2006 Convocation address

‘Can You Hear Me?’

I am very happy to be here today, calling you all together for the start of another academic year.

This is a moment of hope, promise, suspense, anticipation, wonder, gratitude and many other largely pleasant emotions. It’s also, however, a difficult moment for making riveting speeches. Not only is Professor Farnsworth a hard act to follow, but the returning faculty, staff and students have heard what I have to say on numerous riveting occasions, and the new students have had to listen to a lot of speeches and presentations in the past few days, including two already from me. Right now, I am what stands between the new class and the end of this waiting to begin, as well as between all of you and dinner.

President Hansen and Student Government president Bill Jack ’08 of Bowdoin, Maine, share a laugh prior at Convocation.

Like others afflicted with such problems, I have tried asking my own college-age children what they would most like to hear from the president or the dean on an occasion like this, and their resounding answer has always been a discouraging word — “nothing.” When pressed, my older daughter has said OK, if you have to say something, just don’t be corny and boring (implying that left to my own devises, she knows what would come out). If you must speak, she adds, say something practical, tell them something they really need to know. I think she meant something really practical, like how to register for classes or hook up your printer or find the nearest 24-hour drugstore, but I know that more practical people than I have already told you all those really important things.

This year, my younger daughter is also starting college, and so I decided to turn the question around a bit, and ask myself what I as a parent would like her to hear from the college president. As I reflected on what she knows how to do and what I hope she learns to do better in the course of the next four years, I realized that I would most like someone to remind her to work especially hard on two important skills: being a good listener, and asking good questions.

To succeed in high school and get into a good college, you have been focused more on other skills, such as finding and giving answers. From elementary school on you did all or most of your homework and dutifully took many quizzes, exams and finals. With freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils in hand, you darkened thousands of miniscule bubbles. In the college application frenzy, you filled out endless forms with lengthy, often repetitive responses. You are pretty good at all this answering or you wouldn’t be here. But a Bates education isn’t just about getting better and better at answering harder and harder questions. Answers matter, but in some ways and at some points they matter far less than you might think. In fact, answers constrain us, so we must not arrive at them prematurely. Two skills that may matter more, and that may lead to the best answers, are listening and questioning.

“And always assume that you have the most to learn from the very person who seems most difficult to listen to.”

Of the two, listening is probably the harder. Many people, indeed all people at some points, listen poorly. Remember that conversation may all too often be described as a vocal competition in which the one who is catching his breath is called the listener. Karen Osborne has identified six or seven varieties of bad listeners, and I know that I recognize myself in all of them.[1]

First she points out the interrupters. While apparently listening, they are really thinking only about their own responses and they can’t wait to insert what they have to say. These are the people who finish your sentences for you.

Then there are the dreamers. They try to pay attention, but find themselves staring out the window or around the room and are obviously thinking of something else.

Then there are the identifiers. You’ve barely begun your story when they jump in with “Oh, that’s just like the time I…,” and suddenly the conversation is about them again.

Next, the evaluators. They seem to know only how to agree or disagree in the strongest terms, and like the identifiers they turn the conversation to their own opinions almost instantly. Next, the placators, who nod and encourage with hmms and yesses but are not really listening either. Then the derailers, who bring any comment off its own track and onto theirs. And finally the talkers. I don’t need to describe their, or I should say our, sins. One I knew and loved well was particularly good at stringing already long complex sentences together with conjunctions. No pause was ever audible, every thought ended with a coordinating or subordinating conjunction and words were hard to insert edgewise or otherwise.

If you recognize yourself in any of these categories — and they are not mutually exclusive, of course; one can be almost all of the above at the same or different times — you want to work on being a better listener.

Why? For one thing, it’s a well known fact that people retain very little about what others say while remembering quite a lot about what they themselves say, so one pragmatic use of what we might call directive listening is to encourage people to talk about what you want them to remember.

More importantly, whether you are trying to master a new subject or make a new friend, it is through listening that you may learn something you don’t already know. You will not learn anything from a conversation if you speak without listening or listen only for the weakest spots in another person’s argument so that you can win the point.

Then there is the issue of dumb questions.[2]

So how do you listen better? You have to begin with a genuine desire to learn and with a resolve to be patient, because not everything you hear will be fascinating, although the ratio of fascinating to tedious will I’m sure increase exponentially at Bates. Listening to what is unfamiliar or disturbing to your normal ways of thinking is particularly hard yet particularly important. To develop advanced listening skills you must be sure to practice what I described at Convocation last year as “incendiary listening” — listening that may inflame and illumine. Walk into your classroom, your dorm or Commons expecting that you might hear something that will change your life or at least spark some new insight. And always assume that you have the most to learn from the very person who seems most difficult to listen to. Listen for the common ground you can stand on with persons and perspectives you differ with, and listen without prejudging whether you agree or disagree, at least to begin with. To this I would add, be sure to listen to yourself — reflect on what you deeply know and really want, what you hear when you block out the noise around you and concentrate on the inner voice.

Another way to improve your listening skills, and one of the only ways to do significant intellectual work, brings me to my second topic: the value of asking good questions.

I’ll borrow again from Karen Osborne and talk about different kinds of questions.

First there are open-ended questions. These are the most useful for collecting information. That’s why so many people have already asked you questions you are already tired of answering, like “Why did you choose Bates? What do you think you’d like to major in?” You will naturally find yourself asking new friends this kind of question — “What was your high school like, what was your family like?” You can also ask open-ended questions of faculty members and deans and other staff members at Bates to get good information. “Why did you choose to be a sociologist? Where did you work before you came to Bates? What do you like about your job?” And you can use open-ended questions to get at difficult issues, where there is likely to be conflict. “So from your perspective, what’s happening in the Middle East? Why do you think that?”

Closed questions — usually requiring only a yes/no answer — can also have a purpose. When you want to end a conversation or come to some at least partial agreement, you can ask, “So let me see — tell me again what we’ve just decided to do?” or, “Do I have it right that you think we should….?” Or you can use a closed question to get permission to tackle a topic that again might be hard to talk about. “I’d really love to know more about your religion or your values or that interesting tattoo you have. Can I ask you some questions that might sound ignorant or impolite?”

Probing questions are essential to follow up on both open and closed questions. If you are really listening, you’ll naturally want to prod and encourage, because for so many reasons people can be reluctant to say what they really think. “Can you say more?” “Can you help me understand what that means?” “What makes you say so?”

Big questions are also particularly important to ask, and Bates is a particularly wonderful place for asking them. Like listening to yourself, you will find it critical to direct some of the really big questions at yourself. “Who am I?” “What do I love to do?” “How can I make a difference in the world?” If you are not asking questions like this, you are not taking advantage of the opportunity for reflection that a four-year liberal arts experience affords.

Then there is the issue of dumb questions.[2]

“One of the most important and difficult things in the world…is asking the right question at the right moment.”

I expect you will hear it said more than once that there are no stupid questions. That’s what good teachers say to encourage students not to be afraid to reveal what they don’t know; someone else is probably wondering it too. And the old Chinese proverb is right: One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask question remains a fool forever. A basic question from a beginner, moreover, keeps the teacher on her toes, takes him back to first principles, and helps the expert see again and see afresh.

But to be honest, there are stupid, ill-timed and trivial questions, just as there are boring and unproductive questions, and one of the most important and difficult things in the world — almost as hard as listening well — is asking the right question at the right moment. Asking how long the paper should be is not a dumb question, but if you can find the information on the syllabus or you are interrupting a discussion of the material to ask it, it’s not the right question. There are also loaded questions, questions meant to embarrass or put down or show up. Do consider your motives in asking any question.

Really good questions are very difficult to craft. Finding the right question, in my own experience, has been the hardest part of any work I’ve ever done; once I had it, presenting some at least possible and interesting answers was all downhill. Good questions challenge underlying assumptions and generalizations. They come out of seeking and understanding multiple perspectives and wondering why there are differences of opinion. Like the best and hardest listening, they reflect careful observation of what’s difficult, confusing, strange or startling. They entail self-questioning and self-doubt. And again like listening to yourself, they produce self-awareness.

Institutions need to listen and ask questions too, and I hope you will always find that Bates is a place striving to do both. This year we are asking some very important questions, and I hope you will join in the genuine conversations they provoke because we want to listen to new voices as well as familiar ones. I’ll just mention here just a few of the most important and ongoing questions that we face together.

1. After three years of asking what the goals of Bates education for the 21st century should be, last year the faculty approved in principle broad new general education requirements that will go into effect for next year’s entering class. This year, faculty members will continue to ask questions: How should and can the requirements be translated into actual courses? How will they will be taught? Who will assess the results?

2. Bates is proud of its early history of ethical and social leadership. We are proud of our founding by abolitionists whose ideals of egalitarianism and inclusiveness — so ahead of their time — brought generations of women and persons of color to a little college in Maine when almost all other leading institutions of higher education were closed to them. In recent years, other colleges have caught on to our founding ideals. They have abolished those sororities and fraternities that never existed at Bates and they have recognized the importance of diversity to any first-rate educational experience. We have begun to trail many of our peers in providing an educational environment that takes advantage of the increasing diversity of the world in which our extraordinary students will lead and serve. How will we act on our recognition that we must live up to the legacy of Benjamin Mays?

3. As you can see for yourself, we are building two major new facilities on campus: the new residences next to Rand and the new dining Commons, for which we begin tearing up the ground next to Alumni Gym very shortly. Both projects were chosen after extensive consideration of how to prioritize the many needs of the College, and as many of you have heard me say on numerous occasions, they speak to the all-important question of the quality of student life and community life on this campus. They are intended to foster connections, to build bridges between experiences inside and outside the classroom, to create more ample room for conversation — and I hope the conversation is more than two people taking turns pausing for breath. Now the question is: How will we prepare to occupy these new spaces in ways that justify their vast expense and serve the lofty ends they are designed to meet?

Someone once offered some important advice to all speakers: Make sure your have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening. I close now, then, hoping that you didn’t finish listening 15 minutes ago — and that in fact you’ll keep learning to listen better, for the next four years, for the rest of your life. Listening and asking questions aren’t activities we grow out of or ever stop needing to do. The ability to ask good questions and the ability to listen hard are habits of mind that we need to feed and exercise, like muscles, to keep them strong and flexible. People who either don’t learn or forget this are both bored and boring. And following my own advice, let me bring your listening to an end with a rhetorical question: Will you please join me in welcoming all the joy and anticipation of the academic season, and in working together, as a community of learners and teachers, for another challenging year of attentiveness and inquiry?


1. Karen E. Osborne, “Leading by Questioning and Listening,” Case Currents, February 2006, pp. 11-12.

2. For an interesting discussion of this topic, see Maureen Donohue-Smith, “There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006, B5.