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Barnet P. Hartston, Associate Professor of History
Chair, Faculty Coordinating Committee
My name is Professor Barnet Hartston, and I am the chair of the Faculty Coordinating Committee. It's my pleasure on behalf of the faculty to officially welcome you back to Eckerd for the 2012-2013 academic year.
I know I'm probably in a minority here, but I like ceremonies. It's not the pomp and circumstance, and certainly not the speeches. I think it's something about the strangeness built into most ceremonies. For example, when I took this costume out of the closet a few weeks ago, my ten year-old asked me point-blank: "Why would anyone wear something like that? ...in Florida?" And she's right to ask. It's easy to point to tradition, or to the honor conferred by a degree, but in the end I basically look like I'm a refugee from an alternate Renaissance universe where everyone wears polyester and velveteen. Perhaps if this came with a pair of red tights I could convince some of you that I was some kind of academic superhero - able to read large books in a single sitting. But the strangeness built into this kind of ceremony is no more ridiculous than most other ceremonies we have: the ritual of cutting down a tree and placing it in our living room each December, or the ritual of attacking people with rice who are just trying to get married. The strangeness in these ceremonies is meant to separate them from the ordinary - to sanctify them as sacred, and meaningful, and worthy of attention.
Sometimes, of course, we forget the meaning of such ceremonies - the "reason for the season" so to speak. In those times, it is often up to the conveners of the ceremonies, sometimes equipped with funny hats, to remind us why we are here. So let me at least give it a try.
This ceremony is meant to rekindle our sense of community. Now, do we need a ceremony to do this? After all, many of the students here live together, and many of the faculty and staff here spend so much time together that it seems like we live here too. But I'd like to make a case that such a reminder is necessary - especially if we are talking about a true academic community and not just a community of proximity.
I'd like the students to imagine for a moment that each of you were not only responsible for your own learning, but for what you contribute to everyone else's learning as well. This may seem a bit strange, since you usually aren't evaluated this way. You write your own papers, take your own exams, and at the end of each semester you are evaluated personally in the form of a statistical number: your GPA. And yet, despite this, I would suggest - and please forgive the analogy - I would suggest that learning is a team sport. Believe it or not, your questions and answers in class, and the expression of your unique point of view, all help to shape the learning of your peers, to challenge their preconceptions and assumptions, and even to inspire them to participate and think critically as well. On the other hand, your silence or your absence doesn't just affect you, but deprives your community of what you have to offer. In my opinion - regardless of your GPA - if you end up receiving your diploma under the big top on South Field without having contributed substantially to the learning of your peers, you haven't just missed an opportunity - you've missed the point. Education is not just about individual acquisition; education is a social good.
Now if learning is a “team sport”, I would also argue that this is doubly true of teaching. It's very easy to see teaching as a relatively solitary enterprise - after all, in most cases we professors write our own syllabi, give our own lectures, and grade our own papers. Teachers these days, like students, are also commonly evaluated through statistics. While it may be true that numbers don't lie, these particular numbers are half-truths at best. The best teachers are those that are willing to experiment, to take risks, and sometimes to fail. And in a true teaching and learning community, the best teachers are also those who share. For as teachers, we are eternally learners as well.
So let us all take this opportunity to commit ourselves to a common purpose: to building a true teaching and learning community. Teachers and learners all.
Best wishes for the academic year.