Convocation 2006

Teresa Amott, Provost and Dean of Faculty, Provost's Reflections

August 30, 2006

Good afternoon, and let me add my own welcome to our students, faculty, administrative and staff colleagues, to members of the Geneva community andour distinguished guests, Dorothy Wickenden and David Rickey.

For some of you, this is the first academic convocation of your lives. For others, this is an annual ritual, the occasion on which we convene as a community, and are called forward into the new academic year, re-called to our vocations as teachers and scholars. It is, in a sense, an anniversary: a celebration and a remembrance of previous convocations. Last year, we held this event on August 31, a date we now recognize as the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that made landfall on the 29th in the Gulf Coast, but actually reached the Great Lakes on August 31st, causing us to move 2005 convocation inside to Bristol Gym.

The night before last year’s convocation, I had, like many of you, watched the televised images of Katrina’s assaults on the people and the landscape of the Gulf and for convocation a year ago, I wrote these words:

I cannot help but note that there are students at Dillard, Xavier, Loyola, Tulane and many other colleges and universities in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, who are not assembled to begin the academic year. They are scattered in shelters, they have no email, many college web sites are down and they are facing the likely loss of the first semester of this academic year. And of course, others, not privileged enough to be members of a college community are enduring almost unimaginable dislocation and suffering. As a campus committed to civic engagement and public service, I am confident that we will find ways to give of our time and our resources to support the rescue and recovery efforts now underway… Let that be one of our tasks for this coming year.

And, indeed, it was an important focus for the year. We sent groups of students and staff to help the recovery efforts, we raised money, we read and analyzed the disaster, in all its many facets. This coming year, groups led by our Office of Public Service will return to New Orleans to lend hands and hearts to the Sisyphean tasks. A first year seminar, the Politics of Disaster, taught by Gulf Coast native Prof. Cedric Johnson, will travel to New Orleans over Fall Break to see and touch the human disaster one year after the natural disaster.

Soon we will experience another reminder of an event in the past -- the five-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

These anniversaries are, of course, nothing but arbitrary markers in chronological time. Why should a year be especially meaningful? Why 365 days?; Why not 500, or 1000, or, for that matter, 20? As I pondered this question while watching the saturation coverage of the Katrina anniversary, my partner reminded me of a passage in the great Southern writer Eudora Welty’s essay on her beginnings as a writer. Ms. Welty wrote:

"The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily — perhaps not possibly — chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation."

That anniversaries – Katrina, 911, birthdays, deaths – happen in chronological time is, for Ms. Welty, not what matters. What matters is their subjective time, the ways in which we arrange events into sequences that constitute patterns of revelation, of cause and effect, of event and consequence. As we speak and write about these patterns we create a narrative of connections, between who we are today and how we came to be that way, between who we will be in the future and how we will become that person, that community, that nation. For Katrina, the narrative of connections reveals itself as theories about why so little recovery has occurred in the Gulf Coast, especially for the poor, the Black, the aged and the disabled or theories about why the ocean is warming. For September 11, we can trace the thread of revelation back to 1947 and the UN Commission on Palestine, forward to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon and forward again to the nuclear future of Iran and North Korea.

Later in September, we will have the extraordinary privilege of hearing two faculty members read from their own work and we will be able to see how they have discerned the thread of revelation in their own lives: Professor Deborah Tall and former Prof. Stephen Kuusisto will read from their memoirs, entitled, respectively, A Family of Strangers and Eavesdropping, A Memoir of Blindness and Listening. I invite you all to this event, which promises to be deeply moving and broadly illuminating.

I want also to mention to you today another faculty member, Professor Tom Drennen.  Every year, the faculty recognize one of their own for distinguished teaching. As Prof. Drennen was last year’s recipient of the faculty award, we had hoped that he would speak to you today. Instead, he is in South Korea, engaged in a very important project I’ll describe in a minute. Prof. Drennen teaches economics and also directs the environmental studies program. His faculty colleagues describe him this way:

Tom Drennen is known affectionately to his students as “Captain Carbon, Defender of the Ozone Layer.” As a teacher, he never tells students something he can show them. Any object that cannot make it into the classroom becomes the inspiration for a field trip. His students have had encounters with M&Ms, bunches of bananas, strategically scattered coins and Coca-Cola; they have visited the Niagara Falls power plant, the Dresden coal plant, local wind farms, Stern Hall and “green” houses that are not connected to the electricity grid. He is also a nationally known scholar who, during the past few years, has created and continues to perfect interactive computer models that explain the relationship between energy use and climate change. These research projects, funded by the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., have been presented to members of Congress to facilitate analysis of policy options that would aid in limiting global warming.

I am sure you would have rather listened to him than to me, but he is unable to be with us today because he is in South Korea working with nuclear officials from seven countries - China, Russia, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and S. Korea. Their project is to build a transparent model of the nuclear fuel cycle requirements in the coming decades, a model that will, we hope, pave the way for collaboration in this sensitive yet critical area of global energy policy.

While Prof. Drennen received special recognition, I want in closing today to recognize every member of the HWS community. Every one of you, students, faculty, administrators and staff and our two distinguished guests, is a teacher and a scholar. And as such, it will be our individual and collective task this year to find Welty’s thread of revelation, to make meaning of events in time. You will over this coming year, arrange events into significance – in the lab, in the seminar room, in the Library, on the Internet, on playing fields and courts, in residence halls and committee meetings, but most importantly, in your mind. We will, together, identify, test, create, argue, research, practice, compete and synthesize. My hope for us this year is that as a community of teachers and scholars, we experience often those dazzling, golden threads of revelation of which Eudora Welty wrote. May it be a wonderful year.