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STO Talks explores theme of community

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This year’s STO Talks, held April 13 at the Pause Mane Stage, featured talks on code-switching, religious diversity, cellular biology, Jewish identity and many other topics relating to the theme of “community.” The annual conference consists of a series of short presentations by St. Olaf students, faculty, staff and alumni on a wide array of ideas.

The conference opened with a presentation by Saliem Hashel ’21 on code-switching. Under one definition, code-switching is the practice of switching between languages in conversation. However, Hashel chose to instead look at code-switching as the phenomenon where one’s behavior, accent and dialect change in response to certain situations.

“We usually do this to change or better help the situation,” Hashel said. “For instance, a lot of immigrants, they come to the U.S., they have an accent, and one of the first things they try to do is remove that accent.”

Hashel argued that code-switching and the pressures associated with it are a “mutilation of identity,” where individuals who are accustomed to speaking and manifesting multiple dialectics and cultural norms are expected to display only one set of these at a time.

“Your identity is essentially being ripped,” Hashel said. “People only look at one part of it and expect us to play that role.”

The next speaker, Lucia Wagner ’21, gave a talk titled “How Cellular Communities Model Human Populations.” Wagner discussed several ways that cells collaborate and communicate in a way that mimics human communication.

Wagner recounted witnessing “a universe in which cells wander out and communicate to battle a harmful protein, a universe where cells actively repel each other so that each cell can be the king of its own personal kingdom.”

Wagner went on to describe how communication between cells and the productive results of cellular collaboration parallel the importance of communication and community at St. Olaf.

Next was Assistant Professor of Religion Anthony Bateza. Bateza delivered a presentation titled “The Price of Religious Diversity” in which he discussed the nostalgia some have for a past era of religious homogeneity and challenged the narrative that religious diversity is solely good.

“I want us to realize that religious diversity isn’t an unalloyed evil or an unalloyed good, but it’s something a little more complex than that,” Bateza said.

Bateza proceeded to discuss research suggesting that greater religious diversity is correlated with lower levels of religious commitment. Bateza said this data does not suggest that we need more or less religious diversity, but rather that it “gives some grounding to some of the uneasiness that sometimes comes across as old people making knee-jerk reactions.”

“There is some truth to the fact that as we become more diverse, as a country and as a community, that people start to drift and mix between traditions in ways that make some people who are staying perfectly planted in certain traditions uncomfortable and confused,” Bateza said.

Bateza then discussed potential responses to growing religious diversity, including interfaith dialogue and ending the teaching of religion, and discussed the pitfalls of these approaches.

Stav Hall employee Elaine Gravelle spoke next, giving a talk on how St. Olaf students, the ways they make her smile and the ways she makes them smile make her job worthwhile.

The conference then featured talks by Associate Professor of Religion Joseph Mbele on cultural differences and community, Evan Reifman ’19 on Jewish identity and Ally Christenson ’18 on navigating the transition from college into the world.

At the end of the conference, the STO Talks executive team went up on stage and thanked the speakers and everyone who supported the conference.