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A “Blank Slate” To Fill

Students Elise DeAndrea and Marie LaBrie on a Tabula Rasa visit to Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn where Harriet Tubman and William Seward are buried.

Question: Where can a college student discover that nothing – even outside the classroom- is “off-topic?”

Answer: Keuka College, where learning outside of class can sometimes rival learning from a seat, where everything from icons of Buddhism, to towering wind turbines, to abolitionist history, to tattoo artistry, can invite questions and spark intense discussion among students with a passion for learning and exploration.

But it has not always been so.

Keuka used to have an honor society that began fading and died out in the early 2000s, “so the last decade, we’ve had few opportunities for the intellectually curious student,” said Mike McKenzie, associate professor of religion and philosophy.

Few, that is, until 2009, when then-sophomores Stephanie Lange, Aaron Golly and Kelsey Marquart dialogued with McKenzie about starting a group that could “find a way to learn outside the typical confined classroom setting,” Lange said.

They chose the name Tabula Rasa, which is Latin for “blank slate.”

“It’s the idea that we’re sort of born a sponge and we can fill up with knowledge,” said McKenzie, citing philosopher John Locke as the founder of the concept. “To expand someone’s mind, by definition, you have to get them outside their intellectual comfort zone.”

“A lot of the classes that you take are very cerebral, and you have to work through different problems. This is a step away,” explained junior Ross Gleason of Rockingham, Vt., who is helping lead Tabula Rasa this year with junior Sarah Marquart. “What do you want to learn? Ok, go do it. It’s always more interesting to go and experience something yourself. It allows you to get a broad view.”

Icons of Buddhism were discussed at a Tabula Rasa event.

Indeed, Tabula Rasa has covered a wide breadth of exploration. For example, the group hosted a former Mennonite, who spoke about her experience, and later, a Buddhist shared elements and icons of that faith. They visited a winery to learn the difference between traditional and organic wines, and stood underneath giant wind turbines at a wind “farm” in Cohocton. And, they explored historic roots of the Underground Railroad during a visit to Auburn’s Harriet Tubman home, William Seward House Museum, and Fort Hill Cemetery, where Tubman is buried. A two-night visit to a private observatory for stargazing was another outing last year.

Tattoo artist and suspension expert Noah Lahram

When Geneva tattoo artist Noah Lahram of The Golden Orb spoke at a Tabula Rasa lecture in April, “we wanted him to talk about the religious and societal aspects of it, we wanted people to understand the significance and sociology behind it and not just say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’” Marquart said. For example, Lahram’s specialty – suspension – involves inserting hooks into specific parts of the body as an individual lies down and then lifting him or her into the air, a practice which has roots in tribal rituals, she said.

“There’s a mutual reinforcement when you see good students [interacting and discovering] together. It’s really uplifting,” said McKenzie, who also maintains a list of professors to invite to Tabula Rasa events.

“You don’t have to have a 4.0 to be in this group or to learn. We don’t want people to join just to get it on their resume,” Marquart said. “It’s people bonding over learning, and bonding over curiosity.”

Due to Keuka’s rural location, students cannot simply “walk two blocks over to a museum” to seek out intellectual development opportunities, noted McKenzie, who serves as a de facto adviser. “We either have to get people to come in or take ourselves to them.”

A "TR" visit to wind turbines in Cohocton

To that end, Marquart and Gleason have planned a diverse schedule of events this fall. First up is the Sept. 29 survivalist outing with Keuka junior Nathan Fletcher, who has taken extensive classes in tracking and survival.  He will address a group of at least 15 students outdoors in the Italy Hill area before leading students on a mini-hike through the woods to point out specific ways a survivalist could live off the land. Fletcher has also served as an Army sergeant and squad leader in Iraq, but his interest in tracking goes beyond his military training, Gleason said.

With support from Ball Hall Resident Director Eugene Mont and the Student Activities deans, Tabula Rasa will host a paranormal investigation group, Ghost SOS, a few days before Halloween. A 7 p.m. lecture in Hegeman 109 will be followed by a ghost hunt in Ball Hall, the oldest building on campus, Marquart said.

An outing to take in the classic play, Arsenic and Old Lace, performed in both American Sign Language (ASL) and speech on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology is planned for November, as well as a tentative visit to Keuka Lake Coffee Roasters in Penn Yan to learn about the roasting process and the business of coffee. On Dec. 2, Tabula Rasa will host a Freemason member to debunk the many myths surrounding the secret society, according to Marquart.

“This year, we’ve gone into it with a whole new approach and innovation that we’ve never had before,”  said Marquart.

For more information on upcoming Tabula Rasa exploration events, contact Gleason or Marquart via college email.

 

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