Harrison Middleton University

Community Weekend, A Student’s Perspective

Community Weekend, A Student’s Perspective

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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March 15, 2024

Thanks to Bill Maniotis, current HMU student, for today’s blog.

I began my first course (HUM 701: The Great Conversation: The Cornerstone Course) at Harrison Middleton University in April of 2019, and I am about to finish up my coursework at HMU with my second comprehensive exam on the Great Idea of Love in April of 2024, before I move on to working on my Capstone project this summer. Trying to integrate my studies with my professional and personal life has been challenging over the past five years, especially since the COVID pandemic arrived and challenged us all in the spring of 2020.

And yet, I feel blessed to have been enrolled in a “distance” university during this time period, because HMU was able to stay open and allow me to continue my studies when so much of society was forced to shut down, isolating us from one another as we waited out the terrible virus inside our own homes. When the only in-person contact I had was with my immediate family members, reading Great Books, and designing the kinds of questions I hoped would provoke deep, thoughtful discussions helped me stay connected to the outside world. The ZOOM calls with my tutors became an integral part of how I navigated this dark epoch that descended so thoroughly for a few years over all of our lives.

Of course, as much as I appreciated the instant, nation-wide community I was able to join when I enrolled in my Doctor of Arts in Literature program here at HMU, I remember how excited I was when, in the fall of 2019, Harrison Middleton University announced a Community Weekend was being planned, with tutors, students, and university personnel from all over the country (and Canada, I believe!) descending on Tempe, Arizona to meet in person at the university’s physical site for lectures, live Socratic discussions, and fellowship. Alas, a sick child thwarted my efforts to attend that session, and I comforted myself that there would be another opportunity to join them in the future, not realizing that COVID would delay the next meet-up almost five years.

Thankfully, that wait came to an end last weekend, when Harrison Middleton University held another Community Weekend in Tempe, Arizona from March 1-3, 2024. From start to finish, the three-day event was a festive, engaging, and well-wrought effort to allow our far-flung community to gather together in one place and experience the added bonus of in-person fellowship.

The official festivities began with a reception at the offices that house the university on Friday afternoon. The staff at HMU laid out a nice table full of healthy appetizers and provided wine and spirits for the 25+ students, tutors, staff, and members of our humanities advisory council in attendance. An acoustic guitarist played softly in the background as we all met one another, exchanged small talk, and hung out together; it didn’t take long before we began to form a bond that carried us through the rest of the weekend. Aside from the intellectual stimulation that kept me energized throughout my stay, what I will remember most is the incredible hospitality of our hosts, the long walks we all took with one another to restaurants and venues near our hotel at night, and the thoughtful program of events we had available to us all weekend long. HMU staff, who do so much for all of us behind-the-scenes, joined in all the activities with us, while of course making sure all of us knew where to go, when to be there, and how to get the most out of all they offered us. And of course, this was all under the watchful eye of our university’s founder, David Curd, who was in attendance for much of it as well. We took a visit to the Desert Botanical Gardens on Sunday morning and attended a spring training baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers that afternoon.

The heart of the weekend’s activities was devoted, in true Harrison Middleton University fashion, to a discussion of Great Ideas and great works of literature. The main event began on Saturday, at 10 a.m., in a small room on the second floor of HMU’s offices. Students, tutors, staff, and humanities council members gathered to hear a spirited, interactive lecture by Joseph Coulson, the university’s president. The topic of Dr. Coulson’s talk, officially, was “Music, Poetry, and Ways of Being,” and he certainly discussed many of the things he laid out in the program summary, including why music “from Homer to Ginsberg, Sappho to Sexton” was “central to a writer’s prosody.” We explored whether or not “tension” was “the necessary arbiter between form and improvisation” in poetry and music and whether or not verse was ever “free.” Dr. Coulson discussed the way American Jazz changed “the way we read, write, and think”, especially over the last hundred years. We discussed the connection all of this had to “American exceptionalism, individualism, and freedom.”

As a member of the audience during Dr. Coulson’s discussion with us, I was impressed by several aspects of his talk. First, it was much more of a conversation than a lecture. While Dr. Coulson had content he wanted to cover and points he wanted to make (as evidenced by the low-tech “PowerPoint” he’d made, consisting of a series of handwritten bullet points he had scrawled on a piece of paper, and to which he referred from time to time), he asked numerous questions as he went along, and it infused an additional energy into the talk that was felt by all in attendance. At times, it seemed a seminar had broken out in the middle of his presentation, and I marveled at his ability to mix our comments in with his set remarks. In many ways, it allowed his talk to take on the improvisational quality of a jazz performance, and it certainly made him extend his talk by fifteen or twenty minutes! When we had lunch a few minutes after the talk ended, Dr. Coulson’s face lit up as we extended the conversation, and he commented that he couldn’t have asked for a livelier audience than we were, and that the back-and-forth enriched his own experience immensely.

After lunch, we learned that Dr. Coulson’s talk set us up quite seamlessly to discuss several pieces of literature we were asked to read to prepare for our group discussion. We discussed “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story about an older brother trying to understand the complex relationship his younger brother had to jazz and addiction, alongside the poems “American Smooth”, “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude”, and “I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land”, by Rita Dove, and “Eurydice”, by Willa Cather. While it would be impossible to capture the flow of the ninety minute discussion we had about this story, these poems, jazz, love, addiction, desire, oppression, and resilience, what I will take away is the thrill I got sitting around my tutors, and the students of Harrison Middleton University, listening with humility to the depth of their responses to one another, the provocative follow up questions they asked after each student shared their own thoughts, and the full participation of each person sitting around our table. The facilitator of our discussion, Gary Schoepfel, asked open-ended questions that required us to ground our initial answers in the text, but he masterfully followed his questions up with pointed queries based on the responses we had given. He often sat back and let us question one another, follow up on each other’s thoughts and ideas, and take his initial question into surprising new directions. When someone arrived to let us know that we needed to finish our discussion and head back downstairs to wrap up the day’s event, we all looked at one another, sighed deeply, and collectively expressed surprise that we had been talking for over ninety minutes with a steady, joyful energy that we didn’t want to abandon. It was around 3 p.m. at this point, and Gary let us talk for a few minutes more, before we finally agreed to end the conversation. We felt like we had made some real progress in understanding the stories and poems in some ways, but like we had barely scratched the surface in others. Lest we talk on past supper and into the night, we had to set our continued inquiries aside and head back to our hotel.

Photo: Dr. Coulson’s presentation

1 thought on “Community Weekend, A Student’s Perspective”

  1. Great post! That weekend was so fun, and it was great to meet with all that attended. I look forward to the next gathering.

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