Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science
9:30 a.m. May 19, 2002
Thank you, Sarah, and good morning to you all. It was a pleasure to hear George speak and to realize that my wife and I, who both teach here, arrived twenty-two years ago with George as our president. Our first president, our president for ten years. Nobody did more for our careers than George and we have always been completely and utterly grateful for that. George is also one of the best extemporaneous speakers I've ever heard. And I'm not. So, I'm reading my speech today. You don't want a statistician extemporizing.
Miss Piggy said that you should not eat more than you can lift. When I accepted this invitation to speak four weeks ago, it felt like a good idea, honored as I was by the prospect of being your speaker this morning. Today we may all discover that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Indeed, for the past four weeks I have been haunted and somewhat terrified by the prospect of speaking in front of such a large gathering. I have spent much time thinking about what I might say. The great mathematician, Poincare, once said that he would let tough problems incubate in his mind for periods of time and solutions would just pop into his head at odd moments, such as when stepping off a curb. But every time I stepped off a curb, I got was this nagging sense of apprehension.
When Sarah invited me to speak, she said I should speak for about 5 to 8 minutes. Having never been to a baccalaureate in my life, I asked her what the speech should be about. She reiterated that it should be about 5 to 8 minutes, as if I were not paying attention. That's about as helpful as Sarah could be on this occasion, but on all other occasions I've encountered with Sarah, she's been terrific. For several semesters she was my Real Problems mentor. And for those of you who took calculus here I'm sure you will recall fondly the Real Problems. Sarah obtained one of the best compliments ever given to a Real Problems mentor when a student chimed up in class one day and said, "Sarah is really great at not giving us answers."
As I stewed about the speech, I wondered why I might have been chosen. I thought to myself, maybe some on the committee had me for a statistics class and maybe they even enjoyed the class. If that's the case, they may be in the for last statistics lesson of their Grinnell careers: The heartbreak of extrapolation.
In his 1985 Baccalaureate speech, the late and revered faculty member Joe Wall said that baccalaureate was a custom which Harvard inaugurated in 1864. You may have heard of Harvard. It's a good school; some people call it the Grinnell of the East. I wondered how good of an idea this baccalaureate thing could really be. After all, if it was such a great idea, don't you think Grinnell would have thought of it before 1864?
Joe concluded that at baccalaureate it was the students' role to reminisce and the faculty's role to exhort. To exhort means to "urge strongly or advise earnestly," but like Joe on that day in 1985, I am inclined to resist this role.
In Walden, Thoreau says that "age is less well qualified for an instructor as youth," and at least in my case I am inclined to agree. One of the wonderful parts of teaching here is interacting with classes like yours and with students like you. So, let me spend a couple of minutes describing some of what I have learned from you the students at Grinnell.
The relationship between faculty and students is an interesting tension, which is why we have summers. If we, the faculty, demanded less of you, we'd all have a much cushier life, but I suspect that none of you would really let that happen very long.
In the most recent S&B, Sarah Aswell -- whose mom is a college professor -- in a column titled "Professors aren't that evil, mostly" -- said that the "only thing worse than writing a 30-page seminar paper is reading 15 30-page seminar papers written by angry, tired college students." Well, I've read my share of papers written by tired students, but rarely have I sensed anger. Grinnell students can show anger, but it is usually about social issues or perceived injustices -- okay, or in that rare instance when one of us faculty really screws up. But mostly, Grinnell students are a civil bunch.
As an example, two of my upper-level students were within minutes of finishing their final paper last Monday when the computer froze and they could not save their document. I came to their moral support, under no allusions that I could be of any technical assistance whatsoever. Because she had a job to get to, one of the students became panicked by the situation, which I completely empathized with. After we were finally rescued by a gracious computer science student, my now-becalmed student apologized for having been panicked.
Beyond civility, your most endearing and enduring trait is the way you support one another and the entire educational enterprise. This support goes well beyond the classroom to permeate your life here: you go to a classmate's recital, they come to your swim meet. You form study groups. One of you recently told me how astounded you were to discover the power of study groups to pull you through a tough sequence of upper-level courses. You tutor someone in calculus, just because you want them to succeed. And, I recall a presentation by one of my wife's summer research students. He was a runner and the entire men's cross-country team came to his talk.
And last month many of you supported one another and all of us who mourned the tragic death of your amazing classmate, Greg Schrieber. I thank all of you who contributed so movingly to those of us who knew Greg less well, but were so impressed by what we knew of him. Greg took statistics from me and he and Peter Beck did an excellent and quirky study on the walking speed of students going to and from campus landmarks. They discovered unexpectedly that students walk slower going to lunch at Quad than going to study at Burling. Before you get bigheaded about your studiousness, I warn you that they also found the lurking variable.
In an academic environment that could easily turn competitive, and at many places does, you teach me the importance of being supportive and civil, for which I give you my sincere thanks.
I cannot resist adding, that I am constantly amazed also by the capacity so many of you have for engaging in multiple and diverse activities and for the surprising talents I discover that you have beyond the academic talents we faculty see in the normal course of the day. As I understand it, many of you also carry on rich social lives.
I could quit speaking at this point, but I feel this nagging sense of duty as defined by Joe Wall in 1985. I'd hate to get fired from this job, so I will close with just five quick pieces of advice in order to attain "official" baccalaureate speech status (as when the Wizard of Oz confers a testimonial on the Tin Man.) So here are my five pieces of advice:
- Don't smoke. I want to make absolutely sure that at least one thing on my list makes good, empirical sense, and I can't think of many better than this.
- Know the difference between a paper clip and a staple, and use accordingly. A useful guideline is this: "If you ship it, don't clip it." So if you send someone a document or hand in a paper to a grad school professor, by all means get out the stapler
- Learn how to say 'no'. I know Grinnellians; you are all generous people who will be helping your fellow humans in a variety of ways. But when you decide that enough is enough, you have to have about you the gentle art of saying 'no.' Most of us find this inherently difficult, so we qualify our 'no's': "No, I cannot be on the Library Board because Tuesday nights are bad for me." Inevitably, the response back will be something like: "Well, actually, Tuesdays are bad for several of us, so we've been discussing alternatives." And off you go. When you mean 'no,' just say 'no.'
- Pack your room. Thirty hours from now, when all the celebrating is done, many of you will still face the daunting task of moving out your stuff. Don't wait till tomorrow to do this job. Maybe my nagging you now will obviate the need for someone else nagging you; someone who loves you very much and perhaps who paid a lot of your tuition.
- Finally, as you go off into the so-called real world, let Grinnell be part of whatever it is you choose to do. Continue to support those you work with and live near. Take pride in what you do. Realize that the Grinnell ethos of service and social commitment can apply to non-profits and to companies that make consumer goods; to teaching in Africa, center city, or rural Iowa; to future study of the arts, sciences, social sciences, or a profession; in short to whatever it is find yourself doing, soon, and in the distant future.
Thank you for your attention. Thanks for being wonderful students. . . and wonderful teachers. Congratulations, and keep in touch.