The creative, thoughtful and innovative minds of Brandeis University were on display on Saturday, April 22 at the University’s first ever TEDx event, during which five speakers delivered talks about topics ranging from research and education to psychology and life experience. Christine Zhu ’18 and Mesui Liu ’18 partnered with  Brandeis’ Education for Students by Students (ESS) Club to organize the event. The speakers were Prof. Andy Molinsky (BUS), Prof. Chandler Rosenberger (SOC), Editor in Chief Florence Graves, graduate student Hauke Zeissler and Rebecca Groner ’17.

Molinsky was the first to speak. His work focuses on tactics for stepping out of one’s theoretical comfort zone in difficult situations, particularly in a business setting. He began his talk by showing a quote which stated a popular belief that “All one needs to step out of their comfort zone is to take a leap.”  Molinsky then claimed that these methods are “easier said than done,” and that there needs to be more nuance in a truly satisfying answer.

As a professional, he spent much of his time researching what it takes to do what is uncomfortable, and through talking to many people, he identified five “psychological roadblocks” to stepping out of a comfort zone. These include putting in partial effort, procrastinating or making others perform uncomfortable tasks.

He offered three solutions to these problems: “conviction, customization and clarity,” and then explained what these methods imply. In Molinsky’s opinion, one must identify the benefit of performing a task, mentally enhance the experience of performing and be honest and rational with oneself about the task’s difficulty.  He concluded by saying these strategies can create a “virtuous positive spiral of trying it [the uncomfortable task] again.”

Next to speak was Groner, an undergraduate who is part of the improvisation troupe To Be Announced. Her talk focused on how techniques used in improv comedy can “help you solve problems and shape your world view.” She began by defining improv as  “a way to express in an art form how to collaborate and how to create a scene or a moment … while thinking quickly on your feet.”

Groner explained the five major techniques used in improv and identified how they can be applied in the world. The first technique was the “yes, and” technique, in which the actor is “agreeing with whatever your scene partner who is creating that moment with you is saying while also adding on and supplementing it.” The next technique she described was “living in the moment … trying to make yourself a full part of what’s going at the moment.” This was followed by “gift giving … giving someone a role, giving someone a relationship to build off of in the scene.” The next aspect she described was “taking risks, making those big choices.” Lastly, she explained that perhaps the most important rule in improv: to “have fun.” These techniques were identified as applicable to many different aspects of life, including relationships, anxiety and stress management, and professional careers and networking.  After explaining this nuanced ideology, she told the crowd that “Improv has helped me to not take life too seriously, so please go forth and improvise.” 

The next speaker was Graves, who founded the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, the nation’s first investigative reporting center based at a university. She began by arguing that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed in its methods of conviction and its restrictions on reopening old cases. 

She founded Schuster in 2004, with a purpose to create social justice and promote human rights through journalism.

Graves explained that when she first founded Schuster, a Brandeis alum contacted her, asking her organization to take cases that his legal firm could not. She was overjoyed to hear this and agreed to start with two of the cases that were offered. Grave “spent a lot of time researching” and after hard work, her efforts “resulted in … exonerations” of innocent convicts. 

She explained that they were able to free a man named Angel, who was wrongly convicted of murder due to “eyewitness misidentification,” in which the only witness of the crime was incapable of delivering a valid testimony. Eyewitness misidentification is one of what Graves described as “two of the most prevalent causes of wrongful conviction.” The other cause, known as “junk, or unreliable, forensic science,” was the problem with the other case they took. A man named George was convicted of rape based off of a false scientific test known as “hair microscopy.” Graves explained an argument made by the national academy of sciences that most technologically advanced methods of conviction (including hair microscopy) “are not based on the scientific method,” except for “only one, … DNA testing.” She concluded by stating the severity of the problem associated with these false accusations, and by urging everyone to “look into this, because when any American loses their freedom wrongfully, we have undercut the entire basis upon which this country was founded.”

The second to last speaker was Ziessler, who discussed his journey towards understanding the concept of identity. Ziessler comes from a German family and has lived in Germany and South Africa. He studies Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies as well as Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. 

In his talk, he explored the complexity of identity. After defining identity, he divided this definition into two main categories: “the perceived identity, how you see me, and personal identity, how I see myself.”

 To visualize this, he showed an image of an onion and asked, “What if I took a layer off? What would you expect?” He agreed that most would assume another layer of onion would lie below, but he then proposed the idea that below the onion layer, “there was an apple.” After this, as Ziessler explained, “Your idea of an onion would be changed … You’d become more open to the idea that there might be an apple within.” 

He then connected his identity to this analogy in that it has many inner and outer layers. He grew up in a German family in South Africa and was often identified by things that were comparable to his “outer onion layers,” like where he was from. He struggled with this perceived perception and sought to find a way to bring forward his inner identity. One way he figured out how to change others’ perception of his identity was “my mere framing of my identity,” or how he portrayed himself to others that allowed him to shape how others perceived him.  

He then discussed his experience studying around the world and how he was able to embrace the differences of others’ identities. Through his experiences, he has practiced how to best present himself and approach others in a diverse setting. He concluded that it’s most important  to “open up … be honest” as well as to “provide space to speak … and challenge those around you.” He concluded cleverly by reminding his listeners, “You’re not the only onion with an intricate and beautiful story. There are onions walking around all over this world with fascinating stories that you can learn from.” 

Rosenberger spoke last, discussing the resurgence of nationalism and why people need it in their lives to this very day. He began by proposing that “Maybe we’re all a little bit more nationalist than we think we are.” He pointed out that lately countries have shifted towards a very nationalist mindset, explaining how Donald Trump’s recent election was a notable example of this movement. He went on to discuss why these changes often occur, arguing that it happens because human minds are made to “absorb a massive amount of cultural information.” He stated  that if “we think of society as cultural, then it would make sense that society can change so quickly.” He also concluded that humans not only take in culture very quickly but that they also constantly need a source of direction and purpose they can obtain from culture. As perhaps the most significant example, Rosenberger believes that “everything in society was “mediated through the culture of Christianity” and ultimately religion overall. 

Interestingly, Rosenberger noted that this structure was “undermined by secular ideas.” Because humans need this input of culture, it began to shift from one of religion to one of organized populations: “human beings on the planet are participating in conversation that has the boundaries of a nation.” He highlighted that having this sense of nationality allows for a sense of equality among fellow members of that nation. Because of this, he concluded that this current mindset “probably isn’t going away any time soon.” However,“We should recognize that it probably isn’t going away and even consider how your own national culture has had an effect on you.”