Key Conversations Past Episodes

           
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Episode #1: Harold Hongju Koh

In our first episode, Fred Lawrence chats with his longtime friend, Professor Harold Hongju Koh from Yale Law School. Their intimate and revealing conversation covers Koh’s expansive knowledge of foreign affairs, his views on the state of our nation, and the lasting influence of a father whose curiosity and capacious mind still inspire him.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT HERE  

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Episode #2: Ayanna Thompson

In our second episode, Fred Lawrence welcomes professor Ayanna Thompson. She specializes in Renaissance drama and issues of race in performance. She discusses the universality of Shakespeare while homing in on how he would have reacted to racialized readings of his work. Would he recognize that race plays a role in his plays? Would he agree with Thompson that one of his characters delivers “the first Black-Power speech in English”? What would he think of “Hamilton” and its non-traditional casting? These and other fascinating questions make for a memorable conversation with one of the country’s premiere Shakespeare scholars.

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Episode #3: Amy Cheng Vollmer

In this episode, Fred Lawrence welcomes professor Amy Cheng Vollmer from Swarthmore College. A microbiologist whose research centers on how bacteria react to different types of stresses, discusses her ongoing fascination with bacteria, why failure is important in her field, the need for STEAM, not just STEM, and what it means to her to be a Chinese-American woman in the sciences.

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Episode #4:  Paula Stephan

As a college student, Professor Paula Stephan fell in love with economics as a way to understand and influence systems that impacted many people's lives. Years of documenting and analyzing the role of gender in academic performance and the impact of monetary and status incentives on scholars and universities have led her to startling conclusions. In this episode, PBK's Fred Lawrence asks the Georgia State University Professor to go beyond the research.

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Episode #5:  Ed Larson

Jefferson, Adams, Washington. Their names are synonymous with the bold experiment that was the United States in the late 1700s. But there is so much more to these men who wrestled with the notion of building a nation and battled one another politically. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Larson tears into the pages of history to offer insight into what made these presidents tick. And what today's leaders can learn from them.

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Episode #6: What Should We Make of the College Admissions Scandal?

In this special extended episode, Phi Beta Kappa Secretary and CEO Fred Lawrence invites two experienced colleagues to a frank discussion about the unfolding college admission scandal that has rocked higher education. There are no easy answers, and responsibility is spread around generously, but the exchange is one that will certainly spark discussions at home, in the classroom, and in vaulted academic halls around the country.

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Episode #7: Lisa Anderson

Her passion for Middle East studies was ignited during a college course with an intense teacher. She immersed herself in the region’s history and language--and has never looked back. For this episode, Professor Anderson retraces her growing enthusiasm for and deepening knowledge of the Arab world, which saw her break scholarly ground in Libya, take up residence as a professor at The American University in Cairo, and eventually landed her in the president’s office mere weeks before the upheaval of the Arab Spring.

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Episode #8: Susan Birren

The human brain has 100 billion cells, and there’s still so much to discover about it. Brandeis University neuroscientist Susan Birren has dedicated her distinguished career to decoding the mysteries of how the brain functions and how it communicates with the rest of the body. In this episode, she talks to Fred Lawrence about the challenges and triumphs of such a singular pursuit.

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Episode #9: Edwidge Danticat

While promoting her new book, an accomplished short story collection called Everything Inside, the PBK member and noted writer talks about her formative experiences, like imagining herself not as Madeline but the classic’s author, and writing for a high school paper in New York City a mere year after immigrating to the US from Haiti. She opens up about “borrowed memories” in her life and her work, about the role of death and ritual in healing, and the continuity of purpose in her writing.

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Episode #10: Lebowitz Prize Winners

Philosophers Michael E. Bratman, from Stanford University, and Margaret P. Gilbert, from UC Irvine, are this year’s recipients of the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution, presented by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the American Philosophical Association. In their respective work, each has expanded on the question of “What is it to act together?” based on sometimes divergent philosophical underpinnings of how two or more individuals interact in a collaborative effort.

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Episode #11: Dava Newman

Dava Newman has spent her career figuring out how to get humans to space, and helping them not only to survive there, but also to thrive. She is the Apollo Program Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and the former NASA Deputy Administrator. Her multidisciplinary work combines aerospace biomedical engineering, control modeling, biomechanics, and human interface technology, and she is a leader in advanced spacesuit design. In this episode, she talks about her journey from her childhood in Montana to college at Notre Dame to her research at MIT to a leading role at NASA, in addition to how close she thinks we are to getting humans to set foot on Mars.

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Episode #12: 2019 Book Awards Dinner Keynote Roundtable

The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are given annually to three outstanding scholarly books published in the United States. 2019’s winners are Imani Perry for Looking for Lorraine: the Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry; Adam Frank, for Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth; and Sarah Igo for The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America. They revealed their thinking behind the works we celebrated and shared stories of unmatched discovery, spoke of love beyond adversity, and fueled our collective imagination with examples of unbound human curiosity.

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Episode #13: Alfred Spector: Envisioning the Synergies between the Liberal Arts and Computer Science

In this episode, Dr. Alfred Spector offers an optimistic take on the evolving relationship between the liberal arts and computer science. Reflecting on his career experiences in creating a company, working for Google and IBM, and now diving into economic modeling, Spector provides a fascinating account of the evolution of computer science both inside and beyond the academy.

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Episode #14: Laura Brown Traces Our Love of Animals Through Literature

Professor Laura Brown’s endeavors as a literature reader and critical writer have provided a window into humans’ relationships with various species throughout history. She reveals to host Fred Lawrence what alterity, monkeys, feminist portrayal, and imperialism have to do with each other and what she considers to be the status of the humanities in academia.

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Episode #15: Middle East Scholar Jamsheed Choksy Retraces the Roots of the Western Belief in Good and Evil

Much of Western culture and religious beliefs are grounded in a bifurcated notion of an epic power struggle between dueling forces, often defined as “good” and “evil.” This underlying premise influences how we parent, how we practice faith, how we choose vocations, and how we vote. In this episode Jamsheed Choksy, chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, provides surprising historical context for how the West’s construction of these binary elements evolved.

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Episode #16: Dan Simon on the Intersection of Law and Psychology

While writing his dissertation, Dan Simon began to wonder how judges make decisions not from a legal, sociological, or economic perspective but rather from a psychological one. Today, the USC law professor has built a career investigating how factors of the mind—such as memory, false confessions, and the framing of interviews—influence rulings in the criminal justice system.

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Episode #17: Ken Ono

He got a call to consult on the Hollywood film The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel. The director was so impressed with his knowledge of the life and work of Indian math prodigy Ramanujan that he invited him on set. By the time the credits rolled, he was an associate producer on the movie. But Ono’s own life would make a fascinating big-screen story: a high school dropout pushes away from an intellectually gifted family and his father’s academic legacy, only to be given a chance at college and advanced studies in the very field he avoided for so long.

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Episode #18: Dr. Angel B. Pérez 

As a high school student, a college counselor created what Dr. Angel B. Pérez calls his “pivotal moment”—one that would set him on a path to college, a career in higher education, and now the chance to lead NACAC, the nation’s largest organization of college admissions counselors. His path from the South Bronx to the academy is extraordinary, as are the times in which he steps into this leadership role.

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Episode #19: Peter Meineck

The NYU's professor elaborates on how to better understand and live through today's social and moral turmoil by learning from the great theater works of antiquity. Meineck illustrates what Greek drama can teach us about understanding trauma, being informed voters, embracing difference, and what we should, and shouldn't, expect from leaders and heroes

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Episode #20: Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel 

As a critical reader and writer, Professor Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel at the University of Miami contextualizes colonial literature and contemporary Caribbean and Latino narratives, exploring issues of gender, sexuality, and migration.  She speaks with Fred about feminism in colonial times, the literary thread between islands ruled by different empires, and what art and activism reveal about colonial legacies.

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Episode #21: Corey Brettschneider

Brown University’s Corey Brettschneider has spent years studying constitutional law and the purpose and limits of the presidency. As the 2020 election draws near, he speaks with Fred about the likelihood of bringing back constraints to the most powerful office in the land, why the words in the oath of office matter, and what our current political climate reveals about civil liberties, civil rights and the constitutional powers of the three branches of government.

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Episode #22: Joseph Aldy

Former Special Assistant to President Obama for Energy and Environment, Professor Joseph Aldy is an expert in thinking creatively about how climate change-friendly policies can bolster the economy in times of crisis. He reflects on lessons from 2009, and looks ahead at how we can build an American economy that is more resilient to risk in a post COVID-19 era.

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Episode #23: 2020 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards

The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are presented annually to three outstanding scholarly books published in the United States. The 2020 winners are Leah Price for What We Talk about When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading; Sarah Parcak for Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes the Past; and Sarah Seo for Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. During the ceremony, the authors shared their thought process that sparked their ideas, marveled at how much our quotidian experiences tell us about the human condition, and reflected on the individuals who spurred them on to pursue the work we honored.

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Episode #24: Evie Shockley

The Rutgers professor, who left a career in law to pursue literature, speaks with Fred about the role of poetry in social justice, documenting and analyzing our lived experiences through poems, and why, contrary to popular belief, poems are one of the most accessible mediums of expression. And she reads two of her own.

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Episode #25: Janet Westpheling

Professor Janet Westpheling knew early on she wanted to be a scientist. Today, her research at the intersection of academic and industrial microbiology addresses some of the most pressing energy issues of our time. The University of Georgia professor speaks with Fred about her upbringing, her work at The Center for Bioenergy Innovation, and her role as an educator and champion of scientific inquiry inside and outside of the lab.

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Episode #26: Roger Guenveur Smith

The writer, actor and director creates characters that resonate in the moment and speak compellingly to the day's dilemmas. From his collaboration with Spike Lee, to his portrayal of Frederick Douglas, Otto Frank and Rodney King, he unfolds fascinating stories that span his prolific career, like his unlikely decision to audition for the Yale School of Drama.

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Episode #27: 2020 Lebowitz Award Winners

The Lebowitz Award is presented each year to a pair of outstanding philosophers who hold contrasting views on a topic of current interest in the field. The 2020 winners, University of Chicago’s Agnes Callard and Yale’s Laurie Paul, speak with Fred about their differing approaches to understanding and explaining what principles and mechanisms guide decision making when people face significant decisions.

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Episode #28: Paul Robbins

His research focuses on human interactions with nature and the politics of natural resource management. The professor and dean at the University of Wisconsin speaks with Fred about how the natural environment affects everything from racial and social justice to the population bust. And he reveals what coffee, frogs and workers can teach us about the survival of wildlife and humans.

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Episode #29: Susan Wolf

The moral philosopher ponders why being happy and acting morally may not be enough to satisfy us. She believes we need a vocabulary of meaning in public discourse, and suggests we strive for vitality––not joy––in the face of uncertainty and suffering.

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Episode #30: Martin Gruebele

Professor Gruebele studies a broad range of fundamental problems in chemical and biological physics, and thinks deeply about the course of scientific inquiry. He finds fascinating ways to explain things to Fred in this episode, like what Zebrafish and chemical reactions in the Ozone layer can teach us about collaboration, and why more policymakers and scientists should be talking to one another.

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Episode #31: Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

Professor Elizabeth Cullen Dunn has spent years studying displaced people living in refugee camps around the world, and has sometimes even been claimed by residents thanks to her ability to acclimate with her research subjects. Here, she explains why geography is a way of thinking, how we can reconsider the role of charity in resettlement efforts, and what the digital revolution has to do with forced migration.

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Episode #32: Tracey Meares

Professor Tracey Meares is a nationally recognized expert on policing. She speaks with Fred about the need to reimagine public safety and reform, the distinct American policing experience in a global context, and what it’s like trying to convince her law school students that criminal procedure is actually about constitutional law.

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Episode #33: Bro Adams

William "Bro" Adams, the former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and former President of Colby College and Bucknell University, brought the humanities with him through his professional journey. While doing so he challenged colleges to rethink the impact liberal arts and sciences had on students, and the role they could play in the broader general public. He shares how the meaningful life and the productive life can coexist and how they can both be served in higher education.

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Episode #34: Karen Fleming

The biophysicist has been running a discovery research lab for two decades at Johns Hopkins. She speaks with Fred about the randomness underlying all molecular processes, computer models that enable the integration of multiple scientific disciplines, and what she sees as compelling strategies for a more inclusive pipeline for the sciences.

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Episode #35: 2021 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards

The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are presented annually to three outstanding scholarly books published in the United States. The 2021 winners are Jenn Shapland for My Autobiography of Carson McCullers;  Sarah Stewart Johnson for The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World; and Alice Baumgartner for South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War. During the ceremony, the authors shared their thought process that sparked their ideas, found commonality in courage, and reflected on the moments that spurred them on to pursue the work we honored.

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Episode #36: Douglas S. Massey 

The multidisciplinary scholar’s wide-ranging interests led him to demography and population research early on. He speaks with Fred about what people generally misunderstand about immigration into the U.S., how border enforcement has backfired, and why racial segregation and housing discrimination persist around the country.

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Episode #37: Joan Waugh 

The UCLA scholar tries to understand the past on its own terms, while interrogating how we memorialize it. She speaks with Fred about the memory wars that have outlived the Civil War, the politics of Reconstruction that gave us Confederate monuments, and what we can learn from Gettysburg by visiting the place.

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Episode #38: 2021 Lebowitz Prize Winners 

The Lebowitz Award is presented each year to a pair of outstanding philosophers who hold contrasting views on a topic of current interest in the field. The 2021 winners, New York University's Ned Block and Johns Hopkins University's Ian Phillips, speak with Fred about how they approach philosophy of mind – specifically, our powers of perception and how that affects our consciousness.

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Episode #39: Robert Wilson

The retiring editor of The American Scholar magazine reflects on decades producing literary journalism, why he always supported women writers, and the role of journalists in turbulent times.

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Episode #40: Edward Ayers

The Civil War historian talks about combining intellectual, cultural, social, and economic history to truly grasp the U.S.’s past, especially events that took place in the South. He shares with Fred how he helps make free, nonpartisan, educational resources for teaching lively history lessons.

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Episode #41: Marta Tienda

The Princeton University professor shares how instrumental one teacher was in her own path to college, and why the U.S. should do more to invest in higher education. She speaks to Fred about how important public policy is in shaping our individual and collective destinies.

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Episode #42: Victoria L. Sork 

The UCLA professor shares how the life-changing revelation that she could be a scientist, and work outdoors, led to her research on tree genomes and evolutionary biology. Plus, how she harnesses the teaching power of plants as the director of UCLA’s botanical garden.

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Episode #43: R. Howard Bloch

The Yale professor of French and Humanities shares how cathedral fires “of suspicious origin” played a role in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic-style architecture in Europe. Plus, how his scholarship challenges existing narratives on everything from historical relics to literary movements.

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Episode #44: Donald S. Lopez Jr.

The Buddhist and Tibetan Studies professor at the University of Michigan recalls how a tumultuous period in U.S. politics led him to his area of expertise. Plus, what he’s learned from his many meetings with a leading Buddhist philosopher, the Dalai Lama. And what attracted him to out-of-the-box thinkers like poet Gendun Chopel.

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Episode #45: Laurence C. Smith

The Brown University professor of Environmental Studies shares his lifelong admiration of rivers and how he came to study many kinds of flowing water, including the melting glaciers of the Arctic. He encourages listeners to look for the nearest body of water to them and appreciate how we’re taking better care of the planet, in addition to how much more is left to do.

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Episode #46: William G. Moseley

The Macalester College Professor of Geography shares how his time in the Peace Corps in Mali led to his lifelong love of indigenous agricultural practices, and a lasting interest in what people experience in their home countries. He continued to ground his years of development work and extensive studies in geography and agricultural policy on people’s real, lived experiences producing food.

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Episode #47: Ricardo Padrón 

The UVA Spanish Professor dives into the literature and cartography of European expansion, including the colonial history of early modern Spain and the transpacific, and reflects on the Renaissance and themes that remain relevant today. Plus he discusses how he views maps as context-rich stories of subjective interpretations made by cartographers.

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Episode #48: Kathryn Lofton 

The Yale University Professor of Religious and American Studies thinks outside the box when it comes to religion, and shares why she looks at everything from pop culture and video game communities to celebrities – like Oprah Winfrey and the Kardashians – for ways to talk about what guides moral decision-making in the U.S. Plus, how her background as a “red diaper baby” influenced her approach to American religious and social movements.

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Episode #49: Kay Holekamp

The Michigan State University Professor of Integrative Biology shares how her early fascination for animals led to an extensive career in researching mammalian behavioral development, and the importance of studying the social, ecological, and endocrine variables of a species.  As a leading behavioral ecologist, Professor Holekamp’s initial field studies as a Ph.D. candidate transpired into decades of research on the spotted hyena including their reproductive success, their survival, and the forces shaping the species and its evolution.

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Episode #50: 2022 Lebowitz Prize Winners

This special episode of Key Conversations is joined by Dr. Cristina Lafont, Harold H. and Virginia Anderson Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, and Dr. Alex Guerrero, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Each year, the Lebowitz Prize is presented to a pair of philosophers who hold contrasting views of an important philosophical question that is of current interest both to the field and to an educated public audience. The professors discuss the topic for the 2022 Lebowitz Prize, which is "Democracy: What’s Wrong? What Should We Do?"

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Episode #51: Mark D. Hayward

An assumption about life expectancy is that the richer the society, the longer and healthier the individuals in that society will live—but in the case of life expectancy, money can’t collectively buy us more time. Sociologist and demographer Mark Hayward has spent the majority of his career studying all-things life expectancy, and in this episode he talks about the devastating societal impacts of inequality and unpacks some of the largest factors to living a long and healthy life: education, social networks, social policies, and brain development.

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Episode #52: Maya Jasanoff 

Growing up, Professor Maya Jasanoff was surrounded by academics and scholars—an environment she believes gave her the confidence to explore academia herself. Initially, her fellowship at Cambridge sparked her interest in studying the British Empire, and as she dove deeper into the subject matter, she began recognizing the many ways that British imperialism has infiltrated our world.  Today, the author and professor writes about history and is interested in how people—and power— have historically  crossed borders, and how the relationships between power and people shift and align over time.

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Episode #53: Natalia Molina 

Professor Natalia Molina was the first in her family, and her neighborhood, to go to college. Being a first-gen student, the 2020 MacArthur Fellow’s higher education was shaped by curiosity and a being open to new opportunities—even when they brought her across the country for her graduate degree. As an expert of the humanities, Professor Natalia Molina emphasizes the importance of literature in understanding the experiences of those around us, how the conversation around immigration has evolved in her classrooms, and how as a historian,  writing op-eds allow Professor Molina to explain the present through the past.

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Episode #54: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a disability justice and cultural thought leader, bioethicist, educator, and humanities scholar.  Garland-Thomson grew up with a congenital disability, an experience that highlighted the barriers that exist for people with disabilities.  Inspired by the Civil Rights movement and hearing the narratives from Black authors for the first time, the disability pioneer explores the perspectives of disabled people in all aspects of society. In this insightful conversation, Garland-Thomson discusses the destructive idea of normal, the reality that most people will become disabled at one point in their lives, and the ways that barriers create social categories for people with disabilities. 

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Episode #55: Cathleen Kaveny

Scholar and author Cathleen Kaveny focuses on the relationship of law, religion, and morality.  As the Darald and Juliet Libby Millennium Professor at Boston College, she has dual appointments in both the Theology Department and the Law School—the first to hold the joint appointment. Kaveny has devoted her career to exploring the connection between law and theology and explores the use of prophetic language and rhetoric in the past, and how we use it in today's society.  In this important conversation, Professor Kaveny breaks down the polarizing sides of cancel culture, the benefits of being in the muddled middle and how nostalgia can be dangerous for society. 

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Episode #56: 2023 Book Awards

The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are presented annually to three outstanding scholarly books published in the United States. The 2023 winners are Dennis Tyler for his book Disabilities of the Color Line: Redressing Antiblackness from Slavery to the Present; Jennifer Raff for her book Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas;and Deborah Cohen for her book Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War. This year, the Book Awards Dinner was held in person in Washington, D.C. in November 2023, where the three scholars discussed the impetus behind their books and the motives that keep them sleepless—and engaged—in liberal arts and sciences.  

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Episode 57: Emily Yeh

Professor Emily Yeh is a Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she researches the nature-society relationship in political, cultural and developmental relations in the mostly Tibetan parts of China.  Although she majored in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, while interning in China, she realized that her understanding of sustainable development needed to be further explored.  Her first visit to Tibet proved to be life changing, and Yeh has committed her career to advocating for environmental justice for the Tibetan people. In this conversation, Professor Yeh discusses her climate justice work for Tibetan herders, her experience at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and how climate change is impacting Tibetans’ ability to keep their culture alive. 

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Our Host

Frederick M. Lawrence is the 10th Secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. An accomplished scholar, teacher and attorney, he is one of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights, free expression, and bias crimes. Learn More.

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