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Speaker Series with Scholars

John Ma, Professor of Classics, teaching a class of alumni

2017 Scott Rudd

The Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program (CUSP) provides named scholars with enhanced academic and cultural opportunities.

2019-2020 Theme: Dissonance

Dissonance is typically defined as the absence of harmony. In music, a lack of conformity or unified pattern in sound can often lead to unpleasant compositions that can be jarring to the listener’s ears. However, this dissonance can be deliberately used as a tool to create moods that evoke powerful emotions, such as excitement, anguish, or sorrow. Dissonance engenders tension, but from this tension springs innovation and novel experiences. Beyond the confines of music, dissonance exists similarly in the ways in which artists, scholars, and scientists meld seemingly disparate media, inquiries, and philosophies to produce surprisingly consonant works. Dissonance reverberates in the pages of popular and poignant literary works, as the rising action among protagonists settles into satisfying narrative resolution. It echoes in the meeting rooms of large corporations and small start-ups alike, where individuals with diverse specializations and varying levels of expertise come together in pursuit of a shared goal. It rings in the awareness of the painful histories of conflict in nations and societies that, today, exist in a state of peace that could have never been anticipated. In many ways, dissonance embodies the rhythm of life itself, an existence fraught with the uncertain and unexpected that somehow still manages to give way to beauty and closure. More than just curiously placed notes on a musical staff, dissonance captures the value of navigating through and learning from the discomfort of the known past and an unknowable future.

The CUSP Distinguished Speaker Series follows an intellectual theme that is the foundation of our year-long inquiry. This year's talks explore the theme of “Dissonance.” We will consider this theme within the fields of music, psychology and behavioral science, technology, philosophy and ethics, health and medicine, the biological sciences, and economics.

Upcoming Talks​

Gareth Williams: The Core and More: The What, Why and How of a Columbia Education
Friday, August 30, 2019; 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.

This talk is designed to describe how the Core contributes to your larger intellectual trajectory at Columbia; how it fits in with and strengthens the competencies that a Columbia education aims to foster; and what you can expect to find when you enter the classroom in such courses as Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization and the other Core offerings. A period of question and answer will follow the talk.

Location Faculty Room, Low Memorial Library

Ravi Kailas and Cathy Guo: The Striver vs. The Witness: An Entrepreneur's Search for Value
Wednesday, September 11, 2019; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

The "Myth of the Entrepreneur" is a critique of assumptions which are commonly held about the role of the entrepreneur. Specifically, that the differentiated ability of the entrepreneur rightfully deserves the majority of rewards (financial and otherwise) from a venture's success; that entrepreneurial ventures are net social impact positive by creating employment and productivity increases in the economy; and that the system of prioritizing rewards to shareholders creates aligned incentives at the firm level and the broader economy. What happens when an entrepreneur begins questioning these assumptions – and acknowledging the structural inequalities which are perpetuated by this model of entrepreneurship? What other models for designing firms can bring an entrepreneurial venture closer to positive social impact? As a serial entrepreneur, Kailas has built multi-billion dollar ventures in India throughout his career. At age 35, he experiences a catalyzing moment of dissonance – between his conception of an entrepreneur and how value is actually created and distributed. Leaving all three of his active ventures behind, he embarks on a five-year journey of meditation, introspection, and global research of the history of capitalism and various experimental structures of the firm. What emerges from that searching is an ongoing process of working through dissonance and contradiction – both personal and societal.

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

J. Ralph: Evolocean
Tuesday, September 17, 2019; 6:00–8:00 p.m.

Three-time Academy Award-nominated composer, singer/songwriter and social activist Josh Ralph will discuss and perform an aleatoric, a performance piece for orchestra, choir and child, exploring species extinction and mankind’s effect on the ocean.

Location Davis Auditorium on the 4th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, 530 West 120th Street

Past Presentations

Robert O’Meally: 'This Music Demanded Action': The Challenge of the Core
Monday, August 29, 2016

George Michelsen Foy: Finding North: How Navigation Makes us Human
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gareth Williams: Navigating Life: The Odyssey
Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dimitris Christopoulos: Is it Really a Crisis or Just Another EU Failure? Contradictions and Dangers of the Dominant European Discourse on Migration.
Monday, October 10, 2016

David Helfand: Navigating the Misinformation Age
Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kaitlyn Parkins: “Cool Jobs” Nocturnal Navigators: Understanding Migration Patterns of New York City's Birds and Bats
Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Jeff Kluger and Alan Stern: Cosmic Navigation
Monday, November 14, 2016

Greg Milner: Time To Go
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Steve Bellovin: Software and the Problem of Complexity
Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Allison Cuneo: “Cool Jobs”
Monday, March 6, 2017

Lincoln Paine: A Map and a Sense of Time: A Guide to Navigating the Global Past
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Kathy Nagel: Olfactory Navigation in Fruit Flies
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Beau Shaw: Navigation, Education, and Democracy in Plato's Republic
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Professor Gareth D. Williams: What's the Score with the Core? — "CUSP/ASP Annual NSOP Lecture"
Friday, August 31, 2018

Professor Bernard E. Harcourt: On the American Counterrevolution: The Long View of History in Politics and Law — “CUSP Inaugural Lecture”
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

To learn more and/or register for these events, contact us at