't take enough advantage of community-based learning." Professor Brady was a bit more skeptical, and wanted first to establish some rigorous criteria.

The topics under discussion soon grew more divisive, as Hayat began to draw from the basket of questions collected from the students. A question on whether lying to protect someone's feelings was immoral received no definitive answer, although Professor Wildhagen asserted that at least "in academics there's no gray area" when it comes to lying. The question "Should a couple trying to conceive be married?" diverted the discussion into the realm of relationships, with students joining in to share their opinions on long-distance romance and sex before dating. Although the conversation touched on things like masturbation and non-religious sources of morality, which often make people uncomfortable, the panelists continued to engage and all the participants continued in a spirit of sincere enquiry.

According to Hayat, this kind of professor-student exchange is one of the main goals of the program. "We want to see them interacting in an informal, fun way." Hot Seat also aims to get community members thinking about practical ethical issues that are relevant to them, instead of moral abstractions, and to provide a learning opportunity that is spontaneous and does not require academic preparation. Although Thursday's Hot Seat had no designated topic, there is usually a specific theme. Past subjects include money and dating, free speech and electioneering, the effects of social class on friendship, and the ethics of food and consumption.

I asked Naomi Barshi '12, one of the audience members, what she thought of the event. "It was fun to see the professors in a non-academic context." Indeed, she revealed that most of the geology students she knew turned out to see Professor Brady speak. "I wasn't disappointed. The questions were deep, and the answers too."

Anyone interested in some deep questioning and answering can attend the next Hot Seat on March 23rd, from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Campus Center Carroll Room. The topic will be reproduction, abortion, and childbearing.