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On many Thursday mornings at 11:00 a.m., Grinnell hosts Scholars’ Convocation, a public lecture intended for a general audience. I tell all of my students that they should make it a point to attend Convocation (aka Convo). Here’s a version of what I say to them.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. And no, it’s not where fun goes to die. It’s one of the most fun places in the world, provided your idea is a late-night argument on some topic. One of the things that made Chicago great was that it had a large common core (since gutted), which meant that you could be pretty sure that everyone or their roommate had read Freud, The Wealth of Nations, Plato, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Marx, and a few other core texts. The ability to draw upon those common texts made our arguments more interesting. (Yes, there is some fantasy mixed into that reflection from 30+ years later.)

Because Grinnell has an individually mentored curriculum (formerly the open curriculum, even more formerly, the no-requirements curriculum), Grinnell students lack a common intellectual heritage. I suppose all Grinnell students share the concept of Self-Gov, but my experience is that no two students agree upon its precise meeting. I used to think that because all Grinnell students take Tutorial, there was something we could all take from Tutorial. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that is. I used to think it was Know your audience, but when I say that to groups of students, about half claim that they never learned that in Tutorial.

Anyway, when Grinnell moved to the individually mentored curriculum, the wise faculty here at the time suggested that we develop a different kind of shared intellectual heritage. And that’s why we have Convocation. It’s a chance for large portions of the campus population to hear lectures about interesting and important topics. Think of how much better conversations on campus would be if you could be confident that those around you had also heard about implicit bias or data science or the many other topics covered in Convocation. For that reason alone, everyone should go to Convocation. Convocation builds an intellectual community at Grinnell.

But there are also other reasons to attend Convo. At some point in your life, you will be required to give a presentation. In general, we choose speakers for Convocation who are experienced. By attending Convocation, you get to see a wide variety of approaches to speaking to a general audience. (And yes, I know that TED talks are a really great approach. But these are good, too.) You can also, on occasion, see something that doesn’t work and reflect on why it’s not working.

Convocation would have much more impact if we had Convocation every week. And we did have Convocation every week when I came to Grinnell. But at some point, the faculty foolishly voted to go from a weekly Convocation to a much-less-frequent Convocation so that we could pay for more high-profile speakers. I think we should have looked for ways to still make it weekly, such as drawing upon Grinnell faculty (and possibly faculty from neighboring institutions, who might be willing to give a large lecture for not too much money) for the remaining weeks. Maybe we’ll do so in the future. Anyway, for the time being, Convo is held only a few times each semester.

Think about it. It’s an hour every few weeks. Go. You’ll learn something new. You’ll have ideas you can draw upon. And you’ll discover more about how to present. And sometimes they even have food. What more could you ask?

Version 1.1 of 2016-04-17