Convocation Address to the Class of 2025

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Editor’s note: This address was delivered to the Class of 2025 by Nancy Ries, professor of anthropology and peace and conflict studies, during the annual Founders’ Day Convocation, held on Aug. 25, 2021.

Colgate Class of 2025, you’re HERE! My heart overflows seeing you all in this tent. I feel amazed and grateful that you are here, grateful to witness your eagerness to seek higher learning, to commit yourself to being at Colgate together. I am beyond grateful to and frankly in awe of our campus leaders and the hundreds of staff, faculty, students, alumni and community members who have worked extraordinarily hard and creatively so that it possible for us all to be here in person.

I am also surprised and grateful that it’s not pouring rain. It’s a bit warm, yes, but we are not being lashed by the record-setting rains that deluged us last week and the grass is not soggy and muddy under our feet. With the brilliant sunshine of the past couple days you have been able to see just how sublimely beautiful it is in this small valley. Let us pause for a second with that in mind, to recognize that Colgate University is situated on the indigenous homelands of the Oneida Indian people, and to offer respect for their long and continuous presence in this place.

Colgate holds this ritual every year on this day, to mark the formal start of the academic year. Normally we gather in the chapel, up the hill. It is solemn and traditional there but also hot there when it’s so warm out. So because of COVID, and because you are an especially large class, we get to be down here in relative cool air for this momentous convocation. For Colgate faculty who attend convocation every year, it feels different sitting under this tent for this ritual, but the fact that we are HAVING this ritual feels just glorious.

I want to start my remarks with a simple question: WHY ARE YOU HERE at Colgate? Why are you here at university? Why have you (all 900 of you) performed all the work you’ve had to do to be here at this fine school? With all that’s been going on with the coronavirus, with all the complexities of navigating your life choices during your junior and senior years of high school, what brings you to THIS path, this kind of place, to this institution of higher learning? Sure there are family expectations, and all of the social pressure to get schooling. But what IS such schooling really FOR?

Despite all that is unusual this year, you come here as young humans with all the energy, urgency, acuity, talents, and capacities that you are ready to use to take your path into the future, YOUR future. But why is a university a good starting point for such a path?

A few years ago, I asked a group of students in my first-year seminar this same question, phrased a bit differently. I asked them to write anonymously on index cards their answers to the question “what is a university?” It seems like a simple question with a simple answer.

All 18 of my students in that FSEM answered in roughly the same way, and I predict that is what you might say as well: My students wrote things like this: “A college or university is a place for young people like me to be guided on my path to adulthood; it’s a place for me to “find myself” and make friends and make the transition into being a mature adult. It’s a place for me to get exposure to the wider world and figure out my future career.”

In other words what they were saying was they perceived the university as a kind of shelter for their growth from childhood to adulthood.

The consistency of their remarks really struck me. Their perception of this place — of all universities in the world — and my own perception of it was rather different. As a faculty member at Colgate for 30 years I have had the exquisite privilege of “sheltering” and guiding hundreds of students, and it is a joy beyond joys to do that and to watch students like you flourish in and beyond Colgate.

Yet most professors perceive a different aspect of academic systems. For many of us, these are places for the production and elaboration of knowledge. We experience this university as a node within global networks for the profoundly collaborative production of knowledge, of art, of ideas. A site for the generation of critique, for the posing of novel questions, and for imagination, innovation, possibility, design, and application. We experience Colgate from the vantage of our disciplines, situated as they are in huge global networks of peer review, citation, and accountability, knowledge production systems in our fields.

I use the phrase knowledge production rather than knowledge acquisition quite deliberately and with strong intent. Our own scholarship is — in these systems — utterly connected to our pedagogy, and you as students will become part of the scholarship itself.

At Colgate, whatever your fields of focus, you will find yourself with myriad opportunities to produce real knowledge: through research papers, creative or analytical essays, experimental design, works of dance or theater or film or poetry, or in community-based projects within or beyond — sometimes well beyond — the Colgate campus. Some of you will publish your work as co-authors of peer-reviewed journal articles, or you will perform it publicly and professionally.

Whether they are medievalists or computer scientists, anthropologists, literature specialists, or geochemists; political theorists, art historians, or environmental scientists, your faculty instructors will focus their energies on teaching you how to produce well-constructed, discipline-appropriate, envelope-pushing knowledge and understanding of our world and creative objects to reflect on it.

With these faculty — talented, accomplished, productive, often famous scholars of integrity — you can study a HUGE array of topics. COVID will not get in the way or not too much. You may, if you wish to, while you’re here, study plate tectonics, comparative politics, museum studies. Neurophysiology. Vulcanology. Virology. Probability, printmaking, GIS, urban studies. Disability. Francophone literature. New media. Black feminism. Calculus. LGBTQ histories. The Anthropocene. Ritual and the sacred. Forced migration. Genome sequencing. Japanese tea culture. Public economics. Environmental justice. Chinese and Arabic. Greek, Hebrew, German, Spanish, or Russian. Cultural studies. Pandemic histories. Movements for indigenous rights. Stagecraft and acting. And so much more. A university is a place for young people to shelter as they become adults, but it is a shelter built of data, analysis, methodology, scrutiny, practice, technique, and discipline, glued together by the clarity and integrity of scholarship.

Not all disciplines speak of “methodology” in the same ways, but it’s crucial to understand that well-designed, tested, and verified tools and methods stand at the heart of the production of knowledge, science, and art. In natural science courses you may learn to use flow cytometry and confocal microscopy. You could learn about how to use optically stimulated luminescence dating or an ion chromatograph. (As my field uses mainly ethnography, it’s hard for me even to pronounce those names or grasp their functions. But one of my colleagues might teach you how to detonate a trash can on the quad to understand the force of volcanoes — and the exploding trash can I DO understand). In many courses you can learn how to use critical data analysis systems with names like NVivo, MaxQDA, and SPSS, as well as historiography, cognitive mapping, discourse analysis, or even sidewalk analysis (it’s a thing). In rhetoric, language, and literature courses you may learn new methods of sentence mapping and poetic analysis, how to record and analyze speech cadence and gesture, the genealogy of literary tradition, colonial discourse systems and decoloniality. Elsewhere, you may learn scholarly techniques for working in archives for historical or literary research. You might work with elders in the regional community to understand the challenges of aging, with local officials to explore sustainability goals, policies, and practices, or with regional museums to understand the history of the anti-slavery abolition movement at once of its centers, 20 miles from Colgate.

You will write lots and lots of papers — hopefully with plenty of what we call “scaffolding,” step-by-step methodological and bibliographic training to ensure you develop the skills and tools to produce what is required. You will figure out lots of complex things and have many eureka moments when something challenging finally yields its secrets. 

You will have hundreds of opportunities to try out various methods of thinking and questioning and mounting a critique. You will be surrounded by artists and creators. You will respond to the creativity around you and develop and create your own worlds of art and movement and knowledge. Perhaps this is the most important thing: you will answer your instructors’ calls for meticulousness, focus, dedication, collaboration, and integrity. 

In all of this work, you will thrive more fully the more you rely on each other, by listening, talking, sharing your struggles with hard topics, pondering and suffering through difficult work together. You will read and think and experiment and write until you are ready as seniors to construct your very own theses, a piece of culminative scholarship or art.

Through all of this you will recognize that truth is multiplex, that knowledge changes all the time with our accruing insight. THIS is what a university is: a place of intellectual churn and contestation, of dynamic questing and questioning, of scholarly argument and the refinement of theory. Knowledge is never static, and perhaps the most crucial thing I would want you to take away from my description of a university is the recognition that your teachers learn from you, learn from the very process of working through these methods and objects of study with you. That’s what I meant when I talked about the co-creation of knowledge. YOU are our knowledge co-creators. Every year we wait for new students to arrive to see what kinds of experiences, insights, questions, and challenges you will bring to our beloved projects and pedagogies. What I want for you is to inhabit this opportunity, recognize this responsibility to scholarship within and beyond your classes. You will navigate complex, ever-shifting paths through all of this, but you will have many helpers in the task, to help you find your ways. Many of us consider it one of the greatest privileges on earth to do this work.

Why is it such a privilege? Because knowledge MATTERS, and good knowledge, solid knowledge, reliable knowledge, dynamic knowledge such as universities produce matters greatly. Even though it may be invisible to many people, at this moment in human history everything depends on ACTUAL, peer-reviewed science and scholarship, on the revelations of art, music, and poetry, and on the brilliant entanglements of all of those. Serendipity is our friend in these interdisciplinary entanglements: we never know which part of our knowledge will intersect with another to teach us something novel and essential. This year’s summer reading, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, by the Potawatomi environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, shows so very well how the intersection of diverse systems of knowledge can produce insight of extraordinary importance and value.

Designing your path through knowledge creation should be a serious undertaking. Our time calls for it, demands it. Some days recently, it feels we’re in unprecedented global calamity. Just in the last month: The devastating earthquake in Haiti. The Taliban coming back to power in Afghanistan, with all that portends for men, women and girls, activists, educators, and many others there and now in the global flow of new refugees on top of tens of millions of earlier ones still seeking refuge around the world. Human and political rights crises that seem to be escalating there as well as in Myanmar, Belarus, and many other countries. A sadistic and terrible war in Tigray, Ethiopia, killing thousands and displacing more than two million over the past couple of years. Climate change. Wildfires all over the planet, worse this year than ever. Record-setting extremes of heat and rain, disastrous flooding even right here in our own county. The extinction of myriad species — a biodiversity crisis of untold magnitude. The rise of political extremism in many parts of the world, including in our own country. The endemic corruption that makes attempts to solve social, economic, political, and environmental problems incredibly hard. Every week in the United States some new law is passed to restrict communities from voting. This, too, is corruption. Scholars produce knowledge about centuries of oppression of communities of color and that knowledge is widely dismissed as irrelevant or invalid. And then there’s COVID. Hospitals are overwhelmed with gravely ill patients, the federal government setting up field hospitals as if we are in a time of war. And on top of it all, misinformation about COVID, about elections, about everything you can possibly imagine, is produced and broadcast far and wide, with awful consequences.

There is unquestionably room for despair. I DO feel despair much of the time, when I think about the broad, huge problems that face the whole world. But let us inhabit our time at Colgate to drive us toward collaborative creativity, the celebration of knowledge, ancient and modern, and the knowledge of our future, the knowledge just about to bloom. Despite our sense of global despair, let us model exuberance, commitment, determination, generosity, empathy, and integrity. Let’s use everything we’ve learned in the past two years of COVID. Our worlds have shrunk, but we’ve gained different kinds of space. We have changed our perceptions, our expectations, our community systems. Through COVID we have learned about our capacities to suffer, to endure loss, to help others suffer and endure. These are crucial lessons for the repair of our world.

We have learned during COVID that science REALLY REALLY REALLY matters, but good, decent, honorable, justice-filled policies and modes of conveying them matter, too. Maybe COVID helps people see the ways that JUSTICE matters. That diversity, equity, and INCLUSION matter, globally, nationally, and locally: belonging and ensuring everyone else has a way to belong and to be well. These are challenges for our hearts and spirits but also for our brains and our academic systems, worldwide. How can we learn to see, hear, and understand more clearly, more reliably, more deeply, and how can we collectively ensure that many others have access to those systems of seeing, learning, understanding?

May your path to adulthood here, your shelter at Colgate for the next four years, result in your serious work of thinking about all of this via every means you possibly can and creating ideas and tools and capacities for your own use and that of many others. In your daily interactions with the strangers around you, whom you will come to know, practice deep listening. Be patient. Be kind. You need not be the most outgoing, the most clever, the most beautiful, or the most funny. It is better to be the most trustworthy, the most honest, the most giving, and to hold the integrity of scholarship and the wisdom and sensibility it produces at your center. 

So: my hope for you at Colgate University is that you will have fun, make connections. Make friends. But also: Make knowledge. Make art. Even make trouble and stir things up, because knowledge is dynamic and thrives on this kind of churn. DO know that the grownups here around you KNOW that the last few years have been quite difficult for you; we know that you may be disoriented, scared, and tired sometimes — we all are.

But we are REALLY glad to have you here. Because you are our partners in birthing new knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and care.