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Opening convocation 2019-20

Topics/tags: Rants, Grinnell

This past Thursday was the first Scholars Convocation of the 2019-2020 academic year. I love Scholars Convocation: It’s an opportunity to learn new things and, as importantly, an opportunity to build a common set of knowledge at Grinnell [1]. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Convo. In an ideal world, Convo would have an appropriate place at the core of a Grinnell education, along with the individually advised curriculum and the Tutorial.

Unfortunately, the world is far from ideal. This week’s Convocation made me furious. It’s not the content; it was an interesting and useful panel [2]. Rather, it’s a combination of the attendance and the marketing. This was one of the worst attended Convocations I’ve attended, and it’s one that should have been one of the best attended.

Why should people have attended? First of all, it had a wonderful panel of thoughtful people from campus, including Autumn Wilke, our Assistant Dean for Disability Resources; Fredo Rivera ’06, Assistant Professor of Art History; Karen Edwards, Director of International Student Affairs; Gema Sala, Associate Professor of Political Science; and Sharon Quinsaat, Assistant Professor of Sociology. Plus, it was moderated by the always amazing Vrinda Varia, Director of Intercultural Affairs. Each of these panelists is someone whose insight I regularly appreciate [3]. Having them bounce ideas off of each other was particularly enlightening.

Second, the topic was something that should be of interest to everyone: How one builds a sense of belonging and home. (Also what may cause lack of belonging.) Particularly as we come together to a place that was originally home for very few of us, it’s useful to consider such issues.

Third, this topic was grounded in this year’s Common Reading: Cristina Henríquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans [4]. The Common Reading is another way that we can build a common intellectual heritage at Grinnell [5]. One would hope that the incoming students who have just read the book—as well as the current students, faculty, and staff who are reading it—would want to attend.

So why in hell were so few people there?

I expect that a variety of factors are at play. Convocation attendance seems to have dropped significantly in the past few years. In part, it’s because Convocation was temporarily moved to a less convenient time. In part, it’s because Convocation is no longer a weekly event, which makes it harder to remember when/if we have a Convocation.

As I said, advertising and marketing may also have come into play. I don’t recall seeing posters for this convocation around campus. It wasn’t in the Campus Memo. I’m not sure why Communications chose not to include one of the most important all-campus events [6]. The title in the Campus Calendar is also a bit off-putting: NSO: First Year Scholars Convocation. Both NSO and First Year may make readers believe that it’s only for first-year students. But Convocation is always open to all. The NSO should have clued in first-year students and their advisors that it was valuable to attend. However, it seems not to have.

What can we do about this next year? A mention at the first faculty meeting of the year would be good. A mention in the Campus Memo would be good. Posters would be good. Perhaps we should tell all Tutorial profs [7] that they are expected to bring their Tutorials to the opening Convocation. But, well, I’m not sure that you can tell faculty anything.

I encourage all my readers to attend the four Convocations scheduled for this semester: Ari Berman from Mother Jones talking about The Tyranny of Data on September 12, Joan Neuberger ’75 on September 19 [8], Kate Manne, author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny [9,10] on September 26, and the aforementioned Cristina Henríquez on November 21.

I hear that George Drake ’56 will be giving a quick opening at one of those Convocations, presumably on September 12th or 19th. Be there!

Postscript: As I noted in an early musing, I generally avoid profanity. However, I felt this situation called for it.

[1] I asked George Drake ’56, who I’ve been told is responsible for the thing we now call Scholars Convocation. He has verified that building a common set of knowledge was, in fact, one of his primary goals in creating Convo.

[2] More of that forthwith.

[3] I assume others do, too.

[4] Yes, it’s on my reading list for this year.

[5] More on that in a future musing. Or have I mused about that issue already? It’s a complex issue, and I’m not likely to be completely polite about it.

[6] Presumably because no one on the academic side told them to do so.

[7] I’d like to write Tutors, but that’s taken on another meeting.

[8] Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend that one.

[9] Also on my reading list.

[10] One could argue that a book subtitled The Logic of Misogyny should be one of the shortest books published, because misogyny is, at heart, illogical. But what do I know?

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-01