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A new campus forum debates current events

Three couples kiss while holding a rainbow flag on which is printed, "to Russia with Love".

A Valentine’s Day kissing protest in Beijing was aimed at Russia’s controversial anti-homosexuality laws. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“It’s good to talk about these issues facing us today, I think differently about them now that I have heard other perspectives.”
Meghan Capeling

The Syrian chemical weapons attack. Gun control in America. The “Miley effect.” In Focus, a new monthly discussion forum held on the North Campus, brings students and faculty together to have intelligent conversations about a chosen theme, whether it be a political event or a pop culture phenomenon.

Hosted in the Honors College in Capen Hall during the fall and spring semesters, In Focus sessions are led by faculty experts, who often incorporate their own scholarly work into the discussion.

The rules are simple: Feel free to voice your opinions, but be respectful. So far, an average of 40 students of all creeds, colors, ages, majors, nationalities and personal backgrounds are showing up at each session to do just that.

Last semester, October’s topic was Miley Cyrus’ and Robin Thicke’s controversial performance at the Video Music Awards. Social work professor and Honors College mentor Laina Bay-Cheng came up with the topic and based the discussion around race and gender.

The resulting debate went into double overtime that day, moving beyond Cyrus’ twerking and Thicke’s lyrics. “It was a springboard into double standards and other gender roles,” says Chris Bragdon, an adviser in International Student and Scholar Services, who developed the series along with colleagues in the Honors College and the Intercultural and Diversity Center.

In early February, Jonathan Katz, a nationally prominent scholar in queer art and history who directs UB’s doctoral program in visual studies, led a debate on the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s anti-gay laws, asking students to think about broader views of GLBTQ issues, including local versus national models of queer and gender identity.

Freshman Meghan Capeling, a presidential scholar and Honors College member, was first attracted to the series by the Miley discussion. “My roommate and I were talking about her one day, and then I noticed the posters [advertising the In Focus session] around campus,” Capeling says. Both she and her roomie have since attended other sessions, including the one on Sochi. “It’s good to talk about these issues facing us today,” she adds. “I think differently about them now that I have heard other perspectives.”