President Martin to New Students: “We Celebrate Both Teaching and Learning”

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September 1, 2014

In her annual Convocation address for new students on Sept. 1, Amherst College President Biddy Martin celebrated Amherst’s rigorous education in the liberal arts and criticized marketers of the online education movement for reducing what they refer to as the traditional college experience to “content delivery and a credential.”

She also welcomed first-year and transfer students at the Johnson Chapel event, which officially kicked off the 2014-15 academic year.

The gathering featured music, a procession of the College’s professors in their academic regalia and an Amherst tradition where the president confers honorary master’s degrees on faculty members who have reached the rank of full professor but aren’t graduates of Amherst. Watch a video of the entire event above.

This year, the College awarded degrees to twelve individuals: Robert L. Benedetto, professor of mathematics; Ethan D. Clotfelter, professor of biology and neuroscience; John E. Drabinski, professor of black studies; Jonathan R. Friedman, professor of physics; Maria Heim, professor of religion; Nicholas J. Horton, professor of statistics; Justin Kimball, professor of art; Klára Móricz, professor of music; Geoffrey Sanborn, professor of English; Eric Sawyer, professor of music; Nishi Shah, professor of philosophy; and Provost Peter Uvin, professor of political science.  

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Music Professor Klára Móricz receives her Amherst College
hood from Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein

Martin began her talk by referencing Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, the new students’ required reading for the summer, as well as “English and the Promise of Happiness,” an essay by the late Benjamin DeMott, a legendary Amherst English professor.

She quoted DeMott’s idea of a good classroom as “one in which collaborators enjoy a stretch of intelligently active, sympathetic engagement with one another,” among other things, and noted that it is one to emulate.

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An audience of students, faculty and staff listens
to the Convocation address

But the model of education DeMott describes takes time, she said. “It takes duration in the relationships we build. It takes low student-faculty ratios. It is very expensive. And it is life-giving—I know that from my own experience.”

“And yet we live in a world that seems increasingly wedded to things that take no time at all, that don’t even require our presence.”

“Education without a sense of place, without attachments to particular people and ideas; without sounds and smells and tastes; without the messiness and inconvenience of human relationships is not an education we should let people promote without resisting their exaggerated claims,” she continued.

“We are here to celebrate the beginning of a relationship between our new students and outstanding faculty, and both the learning and the teaching need to be celebrated together.”

She concluded by reminding the students to respect one another.

“Respect for one another ... is an essential value for this college, and we need to make sure going forward that it is a higher value for the rest of society.”

“Play your role. Be a part of imagining an Amherst in which the forms of respect that we all deserve are observed for everyone.”


Transcript: President Martin’s 2014 Convocation Address

So once again I offer a warm welcome to all of you. Those of you who are new students found it difficult to hear me last Sunday when I was meant to speak to you, so I decided to return to some of the themes that I had in mind at the time, and expand on them just a little bit.

Some of you will remember that I asked you how you were feeling on your first evening in Amherst. I cited a line from the film Boyhood, where the main character’s high school teacher asks how he feels about heading off to college, and then she answers the question for him, suggesting that he must feel something like “voluptuous panic.” Some of you nodded in assent, that you felt something like voluptuous panic.

Now some eight days or nine days later, and a lot of experience—all of it good I hope—I assume that your feelings have changed a little, and that they’re probably more complicated. I hope you feel less panic if you felt it, but perhaps some voluptuous anticipation of the start of classes, which is the reason you’re here, and we’re here too.

My first real exposure to you as students came last night, when I attended, as you did, the lecture by Dr. Claude Steele. And I’ve been thinking today about your questions, which I really enjoyed, and which said a lot about the Class of 2018.

First of all, it said that you read the book [laughter]. You read it carefully. And perhaps the speaker didn’t understand that Amherst students would read the book and read it carefully.

What impressed me about your questions was that they were so appreciative, and yet so probing. So some of you for example suggested—several of you actually—that Dr. Steele had perhaps focused on mechanisms of stereotype threat to such a degree that he had been led to equate different experiences of threat.

And you pointed to structural inequalities that would make a difference in how different people experience stereotype threat. You also pressed for answers to questions about how to affect change on a larger scale, so that individuals were not made overly responsible for dealing with or coming up with remedies for stereotype threat.

I thought it was good that you pointed out the limits of what individuals can do, but I was also impressed, very impressed by your questions about his research and about his writing. He does such a great job in that book, I think, of leading us through the research process.

Last night he said that research, doing research, is like being a good detective. I think he does a great job in that book of showing us that that’s true.

In Whistling Vivaldi he leads us through the process of coming to a concept like stereotype threat, testing it, validating it, operating on hunches, and coming to more refined results with the help of collaborators.

The book offers a model of intellectual generosity that I like a lot. He not only shares credit for the concept of stereotype threat and its validation with other scholars, he actually makes those other scholars real to us.

He talks about their friendships, he talks about their quirks and what might have driven them to do the work that they ended up doing. He shows that research is a fundamentally collaborative and social enterprise, and you responded by asking more questions about research and how it works. You seemed engaged by it.

At Amherst you’re going to be engaged by this faculty in that kind of work. You’re not simply going to be listening to what especially purveyors of online courses now like to call “sages on the stage,” who simply stand in front of you and deliver content. That’s not Amherst College. That’s actually not most colleges, what the online marketers say not withstanding.

But what you’re going to be asked to do at Amherst by this faculty is to think. You’re about to enter the classrooms of some of the most devoted scholars and teachers in the country. Amherst has a long history of extraordinary teachers and people who treat teaching as an art.

I rarely give a talk at this college without citing one legendary Amherst professor, whose name is Benjamin DeMott, and you know his name because the lecture last night was named after him.

I cite Benjamin DeMott because he wrote an essay— called “English and the Promise of Happiness,” which is in my opinion the most beautiful essay—well, I would say ever written on teaching, but the truth is I haven’t read every essay that’s ever been written on teaching. So I’ll simply say that it is the most beautiful essay I’ve ever read about teaching.

And because I haven’t found a better one, I’m going to quote from it tonight. Benjamin DeMott says, “A good classroom is one in which collaborators enjoy a stretch of intelligently active sympathetic engagement with one another, with the goal of expanding the areas of the human world so creatures of our kind can feel solidarity and co-extensiveness.”

So, creatures of our kind can feel solidarity and co-extensiveness. That’s a good classroom.

“The English classroom in particular,” he says, “is a place where we bring our variousness into play, explore our range, discover our delicacy with other people or with a guide.” We bring our variousness into play, explore our range.

Now Benjamin DeMott also laments the fact that not all classes and not all spaces in colleges and universities are English classes in the way in which he means it.

We could all lament that not–there aren’t enough English classes in the way he means in the world, not just in colleges and universities. But education of the sort he’s describing takes time, it takes duration in the relationships we build; it takes low student-to-faculty ratios, it is very expensive, and it is life-giving. I know that from my own experience.

And yet we live in a world that seems increasingly wedded to things that take no time at all. That don’t even require our presence. Or at least not our presence to one another.

Every day we hear a new call for a kind of education that can be scaled and operationalized, and its outcomes counted. Every day another proposal for a college education that requires neither places nor human relationships.

I was on a panel last year with the CEO of Coursera probably the most successful to date online firm. And the CEO said the following thing to an audience organized by the New York Times:

“The value proposition of higher education,” she said, “Is content delivery and a credential.” The value proposition of higher education is content delivery and a credential. “All we need,” she told the audience, which was full of business people as well as educators, “all we need is to have employers accept our credential, and we can disrupt higher education forever.”

Well, you’re going to learn to an even greater, more intense and deeper extent that you already have, that the value proposition of Amherst College is not content delivery and a credential.

Well, what is the so-called value proposition of Amherst College? What is the value that will be added–this language is horrible, but you see that I’m hopefully mimicking in order to criticize. If you don’t see that, it’s just my fatigue. [Laughter]

We have survey results from our alumni, from current students and from parents that all agree about the value of an Amherst education, which is a remarkable thing. If you look at the results, they agree virtually completely about the value of Amherst. And here’s what they say.

They say at Amherst, students learn to think, learn to write, learn to make arguments, learn to synthesize ideas from a wide range of disciplines and domains. Those are the things that parents, current students, and alumni in particular cite as the value proposition of Amherst College.

Now there’s currently, as you probably know, a big shift in emphasis from the notion of teaching to the concept of learning. And in fact it almost seems politically incorrect these days to celebrate teaching in the era of learning.

I think it’s like so many other things in the culture, this sort of either-or-ism that’s just plain stupid. I have no patience with it.

You will certainly learn; and one of the challenges at Amherst for the faculty and for the institution as a whole is to understand the different ways in which you’ve learned and to address the differences in your learning styles, as we’ve been taught to say.

But it’s also true that you will need to be taught, and you will be taught.

Education without a sense of place, without attachments to particular people and ideas, without sounds and smells and tastes, without the messiness and inconvenience of human relationships, is not an education that we should allow people to promote without resistance.

Last week PBS News Hour, which I count on to be fair...er [laughter], featured a series of programs called Rethinking College–did anybody watch those programs? .. Uh-oh, I’m off on an island … I was–okay, Jeff, good.

Alright, so it was a series called Rethinking College. I watched the first program in the series and then decided not to pursue it.

This first program featured the president of the University of Southern New Hampshire, who promoted what is called competency-based degrees. And this requires very few professors, really no professors as such, and no classrooms. It involves projects that students complete that demonstrate their competence at specific skills. And some experts who can assess whether the right skills have been mastered.

There is a use for this kind of education, and I don’t stand here talking about it in order to repudiate it.

What bothers me is the way in which those who promote these forms of education, especially for adult learners, for learners who have no other access to education, the way in which they’ve created the straw man of traditional college and university life, the way they speak derisively for example about seat time, the fact that you earn credits for spending time in a classroom.

As though nothing else goes on, as if it’s somehow ridiculous to have an extended period of time with people and a teacher in a classroom.

I’ve already mentioned the “sage on the stage” stereotype, about faculty, that what faculty do is profess in front of you without regard to your interests, your needs, your abilities.

That too bothers me greatly, and I think it’s time that we push back against the movement that would say, “we should speak only about learning, and forget not only about teaching, but about teachers themselves.”

I think we’re here tonight to celebrate the beginning of a relationship of our new students with an outstanding faculty, and that both the learning and the teaching need to be celebrated together.

I celebrate tonight the fact that Amherst offers a liberal arts education that brings people from a wide range of backgrounds together for the purpose of collaborating in that learning and teaching.

At one level the formula at Amherst seems simple:

  • Recognize first of all that talent is distributed across all kinds of people and all groups.
  • Make an Amherst education accessible and affordable to those talented people, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstance and background.
  • Bring them together with an outstanding and diverse faculty of scholars and scientists, for whom both research and teaching are a calling.
  • Create the conditions under which the curriculum can be a living thing, and then combine very high standards and high expectations of those talented young people with faith in and a commitment to everyone’s ability to thrive.

To be here at this place under those circumstances is a privilege and a gift, but not just for you who are students; the very fact that each of you is here is a gift for us as a faculty and an administration.

Amherst College is not perfect; you will find much to criticize, as I said to you a week ago, about the College. From the trivial to the most significant things.

We have challenges we have not yet addressed adequately. Student Life and the organization of student life in a way that puts you in a position to learn and also to enjoy yourselves while you’re here, to take advantage of one another’s differences, that is a project on which we continue to work, and it is an incomplete project.

You’re going to face barriers at times to your learning; you’re going to run afoul of a whole set of norms that you yourselves have either established or are working to sustain. We’re here to help you.

Amherst has not only a dedicated staff, not only a dedicated faculty, but a dedicated staff. And we have been working night and day literally 24/7 over the past year and a half to generate a Student Affairs Office, a function that will ensure that you’re safe, that you have a place to go and you know where that place is when you run into problems or challenges, and that your learning will be enhanced by the ways in which your lives in the classroom and outside the classroom are organized and addressed.

The place is not perfect; don’t expect perfection. None of us is perfect and don’t expect perfection of yourselves.

That would be my second admonition on the question of perfection. If you expect perfection of yourselves you will fail to take risks, you will frustrate yourselves unnecessarily and you’ll isolate yourselves from other people. You cannot expect yourselves to be perfect.

We’re here in a community of human beings, one to another, because we’re not perfect. The dream of perfectibility is not the dream that we expect you to adopt at Amherst.

There’s an enormous opportunity for those of you who are students here to reimagine not only your own lives and your own opportunities and possibilities, but to reimagine Amherst.

We have assembled an extraordinary group of talented young people here, not just those of you who are new, but our student body in general.

And we’re open to understanding how we can meet the needs you have, how we can put you in a position to thrive, how we can ensure that you’re not only learning but becoming the scholars that we know you have the capacity to be. And becoming scholars will serve you throughout your lives regardless of what you end up doing in your work.

So, use us. Use us well, and use us often.

Finally, your relations with one another are a big part of your college experience. You’re going to build lifelong friendships and the experiences you have with one another will shape who you become to a very great extent.

I know you’ve probably had eight or nine days of advice and instruction about how to deal with your relationships with one another and I don’t want to add to the sense that you might have of being overwhelmed by that advice.

All I’ll say is: it’s important for me as well as for other people to remind us all that respect for one another, respect for one another’s personhood, respect for one another’s boundaries, is absolutely an essential value for this college, and we need to make sure going forward, that it’s a higher value for the rest of the society.

Play your role. Be part of imagining an Amherst in which the forms of respect that we all deserve are observed for everyone.

Take care of one another. I said that to you at the end on Sunday night. Taking care of one another doesn’t just mean taking care of the people you already know: It means watching out for signs that people you may not know at all might be having trouble and reach out.

We have to make this a community that interacts, that engages one another, and whose care for one another is palpable. So I urge you to do what you can to help us build an intellectual community with the strongest possible ethic of care for everyone in our community.

I hope you have a wonderful semester, a wonderful academic year, good luck in your classes. You’re in for a treat. And thank you very much for listening.