Agora Talks Reflect Founder's Interdisciplinary Spirit

By Ryan Dougherty
Jonathan Molloy '14
Agora Talks founder Jonathan Molloy '14 works on the Oxbow Cabin on the edge of Crum Woods. He will discuss the project at Monday's event.

The Agora Talks are returning to Swarthmore on Monday, spotlighting senior theses and forging interdisciplinary connections. But if founder Jonathan Molloy '14 has his way, they could be going much further.

Named for the ancient Greek marketplace of intellectual exchange, the Agora Talks give seniors the opportunity to present their work to the wider College community and offer the archived video to prospective employers. Think TED Talks gone Swattie.

"It's about creating a living legacy of the inspiring work of Swarthmore students," says Molloy, a special major in architecture from Nyack, N.Y., "and it's a window into the College for the rest of the world."

Molloy organized last year's inaugural Agora Talks with Kieran Reichart '13 in just a few weeks. Ranging from HIV/AIDS prevention to teaching computer science to elementary school students, the presentations generated buzz and conversation among the crowd of students and faculty from various departments. 

"By getting these collisions of different disciplines," says Molloy, "you get novel results."

Molloy received funding from the President's Office to help make this year's event bigger and better. That means moving them from the Science Center to the Lang Performing Arts Center and, more importantly, developing a sleek and nimble website for archiving presentations.

"The quality of the videos will make seniors covet the [opportunity to present]," says Molloy. "It's a vivid document to take with you."

Molloy's hope is for the site, co-developed by juniors Callen Rain, a computer science major from Hyattsville, Md., and Justin Cosentino, a computer science major from Ellicott City, Md., to soon transcend the College. He envisions offering it to other small liberal arts institutions as an open-source platform under the Agora brand.

"I can picture a universal Agora site offering countless projects across disciplines," says Molloy. 

This year's Agora Talks began with community members nominating a current senior, before a committee of students and faculty reviewed applications and conducted interviews. Seven students - including Molloy, who recused himself from the process - were chosen to present, and three received honorable mention.

Molloy will discuss the transformative power and interdisciplinary potential of architecture. His talk follows two theoretical projects he proposed for the College: a community space along the lines of the Santa Fe Institute for seniors doing individual projects as well as a visual arts resource collection and study space. 

Also tying into the talk is Molloy's senior project: salvaging wood and glass from the College's demolished squash courts to build the Oxbow Cabin on the edge of Crum Woods. Molloy and a team of workers, featuring students and staff such as Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain, spent weeks building the cabin from the ground up and are now are adding the finishing touches. The mission is to "encourage students to commune more often and more intimately with the solitude of the Woods."

In his spare time, so to speak, Molloy also stars on the men's lacrosse team. The four-year starter notched 21 goals and 14 assists this year, but also suffered a separated shoulder - right before construction began on the cabin.

"I showed up at the work site in a sling, and all the guys started making fun of me, like I did it on purpose to get out of working," says Molloy fondly. "That was a hiccup, but things all came together."

The 2014 Agora Talks selections:

  • Jonathan Molloy: "Three Explorations into the Transformative Power of Architecture"
  • Dane Fichter: "Quantum Cryptography: An Introduction to Shor's Algorithm"
  • Aarti Rao: "Understanding the Utilization of Maternal Health Services in Churu"
  • Niamba Baskerville: "Twerk It: The Racial and Gendered Implications of Twerking in the Media"
  • Samantha Goldstein: "Multi-User Virtual Reality"
  • David Nahmias: "Processing and Analysis of Electromyography for Human Device Interface"
  • Julia Chartove: "Prodromal Hippocampal Circuit Abnormalities in MeCP2+/- Mouse Model of Rett Syndrome"

Honorable mention:

  • Robert Fain: "Reconstructing the Traumatic Past: Argentine Youth and Memories of Dictatorship"
  • Paul Cato: "Dostoevsky, Levinas & Active Love: The Derivation of a Contemporary Philosophy of Love"
  • Sarah Timreck: "The Brotherhood of Disaffected Elites: The Politicization of Egyptian Civil Society During Arab Spring"

The Agora Talks will take place on Mon., May 5, at 4:30 p.m. in the Lang Performing Arts Center.