Convocation speakers reflect on memory, search for truth

Senior students and faculty in academic dress convened with first-years and other members of the Vassar community in the Vassar Chapel for Convocation on Sept. 6 to officially inaugurate the 2018–19 academic year. Courtesy of Vassar College via Flickr.

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 3:30 p.m., the Vassar community gathered in the Chapel to usher in a new academic year. While students and faculty members filed in, Adjunct Artist in Music Gail Archer played Alexander Glasunow’s “Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 98” on the Chapel organ.

Each year, Convocation serves as one of the primary opportunities for students and alumnae/i to gather and prepare for the coming year. For seniors, Convocation represents a reminder of the world awaiting them after college.

Interim Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana began by welcoming Vassar students, describing Convocation as an important occasion that marks many new beginnings for first-years and seniors alike. He asserted that students have changed Vassar as much as Vassar has changed them, challenging graduates to transmit Vassar’s teachings and history to the wider world and giving a special welcome to the “transformative Class of 2019.”

President of the College Elizabeth Bradley continued this theme of change and transformation, reflecting on the value of Vassar’s education and liberal arts in the modern era. Bradley remarked, “At a time when liberal arts education is really under attack, with public questioning of our values, our expense, our potential elitism, Convocation is a ritual of coming together…[W]hen we’re under attack, it is good to begin to know ‘What are our rituals?’”

Bradley then discussed her time spent working in hospital administration, which included heading a health project in Patna, the capital city of the Indian state of Bihar and hometown of novelist and Professor of English Amitava Kumar, who would give the Convocation address. She described her time in Patna as a period that taught her to tackle community health problems more imaginatively than ever before. Bradley recounted her troubles adapting to the local culture, government administration and community needs. She stated that her work in Patna involved a great deal of digging for the truth of the realities of the community, and as a consequence she learned to continually remain critical, engaged and curious.

Posing the question “Can you really find truth?” Bradley emphatically declared, “Yes, but you need thinkers.” In that way, Bradley affirmed, Vassar is playing a role in creating generations of thinkers by nurturing its students, encouraging them to constantly and creatively seek the truth.

The ceremony continued with Bradley pre-enting this year’s chairs. The Arnold Family Chair of Psychology was granted to Professor of Psychological Science Abigail Baird. The Class of 1951 Chair, given to Vassar’s most promising assistant professors, was awarded to Assistant Professor of Political Science Taneisha Means. The Mary Conover Mellon Chair in Art History was given to Professor of Art Molly Nesbit. Next, Professor of Philosophy Bryan Van Norden received the James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy.

Finally, the Frederick Weyerhaeuser Chair in Biblical Literature and Bibliography was given to Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections Ronald D. Patkus.

Bradley then announced Stephen Hankins, a member of the Class of 1985 and the President of the Alumnae Association of Vassar College, to introduce senior students to their soon-to-be alumnae/i network. Hankins presented the Young Alumnae/i Achievement or Service Award, which went to Xiaoyuan “Charlene” Ren ’13, and the Distinguished Achievement Award, which went to Lynn Povich ’65. Hankins praised Ren’s clean water initiatives in China and commended Povich for her contributions to women’s rights, noting her class action lawsuit against Newsweek for their discriminatory hiring policies.

Next, Bradley introduced VSA President Tamar Ballard, a former Ford Scholar who is researching the commodification of Black pain through music for her senior thesis. Ballard described personal hardships she underwent prior to and during college, but noted by contrast that support from her friends and professors rises above these struggles in her mind as treasured memories. As her parting words, Ballard reminded students, “Acknowledge the tough moments and live in the sunshine, make happiness your priority and remind yourself that you have made it this far and that you have so much more to see.”

Finally, Bradley introduced Professor Kumar for his address, titled “You Will Not Remember All of This.” Kumar discussed students’ experiences during their college careers, noting the complex and transitory nature of memory.

By way of example, Kumar noted various experiences he collected of students in past Convocation ceremonies, remarking that many could only recall the heat and humidity in the Chapel and that few remembered even the names of their Convocation speakers. Kumar related this fact to the zero-sum nature of attention, claiming that on their initial days on campus, first-years remembered the heat and nothing else because they were focused on seeking comfort within their new surroundings and community.

Kumar affirmed, “In my classes, I teach stories about the work that memory does,” crediting Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain” and Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” He recounted his own experiences with memory, such as when he returned to India as his mother was dying, recording details in her home that were as seemingly minute as a fresh bar of soap she had recently placed in her bathroom. Kumar reflected that all he remembered of that period was what he had written in a small notebook he always carries with him: “The event was replaced by writing. If I didn’t write, who knows? There would be nothing but the oblivion of death and lost memories. I write these down because I believe we forget even what is most precious to us.”

Professor of English Amitava Kumar delivered the Convocation Address, in which he spoke about the complicated nature of memory, relevant to seniors as they enter their final year at Vassar. Courtesy of Vassar College via Flickr.

Kumar told listeners to write down on provided index cards something that they wanted to remember in that very moment, recounting his own struggle to find words while he was in college. He declared, “In time, words came to me. This is because I had never stopped reading or trying to write.” Kumar left students with a reminder to take walks and write every day.

After Kumar’s speech, the Convocation Choir gathered to sing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” after which the Class of 2019 recessed out of the Chapel and proceeded to an ice cream social in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences—a last break before the official beginning of what may well be their final academic year.

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