My View from South Hill
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Last weekend we welcomed approximately 1500 parents and other relatives of IC students to campus for Family Weekend. The weekend gives the families of our students an opportunity to learn first-hand about their professors and classes, residence halls and friends, and other campus activities. I always offer a brief talk about the educational experience their sons and daughters are having. This year I framed my remarks around the theme: “Top Ten Questions You Should Ask Your Son or Daughter at Ithaca College.”
Here are the questions a parent might ask in order to help their son or daughter get the most from their college experience.
1. What are you doing with your liberal education courses?
Many students regard their liberal education or core curriculum as a series of requirements to be checked off as quickly as possible. With thoughtful selection of classes and a thoughtful approach to the course material, though, the core curriculum can become a powerful source of the kind of big picture thinking, analytical abilities and written and verbal communication skills that prepare a graduate to meet the professional and personal challenges of life.
2. What are you doing at 4:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m.?
Ithaca College hosts speakers who give talks that are unconnected to any course, are not required, and are always open to the entire community. Among the speakers who have been on campus in just the last year or two: Branford Marsalis, Tony Kushner, Arianna Huffington, Helen Caldicott, James Carville and David Muir. Several times per week, guest speakers share their experience and insights -- usually at 4:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. (just before or after dinner). Is your son or daughter taking advantage of these opportunities?
3. Have you wandered the halls of an unfamiliar building?
Ithaca College offers an amazing array of courses of study, each taught in different formats that open one’s eyes to the wide world of learning and accomplishment. Has your son or daughter dropped in on a music rehearsal, an exercise science clinic, a class held in the financial trading room, a middle-of-the-night theater rehearsal, a student production for IC-TV, or a philosophy department colloquium?
4. What are professors like when you talk with them outside of class?
Our faculty are always willing to engage with students who have big picture questions that are not readily asked and answered in class. For that matter, our entire campus stands ready to engage with any question, problem or concern a student may bring forward. Don’t ask if your son or daughter talks with faculty outside of class – ask when the last time was that they did and what they talked about.
5. What are you learning from your co-curricular activities?
We learn so much from purposive play. Co-curricular activities may originate from a desire to immerse in an interesting activity. But students in our 200 or so student clubs, organizations and teams also learn leadership skills, event planning, teamwork, and how to be entrepreneurial in getting something done.
6. Have you found ways to apply what you are learning?
Our students get involved in internships, volunteer activities, faculty-mentored research programs, and a staggering range of other ways of putting new knowledge to use in an independent setting. True learning takes place when knowledge and experience are united.
7. Tell me something about living in Ithaca.
Ithaca is a place of great natural beauty, exceptional human diversity for a town our size, and what must be one of the largest concentrations of social service organizations per capita in the country. Encourage your son or daughter not to get their college education in a vacuum but instead to experience Ithaca as the first community in which they will live as an independent young adult.
8. Did you know Ithaca is not the center of the universe?
Ithaca College has centers in Los Angeles and London, in New York City effective Spring 2012, and in China effective approximately 2014. Most students in these centers have internships in addition to classes, giving them valuable work experience and connections. In addition, we assist our students with individual study-away arrangements in approximately 45 countries per year. Has your son or daughter considered the benefits of a semester off campus?
9. Did you know there are 50,000 people standing behind you?
That is the number of living Ithaca College alumni. I have yet to meet one who does not stand ready to mentor a current student by sharing insights and contacts developed from their own professional experience.
10. The future is now! Are you preparing for it?
Our Career Services Office can operate as a last-minute job placement bureau, but it best serves those students who start early. This enables students to be thoughtful about how their course of study and extra-curricular activities will develop the skills most prized by employers, graduate schools and professional schools. Career Services can also assist in strategies for snagging internships and developing the network of contacts that are so important to life after the bachelor’s degree.
I am told that our Career Services Office had a rush of visitors five minutes after my talk ended, with parents and students saying “The President told us to visit.” Fortunately the office was open at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning! My audience clearly took my message to heart. I hope these questions are just as useful to others, including students thinking about how to get the most out of their college experience.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Last month my wife Amber and I were asked to lead a discussion in our county library of texts that have been influential in our lives. It was a powerful exercise for us to identify the books and stories that have shaped who we are. We learned a few things about each other as we shared our choices.
One of the readings I chose was “Nightfall,” a short story by Isaac Asimov that was already a classic when I first read it as a teenager. The story is set on a planet in the middle of a dense star cluster, whose orbit brings it close to no fewer than six bright stars that transit the sky on a daily basis. As a result it is always daylight on the planet Lagash … except for once every 2,049 years when five suns have set and the sixth is covered by a lunar eclipse.
That premise sets up the central question of Asimov’s story: What happens when nightfall, a daily occurrence for everything that lives on Earth, is instead a millennial experience?
What happens in Asimov’s story is the collapse of civilization. The citizens of Lagash have developed astronomy and mathematics, and their scientists know about the coming eclipse. Their archaeologists know that the cities of Lagash today are built on the remnants of at least nine previous civilizations, each of which was burnt to the ground with a periodicity of about 2,000 years. It is apparent that people burned their cities to the ground when faced with total darkness. But why? No one knows for sure because no one has experienced a world of total darkness. There is a religious cult that talks of something called “stars” that appear when the sky goes dark. They say stars have the power to drive people insane, but most people on Lagash dismiss these faith-based speculations.
As the eclipse of the only visible sun in the Lagash sky proceeds and night begins to fall, the astronomers wait with foreboding. Some among them had hypothesized that the universe might be several light years in breadth, with perhaps an additional dozen stars in the sky so distant from Lagash as to be invisible under normal daylight conditions. They are on the right track, but the reality of the situation becomes apparent only as the eclipse becomes total. Thousands of stars are revealed in night sky as seen from within a dense star cluster. In the cities people begin to burn their homes in a desperate effort to create light and escape the nighttime sky. Aton, the chief astronomer, can only whimper, “Stars – all the Stars – we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars [made up the] universe …”
Can we view the night sky the way a Lagashian would? Go out on a dark, clear night, lie on the ground, and really look up at the sky. You will get a feeling of falling into space. You will sense the unfathomable distances, the cold, and what Asimov called the awful indifference of the universe to our small and frail lives. We cannot see the sky the way Lagashians would, but we can get a tingle of the discomfort that was in them so extreme as to cause them to burn their cities.
Put the shoe on the other foot. What might Lagashians experience on a daily basis that would for us be deeply disorienting? What would happen to our circadian rhythms on a planet where daylight never ends? How would our emotional state be affected by the fluctuations in gravity that must occur on a planet whose orbit is affected by six nearby stars?
The story of Lagash is a simple one, written for the pleasure of adolescents and young adults. Even so, I have never looked at the night sky the same way since reading those 30 pages. Books are created by the imaginations of authors, but they live in the imaginations of readers. They may be the one thing more powerful than even the night sky.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I had the honor earlier today of being one of a number of speakers invited to offer a reflection for the Ithaca community on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with an emphasis on remembering the first responders who died that day in the line of duty. These comments are offered in that context, and not as a comprehensive set of thoughts about 9/11 or its aftermath.
It was the defining moment of our lives. It was the moment that left an immediate and visceral impact on every one of us as individuals. It was the moment that seared new understandings into the American collective consciousness about who we are as a nation and about our relationships to the rest of the world. It was the moment that provides us today, ten years later, with a question that everyone over the age of 14 or 15 can readily answer: Where were you when the Twin Towers were struck, when they burst into flames, and when they fell?
In the minutes and hours following that impact, our country had a once-per-generation experience of seeing heroism in action. We meet this morning at the Ithaca fire station as a reminder of the heroism displayed on that day by fire fighters, police officers and other first responders both in New York and elsewhere.
We know that many additional acts of individual heroism took place in the offices and stairwells of the World Trade Center, on the streets of New York, in and around the Pentagon, among passengers on the plane that came to ground in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. We will never be able to know the stories of all those whose personal sacrifices on that day illustrate the best that is within us with respect to human solidarity and community.
Ten years have passed since that defining moment. The ripples from the impacts of those four planes continue to spread, for better and for worse. We are, as a nation, warier and more worldly. We are more attuned to global issues, issues that today play a much larger role in our education of the next generation. Our communities are stronger. Perhaps above all, we appreciate to a greater degree the protective services provided by fire fighters, police, the armed forces and others.
9/11 changed us. As we look back, we do so with mourning, with humility, with determination to reach out and strengthen the brotherhood of all people, and above all with gratitude to those who keep us safe.
Monday, August 29, 2011
In my last blog post, I described the other-worldly reaction by my hero, Armando Galarraga, when an umpire’s flawed judgment in June 2010 cost him the immortality of having pitched a perfect game. He smiled.
As Gallaraga later wrote about his thoughts at that moment, “The only thing for me to do is feel proud of the work I have already done, and worry about the next batter, and remember my many blessings. … I have just pitched the best game of my career. And now there is a runner on first base and I am still pitching the best game of my career.”
I believe those comments make Mr. Galarraga a hero. He kept his priorities straight even under extreme duress and did not lose perspective under the most trying of circumstances. The umpire, Jim Joyce, also displayed a consummate professionalism by admitting his mistake. Elsewhere, though, things were not so pretty.
Thanks to technology, anyone who was interested in doing so could see (in slow motion and with the perfect camera angle) the play that umpire Joyce (in real time and at full speed) did not correctly see. Video reply did not correct the error or lead to any other change in the scoring of the game, but it did make a lot of people mad.
Also thanks to technology, anyone could communicate their thoughts about the umpire’s judgment both to the world and to the man himself. Joyce drove from the game to his mother’s home in Toledo, as he always did when his umpiring assignment took him to Detroit. While he was driving, his wife called from their home in Oregon to ask if he was OK. She also had a warning for him – “Delete your Facebook account immediately. Don’t even look at it.” She mentioned that their two children had already each received about fifty ugly messages via Facebook.
We have long had means of communicating over great distances, such as through telephones, telegraphs, and the postal service. But the internet takes to new heights the ability to be connected to anyone we wish through the effort of just a few clicks of the mouse and strokes of the keyboard. That level of access creates heightened levels of communication of all kinds. It enables far-flung families and friends to keep in touch with each other. It enables people who have never met each other to work effectively together on shared projects.
However, new channels of communication also appear to have led to a greatly increased number of expressions of anger and disgust. Look at the comments written in response to almost any article in an online newspaper. They will register disagreement with a statement or a decision made by some public figure, which is fair enough. But that disagreement will in many cases be accompanied by disparagements of the individual’s intelligence, ethics, and possibly fitness to hold their job. Even the Sesame Street character Elmo comes in for some pretty harsh comments in reaction to his charming videos and songs on Youtube.
What’s going on here? One theory holds that people have always been this way, and that communications technology today simply gives us fuller freedom to vent. After all, “Kill the umpire!” has been in the baseball lexicon for a long time, and the term baseball “fan” is a shortened version of the word fanatic.
However, this communicative style may also result from the fact that the growth of the internet happened to coincide with a loss of trust in authority of every kind. That loss of trust has been well documented in surveys carried out over the last forty years, both of the American public and abroad. Without trust and its companion, respect, disagreement becomes much more personal and mean spirited. As the famously combative Leo Durocher said back in the era of greater trust, “I never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.”
Today we are able to project our words across a global stage, accessed by anyone whose search string matches up with what we have written. We are still in the infancy of using this power. I hope we may yet learn to communicate consistently in ways that expand mutual understanding rather than in ways that close off real communication.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Fourteen months ago I acquired a hero. He is someone I look up to and seek to emulate, though I know I will never fully be able to mimic what he has done. My hero is Armando Galarraga, a baseball player.
You may know Armando’s story. He has pitched in the major leagues for parts of five seasons and is therefore an elite athlete. At the same time, one would not say Armando has had a distinguished career. He has been traded three times, his lifetime record is 26 wins and 30 losses, and he is currently pitching in the minors.
But on one evening, June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga was a very special player. Pitching for the Detroit Tigers, Armando retired consecutively the first 26 Cleveland batters he faced. One more out and he would complete only the 21st perfect game in 130 years of Major League Baseball.
Part of the wonder of perfect games is that some of them were thrown by the greatest names in pitching history, ranging from Cy Young to Sandy Koufax to Roy Halladay. Others were completed by individuals who were extraordinary only on that one occasion – Charlie Robertson and Dallas Braden. No matter which category a given pitcher falls in, though, to complete a perfect game is to be part of baseball history. As a boy who loved the game, I could name the pitchers and years of all seven perfect games that had been thrown to that point.
On June 2 of last year, Armando Galarraga faced his 27th batter with an opportunity to join the historic roster of perfect game pitchers. Based on his previous career, it was an unlikely situation for him to be in. It was also unlikely he would ever again have this opportunity. Ignoring the wall of noise coming from the home crowd, Armando took a deep breath and threw a strike to Cleveland’s number 9 hitter, Jason Donald. He followed with a ball low, and then threw a pitch that Donald hit on the ground to the Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera. In a play that few of us could execute but that is routine for major league players, Armando ran to first base, took a throw from Cabrera, and touched the base with the ball in his glove just before Donald could get there.
The umpire, Jim Joyce, called Donald safe. It was a judgment that Joyce tearfully admitted after the game he had gotten wrong. That he made a mistake, however, did not matter. The perfect game attempt was over.
It was then that Armando did the first of two things that makes him my hero. He smiled.
Under the circumstances, there was a mysterious quality to that smile that out-does the Mona Lisa. Umpire Joyce later commented that despite the immediate explosion of anger from the stands and from the Detroit dugout, Armando’s smile reassured him that he had gotten the call right. (Joyce realized his error only later, when he saw a replay.)
Pressed by the media immediately after the game to explain his smile, pressed to say something that would express the anger and resentment one might naturally feel, Armando could only say that he smiled because he was happy. He was happy to be pitching the best game of his life, a commanding game in which he felt complete control of every pitch he threw. Of the mistake by Umpire Joyce that had cost him the perfect game, Armando simply said “Nobody’s perfect.”
Armando took his smile back to the mound and then he did the second thing that makes him my hero. He focused on the job at hand, he got the next batter out, and he finished the job.
It is a wonderful thing to see a professional work with a commitment to excellence. It is even more wonderful to see a professional who does not put his or her feelings ahead of the work they are doing. Armando Galarraga’s attitude was that the mistake by Umpire Joyce may have changed the statistics of the game but that it in no way changed or diminished his own performance. He maintained that he had no reason to be upset or angry because he had done nothing wrong. He pitched a perfect game. That it was not a “Perfect Game” in the official records was not under his control. As a professional, he would take care of the things he could control and not worry about things that are the responsibility of others.
A hero is someone we can look up to, learn from, and seek to emulate. Armando Galarraga is my hero. So it is natural that when Galarraga published a book this year about his life and about his perfect-but-not-perfect game, I would be eager to read it. The book, called Nobody’s Perfect, is actually a dual narrative written by Galarraga and by Umpire Joyce. Armando is still my hero, but reading the book last week also gave me a feeling of “Now I know the rest of the story.” The rest of the story will be the subject of my next blog post.