Charity Hudley, associate professor of English, brought about the humanities’ historic victory last night – the first since Associate Professor of Music Anne Rasmussen escaped the island in 2002. Left stranded were the natural and computational sciences represented by Oliver Kerscher, associate professor of biology; the social sciences represented by Christine Nemacheck, Alumni Memorial Distinguished Associate Professor of Government; and a devil’s advocate played by Arthur Knight, Boyd Associate Professor of English and American Studies.
Clad in robes and wig festooned with birds, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research for Arts & Sciences John Swaddle in the ceremonial role of judge explained the Raft Debate’s premise to the uninitiated in the Commonwealth Auditorium’s capacity crowd.
The Raft Debate, a tradition abandoned in the 1980s and revived in 2002 by the Graduate Center, the Arts & Sciences Office of Graduate Studies and Research and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Association, involves four W&M faculty from diverse disciplines stranded on the onstage “desert island” with a raft.
The problem? The raft is only large enough for one person. After they debate their worthiness – or lack thereof – and the devil’s advocate calls for their complete abandonment, a survivor is chosen based on audience applause.
After drawing straws graciously provided by the devil’s advocate (which were in fact Twizzlers – “the devil’s own food,” according to Knight), Kerscher began his defense of the sciences.
Bemoaning the lack of German beer on the island – a product of science, he added quickly – Kerscher argued for the sciences’ survival using “unauthorized copies” of Nobel Prize medals he distributed among the disciplines represented.
The devil’s advocate, however, somewhat upstaged Kerscher’s presentation by throwing a balled-up paper at him, an action incurring the judge’s wrath in the form of a gavel to the head.
As the timer ran out, Kerscher threw the remaining medals into the audience and charged the attendees: “You do the tallying!”
In a departure from tradition, this year’s debate had the three-minute rebuttals immediately after each argument.
Charity Hudley, eyeing the dubious medal in her lap, retorted: “Is this a Nobel Prize or a bootleg penny?”
Next up was Nemacheck, defending the social sciences dressed as the Statue of Liberty complete with crown and torch.
Her getup prompted the judge, playing a more active role than normal this year, to interrupt: “I would like to point out that the Statue of Liberty is nothing but an 80 foot French tart.”
Nemacheck made a surprisingly conciliatory argument, suggesting that the humanities and social sciences could be saved together: “You save the social scientist, you get a twofer.”
The real stars of her argument were two poems with which she concluded, based on Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” sonnet on the Statue of Liberty’s base: “Give me your tired and really, really poor artists, your poets yearning to breathe free – or really, for anything free.”
The humanities had the next turn, and Charity Hudley began with a backhanded serenade of the other disciplines.
After an earnest “The humanities are essential because you are essential,” she began detailing what other disciplines were without the humanities: “Computer science without humanities is a PC…Sociology without humanity is whining.”
Turning to fellow English faculty Knight, her “treacherous, treacherous colleague,” Charity Hudley said, “Without the humanities, you ain’t got no job!” and gave him a literal pink slip.
Culminating her act was “The Wobble,” a dance that had her as well as members of the audience boogieing down.
Knight then stood, donning his new pink skirt in addition to devilish claws as he began his nihilistic argument for the three disciplines’ doom.
The judge, however, did not let Knight’s outfit go without remark: “I’m just glad I’m not the only one on stage in a dress.”
Knight quoted his daughter, saying “everyone here is either crazy, or dumb,” before recommending two options to the audience: leaving them all stranded until one became useful to all creation, or “put them all in the raft, and see if they can work fast.”
Following a question-and-answer session with members of the audience, the all-important vote was taken. All four competitors received considerable applause, but there was nearly an upset when an audience member shouted, “Save the judge!” who then received a thunderous ovation, owing to his antics throughout the debate.
Ultimately, Judge Swaddle declared Charity Hudley and the humanities victorious.
Students and competitors alike seemed satisfied with the outcome.
Kerscher conceded, “I think it came out exactly as it should have. She did a wonderful job. If I could dance, then I probably would have pulled it though…but natural sciences don’t dance.”
“I think the arguments for humanity were pretty solid. Based on merit, she should have won, even though I’m a social scientist,” said Alex Phillips ’14.