Student-led lectures thrive on pure curiosity

Grassroots “tea room” series offers a stage for intellectual passion, from math theorems to food science to Shakespeare.

Sporting a thick beard and a cozy wool sweater, Dan Ioppolo spent a recent Saturday evening waxing philosophical inside a classroom at Ryerson Physical Laboratory with a few other undergraduates.

As part of the student-led “Tea Room Lecture Series,” the third-year philosophy major spent the better part of an hour expounding on the works of Neo-Aristotelian philosopher Phillipa Foot. His audience was a handful of College students who all set aside a chunk of their weekend for the sake of intellectual curiosity and friendship.

The tea room series debuted a year ago, the brainchild of a few students from Snell-Hitchcock Hall. They shared an interest in esoteric mathematical topics and a willingness to help their friends grow as scholars and public speakers.

Beyond that, the idea was to “talk about interesting things in math to convince people that math didn’t actually suck,” says series co-founder Noah Schweber.

Schweber gave the first lecture, explaining Lindström’s theorem, a proof that says first-order logic is the strongest usable system of logic. The third-year math major had been preparing to give a talk about the theorem at an upcoming math conference; the practice run proved helpful.

“Presenting to friends is infinitely harder than to an audience of strangers,” he says.

The following tea room lecture, given by second-year Peter Borah, concerned pre-Newtonian cosmology. By then, series attendees were hooked.

Underground talks ‘refreshing’ for participants

While the talks are called “tea room lectures,” the draw has never been about getting an Earl Grey fix. The name comes from the original site of the talks, the lounge at Snell House. The group later moved to Ryerson to accommodate housemates who wanted to use the lounge to relax.

“We decided it was rude to do it in the common room,” says Alla Hoffman, a third-year history major and another lecture co-founder.

Volunteer lecturers kept coming forward, and now the series is often double-booked, with lectures running on both Saturdays and Sundays. Speakers cover a wide variety of academic topics beyond the original focus on math. It’s still a mostly underground group, with a typical audience of six or seven people. Organizers don’t actively advertise the talks.

Katie Goldberg, a second-year in Theater and Performance Studies and Comparative Literature, recently gave a talk on “Shakespeare for the Actor.”

She guided her housemates through the basics of acting technique, and asked them to consider possible interpretations of the line, “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Goldberg good-naturedly ribbed a friend who proposed that the objective of the line is “to narrate.” “That has got to be the worst interpretation of Richard III I’ve ever heard,” she said.

Still, she reminded the group not to take the exercise too seriously. “You can pretty much do what you want. Shakespeare is dead.”

“I love lecturing to my peers,” Goldberg says. “You can get away with being outrageous without fear of being fired, sued, or slapped, because it’s all between friends.”

More than just sharing knowledge

The lectures serve a purpose higher than simple extra-curricular fun, Schweber says.

“Most of us want to be a professor or want to be a teacher, or are vaguely interested, on some level, in giving other people knowledge,” he says.

Despite the small group, fiery debate is not uncommon. “People argue a lot, but no one gets angry,” says Andrew Hastie, a third-year economics major.

Some lectures inspire more passion than others. Recent topics have included “Introduction to Food Science, or How to Make a Better Stir-Fry,” “A Brief History of Perpetual Motion Machines,” “How to Find a Job,” and “Kafka.”

Even if a topic doesn’t arouse popular interest, regulars say student lecturers are happy to make a personal connection. “People basically come because they want to see their friends give a talk,” says Ioppolo.

Organizers tried to draw a larger audience at the end of Winter Quarter by hosting an afternoon of 15, 90-second “speed” lectures. In a note to fellow residents at Snell-Hitchcock Hall, first-year Hillel Wayne made a tongue-in-cheek appeal:

“You know what UChicago needs? More lectures. Lectures by students, so you can mock them and not worry about your grade ... Anything from the economics of the porn industry to an antifeminist critique of Twilight is fair game. ”