Welcoming new students at Convocation 2016, Amherst College President Biddy Martin unpacked one of the more curious but appropriate adjectives used to describe the college: yeasty.
“When I agreed to be interviewed for the presidency here, there was a summary statement about Amherst’s culture that made me laugh: ‘Amherst,’ it read, ‘with its independent faculty, committed staff and actively engaged alumni and students, has a distinctive, yeasty culture,’” Martin told new students gathered at Johnson Chapel Sept. 5.
When the first-years laughed, she said, “That’s exactly my reaction.”
“So I looked it up in the dictionary. It turns out that the adjective yeasty has a figurative meaning that seemed perfect—‘characterized by unrest or agitation, in a state of turbulence, typically a creative or productive one.’ And now I’ve decided Amherst is yeasty,” she said.
“To some degree, yeastiness ought to characterize every college and university community,” Martin added. This culture stands for diversity, discussion and people who, according to a German saying quoted by historian Carl Becker, “think otherwise.”
Martin spoke of the community that new students are entering, a family that she first observed through its alumni.
“The alumni like to argue with one another,” she said. “Good-natured argument, but argument nonetheless. About what a professor said in this or that class, who taught what, whether the College was changing for better or for worse, and, always, about the open curriculum. Always.”
“What their arguing proved to me was that Amherst faculty had done a great job of encouraging their students to ‘think otherwise’ in their own ways and to value differences of opinion,” she said. “I came away from those meetings expecting a bunch of wickedly smart, quirky and demanding professors who allowed themselves to be what I call, following my mother, ‘real characters.’ That’s what I found. And that’s what you’ll find—teachers who will support you in developing yourselves as ‘otherwise-thinking’ adults.”
This conversation builds community, she said.
“The freedom of inquiry and of personality that colleges inspire is actually the very source of community and of affection—freedom inspires a sense of responsibility to the community that grants that freedom,” she said. “Some wonder why society should countenance the freedoms and the job security that professors have that others do not have. My answer is: Democracy depends on it.”
Especially now, she said.
“The challenge, especially in a politically divided country, is to resist what is happening elsewhere—the congealing of otherwise-thinking into hard ideological oppositions, thinking otherwise in only one way, in opposition to other hardened views.”
“During these four years, you are likely to encounter a greater concentrated diversity of opinion and people than you ever have or ever will again,” Martin told students. “This is an environment in which you can learn to define yourselves and live by your own lights, but it will not always be easy, or comfortable, or fun.”
“There is no learning without unlearning; and real unlearning is unnerving. It involves moments of vertigo, perhaps even strains in familiar relationships,” she added.
“The high quality and yeastiness of conversation and exchange among smart, funny, decent people at Amherst is one of the greatest gifts you’ll be given here,” she said, “but we also need to build a broader public sphere that is defined by humane conversation, interaction and institutions. That is more humane than what we see now.”
The first formal gathering of the first-year class, the annual Convocation features a procession, music by the Choral Society and the awarding of master of arts degrees to faculty who have reached the rank of full professor but aren’t graduates of Amherst.
Martin conferred honorary master’s degrees on Laure Katsaros of the French and European studies departments, Jill Miller of biology and environmental studies, and Monica Ringer of Asian languages and civilizations and history.
Lisa Smith Van der Linden ’89, composer of College standard and Convocation and Commencement standby “Three Gifts,” was on hand to sing her original song, accompanied by her daughter Anna Van der Linden ’20.