Local University Professors "Spark" Monument Circle

Academic experts staff lunch-hour booth on Monument Circle as part of IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute’s “Ask an Expert” project.

In one hour, he talked about Pokémon.

And Stephen King.

And Nazi experimentation during the Holocaust.

Jason Eberl, Marian University Senior Endowed Chair for Medical Ethics, discussed cartoon characters, dystopian fiction, mid-20th century history, and more during his hour-long stint at the SPARK Monument Circle “Ask an Expert” booth on Oct. 13.

A number of local professors like Eberl made appearances at the booth over the past few weeks as part of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute’s “Ask an Expert” project. From 12-1 p.m. on Tuesdays, academic experts discussed topics in their fields of expertise with members of the public who pulled up chairs across from them.

The SPARK Monument Circle project, sponsored by Big Car Collaborative, an Indianapolis nonprofit artist collective, and Downtown Indy, was an 11-week placemaking experiment designed to activate the Circle space. From Aug. 1 to Oct. 16, Monument Circle featured free daily arts and culture programming such as yoga; art, history, and music experiences; and guided walks and talks, including the “Ask an Expert” booth.

The theme for Eberl’s booth was “Science Fiction and Philosophy,” and he said he spoke with a variety of visitors, from an 8th grader aspiring to become a history professor to an IT specialist from India passionate about religious pluralism.

“I believe many people enjoy talking about deeper issues, but often don't have, or make, the time to do so,” Eberl said. “A readily available resource for conversation on one's lunch-hour can help those who live or work downtown to take a moment to reflect on the larger questions of life, the universe, and everything.”

“It's a great opportunity for academics, as well, to get out of the confines of our offices and classrooms,” he said. “Socrates, for one, never wrote anything down, but rather engaged his fellow Athenian citizens directly in the central marketplace.”

Joseph Tucker Edmonds, an IUPUI assistant Africana Studies and Religion professor featured at the Sept. 22 “Christianity and Globalization” booth, loved that he got to share his research and ideas in a downtown Indy public space. Like Eberl, he said his discussions were thought-provoking, and that “It was the kind of conversation that you do not usually have when you are rushing to a meeting or trying to find a lunch spot in downtown Indianapolis.”

The consensus among the experts was that visitors to the booth were not the only ones who came away with new knowledge.

Juliet King, the IUPUI Art Therapy program director who participated in the Sept. 15 “Art Therapy” booth, said “I always learn something [from the people I talk to], and often times they provide opportunities to network and connect in a context that otherwise would not have happened.”

So, who were the true experts in the conversations?

Kristy Sheeler, an IUPUI Communication Studies professor featured at the Oct. 6 “Women in Politics” booth, said “Too often people outside the community don’t think of themselves as experts.”

But, “At the end of the day, everyone involved recognized that expertise is all around us, is important to our development, and comes in many different forms,” Tucker Edmonds said.

Tucker Edmonds said he was intrigued by the idea of simultaneously being an ‘expert’ and deconstructing the idea of ‘expert’.

“I think that these types of events challenge who we see as experts and valuable in our public discourse,” he said. “Did it matter that I was wearing a suit jacket? Would a child receive as much respect or attention? Did people see themselves as ‘experts’ before we asked them?”

The professors who participated in SPARK all agreed that the project not only benefited them personally, but was also bolstered the downtown Indy cultural environment.

“Events like this can help to make the knowledge that we have as university professors and the research that we do more valuable, accessible, and meaningful for the community,” Sheeler said. “It forces us to think about how to communicate and translate our work so that it makes sense to the community and, perhaps, helps the community see us as allies in making our world a better place.”

“I believe events like this are critically important to fostering interpersonal dialogue in a way that’s not mediated through technology,” Eberl said. “As much as social media helps bring people together from around the world, it isn’t the best format for robust intellectual exchange.”

“These events help to bring people together and ultimately help us learn more about one another and what it is that we do,” King said.

Although SPARK, and the “Ask an Expert” booth, are finished for the time being, Eberl hopes they aren’t gone for good.

“I sincerely hope that this program continues in the spring and that more faculty from all of Indy's local campuses will get involved,” he said. “I’d certainly participate again! It might also be good to set up shop sometimes on a sunny Saturday afternoon someplace like Mass Ave. or Fountain Square.”

Despite some initial jitters, all the professors left with new perspectives on their fields of expertise.

“I was nervous when I started,” Tucker Edmonds said. “But I left energized and hopeful for our city and the human race.”