2007 Convocation address

Room for Ideas

Fellow students and fellow educators: I am so pleased and honored to open our 2007–08 academic year by thanking the Class of 2011, transfer students and newly hired faculty and staff for bringing your fresh ideas, your diverse experiences, and your common intelligence, enthusiasm, energy and commitment to our community. We like who we are, but we are not complacent or finished with our becoming. We gratefully welcome newcomers to join a work in progress.

Great colleges and universities are, in fact, always under construction. They are interesting places — and sometimes confusing and contentious places — to the extent that they are not static. They contain and transmit the lessons of the past, but they are also always in transition toward the future, not only because the students are always changing, but also because the world is always changing, and ways of knowing are always changing.

As Bates convened its 153rd academic year on Sept. 5, 2007, the community heard from Elaine Tuttle Hansen, president of the College; John Cole, Thomas Hedley Reynolds Professor of History; Jill Reich, dean of the faculty; Bill Jack, student government president; and the Rev. Bill Blaine-Wallace, the College’s multifaith chaplain.

The volatility of great institutions of higher learning, often masked by historic buildings and enduring traditions, is more visible than ever at Bates. You find us in the midst of important renovation and reorganization projects, both tangible and intangible, dedicated to making more and better room for the free play of ideas.

Literally, being on this campus now means finding ever-shifting pathways across constantly evolving construction sites several times a day, as we complete Phase I of our Campus Facilities Master Plan. For newcomers, let me explain that this plan is a roadmap for updating and redesigning many of the spaces in which we study, eat, sleep, work and play over the course of at least the next couple of decades.

Approved in October 2004, the plan was the product of 18 months of hard work evaluating the condition of our physical infrastructure and exploring alternative ways of maintaining and improving a campus that is worthy of our very talented people and their educational aspirations. Students don’t come to Bates for the buildings and facilities; they come for the people and the ideas, and we don’t like the extravagant or the ostentatious. But you can see that Bates was built lovingly over time by our predecessors, and if we are to be known as good ancestors some day, it is our responsibility to construct and reconstruct in ways that speak to our high standards and our strong hope.

The facilities plan reflects several core principles that I briefly call or recall to your attention today:

1. Individual achievement occurs best within a cohesive, inclusive and multifaceted community. Learning for each member of this community takes place through diverse interactions inside, around and outside the core academic space of the classroom. We want all spaces to be extensions of the classroom, conducive to learning and growing together, often face to face and hand in hand.

2. Bates is blessed with a distinctive, historic central campus whose much-admired aesthetic needs to be consistently carried out in its peripheral buildings and grounds.

3. New projects must advance our commitment to environmental stewardship. We will creatively reuse existing buildings wherever possible and we will follow best practice as we site and design the built environment for appropriate sustainability.

4. We seek spaces that not only anticipate but also encourage change, growth and adaptation. The plan is flexible and will be implemented in phases that allow us to learn and adjust as we go along.

5. We care about good aesthetic design because as an educational institution, we seek to appreciate and promote access to every facet of human potential.

6. Our goal is ambitious: to achieve the most vibrant and distinctive residential campus we can imagine — one that honors our New England heritage and offers the latitude needed to educate today’s global citizens.

The new construction in Phase I of the Master Plan nears completion now. The recently opened student housing is the first of several proposed new residences coming in later phases. In the winter semester, we look forward to the opening of the new dining Commons. The new facility intentionally ignores trends toward distributed dining and preserves the tradition of a single, central dining hub while adding features that again extend its reach and purpose, like a convenience store and more study and socializing spaces.

Third but not least of these new projects, Alumni Walk, exemplifies the connective principle of the plan. Prior to the creation of this birch-shaded pedestrian walk, we had an asphalt road and parking lot called Andrews Road that was bordered by several of our most important academic and administrative buildings. Some of them, like Pettigrew and Lane, fronted Andrews Road, while others, like Dana Chemistry and Hathorn, seemed to turn their backs to this space.

To repair this haphazard fragmentation and isolation, we are integrating the buildings with each other and with the landscape. We are creating an outdoor passageway where students, faculty, and staff see each other repeatedly throughout the transitions of the day and the year, designed as an “egalitarian” space that is aesthetically inspiring and literally as well as figuratively inclusive and unifying.

The final projects in Phase I of the plan are the creative reuse of Hedge Hall and Roger Williams Hall, and the Master Planning Steering Committee is hard at work collecting and evaluating many wonderful ideas, so stay tuned.

The architecture of a Bates education has also just undergone some renovation, and the Class of 2011 is the first class to enter Bates under the new curricular requirements. Their core principles and values mirror those that are manifest in our Campus Facilities Master Plan. Historic and/or distinctive elements of the curriculum like writing, scientific thinking, quantitative literacy and senior thesis are built into a partially redesigned and expanded floor plan that accommodates innovation and new combinations while ensuring the leeway to connect across older disciplinary boundaries.

The new General Education concentrations in particular seek to locate individual courses within a cohesive, inclusive, and multifaceted network of meaning. The flexibility of the concentrations signals that we not only anticipate but also encourage change, growth, adaptation. In approving the new model, the faculty explicitly intended that it would be revisited regularly, allowing us to learn from each successive innovation and to adjust as necessary. You are the pioneers, the first to occupy this latest curricular structure; we will learn with you as we furnish its commodious central areas and explore its nooks and crannies.

You also arrive at a time when the College is working hard to build and grow in another dimension by broadening our reach and creating an even more diverse community of individuals committed to our foundational principles: inclusiveness and social justice.

This college has made historic and heroic efforts over many years to live up to the ideals of its farsighted founders. In the 19th century, Freewill Baptists led the Abolitionist movement in New England and were determined to create a place of possibility for more than the elite handful who were at that time allowed to pursue higher education. But here too we inhabit space that remains under construction and demands now broader scope, as each new generation has to refashion its commitment to these foundational values in a way that recognizes and embraces changing times.

You have arrived during a period of intense effort at Bates to enrich what today we call diversity in the composition of our students, faculty and staff, both in the character of our educational environment and in the ways we engage and serve the world. We believe that living and learning in a broadly diverse community fosters the examined life, obliging us to think harder and expand our horizons. Only by moving outside of our psychological and social comfort zones can our human spirit grow, cognitively and personally. Community involvement and interest in the public good, moreover, are enhanced among students educated in heterogeneous postsecondary environments. And multicultural experience again broadly defined is particularly essential to students who will become leaders in an era of globalization.

Let me close these remarks and open this year by attempting to connect one ambitious piece of the recently refurbished curriculum — the enhanced writing requirement — with the College’s exciting efforts to realize the benefits of greater diversity. Inspired by Bates faculty members’ generous and perhaps even courageous willingness to rededicate themselves to the teaching of writing at multiple levels, I took the opportunity last Short Term to teach an advanced expository writing course.

My students and I set out to explore, among other things, the paradoxical idea of the teacherless writing class, as examined in particular in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers.1 This well-known book lays out both philosophical arguments and practical steps that challenge traditional ways of teaching writing. It is most frequently associated with the concept of freewriting — a somewhat therapeutic method that begins with non-stop, uncensored stream-of-consciousness writing followed only much later, after many drafts and ideally many readers, by the editorial process that turns free writing into fine writing.

But today I want to focus on what comes after freewriting and before editing: the process of improving your writing by sharing it with a group of people who are not teachers in the traditional sense of the term yet are better able to help you understand how to do the hardest part of writing — what Elbow describes as “getting things inside someone else’s head.” In this part of the process, designed to connect you with others and to show you how your words are experienced, readers above all must not point out what’s right and wrong. Instead, they must point out what they experience as they read. They must offer what Elbow describes as “movies of the mind.”

This sounds easy, but as members of my Short Term class will testify, and as anyone who has ever attempted to teach writing will agree, understanding and really responding to what someone else is trying to say is hard work, requiring generosity and complete selflessness. And writers who wish to write better must also work hard to accept just about everything readers tell them as though it were all true. In fact, the reactions that seem to us most crazy or stupid may be the very most useful ones, because those are the perceptions we are least capable of having for ourselves. As writers hoping to write better, we train ourselves to listen openly, take it all in and only then decide what to do next to improve our own thinking and thereby reach others more effectively.

Elbow’s teacherless method, for both writers and readers, thus rests on what he calls “the believing game,” best understood as the complement and opposite of critical thinking, or what he calls “the doubting game.” Critical thinking, a wonderful intellectual tool and the cornerstone of a liberal arts education, requires us to look for the error in each assertion. Often we pit one assertion against another to see which one wins the battle; the doubting game uses the well-honed tools of debate, critique and argument. It also asks us to hold what we often refer to as our subjectivity — our wishes, preconceptions, experiences and commitments — to one side. (And as Elbow points out, we have developed more tools, like “the machinery of symbolic logic,” to help people with this part of the doubting game.)

The believing game, however, is played with different rules. It assumes that among as many assertions as we can gather, each might be true. We consider each one on its own merits and we don’t ask them to contend with each other. To this end, the believing game has a social dimension; it works best to find and test ideas when “we make use of a group and have a disciplined method,” one that entails “harnessing the resources of the group to try to see the maximum number of benefits or advantages of each proposal in turn.” Do any of the competing proposals surpass the one we are trying to test — or show limitations to it? “Sometimes we can’t see the weaknesses of an idea or proposal by simply looking for weaknesses,” Elbow notes. “The weaknesses don’t show up until we look for strengths in competing ideas.”

In order to appreciate the strengths of each proposal fully, moreover, we must try to share the experience of the person who brought it forward. This requires “not an act of self-extrication, but an act of self-insertion, self-involvement — an act of projection.” The doubting game often leaves us stuck in our own mental frame of reference, Elbow observes; because it “invites people merely to criticize ideas they don’t like, it permits them to stay insulated against any experience of alternative thinking.” The believing game, however, forces us out of our original frame of reference, especially if we entertain the most radically different ideas — those “which at first may appear odd or threatening…at the limits of what we can imagine or explain….”  Again, after we have looked at the world through the lens of many competing proposals and seen the strengths and weaknesses of as many divergent ideas as possible, we are better-equipped to decide which proposal is most trustworthy or valid.

Let me underscore, if it is not completely obvious, how we can connect the value of the believing game with our understanding of how and why what we today call diversity is a key to educational excellence. Whereas the doubting game, as Elbow says, is a great tool even when we are all alone, the complementary believing game can only work in a group that brings together people with the broadest possible differences who are nonetheless committed to a common intellectual task.

“Without other people to work with,” Elbow writes, “we have no strong tool for coming up with competing ideas — which is our leverage for testing. And we have no strong tool for entering into alien or foreign ideas except by having fans of those ideas tell us about them and describe the view from inside them….[W]e can get along without teachers, but only if we make primary use of a group of people sharing their experiences with each other — using a process that invites the maximum multiplicity or divergence of views and asks participants not to quarrel with what looks odd or alien but to try to experience and enter into it.”

While I am not suggesting that we get along without teachers, I submit that we can all work to learn more in our time at Bates about how to use many more intellectual tools.  One of these tools is this ability to experience and enter into views that look wildly and possibly unappealingly different from the outside but can help us test, strengthen, modify and improve our own ideas.

I ask you today to consider, in the academic year now opening, acting with your freedom and your generosity to enter into those places you have not yet visited, perhaps especially those that seem most alien, and to help shape those spaces that are under construction by playing the believing game. I look forward to working together to expand the “elbow room” at this great college.

1. Writing Without Teachers (New York: Oxford University Press), continues to be an influential text a generation after its initial publication in 1973. In 1998, Writing Without Teachers was republished on the 25th anniversary of its debut.