Past Shasha Seminars

The Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns is an educational forum for Wesleyan alumni, parents, and friends that provides an opportunity to explore issues of global concern in a small seminar environment. Endowed by James Shasha ’50, P’82, the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns supports lifelong learning and encourages participants to expand their knowledge and perspectives on significant issues.


2023: Artificial Intelligence or Artificial Consciousness?

Join us as we gather 16 distinguished scholars from varied fields to discuss artificial intelligence and how this tool is encouraging people to consider more carefully what it means to be human.

How do academics and notables from seemingly disparate areas of expertise grapple with and interrogate multiple readings and understandings of this topic, which permeates all facets of our lives and impacts the future of humanity and designed intelligence? In four salon-like sessions of four participants each, these scholars will come together in conversation (no lecterns, slides, or notes) to share their ideas, discoveries, experiences, hopes, and concerns about AI and its impact on their respective fields and the broader world—as they would around a living room or at a small dinner party.  

2022: A Roadmap for Internet Privacy


The internet is an indispensable part of modern life. However, as our lives continue migrating online, we risk exposing our personal data. The ease with which data can be collected and shared poses fundamental privacy challenges: How can we regain control over our data? How can we inform average internet users? How do we balance privacy rights with legitimate goals of governments and companies?

Now is the time to rethink the internet’s architecture. Recent years saw a fervent push towards internet privacy. The W3C and other technical communities are beginning to weave privacy mechanisms into the structure of the internet. But there is a long road ahead. The quest for internet privacy goes beyond the technological questions. Lawmakers and regulators—both in the US and internationally—started providing individuals with effective online privacy rights. Sociologists and psychologists are studying the many consequences wrought upon society by the lack of internet privacy. New, privacy-preserving ad business models are being developed. Tackling the multidimensional privacy problem requires discourse across many different disciplines and participation by all stakeholders in the digital ecosystem.

This year’s seminar will provide a public forum for outlining a fundamental privacy vision for the internet. Panelists and participants will convene to sketch out a roadmap with concrete steps for achieving internet privacy. Register for the 2022–23 Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns and join Wesleyan University’s thought leadership in interdisciplinary liberal arts research towards difficult computational problems that affect society at large. Together, we can shape the future of privacy on the internet.

2022: The Future of Health

The COVID-19 pandemic is now the central concern in human affairs, recasting old problems and conditioning possibilities for the future through the prism of health. The pandemic has seemingly captured everyone and everything within its viral field, but the world churns beneath. From its onset, social differences have determined individuals’ and communities’ responses to, and experiences of, the virus. We have witnessed racial disparities in COVID-19 fatalities that have rendered high rates of death amongst African American patients as seemingly inevitable. Moreover, conversations about the biological nature of sexual difference have emerged in the construction of “risk groups” that locate cisgendered men as most endangered. At the same time, class positionality, the service economy, and the question of what constitutes “essential work” has forced a reconsideration of who is able to access measures of safety and prevention, and who is made most vulnerable. Globally, unequal access to safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19 and medicines threatens to cast the pandemic forward in unstable ways.

Considering the future of health in the “post” COVID-19 world requires that we address these matters from holistic and systems perspectives, imagining not only the physical, mental, and social health of peoples and populations, but also, how these issues continue to unfold against the backdrops of climate change, environmental injustice, and living conditions that foster ill health. We must begin to address how a lack of access to universal health care and its impacts on patient survival have transformed the meanings of disability and able-bodiedness for everyone. As more and more people have come to understand themselves as imperiled by the pandemic, new practices of biological citizenship – as well as new types of biological citizens – have begun to emerge. In The Future of Health, we seek to address both the universalizing and particularizing experiences of the pandemic; the conditions that produced its uneven effects; and the future of health in the wake of a virus predicted to linger. Invited speakers and guests are asked to consider the future of health from their professional and experiential standpoints here in the United States and internationally.

2021: Truth (and Lies) in Our Time

Truth, it appears, is being recalibrated with the appearance of new forms of untruth—post-truth, deep fakes, and alternate facts. Truth claims are being challenged in every sphere of public life. Political speech is queried for its veracity. Medical knowledge is contested by consumers, as witnessed in the recent vaccine controversies. In the market, financial transactions and corporate accountings face charges of misrepresentation and obfuscation. Memoirs and nonfiction works are searched for factual infidelities. Across the sciences, extensive sets of experimental data are alleged to be nonreproducible. Adding to the perplexity, social media stymie the detection of truth with their ever-advancing technologies of fakes and digital doubles.

The pervasiveness of truth’s undoing led Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller to question whether “lying and mistrust have already permeated the entire culture.” This questioning of truth engenders apprehension of lies and, in turn, has invited closer scrutiny of the boundary between truth-telling and lying. When truth is so unsteadied, trust gives way to troubling uncertainties in both public and private life. 

The 2021 Shasha Seminar, Truth (and Lies) in Our Time, makes space for participants to explore these uncertainties, asking: What are truth and lies? Is what we have taken to constitute truth changing? Eroding? Or blurred by an escalation of lies and deceptions? If so, then what are the consequences of new forms of truth? And how can we, in our public and private lives, assess the veracity of the information we encounter?

2019: Understanding Russia

Russia has returned to the world stage in dramatic fashion in recent years, with its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and interference in elections from Macedonia to Michigan.

What is driving this aggressive behavior?  Will the current political system survive its architect, Vladimir Putin’s, scheduled departure in 2024? How should the United States deal with Russia?

The Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns will convene on October 11-12, 2019 to tackle these difficult questions. Friday night’s keynote address, and four panels on Saturday, will cover provocative topics like:

  • The prickly relationships between art and power in Russia
  • Narratives Russians construct to explain the traumas of 20th century Russian history
  • The state of civil society in Russia (more lively than is often supposed)
  • How elite factions constrain Putin’s decision making
  • The trajectory of Russia’s economic development (including the range of careers available to graduates in Russian studies)

2018: Suicide and Resilience:  Finding the Words

Let us not respond to suicide by calling it an inexpressible tragedy. Rather, our task as students of human life is to seek to further our compassionate understanding for victims of suicide—both those who have ended their own lives and those who are left in the wake of these losses and struggle to maintain their own balance and their own courage to live. We must accept the challenge to find the words—words of truth, of honesty—that can encourage us, we the living, to extend our caring to and for each other. In this manner, we might alleviate in some measure the suffering that is common to the human condition and even to find occasion for joy.

This gathering of students, scholars, and experts provides a rare opportunity to remove the taboos that have limited our conversations about this important topic and hindered the sharing of knowledge and experience. Let us share the available light—and let us find the words. 

2017: Guns in American Society

On average, 68 percent of murders and 51 percent of suicides in the United States today involve guns, with 48 school shootings in the United States in 2016. What is the current state of laws regarding gun possession and use in the United States, including on college campuses? What do we know, or think we know, about the gun debate in the country? Are there any areas of agreement among those on all sides of the debate who are concerned about the scourge of gun violence? What are the lessons from history? Are there paths forward to reduce the incidence of gun-related violence and death in the United States?

2016: Mass Incarcerations

With 2.25 million citizens behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other country. The social and financial impact of this policy are spiraling out of control. For this year’s Shasha Seminar we convened experts from across the country to examine the University’s role in this seemingly intractable problem and discuss paths forward.

2015: Social Impact Summit

S0cial Impact SummitSocial impact and entrepreneurship are deeply embedded in Wesleyan culture, and our students and alumni are known for creating significant change in the world. In fact, Wesleyan is ranked #1 on The Princeton Review’s “Best School for Making an Impact” list for 2015. During this inaugural summit, Wesleyan change-makers will come together to compare notes, share resources, and amplify their potential for impact. The two-day event has a roll-up-your-sleeves format with ample time for working and connecting.

2014: The Novel

[Amy Bloom]“The Novel is not only the form of fiction I love and know best, but also a form that is still enormously popular and evolving with readers, whether they are e-readers, fans of the turning page or creators and readers of novels that emerge Tweet by Tweet. This will be a star-studded feast for readers and writers, a combination of pleasure, intellectual stimulation, with provocative questions, sublime readings and some unexpected answers.” —Amy Bloom

2012 (Fall): Music and Public Life

[Santigold]The eleventh annual Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns addressed the theme of “Music and Public Life,” which is year-long University initiative focusing on the role of music as a collective voice that enlivens communities, in good and hard times. The Shasha Seminar brought together experts from Wesleyan and Middletown, as well as the broader arenas of American and global music today, to explore the issues of music and society.

2012 (Spring): The Political Economy of Oil

[oil refinery]The tenth annual Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns on “The Political Economy of Oil,” was held on campus April 19–20, 2012 and addressed the political economy of oil.

2011: Histories of Race

[faces] Alumni, parents, students and friends attended this powerful and thought provoking educational forum lead by eight experts in the field. This year for the first time, Wesleyan offered a semester-long undergraduate course as a complement to the Shasha Seminar. The eleven students from the class joined seminar participants for discussion during this 3-day weekend.

2009: Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made

[The Graduate] The seventh annual Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns provided Wesleyan alumni, parents, and friends with an opportunity to explore issues of global concern in a small seminar environment. The seminar addressed the theme of “Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made” with experts in the fields of film and television.

2008: Food: Power and Identity

[apples] Few topics call forth more interest, concern, passion, joy, and outrage than the food we eat. Food may make us healthy or unhealthy. Food is an inspiration for artists, a delight for the connoisseur, a weapon in war-torn areas, and an immense worldwide business. The critical need for a safe food supply has spawned controversial science and political furor. Above all, food reflects our deepest cultural and personal identity.

2006: Triumph of the Sports Culture

[football players] From stadiums to television contracts to branded sneakers, sports account for countless billions of dollars in economic activity. Parents spend their free time nurturing children’s athletic progress, while top athletes command celebrity attention and staggering salaries. The keynote address was delivered by Frank Deford, contributing senior writer at Sports Illustrated, a commentator for National Public Radio, and a regular correspondent for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

2005: Accessing Creativity

<[illustration] From the earliest cave paintings to the Hubble Space Telescope, people have sought to express their innermost thoughts and transform their environments in ways that enlarge our understanding of ourselves and the universe. Individual creativity is the driving engine of our economy and our culture, but exactly what is it and how do we summon it? We are privileged to have as our keynote speaker Howard Gardner P ’91, P ’98, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University.

2004: Saving Our Planet

[seed pod] Policy makers have enormous responsibility to make sound judgments based on solid scientific and cultural information. Yet scientific results from environmental studies are rarely definitive. How then should policy makers proceed in the face of built-in error as well as ambiguity of significance? The Shasha Seminar will examine the role that uncertainty plays in reaching environmental policy and management decisions.

2003: Ethical Choices in an Interconnected World

[Peter Singer] In an increasingly interconnected world, challenges such as managing the environment, maintaining economic stability, protecting human health, and defending social justice must be tackled at a global level. How can our ethical thinking and political action keep pace with these challenges when different societies and cultural/religious traditions often disagree about what, if any, ethical principles are truly universal?

2002: Cultural Roots of Global Conflict

[globe] This seminar will explore the deep causes of conflicts around the world and assess U.S. perceptions of and reactions to these situations. We will go beyond the debate over the “war on terrorism,” looking at the range of conflicts around the world that are an enduring source of violence and suffering, questioning our assumptions, and reflecting on what should be done.

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