Hamline University Convocation Address
On September 2, 2010, Hamline University faculty and staff members from across the university gathered for Convocation, an event intended to mark the beginning of a new academic year. I was one of four presenters invited by President Linda Hanson to compose and deliver an address at the event. Each presenter was instructed to give his or her perspective on how students are at the center of Hamline University’s mission.
I chose to ask Christine Rousu, Anika Eide, and Emily Olson, from staff, to give me brief reflections about experiences they’ve had as members of the undergraduate and graduate communities of students here at Hamline. I wanted their voices and stories included in my speech as a sign of respect for the students and their thoughts about the topic the president asked us to speak about.
my convocation speech
Good morning. I am happy and anxious to have been asked to speak for a few minutes to all of you. Happy because I believe being a teacher is a sacred calling, and my forty years as a teacher has been a blessing in my life, anxious because it is scary to be in front of all of you, and always frightening to offer up one’s authentic self to friends, colleagues and strangers.
My dear friend, Jean Adams, is one of the great teachers in the St. Paul Public School System. She was one of the founding teachers in the original version of St. Paul Open School, and has taught for years at Expo, a remarkable elementary school. She teaches fifth and sixth graders, and when they are assigned essays to work on in class, she allows a bit of physical wandering in the classroom, since that helps some of her kids think and plan their approaches. Last spring one of her kids stood at the window that overlooks the playing fields by Holy Spirit School and Cretin Derham. He said, Jean, there’s an eagle flying over the playing fields, come and look. Jean said he was probably mistaken, that it would be very unusual for an eagle to be flying in circles over the field, since this was not an area for eagles, there was no water—knowing Jean, I am sure she said this without judgement and with no sense of putting the student down in any way, but he insisted she come to the window, she looked, and there was a bald eagle, making beautiful circles in the sky right outside her school room windows. She turned to her students, told them to be fantastically quiet and asked that they all move to the windows quickly and so they did, and stood watching the eagle fly. When the eagle flew away, the students returned to their seats, and Jean just said, we are so lucky, and they all agreed.
Jean also chooses a phrase each year to anchor the year in a specific way for her students. This year she’s chosen See Beauty. In years past she has chosen Practice Kindness, Honor the Earth, Consider the Sky, Respect Difference, and Make Community. She ties the school year together with these ideas in many different ways, despite the insane pressures our great public school teachers now face, despite the fact that her many special ideas and projects, created with scholarship and love during her many years as a teacher, now rest in boxes in her basement, since there is no time allowed for hunting fossils, or building dioramas after researching different cultures and different times. Anyway, I first thought of Jean when President Hanson asked me to speak today.
We’re here today to reflect on our students, to honor them, to consider their dreams and ambitions, and to re-commit, if any of us need to, to celebrating and responding to our students’ needs, ambitions, and dreams. Here at Hamline, we are often reminded that our students are at the center of what we do. As a faculty advisor, I know very well that our focused, smart and caring staff makes all the difference some days in the lives of the students. I know very well the difference our librarians and tech wizards make in the lives of our students. I’ve worked here a very long time, and know very well the administrators and Board of Trustees ponder and discuss and worry over every decision that changes the lives of our students. As a teacher, I see the roles we play as we strive to keep our students clearly at the center of our work.
I asked the smart women who run the Graduate Liberal Studies office to help me think about my speech, and to give me some examples of where they feel they’ve received this kind of student-centered teaching. Emily Olson, our fantastic student worker who has been with us for two years, wrote to me saying that when she began at Hamline, her first class was with Anne Elstrom Park, and that by the time that class was finished, she had declared her English Major because of Anne’s great gifts as a teacher of writing—Emily said she had dreaded starting her college career with this class because of, and I quote, “years of choking down high school English and “the five paragraph essay” but Anne’s class opened her eyes to new ways of writing. Christine Rousu, on our staff, received her B.A. here, then her MALS degree, and now is pursuing her MFA. Christine said, “it’s difficult for me to write about one exceptional experience in my Hamline student life—not because I can’t think of anything, but because I am thinking of hundreds. I’ve been a student here a long time, and have been lucky enough to have more than my share of incredible teachers here(at this point, Christine did a shout out to Susie Steinbach which I want to make sure I mention)and then she continued by praising Patricia Weaver Francisco’s Creative Process class. She wrote that Patricia spoke to the class from her deep knowledge as writer and creator herself, yet connected with each student in the room as if she understood what each particular student needed in their creative lives. Christine wrote that the class was “a truly transformative experience for me—like, the change your life forever kind of thing.” I am glad to share Christine’s comments, since many on this campus know Patricia only from all her work against sexual violence, and her commitment, year after year, to Take Back the Night Activities. This is another way that teachers decide to share other parts of their lives and work to make a difference for students. Anika Eide, who I believe was just elected a staff leader on campus, also received her B.A. here, and now is completing her MFA. She wrote to me, “I started my undergrad work at Hamline with the idea that my college and grad school experience was supposed to be a trajectory-like luge where I kept my head down and plowed through just hoping to finish the fastest I could. I’ve now been a Hamline CLA student, an MFA candidate, and a staff member. From all these perspectives I can say that it is not a possibility to be disengaged here. The faculty and staff make sure of that. It is a profound thing to be able to say that the staff and faculty have been here for me not only as a student and staff member, but as a human being. “
I wanted to include these voices because these young women are my friends and colleagues, and they helped me think about our campus in different ways.
Last semester I was given the opportunity to teach a class of undergraduates as we began our BFA program. I came to love my 21 students, and want to let the CLA faculty know how much praise I heard for FY-Sem teachers, for wonderful coaches, for classes in every discipline on our campus and for various faculty advisors. My undergrad students, like my graduate students, are unique and valuable individuals. Thinking of all my students as I prepared these remarks helped me make this final list about what we all need to remember in honor of those students. I hope I have been clear in acknowledging the place and importance of all the workers on this campus, but will shift now to just thinking about teaching:
We provide different things, and need to remember that what we provide has value and significance in the lives of our students, maybe for a day, for a semester, for a lifetime.
There is the teacher who partners in research with a student and guides that student to an adult life and a career; there’s the teacher who so enriches a student’s life by his or her commitment to other cultures and languages, there’s the teacher of law who teaches not only law but fundamental ideals of justice and fairness; there’s the teacher whose sternness and ambition for a student to achieve is just what certain students need; there’s the teacher who can see the damage done in a student’s eyes, in his or her affect, and works to undo some damage and bring some hope into that student’s soul; there’s the teacher who knows when to push a student, who refuses to settle for second-rate work, and suddenly that student is lit up, inspired by the idea of excellence; lit up about the idea of achieving excellence; there’s the teacher who can see when a student has just had too much, been too low for too long, and reaches out with kindness and offers of help; there’s the teacher who understands how to find the right person on campus for a student to talk with, learn from, whether one of our great librarians or great career counselors, or one of our great spiritual guides on campus, or one of our great social justice workers on campus, or someone like my friend, Katie Adams, who just sees them through the difficult mapping of course work and choices that help them achieve their goal of graduating on time, no small thing in these difficult times.
So we must respect our students and respect ourselves, our various worlds of knowledge, and how we wish to share that knowledge with our students. We must be devoted to our students, and respect their aspirations and goals. We must be kind, since so often only kindness matters. We must make visible to our students the passion we have for what we teach. We must offer them our clarity, and our high expectations for them and our high expectations for ourselves. We need to present our authentic selves to our students, and ask for their authentic spirits in return. We need to show our students the beauty of what we teach, whether a philosophy, an equation, a painting, a poem, the intricacies of anatomy or of a culture. We must teach believing in a well-educated future for each student. We need to remind them that as individuals they stand in the center and at the margins, and that they have to take turns in the center and at the margins in order to understand and see the value in other human beings, cultures, species.
The world is very worrisome, tormented, beautiful, impossible, compelling, interesting, dangerous, safe, and, goodness knows, economically challenging, for us, and for our students and their parents and guardians. I mention this because I wish for all the teachers in the world, when they run out of steam, and can’t find the passion and joy and commitment for teaching any more, that they could retire with peace in their hearts, knowing they did their best for all their students. Over the years, I’ve joked with my own four kids about many possible statements for my gravestone. I will spare you the most witty and acknowledge that one I mentioned to my oldest daughter, who received her MAT in Teaching here at Hamline, and now teaches at Great River High School, was “I tried my best to be a great and honorable teacher.” This goal is hugely important to me, and I hope anything I said today helps each of us remember how in our own ways we continue to value and commit to each student, each beautiful heart and soul we are privileged enough to make connections with at our university. Thanks for your kind attention.