Arts and Entertainment | Miscellaneous

Students plan night of beer, learning with Raising the Bar

  • Tianyue Sun / Senior Staff Photographer
    raise a glass | Left to right: Frances Mayo, BC ’15, Jonah Tischler, GS '16, Ella Fainaru, GS ’15, Alex Spangher, CC ’14 and an associate Spectrum editor, Darya Fraiman, GS '16, and Ortal Issac, GS/JTS ’16, have invited 50 professors to speak on a variety of topics at bars across the city.

If you’re at a bar and your professor walks in, most times, you hide under the table. Next month, feel free to grab a drink with him and discuss the Higgs Boson. 

On April 29, Raising the Bar will be trading the lecture hall and a glass of water for a bar stool and a pint of beer in its first ever event, bringing professors from Columbia and NYU to 50 bars across the city in a night of education and alcohol.

“Our main idea was to get people to consume knowledge the same way they go to a music show or a comedy show,” said Yali Saar, GS ’16, one of the organizers of Raising the Bar. “We basically tried to re-brand education into something cooler.”

In the spirit of TED talks, Raising the Bar has invited more than 30 Columbia professors to speak about what is new and innovative in their fields, featuring professors from a wide range of departments, including Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Zoe Crossland, and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. Each talk will feature a 45-minute lecture followed by a 15-minute Q&A session. 

“It’s a way of making the TED talk more accessible and fun,” social media manager Frances Mayo, BC ’15, said. “If your plans were drinks after work on a Tuesday, now you get to listen to Brian Cole lecture about the God particle.” Registration for the event opened to the public last Wednesday evening, and by Thursday night the event had sold out of more than 5,000 tickets. Raising the Bar is currently working with the bars and cafés participating in the event to find additional space in the hopes of making a second round of tickets available. 

“Our high hopes were for 2,000 tickets for Friday, and we kept seeing the numbers go up,” Saar said. “It’s mainly not students. We got emails from Twitter about future events. We have no idea how it spread so quickly.”

Raising the Bar’s mission has also garnered support from major companies, including Sabra, Uber and Silverstein Properties, as well as TimeOut magazine. On Monday, Raising the Bar was nominated for this month’s Better Award, which honors nonprofit organizations seeking to make an impact on their communities. 

The process of selecting Raising the Bar’s lecturers began more than six months ago as members of the non-profit began cold-calling professors. Professors were chosen based both upon their intellectual pursuits as well as their popular appeal, with a great deal of stock placed in student and CULPA reviews in the selection process.

“We wanted to ensure professors that are a) great researchers and b) greater public speakers,” Saar said.

Professors were eager to get involved in the event, stressing the importance of bringing education out of the classroom. 

“We try at Columbia and Barnard to have an informal setting, and I imagine a bar will be a natural extension of that,” Barnard English professor William Sharpe said.

In conjunction with the Columbia University Association for Computer Machinery, Raising the Bar has worked with the University administration in an effort to dispel some of the stigmas associated with an Ivy League education.

“The idea stemmed from the will to get rid of the ‘ivory tower’ idea of an Ivy League university and see education in a new way,” organizer Ortal Isaac, GS/JTS ’16, said. 

A major component of this is found in the lecture categories: Rather than breaking down the categories by traditional academic delineations, the talks are grouped into “Take Over the World,” “Fight for Justice,” and “Build a Spaceship.”

“Our philosophy is that these talks should inspire you,” Saar said. “It was basically, ‘What do you want to do as a person? Do you want to conquer the world?’”

While Raising the Bar’s inaugural event is still a month away, the group hopes to expand its mission of democratic education to other cities.

“The idea is for Raising the Bar to be something annual and keep this kind of new educational platform going in New York City,” Isaac said. “We’re hoping to have something in San Francisco, in Boston, in London.” 

Above all, Raising the Bar seeks to make education something relatable and enjoyable, not just for students, but for professors and the general public as well. 

“The idea with a bar is that you go, grab a drink, chat, and relax,” Isaac said. “It’s casual, it’s open, it’s friendly, and we wanted to show that the two [education and relaxation] are not mutually exclusive. You can sit in a lecture and have it be fun and stimulating in a bar.” | @sarah_e_roth

Correction: A previous version of this article identified Ortal Isaac as GS/JTS ’15. She is actually GS/JTS ’16. Spectator regrets the error.


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Jeff Camhi, Professor of Biology, Author "A Dam in the River posted on

A hearty congratulations to all involved in the innovative project Raising the Bar. This is exactly the sort of thing I recommend in my recent book "A Dam in the River: Releasing the Flow of University Ideas" (New York: Algora, 2013). In fact, the book includes half a chapter about Columbia, based in large part on my extended research visit to your campus, numerous interviews, and a previous year I spent there as a visiting Professor.

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