Convocation address humanizes faculty

Every year Vassar begins and ends, at least symbolically, with the long-standing tradition of Convocation. In autumn, it marks the freshmen’s formal introduction to Vassar and, in spring, the promotion of students to their next year.

What we call Convocation at Vassar is steeped in tradition — bell ringing, class pictures and the procession of the Daisy Chain and African Violets in spring all come to mind — but perhaps the part of Convocation most rooted in students’ psyches is the speakers. Most students will, at some point in their Vassar career, go to Convocation, sit in the probably sweltering chapel, and listen to the many speeches associated with this ceremony.

Traditionally, both the President of the College and the Vassar Student Association (VSA) President speak at Fall Convocation, as well as a faculty member. This last one is perhaps one of the more varied and diverse parts of the ceremony. Twice a year, students have the opportunity to hear from faculty personally discussing some of the things that are most important to them and their scholarship, an opportunity many students do not get in the classroom.

Professor of Mathematics John McClearly, who spoke at this past Convocation, emphasized the role Convocation plays in allowing people to learn more about the faculty member giving the address.

“We don’t have many events on campus that are meant for the entire community. Convocation is one of them, so I think it is very important,” wrote McCleary in an emailed statement. He continued, “The address is part of knowing something more about the faculty, and hearing how a faculty member understands his or her position as a scholar, a teacher, and as a member of Vassar’s community. We don’t get many chances for such insight.”

Professor of Biology John Long, who spoke at the Fall 2012 Convocation, also spoke about the importance of Convocation in bringing faculty and students together, as well as putting professors in a new light and showing students that, despite all their expectations, professors are still people.

“For students, I think it’s an introduction to the idea that these professor characters in the Hogwarts movie they are living have back stories. They get to learn about the prequel that they never got to see,” wrote Long in an emailed statement. “I hope that humanizes us, adds dimensions, turns us into flawed, strugglingly, motivated, frustrated, eager, and messy people. They get to travel back with us, for a moment, in the Pensieve, and see us enact the story that has produced the person in the robe on the podium.”

In addition to giving faculty a chanceto show a different side of themselves, the Convocation address is a chance for speakers to work on their speech writing skills and creativity in presentation. McCleary said he appreciated the diversity of viewpoints and presentation in past Convocation speakers.

He said, “There is always creativity in the addresses. There was the famous banjo-accompanied address of Tom McHugh. I did a proof, because an address by a mathematician always contains a proof.”

McCleary also emphasized the opportunity for professors to learn more about each other and their shared scholarly experiences.

He said, “I usually attend the convocations each year to hear how my colleagues arrived at Vassar, how they arrived at their disciplines, how they made intellectual detours, defeats, new fields, and successes. Lucy Johnson finding Alaska, Bob DeMaria turning to Samuel Johnson, Bob Brigham’s connections with Vietnam — all these stories are fascinating.”

Faculty members are not the only ones who have an opportunity to speak at Convocation. Traditionally, the VSA President gets to speak at Convocation, and this year it was Deborah Steinberg ’14.

Steinberg used a new take on Robert Fulgham’s poem, “Everything I Really Need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten,” to make her points to the audience, and particularly to the seniors.

“Convocation is the symbolic opening of the school year, it’s where we set the tone for the entire community, but there’s definitely an emphasis placed on the seniors because they’re in the front and in their caps and gowns, so my remarks were a bit more tailored to them,” wrote Steinberg in an emailed statement.

And it was—most of Steinberg’s speech focused on topics that could be nostalgia inducing for the seniors, but also had advice for the freshmen as well. Such tips as “Go to study breaks. If nothing else, for the free food,” and “Always go to office hours,” are relatively universal tips that can apply to much of the Vassar community.

And since, ultimately, Convocation is about coming together as a school, it makes sense that Steinberg would try to address all members of the Vassar community.. Every year, the College has this tradition, and every year there are graduating seniors and matriculating freshmen, VSA Presidents and Convocation speakers. It is one of the constants in the  world of all-nighters and term papers, of campus dining meals and test anxiety.

As Long put it, “I think any gathering of that many people, to mark the opening and closings of events in our lives, is a pretty rare thing. Convocation is our excuse to say, collectively, ‘Welcome!’ and ‘Don’t forget to make the most of the short, magical time that you have here.’”

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