Convocation 2009

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Carol Oberbrunner
September 2, 2009

Good afternoon, fellow humans!

How's that for a greeting?

A student of mine, Julia Gibson, who graduated last May, would challenge it. (Philosophers challenge everything.) She would say: Why not include the squirrels, the birds, the worms? She didn't want to leave out any species; so even now, I can't forget her perspective. Even worms glow with life! Still, it is you wonderful people whom I want to address.

I am honored to speak on behalf of the faculty at this Convocation to celebrate the arrival of our new Classes of 2013 and our returning students. It brings me great joy to share the podium with our distinguished humanitarian speaker, Thomas Tighe. And I am also thrilled to be here with our two student speakers - Dan DeNose and Regina Triplett. I cherish my personal connections with both of them. They both know I admire them.

Having begun by addressing our common humanity, I want to talk about two students. Both are living from a strong and courageous sense of their connections with people around the world.

I am constantly inspired by my students. Their endless curiosity, their probing questions, their openness to new ways of thinking, their appetite for hard work, their profound concern for other people - these things light up our classrooms and our campus. While mentioning just two students, I will also be thinking of dozens more.

The first of these students is a philosophy major who graduated in 2008, Beth Meyer. She has written amazing letters to me, telling me of her almost-unbelievable adventures teaching in a new school in a remote village, Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia. Her enthusiasm for this work is boundless, which it certainly needed to be, given the huge challenges she faced there during the last academic year. With no equipment and very little support from the school administrators, Beth began last September with resistant and shy students, creating in eight months an atmosphere of genuine love of learning which culminated in her students' winning their state's debate tournament. Last week she departed for Malawi, Africa, to start again in a new place, sharing her talents with people, and especially children, in great need of her help.

The second student is a delightful young woman from China, who came to see me last semester during my office hours almost every week. During those memorable conversations we both learned so much! She brought me her papers and we worked on those, but what was most exciting was her openness to challenging her own beliefs and her eagerness to expand her thinking. Her courage was inspiring.

The dramatic encounters, however, are not more important than the seemingly small exchanges. Although we as faculty rarely speak openly about it, the respectful and trusting connections that we build with our students enrich our community in powerful ways. (My dear colleague, Eugen Baer, once encouraged me to admit that sometimes it is not just respect; it is love. And so it is.)

Talking about our fascinating students is a joy. But I also want to do something that scares me. (I commend this, by the way.) So I will talk, just a bit, about myself.

Three questions that arise out of my own life have helped to guide me in what I am now doing. First: What made me want to teach philosophy? I think perhaps I have always had this interest inside me, but it was my undergraduate education that really brought it out. We as faculty have a unique opportunity to help our students find and nourish the interests within them. This leads to the second question: What is the most effective way to nurture our students' deepest passions and desires? First, we share our own fields with them, introducing new questions, new sorts of thinking, modeling a way of being a scholar, immersed in our disciplines. Then within that context we can listen attentively, whole-heartedly, to their responses and their ideas. This is certainly natural in philosophy, with its Socratic tradition of learning through dialogue and discussion and its emphasis on questioning and self-examination. Sometimes I hide my own opinions and answers so that I can discover theirs. In this atmosphere, where students' perspectives are heard and honored, wonders can happen. Self-discovery can happen. This leads to my third question: What led me to focus so intently on the importance of asking questions and of listening? Perhaps from Socrates, but it also comes from being a parent.

I have three children, all now finished college, with families of their own. My children were my greatest teachers. For example: from the child whose life was most difficult I learned that you cannot live your child's life nor can you always save her from disaster. But you can love your children unconditionally and give your all. And when the time is right, along with loving them you can let them go, freeing them to live their lives in their own way. What they need, and have always needed, is positive, loving attention; they need listening which is free from judgment and which is able to hear who they are. This is also my goal in listening to students. I believe that being heard in this way is a burning need of people everywhere. We all want to be ASKED how we see things and what we need, and it is crucial that our answers are heard. I hope all of our students feel respected and heard, but I know this is not always our nation's approach to people around the globe.

One of the most exciting things about Hobart and William Smith Colleges is our focus on service and on the global context in which we live and work. Our international students and faculty are invaluable in this mission. The more connected we all are with each other, the better we will be at hearing the voices and the needs of the world's people. I am a wife, a mother, a philosopher, a teacher, a U.S. citizen. But I am also a member of the human family, and I have long been intensely curious about other ways of living and thinking. In every course where it is possible, I use a global approach. What are the great questions present in other cultures, and what answers to those questions do they propose? What are the human bonds that we share? A mother in Rwanda loves her children and grieves when their lives are tragic. We all know love and grief. A student in Pohnpei, Micronesia, discovers the near-intoxicating joy of learning. We can know that joy, too. Inspired by her education here, Beth Meyer can go to Pohnpei and achieve stunning success in a culture enormously different from hers. When she arrived there she began by asking them what they needed; and she knows deeply that we all yearn to discover the talents and passions that lie within us.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges, along with a commitment to service, are also dedicated to nurturing the life of the intellect. Here we have the luxury of being able to think and work together, to expand our understanding in a community which honors our searching. It is no exaggeration for me to say that I am, in this beautiful place, living out my dream of doing work I love. Countless faculty members here feel this way. How amazing it would be if everyone on the planet could live out their own dreams!

My wish for all of us is that the humanitarian and global awareness fostered here and the precious connections which we make here will continue to energize us - both for the sake of our own community and for the sake of our fellow beings both nearby and far away. There is no better way for us to cherish our own lives than to work on behalf of our human family. If we are lucky, our students will find here the resources to awaken their own inner fire, and then they will become unstoppable. They will light up not only our campus but the world.