This year’s Fall Convocation took place last Wednesday, September 11, in the Chapel. Every fall and spring Convocation features speeches from the president of the college and the president of the Vassar Student Association (VSA) as well as a talk given from a distinguished speaker, usually a member of Vassar’s faculty.
For this year’s Convocation, Professor of Mathematics, John McCleary addressed the Vassar community. President Catharine Hill opened the event and President of the VSA Deb Steinberg ’14, briefly addressed the community as well.
In her opening comments, President Hill touched on Vassar’s “limitless potential” and challenges going into the 2013/14 school year. She reflected on her sabbatical and time at Oxford University where she performed research on the economics of higher education. Hill then discussed how this research relates to Vassar, especially as it is relevant to this year’s Posse program and the military veterans in the current class of 2017.
Steinberg took the podium, giving the Vassar community advice she gave the class of 2017 during their orientation at the end of August.
“In the weeks since,” she said, “I realized that this advice doesn’t just apply to freshmen; it applies to all of us, regardless of how long we have been here.” These pieces of wisdom came from Steinberg’s own experiences at Vassar. This wisdom championed things such as never plagiarizing, being respectful of others even if you disagree with them, and trying new and different things.
Steinberg addressed some of the things she had heard as a senior. She said, “In writing it, I was thinking about how everyone keeps telling us ‘this year goes by so fast’ and ‘you’re almost done!’ and then asking us about our futures. I understand where these comments come from, but we still have a full year here.”
“There is so much we can do in a year. Maybe we are almost done, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate every minute of this year. So I wanted to remind people that,” she added.
One staple of Convocation traditions is the senior class donning their academic robes. Steinberg recalled not feeling excited for this. She said, “Personally, I was not looking forward to Convocation. I love the tradition, but I felt like by putting on our caps and gowns we were admitting that we were leaving soon, and it felt like the school was trying to rush us out of here, regardless of how irrational that sounds.”
Once Convocation began, however, Steinberg appreciated the tradition. “But once I saw all of my friends and classmates all dressed up and marching in, I think it started to make more sense.”
She continued, “As seniors, we have many privileges, but we also have a lot of responsibility. Just in being here the longest, we’ve become the natural leaders for the underclassmen, and we need to take that seriously, and do our best to leave this place better than we found it. So I guess I hope other people took that away too.”
After Steinberg concluded, Professor John McCleary made the Convocation Address. The title of the speech was actually an image of two squares with smaller squares and triangles making up the interior, with a written subtitle, “Stepping on the Bus.”
McCleary discussed the unusual name saying, “The title is a boondoggle in order to have a visual image that I could use during my talk to present a proof. Once you know that one can title oneself with a symbol—think Prince—then it is small step to a title of a talk that is a picture.”
He continued, “The subtitle ‘stepping on the bus’ is a reference to Poincaré’s account of a lightning inspiration that was recounted in the talk and is often cited as an example in psychological studies of creativity.”
McCleary discussed his time as an undergraduate and then progressed forward chronologically to his first teaching position after earning his doctorate. He described an epiphany he had about solving a problem he had been working on for months. McCleary explained, “I had found my light switch, I could see the room clearly, and it was exhilarating.”
He went on to note, “Of course, such experiences are not restricted to mathematicians, but they can occur in any sort of creative process. Most of us, at one time or another, are seeking that inspired moment, that flash of insight, that lifts us up to some new understanding of our humanity.”
McCleary finished his speech by advising the audience to find what makes them passionate, so that they too could experience such moments of inspiration.
McCleary hoped his zeal for mathematics would shine during his speech. He said, “to do that I had the audience prove a theorem with me, and I did a magic trick, based on algebra, to leave them thinking. If members of the audience were with me on these things, they did a little math that day.”
He said of the audience, “It seemed that, in spite of the heat, folks were very interested and listened carefully. A lot of people told me that they had gotten the 99 in the magic trick. That took attention. I felt a connection as I spoke, and I thought it went well.”
McCleary also worked to explain the significance of the Convocation day in the larger school year. He told students, “Convocation marks the beginning of the academic year in a ceremonial manner, the first days for freshmen, the beginning of the last year for seniors.”
The professor continued, “I talked about how to prepare for inspiration, and what it is like to experience it. Something for the freshmen, something for the seniors.”
Fall Convocation also marks the time during which seniors are allowed to ring the bell atop Main Building. Throughout the week, the bell could be heard tolling across campus, giving seniors an important opportunity to connect with Vassar in another meaningful way before their last year begins to unwind. This practice is often praised by seniors as a way to see the college in a new light and to leave their mark before departing. At Spring Convocation, juniors are allowed to ring the bell in a process that is meant to prepare them for the final time at Vassar in the following year.
Early in her speech, President Hill, too, addressed the seniors: “You have 256 days to go. Use them wisely.”
Steinberg echoed this sense of urgency and desire to leave a lasting mark. She told the class of 2014, “The caps and gowns and the marching signifies that we belong here, that we have come a long way to get here, and that it is now our responsibility to take what we’ve learned and make the most out of this year, and do something great.”