September 4, 2019
I want to thank all those who have been planning and supported this event, and a very special thanks to the faculty for coming today. This is the moment, technically, when the faculty welcome the students to the new year. So faculty, let’s show by our applause how grateful we are that the students have arrived!
Convocation is a tradition at Vassar that began in 1865! In those early days, Convocation was a sermon given by the first president, President Raymond (yes, after whom Raymond House is named), to open the academic year.
By 1914, it had expanded to be a parade of faculty and students in full regalia; thank you Professor Offutt for helping us to reenact this important ritual. The song we will sing later in the program with the direction of Professor Howlett is called “Gaudeamus Igitur” (which means Let Us Rejoice); it has been sung at Vassar’s Convocation ceremony since the 1920s, and almost every Convocation has been held in this very chapel building since it was erected in 1904, except during the 1960s, when the ceremony was held in the outdoor theatre. That outdoor theatre is where you Seniors—robed as you are today for the first time—will, in nine short months, graduate! By the way, you seniors look very sharp in your academic robes.
One of my favorite parts of the Vassar campus are the walkways, or sidewalks. They have not always been my favorite; I admit they are an acquired taste. But now entering my third year at Vassar, I quite like them.
When I was with my former institution, I did not think much about its walkways. Except that they were very efficient. They were laid out across the lovely quads and courtyards in straight lines, diagonal at times, for minimizing wasted steps to get from here to there.
Not so at Vassar. No matter where you are going, there really is no straight line from here to there. Have you ever tried getting from the president’s house to the tennis courts? Or admissions to Blodgett? Oh, sorry, that is a sore subject. Many of you walk regularly from, say, Rocky to the Bridge, or from Main to Gordon Commons; you know what I mean when I say the walkways meander. And better, on some, there are lovely benches with poems or plaques to distract you and relate some historical phenomenon or person of former days of Vassar.
The problem is, of course, meandering sometimes feels like one is “off the path” and not likely to get where one needs to be. In preparing for today’s ceremony, a story from my own meandering through academic life kept replaying in my mind, and I want to tell the story in case it is helpful for any of us as we hit the proverbial bumps on Vassar’s circuitous paths.
In my 5th year as an assistant professor (way back at the turn of the century), I was working in a department that was heavily focused on research, and I loved research. I was studying cool topics like end-of-life care, aging, and health policy and ethics and getting grants to support my work. But I also really enjoyed teaching. And the more I taught, the more I liked it. Meanwhile, every signal from my colleagues was to teach less. This always surprised me because I had not grown up in an academic family, and so I thought—like most students do—that teaching was the professor’s job. But in this large, research university, it seemed almost the opposite. One memorable day, a highly successful colleague pulled me aside as if he were about to give me the “hidden curriculum,” bring me to the inner sanctum of academic life, “You are doing great,” he said, “but let me give you some advice if you want to succeed here. You need to shut your door more and not see so many students.”
I was flummoxed.
It was a crossroad for me. Actually, it was a significant bump in the straight road. I had to make a decision about going up for tenure, and continuing my career at this institution, and the way I was working seemed fundamentally opposed to the cultural norm and expectations from my colleagues.
There were lots of reasons I wanted to stay at the institution—mostly family. My parents lived nearby (helping me raise children), I’d grown up nearby so had friends around, and my husband was working there too, so it fit—in all ways except I felt a bit of a fish out of water.
I decided to go see my high school English teacher, who had saved me many years earlier when I got a D in honors English in high school and needed to drop down to the lower level. This teacher was a rebel, a maverick; she liked to do things differently, from her pedagogy to her way with students. She was truly unstoppable.
I told her my woes; she listened carefully and then told me a secret. She said, “It is much better to be a rose in a desert than a rose in a rose garden. A desert needs you when you are rose; what’s the value of one more rose in a garden full of roses?”
Her simple lesson comes back to me often even now. It reminds me that being a minority voice or having a minority view is important—even if the majority never change…that rose is critical in that desert. And it also let me associate my “difference” with being beautiful, not “odd,” but rather, “unique.” And most practically, it inspired me to keep on the path despite the bump and learn along the way how to mesh what I wanted to do with what was around me.
Ultimately, I was tenured—on my own terms, teaching along the way. And the bump I felt in that 5th year was nothing but a curve in a meandering path. And now, when the walkways all around Vassar make me slow down and bend a bit through the trees, I try to be patient with myself and the nature around me, soaking it in, sure that I will learn along the way.
I wish for all of us a year full of adventure, intellectual expansion, and a deep sense of purpose and belonging. May the year begin!