September 5, 2006
Text of the 243rd Inaugural Address
Katherine Bergeron: “Loving School”
Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron addressed newly matriculating undergraduate, graduate and medical students at Brown University’s 243rd Opening Convocation Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006, on The College Green. The text of the dean’s address follows here.
President Simmons, Provost Kertzer, Chancellor Emeritus Joukowsky, Chaplain Cooper-Nelson, members of the Brown community, distinguished faculty, students, and all who are new to Brown this fall, especially you, the class of 2010: I am honored and humbled to speak to you today.
You are a class I already feel quite close to, because, as a very new dean of the College, I am also having a “first-year” experience at Brown. I moved into my new office in University Hall only in July. That means, like you, I am still finding my way. Every day, it seems, I have something new to learn, something I feel I should already know. There are new names, new faces, new policies and rules. But more importantly, there is a whole new way of thinking about school, and about what I’m supposed to be doing here. And so it is not an empty gesture for me to say: I know what you’re going through. I know very palpably the feeling of being excited and overwhelmed by a new beginning. It was more meaningful than I can say to watch you walk through the Van Wickle gates just a few moments ago. For, in so many ways, we are making this passage together.
By now, of course, you have heard more than you ever wanted to hear about what you can and should be doing here at Brown. You have been advised, cajoled, cautioned. You have been reminded of your duties; warned about your freedom; exhorted to take bold action, to make a difference with your education. On at least one occasion, I know I was the one doing the exhorting. Today, however, I want to take a step back from all that. What I have to say is less about action than consequence, less about doing than being. I want to talk about loving school.
I remember someone asking me, shortly after I graduated from Wesleyan University in 1980, if I had had a good time in school. And I remember answering earnestly and without hesitation: “No.” It was a point of honor, I suppose. But at the time I could not imagine answering any other way. By most standards I had not had a good time. School was hard, a time filled with anxiety and doubt. The kind of education I pursued did not suggest easy metaphors of enlightenment. On the contrary, my friends and I used to joke that all the courses in the Wesleyan curriculum (or, at least, the ones we had been drawn to take) should be renamed “In the dark 1,” “In the dark 2,” and so on. We stumbled. We didn’t know what we were doing. I hardly need to remind you that, in the 1970s, Wesleyan, like Brown, had a completely open curriculum. What that curriculum offered, as I experienced it, was not so much a path toward clarity and self-fulfillment as a constant reminder of all I would never know. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “good time.”
And yet, having said all this, I also have to say that I loved that experience. And I don’t mean that I loved it in hindsight. I loved it at the time, too. How that happened is perhaps difficult to explain, but I have been thinking about a poem by Archie Ammons that does manage to explain it, and does so quite poignantly. Ammons, you may know, was a poet who for many years taught at Cornell, where I went on to get my Ph.D. The poem I’m thinking of is called “Loving People.” And if you don’t mind, I want to take a moment to read it to you now.
I said I wanted to read this poem, and so that is what I intend to do – for the next few minutes. You might be interested in knowing, for example, how this poem reads on the page. There are two conflicting formal principles at work. On the one hand, you have a set of logical or rhetorical statements. There are eight in all, punctuated by colons. On the other, you have a series of discrete three-line stanzas, almost like haiku. There are eight of these, too, punctuated by white spaces. But – and this is what’s interesting – the statements and the stanzas don’t match up. Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, it affects how you read. The logic cuts across the form, disrupting the clarity of those little haiku-like units. But those units, in turn, interrupt the logic. The white spaces bring on a stalling, or a stuttering, that not only shifts the verbal weight, but also reminds you: Something is literally being worked out.
Interestingly, what is being worked out is itself a kind of work. But this is no ordinary business, as the poem makes clear. In the very first line, for example, Ammons speaks of an “enterprise.” The word comes from the French verb entreprendre, which means to embark on, to start on. (A French entreprise is also a business; and in English we have the analogous modern term, “start-up”.) Still, after this enterprising start, the poem pulls back. What follows is a string of negative propositions, a tactic in rhetoric called apophasis. The enterprise we’re talking about here — this bold venture of loving people — is not much of a business, after all. People, the poem says, are “losing propositions.” So there’s no useful accounting procedure, no debit or credit, no fiscal conservatism or largesse that will guarantee success. There’s no strategy at all, in fact. There’s just one thing that matters. And Ammons announces it at the still point of the poem, right at the end of the fifth stanza.
Now, remember, I said that there were eight of those little stanzas. So this point in the form — 5 out of 8 — is significant. It yields more or less what Euclid called the “Golden Ratio.” It’s sometimes also known as the “Divine Proportion,” and I think Ammons might have liked that, because this moment does seem like a magical turning point for the poem. Not only does it mark the point when the negative logic comes to an end. It also marks the only time when syntax and form meet. For just as we are finishing the fifth stanza, we also complete the fifth sentence. The colon hovers over the white space as if over a clearing. It is a tiny moment of repose and expectation. And this is what comes next:
“You make your mind up first to do it”
Now I begin to see what the poem is trying to say. In a way, it’s talking about commitment. For when you think about it, this is another condition with a strangely conflicted economy. To commit can mean to give over, as in committing someone to another’s charge. It can also suggest a holding back, a saving for future use, as in committing something to memory. But we’ve already been told that it’s not about the savings, or the yield. And so we’re left with a third possibility, a simpler possibility, one that is more intransitive than transitive, for it has to do with binding yourself to a course of action. It’s this sense that the poem holds up for scrutiny: not the action itself; not the bold venture, or the adventure; just the continuous doing, a doing that you’ve made your mind up to do.
You can probably sense where I’m going with this. From here, I could draw an obvious analogy to that enterprise we call school. For there again we have the same kind of problem. We speak of giving and taking in similar ways: The faculty give classes; you take them; the University grants credit for what you’ve done; in the end, you walk out with a degree. It’s easy enough for me say that this is not the goal. Like the poem, I could trot out a negative argument showing that it’s not really about credits earned or squandered, not about paying out or taking back. But that won’t do, because it doesn’t go far enough. No, if there is one thing to take from this analogy it would be this: the idea of commitment — of making up your mind to do something, rain or shine — which the poem holds up as a basic hope. This sense of obligation is captured most powerfully and memorably, I think, in that doubled verb that appears a little further on, just beyond the turning point: “You decide to decide.”
At Brown, of course, you are immersed in a culture of decisions. As “architects” of your own education, you can be overwhelmed by choices. But what I’m trying to talk about here — the idea of loving school — has little to do with what you end up choosing. It doesn’t require that you know what you’re doing. You could even say that it favors being “in the dark”, because it is all about a decision you make before you start — at the moment you simply make your mind up — to keep doing what you’ve chosen to do.
As a professor of music and a musician, I might want to call this by another name. In fact, in my world, there is a very good name for it. We call it “practice.” I think this may be the most useful way of thinking about the enterprise that Ammons is trying to describe. There is something about practicing, about taking up your instrument — or singing — every day, that can actually change you. Let me tell you one final story. When I began writing my second book several years ago on the art of French song, I decided to begin taking voice lessons, so I could get closer to the music I was writing about. What happened was actually more profound. My teacher was an amazing octogenarian in Berkeley, called Lillian Loran. One day she said, “You know, Katherine, people are going to start wondering about you — they’re going to think you’ve fallen in love.” And, in fact, something like that had started to happen. There was a point during those first months when the singing had started to produce a different effect, something unrelated to singing. I could describe it as a sense of focus, a kind of connection to the world. But the strangest part was: I didn’t feel that I had much to do with it. It was a more oblique result, a special kind of feedback or resonance — why not call it love? — that emerged purely and simply from the daily practice.
My point, of course, is not to suggest that you all go out and take voice lessons. No, my point in telling this story is to say something about the kind of pleasure that can arise — unexpectedly — from a commitment to daily work, from practice. And so, new students, this is the thought I’d like to leave you with, as you embark on this new enterprise called your education at Brown. In the classes you take, in the activities you pursue, in the jobs you do, in the books you read, the papers you write, the experiments you perform, the art you create, may the most important step you take be the one you take before you start.