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Destler Dodge

From ImagineRIT to our Gray Matter discussions, the exchange of ideas is something RIT is particularly enamored with. And the first ever TEDxRIT is all about ideas — especially ideas worth spreading. These ideas were clearly and proudly on display in and around Ingle Auditorium last Saturday. However, the event didn’t spring up from nowhere, as is true for any entirely student-run event, it wasn’t easy.

The Planning

For those of you who haven’t already fallen into its rhetorical rabbit hole on YouTube, the TED is a nonprofit organization that hosts talks on ideas. While the focus of the talks was once limited to technology, entertainment and design (hence, the acronym TED), the subject matter is now pretty much anything the organizers deem interesting. TEDx are independent offshoots of TED events. While TEDx events use the branding and standards of TED, they are organized without input from the larger TED media organization.

TEDxRIT was started by a simple question. TEDx Club president and second year Mechanical Engineering and Applied Math major Ted Johnson was inspired by the sharing of ideas that TED talks promoted.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why does RIT not have TED events?’” he said. As the idea progressed into a more solid reality, obstacles began to appear.

“It took quite a while getting a license, that was the first step,” said Johnson. “We actually did not get Student Government approval until October of 2016.” This TED license required the event occur on February 4, giving the club a short window of time to get everything together for the big day. TEDxRIT is entirely organized by students, spread across multiple colleges and year levels. Putting together an event of this scale while balancing work as full time students would be a tall order.

Perhaps the most vital bit of preparation for TEDxRIT was finding a lineup of engaging speakers. According to second year Computer Science major and Executive Curator Jordan Shea, selecting speakers was something of a balancing act.

“We don’t want to have everyone talking about science and technology,” said Shea. “We want to make sure everyone feels included in the talk.” As RIT is first and foremost a tech school, this process had to be more nuanced in its selection.

“One of the big things we’re looking for at TEDx is [that] what they’re bringing to the table is unique. Something that we haven’t really seen before,” said Shea. “I want to make sure that the people we have at TEDxRIT will exhibit the best qualities of RIT.”

The Speakers

The variation of speakers and their topics speaks to the breadth of RIT’s community as well as the values of TED. From the abstract wonder of astrophysics to the mechanics of the human body and everything in-between, TEDxRIT delivered an array of experts to the stage of Ingle Auditorium. 

Although TEDxRIT was planned for and by the RIT community, the speakers weren’t all necessary from the area. One speaker even came all the way from Long Island to speak. Tom Rizzuto, a professor of music history at Molloy College, drove over six hours to attend the event.

“I applied not knowing where Rochester was. I’m very far from home,” said Rizzuto. He had seen the open invite for TEDx speakers shared by a former student on his Facebook feed and said, “I had no idea how far New York was from New York.”

Rizzuto’s talk kicked off the event; his topic was about understanding how music can both divide us and unite us. “Music can help us gain a better understanding of one another,” said Rizzuto. In the talk, he discussed the divisiveness that now classic music debuted to; he cited Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as a once-controversial piece that has now become exceptionally well known and accepted.

The division that differing taste in music creates is especially pronounced throughout different generations of music listeners. Rizzuto explained that this phenomenon is caused by a lack of neuroplasticity in older people; because their brains have become less accustomed to new and unfamiliar stimuli, unconventional forms of music are often rejected. The solution to this problem is to constantly expose yourself to new things; while the science around the subject of neuroplasticity and brain health is fuzzy, however, there are so-called brain workouts that promote the reorganization of brain cells, according to studies from Stanford University.

Besides lessening arguments over who gets the aux cord, the ability to recognize new and sometimes unpleasant things can be an important one.

“I hope that people will understand that initial impressions of music are not set in stone, and that we can understand new things if we try,” said Rizzuto. “Music can help us gain a better understanding of one another,” he said. “Due to recent events in the world, it’s become very relevant.” This theme of empathy and connection was echoed by Myles Drake, a speaker who often talks to schools through the educational non-profit LiveDifferent. Maintaining meaningful relationships, according to Drake, is the most important part of living a happy life.

Other talks during the day were more about understanding ourselves than other people. And in the case of Industrial & Systems Engineering graduate student Pritam Poddar’s talk, it was about understanding ourselves in a very literal way. Clutching a DIY model of a rectum made from what looked like a tube and rubber band, Poddar extolled the virtues of squatting toilets. In addition to being a healthier resting position for the spine, squatting while relieving yourself is healthier for your bowels. Poddar compared “addiction to sitting” to smoking before its harmful effects were widely accepted. Though its margin of benefit is somewhat unclear, Poddar made a convincing and entertaining case for this revolutionary form of relieving yourself. It’s doubtful that many in the audience were fully swayed, but perhaps the seeds of a new, gastrointestinal revolution were sown in Ingle that day. 

But while some of the talks were more lighthearted, others were much more serious. Hayley Johnson’s talk was especially solemn. A current Graduate Resident Advisor and University of Rochester graduate student, Johnson’s topic was recovery from eating disorders. This topic is personal for Johnson, who has suffered from eating disorders in the past.

“In the aftermath of my personal experience, I wanted to share how I have rediscovered self-love and how others can too,” said Johnson. In her talk, Johnson discussed diversity in media, not just diversity in beauty standards, but diversity in depiction of people who suffer from eating disorders.

“A misconception about eating disorder recovery is that you can look like you have an eating disorder. Thats why a lot of people think its such a taboo topic,” said Johnson. “There are a multitude of people that look a variety of different ways and they’ve experienced some kind of self hatred in the form of an eating disorder.”

In the talk, Johnson acknowledged the role media has on the psychology of someone vulnerable to eating disorders. This influence is especially insidious on social media. 

“There are pro-anorexia websites that encourage the hashtag-thinspiration that they think young girls should aspire to.” Johnson also credited social media with popularization of the body positivity movement.

While healing the mind in the face of an eating disorder is a tall order by any means, Johnson discussed her own road to recovery and how she ultimately broke free from her eating disorder. She surrounded herself with positive influences and attempted to better understand the unhealthy impulses behind her compulsions.

“There’s not necessarily anything wrong with wanting to change yourself, but it’s the reasoning behind these behavioral changes that can get super unhealthy,” said Johnson. “You have to understand the reason behind changing yourself.”

The scope of the talks weren’t even limited to this planet. Dr. Manuela Campanelli, a professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences and founding director of the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, discussed the physics of black holes. Armed with an armada of visual simulations, Campanelli described the way black holes collide and the tremendous consequences of such collisions. It was immense and colorful and a lot to take in. But although the layman — or maybe just this layman — might not have comprehended the finer points of the talk, it was fascinating, nonetheless.

Although talks about ideas worth spreading were certainly the draw of the event, TEDxRIT was not limited to just speeches. Interspersed throughout the day were performances by clubs and organizations from RIT. The Latino Fraternity Lambda Alpha Upsilon performed a choreographed dance early in the day. Later, two members of RIT’s slam poetry collective Mental Graffiti performed. After lunch, the RIT Malaysian Student Association performed a traditional Malaysian dance routine. Although these performances were not the primary emphasis of the day’s events, they shone as examples of RIT’s diversity in ability and talent. In their own, more subtle way, these performances were communicating “ideas worth spreading” as well.

Moving Forward

The event also featured recordings of other TED talks, as mandated by TED. One of these was a talk by gonzo journalist Jon Ronson. The talk was about his experiences in researching psychopaths as well as what seemed to be a critique on psychiatric medicine. The second recorded talk was of Nigerian activist Chimamanda Adichie, who talked about stereotypes and cultural narratives. While both were entertaining, they seemed far removed from the live talks. It was somewhat surreal to see an actual live audience stoically watching a clip of a live audience howling with laughter.

This was one of the necessary evils of working with such a high profile organization. Although the TED name gives the event more recognition, it brings with it the limitations that TED imposes. For example, TED limits attendance to only one hundred people at TEDx events; the primary organizer of the event must attend a larger TED conference to be allowed more attendees.

This is a hurdle that Club President Ted Johnson is confident can be cleared.

“Next year we will be a larger event, where we can accept more than 100 people,” he said. Shea is also optimistic and ambitious as to what TEDxRIT can become.

“I want have TEDxRIT have its own reputation,” said Shea, who wanted the event to become an RIT institution comparable to FreezeFest or SpringFest. This is by no means a pipe dream; in its first year, TEDxRIT successfully reached its one hundred person attendee limit. But regardless of how large the next TEDxRIT will or will not be, the ideas worth spreading will almost certainly keep spreading.