Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of an address that Paula Turner P’10, professor of physics, gave at the 2017 Founders’ Day ceremony. Video of the address is available at livestream.com.
Thank you, President Decatur. I’d like to know if you have ever heard of “two truths and a lie.” It’s an icebreaker game: each person makes three statements about themselves (two true, one false), and everyone tries to guess which is false.
Well, I’d like to try a variation: I’d like to try what I call “two strengths and an anxiety.” I’m going to have you think quietly for a moment about some things you’re good at and something you worry about — let’s all take a moment, quietly, to come up with two things you’re good at, and something you’re worried about.
Since I try not to ask folks to do something I’m unwilling to do myself, I’m going to share my list with all of you. I think one of my strengths is that I can often explain complicated ideas pretty clearly. Also, I can make lots of things from scratch (meals, costumes, furniture, jewelry, scenery, props, electronics, house repairs, lots of stuff). Anxieties — probably the most salient right now is that I’m worried about how my talk will be received.
What I’m going to do next is have you turn to a neighbor and share your lists. The main instruction is this: I want you to listen well to your partner — that’s the most important part.
Now I am going to add some structure here, to keep things moving along. I’m going to have you turn to your neighbor and share, and then at some point I’m going to interrupt (after about 20 seconds) and say ok, now switch. I’m going to say it really loudly into the microphone, and what I want you to do, in case not everyone hears it, is to say with me after, now switch. Let’s practice this: when you hear now switch, you say, all together: now switch!
Ok, everybody ready? Find a neighbor and share your lists — two strengths and an anxiety. Go.
Ok, now switch!
What I’d like to do now by show of hands is have you answer some questions. I want you to answer based on what you heard — what you understood your partner to say about their strengths. How many of you heard someone say that one of their strengths was something you’d describe as:
Something creative? (drawing, writing, dancing, coding, …)
Something active? (running, cleaning, dancing, …)
Something intellectual? (debating, reading, or any academic subject, …)
Something social? (listening, advocating, telling jokes, dancing, …)
(dancing fits everywhere!)
So as you can see from the show of hands, we have a variety of strengths within our community. Now think about an anxiety you heard, or maybe one you have yourself — you don’t necessarily have to have spoken about it, since sometimes it’s harder to share the things that make us anxious. How many of you would characterize the anxiety you’re thinking of as being related to feeling accepted or included, fitting in?
Here we are, in an auditorium filled with talented, capable, high-achieving students, faculty, staff and administrators, as evidenced by the wide variety of strengths we shared, yet some people are still wondering whether they belong.
To some extent, that’s what this ceremony is about: belonging. We remember those who have belonged to this community, welcome those who are new to our community, and celebrate some of us who have been members of the community for a long time. But I don’t think acceptance is as easy as one ceremony — belonging can’t be conjured — like you sign the Matriculation Book and suddenly you feel differently.
When President Decatur invited me to speak, I asked my daughter Sam, Class of 2010, about her Matriculation experience. She said she had attended and signed the Matriculation Book and whatnot, but it didn’t have much meaning for her until a year or two later, when she was here with the Chamber Singers. That’s the year Doc was receiving his 25-year medallion, so the Chamber Singers were on stage instead of in the balcony. They sang a song in Russian, called Blazheni, and part of the translation was the phrase “from generation to generation.”
Sam said that phrase got her thinking about what is transmitted from generation to generation here at Kenyon — all the things we inherit from those who have gone before us. It made her think of her dad, who attended Kenyon (and this ceremony) as a non-traditional aged student when Sam was eight or nine, and said it made her feel she was inheriting something from him by being here. And I feel as if today, when I’ll receive my 25-year medallion, I’m being gifted with an additional tie to the college and this community. These reflections helped me realize that one ceremony doesn’t confer belonging, but it can be part of the process.
So there’s my first truth for you: belonging is a process, not an event. We’re all in the process of building belonging — different stages, different speeds. One of the most profound kindnesses we can give others is to help them build their sense of belonging. Do you realize you’ve already done that for someone today, by listening well? By hearing them and reflecting back what you heard, with generosity and kindness.
So why does belonging matter? I think because when you’re worrying about acceptance, you can’t share your ideas as freely and unselfconsciously as when you feel you belong. And when that happens, all those strengths we explored are muted, reserved, maybe even untapped, until you feel confident enough of the reception you’ll get when you try out an idea.
You can probably see how this would matter to an employer: it could hamper productivity. But why does it matter in my classroom? Because my goal is for everyone in my classes to learn as effectively as they can. I want every student to come out with a more solid idea of how physical systems work than when they came in, and with a greater sense of how to grapple with abstraction, complex ideas, cause and effect — elements of critical reasoning that probably every course at Kenyon tries to address in one way or another.
How do we faculty do this? By making you active partners. People learn best when engaged in questioning and discussing — not when they’re passive, when they’re “inputting information,” but when they’re using ideas, synthesizing and organizing information, analyzing and explaining concepts. Thinking about and then deciding something based on your thoughts — like you did in characterizing what you heard someone else say during our little game. Learning is active.
This means you have agency: your actions and attitudes can either enable or retard your learning. Make no mistake, changing your brain is work. It requires effort. We faculty can guide you, support you, design appropriate challenges for you, give you feedback on your progress and challenge your assumptions or misconceptions, but your actions are ultimately responsible for your learning.
So there’s my second truth: learning requires active investment. You control that variable, not us. You are the central agent in your own success.
Ok, I’ve given you the two truths I promised in my title. So what’s the lie? It’s one that’s been foisted on all of us at some point, that “either you have it or you don’t,” that somehow ability or intelligence is like having brown eyes or curly hair or good eyesight. Frankly, that’s B.S. Every single one of you can learn more, do more, achieve more than you suspect, if you root yourself in two truths: your strengths uniquely qualify you to contribute in your communities, and your actions and attitudes are what unlock your potential for growth and achievement.
Welcome to the next chapter of your adventure. We’re glad to have you with us.