The social sciences float on

Psychology professor Wendy Quinton wins seventh annual Life Raft Debate


In Tuesday night’s hypothetical battle between the history, psychology and computer science and engineering departments, students placed the fate of humanity in the power of the human brain.

Clinical associate professor Wendy Quinton earned the psychology department’s first-ever win during the seventh annual Life Raft Debate. The debate, co-sponsored by the Honor’s College and Experiential Learning Network, featured a panel of four professors who delivered eight-minute speeches arguing why their field of study deserves the last seat on a life raft set out to rebuild civilization.

Battling against Quinton were computer science and engineering professor Atri Rudra and history professor Wendy Wolcott. Last year’s champion, physics professor William Kinney, played devil’s advocate, convincing the audience to vote for none of the panelists.

The night’s fifth participant, political science professor Michelle Benson-Saxton, couldn’t attend the debate after sustaining a Tae Kwon Do injury.

Vice President A. Scott Weber moderated the debate, which had a political undertone throughout the night. Participants poked fun at President Donald Trump throughout, some going as far to include embarrassing pictures in their slide show presentations.

After the first round of speeches, each professor gave a two-minute rebuttal to counter the opponents, followed by a Q&A with the audience.

The audience made the final decision, voting via cell phones. Roughly 100 students attended the event, a larger turn out than many years in the past.

Quinton centered her winning argument around the capabilities of the human mind. Computer scientists cancreate model societies in programs and historians know what’s succeeded in the past, but psychology is “the ultimate life preserver,” Quinton said.

“We can use psychology to shape human behavior, prevent inter-group conflict and promote leaders who will champion a ‘we’ not ‘me’ mentality,” Quinton said. “It’s important to set and maintain norms that serve the greater good. This creates an environment where everyone pulls their own weight, builds resilience to stressful events and annoying people, fosters a sense of hope and optimism during an uncertain journey and will help you lead a happy and meaningful life.”

Rudra argued for the use of a computer program that can capture everything society has accomplished and recreate it to perfection. Wolcott successfully read the room and suggested a hippie-style farming commune with the judicious use of marijuana to treat post-apocalyptic PTSD.

Quinton stayed firm on her stance that the human brain is the ultimate computer. She raised concerns that Wolcott may not accomplish much if she gets too lackadaisical from smoking pot. She applauded Rudra for his ideas, but said that future citizens who aren’t familiar with computer science will make his work and efforts useless in the end.

“If we develop a technology to save us all but the person in control is playing Candy Crush, we’ll all perish,” Quinton said. “And do we really want someone on the boat who’s always looking back? We need to be focusing on the future. I would form a democratic society and elect leaders who make smart, educated plans for the future and don’t just think about their own needs and wants.”

Students’ laughter poured from the debate floor out to the walkways of Capen Hall. Students loved that they got the opportunity to participate in such a fun, conversational event and see their professors in a more relaxed environment.

Devashish Agarwal, a senior computer science major, has attended four straight debates. He said he loves going in to a debate and not knowing what to expect.

“This event is a great way to see the lighter side of professors outside a classroom setting. The proverbial war among majors is a real thing, but seeing the professors do that can be quite entertaining,” Agarwal said in an email. “It's also important from the sense of its uniqueness. No other event on campus does anything remotely like this and the fact that Honors College has done it so well for so long also makes it a pleasure to attend.”

Agarwal said he never enters the debate knowing whom he’s going to vote for, and he likes the unpredictability of the format. Agarwal took PSY-101 with Quinton and said she argued well and deserved the win.

“For me, the whole purpose of the debate is to watch the professors in a witty discussion about how their majors are important and how the others' aren’t,” Agarwal said. “Eventually there had to be one winner and I’m glad it was Quinton. … She can be evocative and witty in front of large crowds.”

Katie Weaver, a senior legal studies and philosophy major, said she voted for Wolcott to represent the humanities. Still, Quinton’s win didn’t deter Weaver from enjoying the evening. She’s a senior in the Honors College and had never attended a Life Raft Debate before.

“It was a lot more entertaining than I thought it was going to be. I don’t go to a lot of these events because I have this notion that smart people are sometimes boring,” Weaver said. “This reminds me that I’m one of them, and we’re entertaining people.”

Weaver said all of the participants’ arguments were well thought out and informative, but especially appreciated the different perspectives each contestant brought to the debate.

“I’m humanities until I die, … but the computer science professor convinced me to vote for him more than I thought he would. He really had an interesting approach to the situation with some funny jokes as well,” Weaver said.

After winning the debate, Quinton expressed her surprise and gratitude to her students and supporters. She emphasized the importance of events like this as an interesting avenue for experiential learning and political discussion between faculty and students.

“I don’t think it’s always a good idea to try and foist our political views on students, but I personally like to get students thinking very deeply. If we can do that and [students] can make up their own minds, then I feel like I’ve done a good job,” Quinton said. “That’s what this does ––we’re not telling anyone you must think this way; we’re saying, ‘Evaluate these arguments’ and if it sparks people thinking then it’s a wonderful thing.”

Max Kalnitz is a news editor and can be reached at