Porch Discussion covers education, planning morning lecture platform

Taylor Rogers | Staff Writer

Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, received mixed reviews on the morning lecture series from those attending Week Eight’s Trustee Porch Discussion.

One attendee suggested the lecture themes each week are becoming too broad, while another said they had become too specific.

“It’s wonderful to have different points of view about that,” she said in response.

Babcock, whose department handles the lecture series, Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the Writer’s Center and Special Studies, among other things, asked the audience: How do we have a greater impact on the overall populous?

Babcock referred to “Chautauqua In Depth,” a recent program that engaged Chautauquans and those new to Chautauqua during the off-season and within the season through various webinars and other platforms on the issue of improving public education in the United States.

Hugh Butler, president of the Chautauqua Property Owners Association, said he had participated and was unsatisfied with the experience because it did not foster any specific, concrete results.

“Speaker after speaker this year and next year is going to tell us that education is the thing to confront, and it’s got to change,” he said. “It’s broken the way it is. Why doesn’t Chautauqua take a leadership role? We’re the perfect place to do it.”

He added that becoming more specific and closer to topics might make that more plausible.

Babcock also walked attendees through the process of choosing lecture themes and speakers.

Her team generally begins examining ideas for themes 18 months in advance. She said they normally sort through close to 200 suggestions.

From these, a small group of the staff narrows them down to roughly 20 themes. They then discuss these more closely and reduce them to nine. Babcock said they try to include a range of topics each season.

She said the process of choosing speakers also begins far in advance. The idea is to bring in lecturers who will present different perspectives on the week’s theme.

It’s often helpful, she said, when Chautauquans have a connection to a speaker and offer to encourage a visit.

“Getting the 45 speakers is quite a trick,” Babcock said, adding that she generally is limited to a budget of $3,000 per speaker.

There is also a team of lecture evaluators to help gauge whether the speaker should be invited back.

During the Q-and-A of the discussion, an audience member asked how Chautauquans were responding to the recent Special Studies programs.

Babcock said when she arrived at Chautauqua she was charged with improving Special Studies, reducing the number of offerings while making topics more specific and the courses larger. Her current task regarding Special Studies is to increase the number of courses in science and more for the younger generations.

Babcock was also asked about the impact of Tuesday’s speaker, Dev Patnaik, who spoke on innovation in business as well as the benefits of empathizing with your customer.

“The ideas were too good to float away,” the audience member said.

Babcock agreed, adding that she had already suggested the staff view a video of Patnaik’s lecture and discuss his ideas.