From race inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic to the biology of the coronavirus, the Ithaca College Honors Program has been facilitating discussions about the pandemic with their weekly Rapid Response Salons.
The Honors Program began hosting these events on April 10 to discuss topics related to COVID-19. The salons were organized by the Steering Committee, a group of faculty members who coordinate honors academic programs, and were held each Friday on Zoom. Some topics have included the pandemic’s effect on education and on the 2020 presidential election.
The committee held six salons and plans to hold more salons during the summer. The next salon will be held June 5 and is co-sponsored with the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights to discuss black people, racist rhetoric and protests in the context of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody.
Alicia Swords, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and former director of the Honors Program said the committee decided to host these salons because they believed people need a space to discuss current events.
“Many of us are really hungry for an intellectual community in these times and for spaces and places to make sense of the pandemic and what it means in so many different areas of our lives,” Swords said.
Swords said the idea for the salons came from herself and other Steering Committee members Stewart Auyash, associate professor and department chair of the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education; Patricia Zimmermann, professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies; Jonathan Ablard, professor in the Department of History; and Brooks Miner, assistant professor in the Department of Biology.
Jon Gregory, associate director of alumni relations for affinity programs, became involved in the salon program later to help connect the committee with alumni, Swords said.
Each member of the committee specializes in a different field of study, and they used their knowledge and connections to find panelists for the salons. Miner, for example, had the idea to have a salon focused on the science behind coronavirus and used his connections in the Department of Biology to find panelist Scott Werneke ’06. Other alumni included Melinda Frost ’89, a technical officer for risk communication and community engagement at the World Health Organization, who discussed public health communications during the COVID-19 pandemic with Joslyn Brenton, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, and Susan Salahshor, program director of the physician assistant program .
Each salon consisted of three panelists who presented their discussion points then answered questions from the audience. The committee held the first salon as an experiment and did not plan to do more, but attendance for that meeting exceeded the committee’s expectations, Swords said. She said the first salon along with the five salons that followed had approximately 80–100 participants.
During a semester on campus, Honors Program events such as panels would attract an average of approximately 30 people, Auyash said. He said he believes the Zoom format of the meetings caused the increase in attendance because Zoom is more accessible than in-person meetings. He said he thinks being connected to a community is especially important during the pandemic.
“We’re all in our own little cocoon physically, and maybe even intellectually for many people,” Auyash said. “Having the opportunity to go beyond that I think is really important for our lives.”
These salons were open for anyone to attend, not just students in the Honors Program. The participants included students, faculty, staff, administrators, faculty from other institutions, Ithaca community members, first responders, public health workers and activists from 10 countries, Swords said.
Marco DiSanto ’20 participated in the May 22 salon, a discussion that was about the biology of the coronavirus. He said the range of perspectives the panelists offered is what made the discussion interesting.
“It was a good diversity of panelists, specifically in their professions,” DiSanto said “I think it does a lot to kind of calm everybody else down because knowledge is power, you know?”
Zimmermann said she wants to continue to hold these salons because she thinks the college community has a responsibility to facilitate discussions around the pandemic.
“I think that the salons actually embody and remind us what higher ed is about, people coming together to probe unresolved issues and to think about how to ask questions,” Zimmermann said. “It would be irresponsible, I think, for Ithaca College to not provide space to do what we do so well, which is to take the research we’ve all done, and figure out how it sharpens us to think through this pandemic.”