Delight? Not the first word that comes to mind in this troubled time. But this year’s Convocation address, by President Biddy Martin, and the 15th annual DeMott Lecture a few days after, by poet Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights, delivered delight in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Like so many things now, the format was virtual, the juxtapositions difficult. Citing the “ravages of COVID-19” in her Convocation address, and “the massive protests that have forced a reckoning with anti-Black racism,” Martin said that assigning Gay’s book to all incoming first-year students could have been a misfire: “There were times this summer when I wondered whether a book called The Book of Delights would seem fitting at this moment….”

But Gay, she said, doesn’t take delight lightly. The poet, who writes about racism in his book, “actually makes sorrow delight’s enabling condition,” said Martin. (She recommends his poem about Eric Garner.) And already this semester, Martin has seen students create delight where they could. She noted the new “pandemic ritual” of sitting in Adirondack chairs on the Quad in big, physically distanced circles, and when someone new arrives, they go from circle to circle, introducing themselves.  

For The Book of Delights, Gay gave himself the task of writing a half hour each day for one year, to notice what gave him joy. Gay teaches at Indiana University, and in his book, he marvels about fireflies and cardinals, a high-five from a stranger, a song, and a thousand other small, resonant things.

In the lecture, moderated by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson, Gay spoke of his hopes for the book’s impact. It had to do with noticing and honoring kindness. “There should be an Encyclopedia of All the Ways We Kindly Call to Talk to Each Other,” he said, “a companion to the Encyclopedia of All the Ways We Kindly Give to Each Other. … That's a good thing to do with your time in Amherst, it seems to me.”

Convocation 2020

On Sunday, August 23 President Biddy Martin welcomed first-year students and awarded honorary degrees to faculty members during a virtual version of the traditional Convocation ceremony.

Transcript of Convocation

Biddy Martin opens the convocation ceremony

(Clockwise from top left) President Biddy Martin opens the 2020 virtual Convocation;  Professor of Music Jeffers Engelhardt receives an honorary degree from Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein; students contribute meaningful words to cap the virtual ceremony; the Amherst Choral Society sings.