One of the more confusing but compelling terms to which I was exposed during my new student orientation (NSO) at Fielding Graduate University was “phenomenology.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, phenomenology is “the study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy.”

As further explained by David Rehorick, Ph.D. during a research practicum at the Fielding NSO, a phenomenological study begins with the question “what are the experiences of…” and explores a return to the lived experiences of the research participants.

In simpler terms, phenomenology is all about our individual experiences and the meaning that can be derived from them. Think of the word in relation to one of its roots: phenomenon — which according to our friends at Merriam-Webster means “an observable fact or event.”

So you might be asking yourself why I mentioned this fact to you — other than to share some knowledge with which I was imparted and intrigued?

Simple: in keeping with my grounded, balanced and somewhat avante garde approach to academics, hearing this phrase reminded me of what now must be an ancient segment from Sesame Street, the “Mahna Mahna” song!

I wasn’t alone in this realization: when our research practicum concluded I immediately grabbed my laptop and searched for this song. Once I found it, I shared the song with a colleague who smiled broadly as I the song began to play.

Perhaps you will agree as well. So, without further delay, I present you with the “Mahna Mahna” song! Watch it below:

What if Columbia University invited Adolf Hitler to speak?

Columbia_University_LogoThere has been a great deal of attention paid lately to Columbia’s invitation to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, participate in a Q&A session with faculty and students on Monday in an event sponsored by the university’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

John Coatsworth, dean of the school, released the following statement about the event and the school’s decision to not rescind the invitation:

“Opportunities to hear, challenge and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and still dangerous world. This is especially true for SIPA students, many of whose careers will require them to confront human rights and security issues throughout the globe.”

Later, in a television interview, Coatsworth explained that if Hitler were alive the school would have no problem inviting him to participate in the same type of event. As much as I am open to exploring different ideas, I am concerned, yet also conflicted over the school’s stand in this situation.

To endorse Ahmadinejad’s world view legitimizes his opinions as academically sound. Ironically, Ahmadinejad would likely send every faculty member of Columbia to prison for thinking anything other than his party line if the school were in Iran.

Giving him a soapbox to proclaim his position is misguided; I further doubt doing so will actually substantiate his standpoints. I liken this choice to the desire of people after a violent incident to understand “why” the violence was perpetrated. But, would the rambling words of a sociopath make any sense to those with a rational mind?

Conversely, a colleague of mine shared with me the following thought earlier today:

“Whatever we repress comes back to bite us. When you shine a light in a dark place, there is no longer darkness.”

Grounding this in a human developmental and psychological theory, my colleague’s point is that simply ignoring something doesn’t keep it from becoming a problem.  By confronting it you can deal with it directly . I understand this approach and, to a degree, feel there is value in confrontation and interaction.

So then, should there be limits to academic inquiry or should every experience be seen as one from which learning can occur? This opens a Pandora’s Box of who is empowered to decide what is and what is not academic inquiry. Frankly, I don’t know if I am comfortable giving anyone that power.

Are you?