Convocation 2013: Preparing for a well-aligned life
“The more you are able to align your work with your authentic interests and talents, the less it feels like work, and the more it feels, simply, like living your life,” Bates President Clayton Spencer told the college’s new students during the Sept. 3 Convocation ceremony.
During an afternoon ceremony moved into Alumni Gym by a threat of rain, Spencer opened the academic year with an address that drew connections between the education that the new students are beginning and the well-harmonized lives that Bates hopes to prepare them for.
“When we talk in our mission statement about ‘the emancipating potential of the liberal arts,’” she said, “I think of the freedom and joy one feels when you achieve that alignment between who you are and what you do.”
Spencer sounded the keynote in a program that also included words from the president of the Bates Student Government, Brent Talbott ’14 of Menlo Park, Calif., and from Matthew Auer, who became Bates’ vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty on July 1. Their audience included Auer’s fellow newbies, the 502 members of the Class of 2017.
Spencer expanded upon a theme integral to her agenda since Day One of her Bates presidency: how a liberal arts education can help students harmonize life and work. “I like the notion that we, at colleges like Bates, are both motivating and equipping our students to lead an examined life,” she said. “Philosopher Jonathan Lear has defined this notion elegantly as ‘living with the question of how to live.’”
She offered specific guidelines for laying groundwork for the well-aligned life. First, by all means ask the big questions about self and life — but don’t hurry the big answers. As with love in the Supremes song, you just have to wait.
“Answers to the biggest, deepest, and most fundamental questions in life don’t come packaged” as such, she explained. “They sneak up on you. They emerge gradually over time, as you try things and learn things and begin to chart a course for yourself.
“So a big part of the challenge is recognizing the answers as they begin to take shape in your own life.”
Spencer used a Lewiston shoemaker, a hand sewer in one of the now-defunct shoe factories, to exemplify how intensive experience can reveal one’s interests or abilities. As revealed by a Museum L-A exhibit, Richard Courtemanche discovered through learning to sew shoes, through getting his hands dirty, that he was exceptionally good at something that ended up being his life’s work.
While not every immersion in a task or a subject will unveil your true calling, nearly every one will teach you something about yourself, even the things you’re not suited for. Working as a federal prosecutor was such an experience for President Spencer. While she learned much in that role that later stood her in good stead, she realized that she was fundamentally wrong for the part.
Litigation is concerned with the past, she told the Convocation audience, but “the questions that have always grabbed me are future-oriented questions. I am an optimist and a problem-solver.”
The lesson? “Live your life from the inside out.” In other words, make choices that are true to your interests, needs and abilities.
Her final suggestion to the Class of 2017, and perhaps the meatiest philosophically, was “own your work.” She said, “We make something, and in so doing, we make meaning, and as meaning accumulates we make our lives.
“We make arguments, we make art, we make a home and family, or, if we live in Lewiston 50 years ago, we make shoes. All of these forms of making involve translating something that we hold inside into something that can be seen and shared and appreciated by others.”
Spencer told the new students that henceforth they will be working every day with people who do that with unparalleled excellence: the Bates faculty.
“They model in their own lives the excitement of working with ideas and the concept of pursuing a life built around one’s deepest interests and talents,” she said. “They will work with you to develop frameworks that will help you discern patterns and meaning, and they will help you sharpen skills of analysis, interpretation and collaboration that will be powerful assets throughout your life.”
In his first appearance before the entire campus community, Dean of the Faculty Auer explained why he chose to come to Bates after heading the honors college at Indiana University. He anticipated President Spencer’s theme, the necessity of finding work that truly reflects the worker.
At his time in life, he said, “I can’t simply work” for work’s sake anymore. “It needs to be inspired. And a good place to start is with inspired people,” like those at Bates.
BCSG President Talbott, meanwhile, advised the new students to drink deeply at the trough of opportunities that Bates presents. The only experiences you’ll regret, he said, will be the ones you don’t live.
In her closing benediction, Acting Multifaith Chaplain Emily Wright-Magoon told the crowd that “we are heirs to a harvest that nourishes and sustains us,” referring to Bates’ long and deep academic and social community.
“Let us allow ourselves to be lifted into that bounty, bolstered by the trust that we go on together” — and she echoed the president’s theme — “our lives courageous testaments to our deepest callings.”
In addition to being the most diverse and one of the most academically accomplished classes in Bates history, the Class of 2017 — at least the men — stood out for effecting a sartorial sea change in Convocation tradition. In short, it was tees to ties: In a pronounced shift from recent years, there was scarcely a T-shirt to be seen, while neckties, including bow ties, abounded.