COVID-19 Updates: Fall Semester

Convocation Address, Winter 2018

February 7, 2018

 

Welcome to Middlebury. It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury students who you will soon meet, to extend a warm welcome to you, the Class of 2021.5.

To begin, I would like to continue a custom by putting into circulation this most recognizable of College symbols—Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped to found Middlebury College over two hundred years ago. He was a familiar sight to the College’s first students as he frequently roamed through the town’s streets and strolled by the College, which then was entirely located on the site that is now Twilight Hall at the bottom of the hill on the way into town.

As he strolled about the town and College, Gamaliel Painter carried with him a walking stick. When he died, Painter bequeathed to the College $13,000, which was a significant-enough sum of money to secure the future of this fledgling institution. He also left us his walking stick.

It has become a tradition for newly arrived students, at opening Convocation, to pass among them Gamaliel Painter’s cane. I ask you to pass it among yourselves, but please remember to give it to Feb Orientation senior co-chairs Devin McGrath-Conwell or Kate Porterfield when done, so future first-years can share in the tradition!

And now, I want to warmly welcome you as Febs—that special class of people who arrive in winter. Febs are bright newcomers to our community bringing all their light and energy to the darker days. That’s why we welcome you with candles—they are a reminder of who you are.

There’s also something about winter that brings us down to the bare bones of things—we see the beautiful skeletons of things. We hear the sparser songs that exist underneath the songs of summer. The poet Mark Strand invites us to think about winter as a kind of listening—“listening to the tunes our bones play.”

Here’s how he puts it in “Lines for Winter”:

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air 
that you will go on 
walking, hearing 
the same tune no matter where 
you find yourself— 
inside the dome of dark 
or under the cracking white 
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow. 
Tonight as it gets cold 
tell yourself 
what you know which is nothing 
but the tune your bones play 
as you keep going. And you will be able 
for once to lie down under the small fire 
of winter stars . . .

You all have dreamt Middlebury. And you have done so powerfully. You have listened to the tune your bones play and found this place.

You may even have dreamt that, once you arrived, on one of these snowy Vermont nights you would lie down and gaze at the small fire of wintry stars. You were so effective in your dreaming about Middlebury that you have landed here, in this space. I hope it looks and feels the same way you dreamt it.

And even though you did everything right to get here, perhaps you are still anxious right now. You are looking left and you are looking right. You may be thinking, “I wonder how many of these people have done amazing things.” You may wonder if you’re worthy, because someone casually happened to mention this morning that they were an opera singer. Or that they already knew two languages. Or they designed a new solar-powered boat. And the worst thing was they were really nice about it. Or perhaps you are unbelievably impatient to get started right now. So much so that all this orientation and syllabus sharing and training is getting annoying. “Seriously, guys?” you are thinking. “I get the good intentions, folks, but let’s just dive in.”

Yes, you might be anxious. You might be feeling inadequate. You might also be impatient. In each case, however, you are no longer alert and directed, but you are distracted by your wish, your longing to be somewhere or something else than here, being what you are. I wish I were a singer or a musician. Why can’t I learn languages? I’m not an environmentalist. I am completely uncoordinated. Do I belong here?

As your president, I am going to ask you: How long will you dwell there in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Sitting here in the pews in Mead Chapel, you are the same person we admitted last spring: the person who might be an uncoordinated non-environmentalist non-language learner non-opera singer. We admitted you. The person who dreamed Middlebury and who has come here to dream other dreams. To be inspired by the fires of winter stars.

So what does it mean to follow the tunes your bones play, now that you are here? First and foremost, it means being aware of all the opportunity that is around you and keeping yourself healthy at the same time.

At Middlebury, you will have a wealth of people to support you in that effort: Commons heads, Commons deans, first-year counselors, the faculty who teach you in first-year seminars, librarians, coaches, faculty who teach you in your other courses, people whom you happen to meet on campus.

And they will help you listen to that tune that is yours alone, and in doing so, develop wisdom.

You see, at Middlebury, we are going to ask you not just to be smart, but to become wise.

Make no mistake: at Middlebury, you will be all about using your smarts, your intellect. You will be challenged to master material more than you ever have before. And there will be days when you will feel that meeting such an intellectual challenge is enough. But once you have done that, we will not simply let you rest on those laurels. Intellect is not wisdom. At Middlebury we will challenge you to take the next step after being smart, which is to understand the role of that knowledge in the world, how it has shaped human hearts and minds over centuries, and how it continues to do so. Ask fellow Feb Hasher Nisar ’16.5, who majored in political science and minored in religion as a student here. He is currently at Oxford University, pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Islamic studies and history. At Middlebury, he worked with his political science professor to research the way that media representations of Muslims, Jews, and Catholics in Great Britain and the United States both shape and reflect society’s attitude toward these groups. He plans to pursue his doctorate in Islamic studies to help address public misconceptions of Islam and build intergroup alliances in the U.S. Muslim community.

At Middlebury, we will also ask you to pay attention, to be mindful, and to reflect on the purposes of your own education. Mindfulness is part of being aware of what you are doing—not just following a well-traveled route or a rote course of study. Some people call this slow learning. We call it better learning. Just ask the team of 12 Middlebury students who recently helped create an award-winning animated film and a website about the Collinwood fire of 1908. Their work, including painstaking research, and significant trial and error, allowed them to tell this complex and tragic story, now almost 110 years old, through the lens of the present, and across media and in ways that have not been available to previous generations of students and scholars. No way to go through that task but slowly, carefully, and paying full attention.

What you will soon see too is that, at Middlebury, we will ask you to carry your work lightly. That doesn’t mean that you don’t take your work seriously. It means that you understand the power of trying many times and in many different ways. At Middlebury you will learn that trying twice, trying three times, or even more is part of the equation. Just ask Coumba Winfield ’17 and Alex Myerson ’12, who just a few weeks ago launched a new app called PopGig. This app connects Vermont college students who want to earn some money with students who need some help to get errands or other tasks done. They worked on the app for more than three years, starting with a sketch they created together in the Wilson Café one cold night in 2015. They didn’t know anything about coding when they started the project—and they both had to learn new ways of collaborating and connecting with community, resources, and mentors. But they kept at it, and now their brand-new app is launched and rapidly gaining users.

At Middlebury we will challenge you to think of the wisdom that you gain here as more valuable than gold or silver. Those reminders mean that, if you get a great internship or a fabulous high-paying job when you graduate, and you think you have accomplished what you need to, then you will not be wise. And we will not have done our job as educators. If we have done our job well, then you will see that true wisdom is found in seeking a deeper and richer life, not one that just focuses entirely on material ends. Just ask the planters and sowers at the Middlebury College organic farm, known as the Knoll. These farmers don’t grow their crops for a profit, but rather to support the local economy, to deepen a sense of place, and to create a source of local food for Middlebury College and the town. This kind of wisdom gives the staff at the Knoll the resilience to try different agricultural experiments, and different kinds of shelters for plants and people. All of that work has been happening there for more than 15 years.

At Middlebury we will also challenge you to be receptive to others’ points of view. That, too, is a great quality of wisdom, and a real skill, and when you learn it you will know the value of others’ arguments and become willing to respect them. At Middlebury, we view arguments as moments where people are thinking their best thoughts together. If you are willing to be open to others’ arguments, you will have the support of others around you because they know you are willing to listen to them. That, too, will help us become a better community together—a community of people who know how to listen, and to talk, to each other. Just ask the members of Oratory Now, our student public speaking organization. Students founded Oratory Now in 2014 as a way to cultivate the art of public speaking among students. They restarted the Parker Merrill Speech Competition, which first began at Middlebury in 1825 and had been dormant for 50 years, and they’re working toward ultimately shaping a College-wide oratory program. In the grand champion’s winning speech, Anna Dennis 17.5, a Feb like you, cautioned the audience not to place intellect above the heart, but rather to integrate the two—wise counsel, indeed.

At Middlebury, we will also challenge you to trust. You will need to trust that even if the outcome of your efforts is not always what you think it should have been, you will eventually understand what the meaning of your work is. You will find your place. You will hear that tune your bones play in the middle of winter, and many other seasons too—in the fertile mud of spring, the green hush of summer, the heart-stopping colors of autumn. And you will need to trust that there will be people around you to work with you in all seasons of your student life. Just ask Rene Gonzalez ’17 and Eduardo Alejandro ’17. Last year, they worked with their physics professor to study how forces of light and of electric fields affect the movement of atoms. They did considerable research over time, and then they documented that research in a paper that was recently published by the Journal of the Optical Society of America. Together, they conducted experiments that can impact the work of future scientists—and they published their results. They didn’t do it alone. They didn’t do it quickly. They did over the course of several seasons. And they did it together.

And a final note about what you will learn here at Middlebury: being wise means being resilient. What do we mean by this? Resilience is one of those words that we think we know, but we don’t necessarily stop to reflect upon. Resilience is about bouncing back from adversity, but it also refers to the ability of an object to return to its original shape after being stretched out of proportion—as might happen in a crisis or time of trauma. Resilience in both those forms is essential in a diverse learning community. You are awake and resilient when you know your own shape and know that you can find it again. You are resilient when you have the courage to learn and make mistakes and find your shape again after the worst thing that could happen happens. Resilience means finding your own shape, and staying in shape, in body, mind, and spirit. So that you can create your own path.

The poet Mark Strand reminds us about resilience in winter:

you will go on
walking, hearing 
the same tune no matter where 
you find yourself— 
inside the dome of dark 
or under the cracking white 
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.

So I ask you once again: How long will you dwell in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? You have dreamt of Middlebury, and now you are here. You have arrived bringing us light and laughter. And we will help you follow the tune your bones play. We will help you to become wise. We will help you go on walking, no matter where you find yourself—

inside the dome of dark 
or under the cracking white 
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.

Now go, and get on with the glorious business of being who you are.

Office of the President

Old Chapel
9 Old Chapel Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753
802.443.5400
president@middlebury.edu