Lavanya Proctor’s Lecture Reminded Me Why We Take Freshman Studies

Last Monday, Jan. 8, Professor Lavanya Proctor stood on the stage of the Lawrence Memorial Chapel to deliver her lecture on The Bhagavad Gita. She opened with a broad, overarching question: “Why are you here?” In truth, this sort of broad philosophical inquiry made me want to roll my eyes. It was bland, rhetorical, lacking a definitive answer. Yes, Professor Proctor, why am I here? And while we are at, is there a god? What is consciousness? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does my dog lick the furniture?

Please, tell me…

Meanwhile, Proctor was quick to point out that her question “was not an existential one,” but a very specific one and that she was only asking for an equally specific self-reflective answer. I did not write down my own, but I felt it was appropriate and probably not unlike the answers of most of my peers around me. Why was I here? Because my grade in Freshman Studies depended on it, of course. However, it didn’t change the weight of the question as it hung over the rest of Professor Proctor’s lecture.

“Why are you here?” Of course, how could we talk about religion, the spiritual nature of things, of heaven and gods and the cosmic universe as a whole if we did not aim right at the heart of those big, unanswerable questions. Proctor’s initial hook for her lecture on the Gita felt like she was straight up cheating, as in she was posing something rhetorical at a time where I was not looking for philosophical ideas, but some sort of definitive, concrete thesis. But in a discussion of the cosmological, of deities, gods and legends and a world of ancient tradition hard to grasp without a fantastic imagination, Proctor’s lecture was strikingly human. It was relevant and honest, and for the first time during my time at Lawrence, her lecture rationalized why Freshman Studies and the liberal arts education might just so happen to be relevant to me. In fact, one might even go as far as to say that Proctor’s lecture altogether sets the standard for what a Freshman Studies lecture should be. So what made it so good?

For starters, Proctor was incredibly well equipped to be the guest expert on the The Bhagavad Gita. Her lecture was well informed, precise and centered around important narratives. Proctor is the perfect fit for discussing the Gita; her Indian roots and anthropological backgrounds make her well suited to discuss Indian philosophies and also religion, traditions and culture as a whole. She was knowledgeable on key concepts, but also perfect for helping guide her audience through clever challenges. For example, Proctor was pleasant, and even provided fun comic relief when she guided her audience through the pronunciations of names like Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana (though her counsel was, regrettably, quickly forgotten. I still cannot pronounce either). Also, she was more than helpful when explaining the roles of gods and deities—like Krishna, Brahman, Shiva, Vishnu—or the role of the caste system. Of course, making the claim that a lecture was helpful and informative merely because the lecturer was helpful and informing seems like cheating, much in the same way as opening a discussion about philosophy or god by asking broad, rhetorical questions. However, the value of this rather obvious component of a good lecture cannot be valued enough, and cannot go unsaid. It is vital to Freshman Studies, and it is not impossible to get it wrong as Lawrence has missed in the past on the selection of appropriate speakers for selected works. Professor Helen Boyd Kramer’s lecture on Fun Home by Alison Bechdel in the first term of Freshmen Studies, for example, stands in stark contrast to Proctor’s lecture. While Kramer was an appropriately credentialed speaker, her discussion veered away from the text at times, and in hindsight felt much more like a regrettably condescending discussion about sexuality as opposed to a critical discussion of literature.

In all, Proctor was helpful in understanding the Gita. This does not, however, altogether set the standard for a Freshman Studies lecture. After all, most Freshman Studies lectures follow the same basic outline; the lecturers often aim at some sort of contextual explanations paired with a critical analysis. The lecture on Native Guard given by Professor Melissa Range teases out important concepts from the text, like the role of monuments in Natasha Trethwey’s poetry. Professor Ben Tilghman’s lecture on Landscape in the Fall of Icarus was especially intriguing, providing a clear path on how to analyze art and ask questions about it. Tilghman also guided his audience to water by detailing Pieter Bruegel’s attitude toward the upper class in the historical context of his work in the sixteenth century, and his fixation on the cheeky juxtaposition of butt jokes, but leaves it up to his audience to use that context to form their own arguments. Professor Mark Jenike’s lecture on Sweetness and Power was especially informative in regards to understanding the lens in which anthropologist Sidney Mintz approached his work. Proctor’s lecture was, in this sense, no different from the typical Freshman Studies lecture. She stayed within the basic format, and appropriately so. The format works, and nailing those important concepts of being informative and critical of both context and the respective work makes a lecture, inherently good. Proctor’s lecture was refreshing not because it was helpful, but rather because it goes back to the core of Freshman Studies.

Proctor began her lecture with one specific, yet simultaneously existential question. But she used The Bhagavad Gita to make the exploration of that one existential question an entirely human experience. Proctor didn’t try to answer that question: “Why are you here?” How could she? But she made it relevant and even aimed back at other enormous questions that Freshman Studies tries to explore. What is the best sort of life for human beings? Are there limits to human knowledge? How should we respond to injustice and suffering? Unlike many of her counterparts, Proctor explained how The Bhagavad Gita might help answer these, specifically. Perhaps our dharma, or duty, means something to the entire balance of the universe. As she was clever to point out, according to the Gita, my duty as a student was to be at that very lecture and to get a grade purely because I was supposed to do it. The universe depended on me, and the same was perhaps true of all my peers. Perhaps we have a duty to take action, karma, against suffering and injustice when we see it. Or perhaps we can also choose inaction, to preserve. Proctor didn’t just explain these concepts as they appear in the Gita, nor did she leave them in the historical context in which, as a whole, we were discussing them. Instead she looked her audience in the eye and asked them, specifically, what they were to do with these concepts. In the end, she made all the discussion about gods and legends and the balance of the universe seem practically obtainable. She began with one existential question, and touched many others along the way, but ended with a very personal one. With what you’ve learned, what will you choose to do?

This is, after all, the entire point of Freshman Studies.