TRANSCRIPT OF CONVOCATION
[ Applause ]
PRESIDENT MARTIN: Please be seated.
We are gathered here today in the Nonotuck homeland of the Kwinitekw Valley which has always, and is still a crossroads of multiple native nations and a place of exchange. I want to honor our neighboring Indigenous nations, the Nipmuc and Wampanoag to the East, the Mohegan and Pequot to the South, the Mohican to the West and the Abenaki to the North. These are not only historical relationships, they are ongoing and continuing connections between contemporary Indigenous groups and the place where Amherst sits. How happy are we to be gathered inperson in such a large group? Yeah.
[ Applause ]
This is Amherst's 201st Convocation. Convocation is a celebration of new beginnings. It's a beloved ritual at Amherst College. We come together formally to mark the start of our time together as a community devoted to intellectual growth and pursuits and friendship. As we entered the space just now, the Class of '25, and also our new transfer students stood, thank you all very much, out of respect for the people who will be your teachers. But at graduation, we'll reverse this, and the faculty will sit on the edges while you sit at the center in symbolic recognition of the journey, you will have been on. It's a custom at Amherst to award Master of Arts Degrees to faculty members who have reached the rank of full professor and who were not themselves graduates of the College. And the custom derives from a desire to pay tribute to their distinction as scholars and teachers. More importantly, it shows Amherst's pride in their distinction and also our hope to bring them even more closely into the long life of the College. We're now going to bestow honorary degrees on four Amherst faculty members. The degree recipients have approached the stage, I believe. The first is Professor Sara Brenneis, Spanish.
[ Applause ]
Next, Professor Jen Manion, History and Sexuality, Womenís, and Gender Studies.
[ Applause ]
Next, Professor Katharine Romaine Emans.
[ Applause ]
Actually, her name is Kate Sims.
>> Thank you, Biddy!
PRESIDENT MARTIN: All right. It is funny. Her name is Professor Katharine Romaine EmansSims, Economics and Environmental Studies.
[ Applause ]
You know, the other day, class of '25, I talked about our fallibility. I'm going to be a model of it today. That's our goal. Finally, Professor Christopher van den Berg, Classics.
[ Applause ]
By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Amherst College, I confer upon you the degree of Master of Arts, Honoris Causa, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Congratulations, again, to all four of you.
[ Applause ]
I could not be more excited that the Amherst Choral Society will be performing inperson for the first time in a very long time for us. They'll be performing "Three Gifts," words and music by Lisa Smith Van der Linden, a member of the Class of 1989.
[ Applause ]
PRESIDENT MARTIN: Thank you to the Choral Society members and the Choral Society director, Arianne†Abela. For the past several weeks, perhaps for obvious reasons, but also for some that will not be obvious, the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem has come to me unbidden over and over when I'm in the middle of the stretches and the faux yoga that I do every morning. The line is: Hope is the thing with feathers. I hear myself repeating it over and over to myself, silently in my head. Every day at the same time. Now, many of you will know this Emily Dickinson poem far better than I do. And I'm not going to try a close reading of it. I'm just going to comment on my responses to it. You have it on the screen. So, I'll read it.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest –in the Gale – is heard
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I've heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Now, this is said by some to be one of Dickinson's simple poems. I think it's simple only if you put aside her wit and her riddles.
It certainly has been gnawing at me, despite the apparent simplicity. Hope is the thing with feathers. Dickinson uses the word "Thing" 115 times in her poetry with 7 distinguishable meanings. She uses a lot of abstractions in general. Harvard Dickinson scholar Helen Vendler tell us that "thing" is the largest single mental category in Dickinson's poetry. It often signals a question about what sort of thing a feeling or a phenomenon might be. What sort of thing is "Hope"? I guess on a quick read, this poem could seem simple. A personification or a location of Hope in a bird. The only thing with feathers. But when I've been visited by this first line in the early mornings, and haven't been able to remember the second line, I've often thought of the thing with feathers as something that can fly away. But then sometimes also more hopefully, something that comes and goes, but without our will in charge. Line 2 is a kind of solace after my line one. "It perches in the soul," the thing called Hope. Sings a wordless tune. Maybe the way the heart is said to sing. It's perched inside the soul. So, actually, it can't fly away unless the soul does. Unless we lose our souls. And it--the thing that sings--never stops at all. But if you look at the text on the screen, you see a dash between the "Never stops" and the "At all." Emily Dickinson uses a lot of dashes in her poetry. They always have a function. So I wondered, it never stops, beat, at all. Does that mean it never stops everywhere? It never stops at all places? Are there times or places when it does stop singing? Sometimes that feathery thing escapes our awareness. It loses us, for example, when we're too focused, as Shayla Lawson said yesterday, on how we're seen or who we're told we are. Or what's expected of us. And we worry about whether we're meeting those expectations. Sometimes it loses us to fear. I started thinking the other day about a Fassbender film, a German film called, in German Angst Essen Seele Auf. It's a film about a love affair between a younger Turkish man and an older German woman, a white German woman. The English translation is "Fear Eats the Soul." In German, Angst Essen Seele Auf is formally ungrammatical. When fear eats the soul, the feathery thing perched inside goes missing. But there's something inside of us all that asks nothing of us, not even a crumb because it's more than us, any individual one of us. It's in us. But not ego, or identity. In all the storms that rage right now, how fitting that our DeMott speaker, Professor Shayla Lawson, gave us the gift yesterday of sharing what she has learned about making friends with those parts of herself, those parts of all of us, that hold us back, that prevent us from learning, that inhibit our capacity for hope. She said something like this, paraphrasing, "Think of your defenses, especially your tendency toward self-doubt, as protectors and listen to what they have to say. Honor those self-critical or troubling parts of yourselves that once protected you and need to be heard but now hold you back. And should be understood, and this she didn't say, but this is my translation, that could be understood now as you grow up as parts of the orchestra, those voices, while leaving the grownup you to be conductor. I was obviously moved by Shayla's openness, her wisdom, her highspiritedness and her teaching of all of us. In these times, there are so many reasons and so many incentives to think of ourselves only in political categories. Or social categories. To stake our claims in the name of political positions and identifications. And these commitments actually have never been more important. So, don't misunderstand me. But political identities and life on screens can also impoverish our inner lives. And there is more to us and in us. And the hate online eats the soul. So, as we attend to the urgent need for action in the world, and how could anyone say it's not urgent? We also need the support of a community. We need knowledge. We need ways of caring for ourselves and one another. And we need those ways of finding joy and contentment that keep Hope perched in our souls. We're still living with the COVID pandemic and its uncertainties. And for some, it's mortal threat. We face the possibly existential crisis of global warming and an uncertain human future in a world already being ravaged and unequally so by the effects of climate change. Racial injustice has been magnified by these other pandemics. And they have been made worse by racism. And the assault on democracy continues with efforts to restrict something as fundamental as voting rights. The right to elect our own government. We cannot and should not look away from the consequences of a war that has killed so many and will leave so many vulnerable to more death and destruction. And my thoughts today in addition to being on Afghanistan are also on the people of Louisiana where the category 4 hurricane hit land with 150 mile an hour winds on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. So, where in all this do we find and also nurture that feathery thing called Hope? In the case of Hope, in part, it's about letting the thing be. The thing in our soul. Rather than trying to make it happen. There is so much hope in the emphasis that our new students have placed over the past few days on kindness, on humility, on your desire for community. There's so much hope in the excitement you've expressed to me when we have passing conversations about the beginning of classes. There's so much hope in your avidity to learn. And maybe there's some hope in some of the lessons the pandemic seems to be teaching us about how much we need to learn and how little we've listened to ourselves. When we look reality in the eye, we see how little we're taught or how few people know how to live with the absence of absolute certainty. And how, despite absolutes, we stay committed to knowledge and reason with all their limits than just as we stay committed to our lives and the lives of others. So many Americans know so little and understand even less about the history and the current reality of the history of race and racism in our country. And how its democratic institutions work. How few of us know much at all in this country about other great cultures and peoples. Or languages. Yet it's impossible to solve any of the problems we face without working across national, cultural boundaries and boundaries of many other kinds. Perhaps we also know too little, the pandemic has taught us, about what it means to live a rewarding and meaningful life. And how much more it has to do with things that are not to be acquired or consumed. I was intrigued recently by a guest column in the "New York Times" by Esau McCaulley, a faculty member at Wheaton College in Illinois. And the title of the piece, which so many of you I'm sure read is "We Weren't that Happy Before the Pandemic Either." The pandemic, he writes, has left conversations and lives cut short. But it seems to be bringing clarity to some of our priorities. He points to one of the largest shifts in jobs in recent memory. How many people are leaving their jobs. How many people are choosing other jobs. He points to a housing market that is exploding in part because people are rethinking where they want to live. And in part for other, much less good reasons. So many people, he acknowledges, don't have the option of these shifts from one job to another. Or to a job at all. Much less to move to another part of the country. But change is occurring across all job sectors and income levels. He asks a good question, I think. What was it about our lives before the pandemic that prevented us from seeing things that are clear to us now? And here's his answer, which I think is only partial. But it's good, nonetheless. Before the pandemic, he says, we knew we were going to die. But we didn't believe it. Now we have been disabused of the illusion of time as a limitless resource and the false promise that the sacrifices we make for careers are always worth it. And he concludes by saying, we human beings are made for friendship, love, and community. And the questions you all asked Shayla Lawson yesterday reinforced the notion that you are also questioning what the right priorities should be. You asked questions about time and how you'll be able to use it. Will we have time, one of you asked, to do the quality of work expected of us and also to connect with friends and do the many other things we learn outside the classroom? One of you wondered about why people don't talk about climate change. The issue is to crucial. The problem is so urgent. Why doesn't anybody talk about it? I was reminded of what a friend recently told me about a council on uncertainty human futures that has been established really in order to allow more of us to acknowledge and grieve the losses that have already been suffered. And those to come if we don't answer the call, if our governments and our private sector don't answer the calls. You had searching questions for Professor Lawson about ways of supporting yourselves and one another. And about some of the seeming and actual contradictions that we live with when we seem to prize winning over everything else that matters. So, this brings me back finally to your emphasis in the word cloud that you created on Community and Humility. So, the words that stood out for you in what I said on your Welcome Day were Community and then Humility. And I just to, want to remind you what Cronon says about the difference between a liberal education and community. Remember that Cronon says, and I believe, that a liberal education has always connected the value of freedom with the value of community. Liberal education, he says, is about nurturing talent in the service of human freedom. But it's a freedom that is always granted by a community. And for that very reason, limited by our responsibility to that community. Our responsibility for upholding the principles on which it governs itself. Friendship, love, and community. Those are the things that keep that little bird. that feathery thing called "hope" alive within us and nurture our souls. I hope you have a wonderful semester. And thank you for listening.
[ Applause ]
And now I would like to invite the Choral Society to conclude today's event with a performance of "Hymn to Amherst." Please rise as you are able. After the hymn, would students please remain in place while faculty members recess, after which you are free to depart.
In the light of Amherst eyes, her beauty lives forever
Still as shining as the ties that bind our lives together
In the temple of these hills beauty has her altar
Where the eye of mem'ry thrills to Amherst, ever fair
In the strength of Amherst minds true learning shall not wither
Nor the joy of one who finds what seeking brought us hither
Those who teach and those who learn build a living city
Where the eye and mind return to Amherst, ever free
In the love of Amherst hearts abides her greatest glory
As the future still imparts the old unchanging story
Youth and beauty, learning, faith, bound by friendship's charter
To the college we have made with eye and mind and heart
[ Applause ]