Photo courtesy of Gabe Gottlieb | Dr. Gabe Gottlieb is ending his three-year tenure as E/RS director with the last E/RS event of the school year featuring poet Claudia Rankine.
Thursday evening’s Ethics Religion and Society lecture, given by poet Claudia Rankine, will mark the last event in the series for this school year. It will also be the last event overseen by current E/RS director Dr. Gabe Gottlieb, who is finishing his three year tenure leading the program. For much of the past year, I have had the pleasure of covering the E/RS series for the Newswire. In anticipation of this week’s event, I sat down with Gottlieb to discuss his time directing the program and what he envisions for its future. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
RK: First and foremost, how did you get involved with the E/RS program and how did you work your way up to director?
GG: I’d been involved just as a faculty member attending talks and teaching E/RS courses. Typically every three years there’s a new director and any faculty can apply for that. So I had been pretty involved in going to talks and understood what E/RS was supposed to do so I thought “I have some ideas about speakers and how one might organize the series,” so I applied and they granted me the directorship. So, not a terribly interesting story.
RK: What do you think were some of your greatest successes or favorite moments as E/RS director?
GG: It depends on, I guess, how you measure success. So in terms of attendance and people coming and engaging with the series, I thought the Ta-Nehisi Coates (talk) was probably the most successful in that sense. We had an estimated 3,500 people come to that. So that meant a lot of non-Xavier people came and participated in the series. It was a timely moment, it was right after (President) Trump was elected, so I thought it was an interesting time to have someone like Coates.
There was a lot of faculty engagement, so one way of measuring success is that a lot of faculty were teaching his work and there were reading groups around it so a lot of the student body was reading him. So I think that’s a kind of success that E/RS can have where the series is not just a talk that someone is attending for extra credit, but is somehow integrated into their study. And in some ways I think that instance with Coates was probably the moment where there was the most of that.
But I also think the first year we did a series around 2001—the social unrest or racial riots (in Cincinnati). So that was probably one of my favorite moments. It was educational for me. I think every talk I’ve brought someone to be a part of I read their work and think about their ideas and often teach their work and so that’s really educational. But the 2001 (event) was different in the sense that it was a much more comprehensive engagement with a historical issue and a social justice issue. We did a panel which about 500 people from the community came to, it was mostly community but also many Xavier faculty and students. But we had lead up events where we showed a documentary, we had a panel with a judge who oversaw the Collaborative Agreement and a lawyer who was involved and community activists. So, it was great to be involved with that and get to know some of them and learn about the history of the Collaborative Agreement and the incidents of 2001. So that, I think, was the most successful in terms of community engagement. And there was quite a bit of media on that; City Beat did a piece and there was social media and traditional media, so it kind of helped contribute to a conversation that had been going on for a long time.
RK: How do you think the program changed under your care?
GG: I’m not sure if the program really changed in terms of what it is meant to be. I think what I did was in part take things that were kind of implicit in what E/RS is and is supposed to be and tried to emphasize them and make them more explicit.
I think two things are relevant here. One is there was quite a bit of community engaged work, particularly in the first two years. So there was the 2001 event and a series of events on cooperatives, the Ta-Nehisi Coates event and so those events were all community engaged partnering with different groups. So I think that’s something E/RS had not done as much of but it’s something that I think folks would like to see with E/RS. So I kind of ran with that and kind of emphasized that for the first half of the series. But the difficulty was that that’s a lot of work, and there’s a certain point at which to continue doing that, I thought, would wear me out. So consciously I tried to pull back a little bit, not because that’s not valuable, I think that’s the most valuable aspect. But—along with other duties I have, teaching, service to the university and research—it was not as viable. So that’s one thing I tried to emphasize, particularly in the beginning.
The other is I tried to switch up the kind of events that take place a little bit, rather than standard talks. We did the E/RS interviews which were always fun, I always enjoyed that. And then we did some panel sessions. So kind of switching up things a little bit. I think that’s something that will have an influence on future iterations of E/RS. So for instance, Richard Polt who’s taking over, he’s going to use that kind of model (of roundtable discussions) a little bit more. So I think that’s one way in which, I don’t know if it changed, but it emphasized something that E/RS could do that maybe hadn’t been fully appreciated.
RK: What do you envision for the next stage of the program under Dr. Polt?
GG: E/RS always tries to be engaged in the current moment. One of the requirements of E/RS courses, for instance, is that they engage socially significant issues. One way to think about socially significant issues are the issues that are in the media, that are in politics that faculty and students are currently concerned about. I tried to do that to some extent with a broad focus on issues of race and social justice. I think what’s exciting about what Dr. Polt is doing is that he’s really focusing in on American politics today and the political divides that have existed for a long time and have really become more polarizing and clearer and more divisive, perhaps, than they have been.
I think what’s exciting about his approach is that he wants to find ways to actually not further entrench ourselves in those divides but develop a way to converse across the divide for a better understanding of the respective positions. I think that’s really valuable. I think we’ll see a much more diverse group of political perspectives in his series which I think is a virtue. We’ll see many contemporary issues being discussed that students and faculty are thinking about. And I think he’ll end up broadening the topics in a way that my series was more focused on a couple issues and continually coming back to those issues—so I think we’ll have a broader view of certain topics.
RK: What’s something you want Xavier students to know about the E/RS program in general?
GG: Here’s the thing about E/RS, when I took over as director I wanted E/RS to have a more prominent position in the life of students. Since I’m not a student, I don’t know if I was successful in that way but I wanted the talks to be the kind of thing students would go to because they were interested in them and they spoke to the issues at Xavier and the current concerns they might have. But I think the interesting thing about E/RS is that all students at Xavier—undergraduates—are already involved in E/RS in some by virtue of taking E/RS courses. Now they don’t always realize that and that’s really up to faculty to highlight that to them and make those connections for them. But in some ways I think students are already committed to E/RS by virtue of being in those courses.
But I guess the one thing I would want students to know about E/RS or think about E/RS is that I think if students are open to what E/RS, in particular the lecture series, has to offer and kind of get themselves out of the mindset that they have to go to this or it’s an extra credit opportunity—if they look at it as a way to think about things that they already care about, then it can be a really enjoyable experience because it’s an enriching experience and helps you to engage the life of the mind in a way that is different from how you’re doing it in the classroom. I know that not all students see that as an end or as their own particular conception of the good—engaging the life of the mind—but whatever you think the good life looks like, my bet is that’s a part of it, even if it’s not the ultimate end. And so I think there’s a way of appreciating when E/RS is offering events and experiences and discussions that if you’re open to it will speak to the issues you care about and will be enjoyable. The less it’s an obligation and the more it’s a part of the student’s path to develop socially, morally a kind of political understanding of the world in these different ways, it’s an enriching and enjoyable experience. A lot of students already see that, and they’re excited about various speakers and they go and so on.
One of the things I saw in E/RS is a lot of students, for instance your cohort, students who would go in their first year of college and they have no idea who these speakers are that are speaking, and you just go and you sit in a lecture. And then you find maybe later in the semester you’re reading their work or maybe they’re being cited and discussed. Being open to those opportunities is valuable and enriching and you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to come back and influence you or shape you.
RK: On that note, I’ll never forgive myself for missing the Michael Sandel lecture during my first year. What do you think is the role or significance of E/RS to the life here at Xavier, to the liberal arts and Jesuit education we are here for?
GG: I think it’s essential. I think it’s essential in two ways. One, the course offerings are definitely a key to the Jesuit mission and identity of the university. The way I always put it is the E/RS core guarantees that students are exposed to ethical concerns, social-political issues (and) religion and it sort of guarantees that. Whereas in other forms that the curriculum might take or does take at other universities, that’s not a guarantee. So while you could do lots of technical or career-oriented majors, at Xavier you’re going to get that, elsewhere you may not. So I think that’s one of the things E/RS does is it guarantees that.
But I think really what the lecture series offers is a kind of intellectual engagement that, when it works in the way I think it could or should work, is a way of modelling what it’s like to be an intellectually engaged person. That is, you are seeking out knowledge, you’re seeking out conversation, and E/RS is providing that for you and you can take it up if you want, you don’t have to. And, the thing is, what I think students don’t appreciate often is that most students are going to enter into a life, into a career when you graduate. And when you graduate, you’re going to work a job really hard for a number of years—you’re going to be focused on that—you might get married or have a family and you’re going to be focused on that. And in many ways the life of the mind for many Americans becomes secondary and you focus on career and work. And this is a sweet moment in many student’s lives where they’re able to put to the side other more practical concerns and focus on their schoolwork but also focus on that intellectual engagement that is really valuable and builds a kind of moral and intellectual character that can be difficult to get or develop after graduation. The place in which most people do develop that after graduation is with religious practice. But there are other ways to fulfill that. So I think E/RS as a kind of intellectual endeavour beyond the classroom offers a way of doing that.
And so even when you graduate, most cities have series like this. E/RS is one, we open it up to the public and there all kinds of series like this in Cincinnati that intellectually engaged citizens take advantage of. But in some ways it requires developing that habit and understanding and awareness. So E/RS kind of models that I think.
RK: At the close of your three year tenure, any final thoughts?
GG: I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve read a lot things I would not have read. It’s expanded my teaching in ways that were unexpected. And I’m really glad to pass it on.
By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~