Food for thought: SLE Sushi Salons bring the humanities to a wider audience

Published May 14, 2024, 8:41 p.m., last updated May 14, 2024, 8:42 p.m.

During a Thursday afternoon, students trickle into the lounge at East Florence Moore Hall, home to the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program — a three-quarter residential program for freshmen to delve into the Western canon. Amid the comfortable sofas in the lounge is a table with a stack of identical books up for grabs and lots of sushi.

Referencing the Parisian salons of the Enlightenment era, which used to house intellectuals to discuss the arts, literature and philosophy, SLE Sushi Salons similarly explore innovative ideas in the humanities. The events host guest speakers from various humanities disciplines to speak to students about their work.

On this particular Thursday, ITALIC lecturer Sam Sax presided over the salon. Sax answered questions about the poetic process and read aloud poems from their collection “PIG,” often inciting laughter and “hi-yas” (a reference to the Muppet character Miss Piggy’s catchphrase). As the audience chuckled together over Sax’s poetics, the salon reflected a relaxed, communal environment. 

SLE has a long-standing tradition of hosting guest speakers in the dorm, but the events became formalized as “Sushi Salons” when SLE became a theme house as part of the neighborhood system in 2021.

“It’s kind of just taken on the name of ‘Sushi Salon’, but it’s something that has been happening for a long time,” said SLE Resident Fellow, Lecturer and Assistant Director Michaela Hulstyn, who organizes the salons. “It’s part of this longer tradition, but it’s a new way of bringing cool intellectual or artistic guest speakers into the dorm space and having students be able to meet them.”

The sheer breadth of arts exposure that SLE offers, thanks to the various guests hosted in the house, provides opportunities that student Sydney Prier ’27 hadn’t had before.

“I’m from a small town in Texas. There’s not a ballet, people don’t go to the opera, we didn’t have incredible access to books. The most poetry I had was Dr. Seuss or maybe some Langston Hughes,” Prier said. According to Prier, the Sushi Salons are a way for students to soak in the frontiers of the human intellectual experience. 

“Even if you already thought that what you were reading [in SLE] is on the edge of forward thinking, Sushi Salons go beyond the forward thinking,” they said.

Speakers are drawn from faculty on and off campus; memorable speakers in the past include Haleh Liza Gafori, a translator and reciter of Rumi’s poetry, and Elias Rodriques ‘13, a novelist and professor of African American Literature at Sarah Lawrence College, who is also a SLE alumnus. 

Hulstyn believes that the talks help students discover a part of the humanities they might have not heard about or realized they were interested in. 

For example, Welsh medievalist and Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of English Elaine Treharne spoke about the study of medieval manuscripts with a phenomenological approach. Hulstyn said that, for students who didn’t know the specifics of either field, the salons gave them a starting point to learn more by engaging with the professor’s work and considering what future classes they should take.

Prier agrees that the salons help students explore intersectionality amongst unexpected ideas.

“It gives you a really great picture about the world that’s not just Western ideology. It just allows you to have a feel of other cultures,” they said.

Sushi Salons aren’t always connected to the SLE curriculum. While SLE’s syllabus includes different readings every week and invites around 80 guest lecturers per year, the salons serve as a way to diversify the ideas brought into SLE.

Audrey Jung ‘27 said that the salons help broaden the definition of the humanities. 

“We hear about people who are being really innovative; you get a filmmaker or somebody who prefers poetry, so it’s maybe not necessarily what you think of first when you think about the humanities, like history or philosophy, which is what SLE focuses more on,” she said.

The salons are mostly funded by ARC, the Academic-Residential Co-Curriculum under VPUE, “to maximize the potential intellectual energy of our residential campus.” The Stanford Introductory Studies business team, notably Residential Programs Administrator Noel Dahl, also lends administrative support to the events. With the administrative work it takes to bring speakers on campus, Hulstyn said that the grants make the salons a sustainable endeavor. 

Hulstyn sees the salons as instrumental in community-building within the SLE cohort, but hopes to see non-SLE students venturing in as well. The salons are published on the Stanford Event calendar, and Hulstyn hopes that dorm resident fellows can pass along news of the events.

“We really envision the offerings of the theme house as being something done in the service of the entire campus,” she said. 

Echoing this sentiment, Prier believes the salons also help advocate for SLE as a whole in “establishing a community of forward thinkers who genuinely want the best for the world.”

For students considering attending the salons, Hulstyn emphasizes that events are low-stakes and aimed at an undergraduate audience.

“All you have to do is just be interested and maybe hungry,” she said. Sushi is always the main staple, but according to Hulstyn, “the ideas are as nourishing as the food.”

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