Loading

ELENA CILETTI

About a month ago, Hobart and William Smith celebrated the awarding of the Distinguished Faculty Prize to Bob Huff, Professor Emeritus of History. At the award ceremony, I was struck by the frequency and the glee with which Prof. Huff's former students recalled his requirement that their papers include a high and fixed number of footnotes. This inspired me to invoke our colleges' distinguished teaching tradition today by giving my remarks over to footnotes exclusively.

Since the point today is to welcome President Gearan and his family on behalf of the faculty, and since an inauguration is an opening, a first sentence in what we hope will be a long and satisfying book, my footnotes are all cited quotations of opening lines. By the way, students who can identify the quotations will get extra credit.


The first thing I learned from my first-lines gathering expeditions is that opening with resounding praise of the protagonist is a long-sanctioned device. Here's one of the oldest and grandest:

"Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in always of contending."
[Homer: The Odyssey]


Or, from a few millennia later:

"To write the life of him...who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equaled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous, task."
[James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson]


As an academic, I must speak for academics and therefore I can't be expected to be either particularly concise or particularly clear, so

"I am going to read what I have written to read, because in a general way it is easier even if it is not better and in a general way it is better even if it is not easier to read what has been written than to say what has not been written. Any way, that is one way to feel about it."
[Gertrude Stein: "The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans"]


Moreover, as an academic of the coordinate system, I note, with some dismay at the stereotypical polarity:

"This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve."
[Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White]

Hobart College for men and William Smith College for women share one of the most distinctive institutional and curricular designs in American higher education."
[Hobart & William Smith Colleges Catalogue]


To which the only response might be:

"Guard! What place is this?"
[Charles Dickens: Mugby Junction]


Mark, Mary and Madeleine would surely second this opener:

"The moving was over and done."
[Willa Cather: The Professor's House]


And, more importantly,

"Wherever the ground is there is our natural home"
[Toni Flores: "Terrace"]


There is, of course, poetry to be found in a Lake Seneca autumn:

"Clear autumn, sight has no bounds;
High in the distance piling shadows rise.

The farthest waters merge in the sky unsullied;

A neglected town hides deep in mist."

[Du Fu: "Autumn Poem"]


It may also help the Gearans to know, during those long nights with Kathleen that we've heard about:

"Among the 16 kinds of meditation, the baby's practice is the best."
[Yuan Wu, epigraph to One Hand Clapping]


Let me presume to offer some guidance to our new president, specifically to the exotic local terrain of faculty meetings:

"It is known that Maxwell's electrodynamics ­ as usually understood at the present time ­ when applied to moving bodies, leads to asymmetries which do not appear to be inherent in the phenomena."
[Albert Einstein: "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"]

On a related note:

"High, high above the North Pole, ... 2 professors of English literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour."
[David Lodge: Changing Places]

Or, for those hours we wrangle over Roberts Rules and other minutia:

"All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
[Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina]


Or, more generously:

"Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically."
[D.H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterly's Lover]


Or, perhaps most aptly of all:

"If I am out of my mind, it is alright with me...."
[Saul Bellow: Herzog]

As the president of an esteemed college and community of intellectuals, Mark will want to remember this:

"To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn."
[bell hooks: Teaching to Transgress]


And:

"Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several clay jars and also 2 tickets to the ice show."
[Woody Allen: "The Scrolls"]



Perhaps most crucially, we need Mark to foster our aspirations:

"Let us be still
As the ginger jars are still
Upon a Chinese shelf.
And let us be contained
By entities of self
Not still with lethargy and sloth
But quietly with the pushing of our growth."
[Gwendolen Bennett: "To Usward"]


Then again, it would help if he could save us from our own worst inclinations:

"Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.
Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."
[Charles Dickens: Hard Times]


Mark's own history reminds us:

"In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen;...that they are imitable, all alterable; that we may make as good; we may make better."
[Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Politics"]


On the other hand:

"They're out there."
[Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest]


Ultimately, we hope Mark will come to look upon his work with us positively:


"It was a good job, best job I ever had."
[Langston Hughes: "A Good Job Gone"]

And as my parting advice, I'm reversing my pattern to invoke one conclusion among all these openings:

"But if you can fix in your mind some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for ­- life good for all people as for yourselves; if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence, following those trodden ways of wisdom which are pleasantness and seeking those quiet and withdrawn paths which are peace, then ­ and only then ­ can you sanctify your wealth into "commonwealth" ­ and all your art, all your duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony. You will know then how to build well enough. You will build with stone well, but with flesh better, temples not made with hands but riveted of hearts ­ and that kind of marble, crimson-veined, is indeed eternal."
[John Ruskin: "Traffic"]


Finally, to Mark, Mary, Madeleine and Kathleen, I trust that I speak for all of us when I say:

"It was love at first sight."
[Joseph Heller: Catch 22]


Welcome.

 

INFORMATION

Comments at the Inauguration of Mark D. Gearan

Oct. 22, 1999