Eastern Illinois University's 2005 Faculty Laureate Fern Kory spoke to new students at the annual Convocation ceremony Tuesday evening in the Grand Ballroom of the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union. Following are her remarks:
Welcome all. I particularly want to welcome those of you who have just joined us here at EIU, and give a special welcome to international students, who have come such a long way to join us. There are others among you who have come less far but whose journey was difficult in other ways. We’re glad you all made it. I also want to welcome all of the other members of the EIU community who are here to share this occasion with you. Some of them are up here with me on the platform. Others are sitting with you.
This evening I stand before you as one of the better dressed members of this EIU community, but most days there is nothing that marks me as special—no rented regalia, no lightning bolt emblazoned on my forehead. And that is as it should be. I was not chosen faculty laureate because I am the most popular teacher at EIU or the most distinguished scholar. Instead, I was chosen because my peers saw me as an appropriate representative of the EIU faculty and an appropriate spokesperson for the general education program. And—in my own way—I am.
For one thing, I teach in one of the largest and least avoidable departments on campus. Now we know that most of you are not declared English majors, yet the overwhelming majority of new students are in English classes right now, almost 2000 of you in the required first year writing classes. And for many of you, this is only the first of several courses you will take in the English department, regardless of your major.
Another point in my favor is that I teach some of those English courses that attract large numbers of non-majors. For example, I teach children’s literature, which is popular with education majors, fans of the Harry Potter books, students with children, and people who assume—incorrectly—that it must be an easy class. I also teach upper-division courses in modern American literature, a variety of sophomore-level general education courses, and writing courses at all levels. All in all, I’ve taught over a dozen different courses over the past 15 years. Because I work with a wide variety of students in those courses, I am constantly reminded that the English department is part of a larger whole.
My sense of the university as an interconnected whole is reinforced by my work in the Writing Center, where our mission is to support students at all levels as they work on the writing they are assigned in courses across the curriculum, not just courses in the English department. (If you want to see your tuition dollars working for you, do stop by our beautifully renovated facilities on the third floor of Coleman Hall!)
Anyway, that is why I am here tonight to talk to you about what the late lamented Douglas Adams termed “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” You may not know that in addition to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote two books about a guy who describes himself as a “holistic detective.” His gimmick is that he investigates the cases that are brought to him in strikingly indirect ways, basically by doing whatever the heck he feels like doing at the time, in perfect faith that eventually he will run across information that is relevant to the case he is working on. For example, he investigated the disappearance of a cat in London by flying to the Bahamas. Now the interesting thing about this nonsensical methodology is that it actually works, due to “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” And, to some extent, I would argue that this is how and why general education works.
Here’s the situation. You want to be a P.E. teacher or a graphic designer or a computer programmer, but we ask you to choose between courses called “Myth and Culture” or “Literature and Human Values.” Why do we ask you to take classes that are not obviously relevant to your professional goals? Basically it’s because we believe that it is way too early for you to decide what will and will not turn out to be “relevant.” By exposing you to classes in a variety of disciplines, general education gives you a broader sense of your choices, which is terribly important. Lots of people choose a major because they find themselves unexpectedly interested in a class they took to get a gen. ed. requirement “out of the way.” But even if you have a major, you probably have an incomplete sense of what skills you might find useful in the sorts of jobs that this major will prepare you for . . . if you end up getting a job related to your major. Lots of people don’t. So on a practical level, what I am saying is that at some point after you finish your degree, you will come to appreciate the difference between job training—which is very focused but also very narrow—and the much richer if more chaotic preparation for the real world that you get from a college education. General education is a big part of the difference, and we have faith that you will come to see the connections between these classes and your evolving goals, and that you will find these classes worth the money, time, and effort they cost you.
I’m not going to kid you: education is expensive, in lots of ways. My husband and I worked our way through college—at a regional state university very much like EIU—at a time when state funding for higher education was significantly better than it is now, so I salute those of you who are paying your own way in these difficult times. And as the mother of a college junior and a high school senior, I assure you that I take the cost of higher education very seriously. But what I want to stress is that paying the bill is only the first step. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one of the books that made a big impression on me when I first read it in college, the main character asserts that “you paid in some way for everything that was any good.” It sounds cynical until he explains the different ways you can pay for the good things in life: “Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money.” And if you think about some of the things that you enjoy most, you will see that this is true. The more you know about football or fashion or musical theater or massively multiplayer on-line role-playing games, the more you enjoy them. Knowledge is power, they say, but it is also pleasure. And you pay up front for this pleasure by spending time, energy and, yes, money. But the money isn’t the key factor, is it?
The choices you make about the courses you take, the attitude you take into these courses, the time and effort you put into them—these decisions will shape your college experience. We sincerely hope and believe that your teachers will have an impact, but we know that some of the most valuable parts of your education will take place literally between classes, as you walk across campus or down the hall, thinking about the ways different professors define and approach the problems that interest them, and considering which of these problems and approaches interest you most.
I’m going to tell you a couple secrets about your professors here at EIU. First, it is both our strength and our weakness that we are specialists. You have wisely chosen to attend a school in which almost every course you take will be taught by someone who has attained the highest degree possible in his or her field. EIU faculty are actively engaged in creating knowledge and in sharing the results of their research and creative activities with professional groups and other interested audiences, and also, of course, with you, our students. So, you really can get a lot from us, if you want to. On the other hand, you also have a lot to offer us. For one thing, you can help us see our specialized areas of interest through your eyes. If you don’t tell us what you really think about the information and ideas presented in class, we can’t grow as teachers. When you DO speak up in class, you are not just helping us; you are also helping yourself and your classmates to create and share knowledge.
Here’s another secret about teachers. We feel most successful when you are successful. In a recent questionnaire, students said time and again that teachers at EIU are available and that they genuinely care about their students. Don’t wait until your senior year to figure this out! Start taking advantage of your professors now. Make our lives a little bit harder and a lot more satisfying. As you prepare for class—whether you are reading a short story or a case study, solving equations, writing a lab report, rehearsing a scene or a song—put a question mark on a post-it note near any bits that give you trouble and write out comments or insights that come to you so they don’t float away before your next class meeting. [post-its] And if you have questions that are not answered during class, drop in to see your teacher during office hours or make an appointment. We really do want you to understand, not just to pretend that you do. After all, the truth will be known sooner or later, and if you ask, you give both of us another chance to succeed. And in case you don’t know, the librarians at Booth are also faculty, so you should definitely pester them with questions too. It’s what they’re here for.
Of course, teachers and librarians are not the only sources of information you have. Now that we all have Google, this is truer than ever. But your teachers are your best source of honest, thoughtful responses to your attempts to grapple with new information, ideas and skills. That’s what we are here for. Since in any given semester you are working in several different fields simultaneously, and because the rules honestly do change somewhat from one discipline to another, you may sometimes find it frustrating to be spending so much time in what educators call the “zone of proximal development,” which is the point of understanding and mastery that is almost but not quite within your grasp. But the communication skills and critical thinking skills that general education courses are designed to strengthen—and the broad exposure to ideas from a variety of cultural and historical and disciplinary perspectives that they provide—are vital equipment for anyone planning to be a “responsible citizen in a diverse world.”
In a general education class that lasts fifteen weeks, your teacher’s goal is not to make you a specialist in his or her field, but to add to your repertoire of perspectives and your awareness of the information that is available to you. Whether or not you become a scientist, you need to know something about how science works: otherwise, you may find yourself without intellectual defenses when people tell you that evolution is “just a theory.” Sooner or later, most people will want to write a coherent letter to their school board or the newspaper. There are a million household uses for the skills and information you will pick up here. And again, we hope that all of your courses will introduce you to new sources of pleasure, as you develop a greater appreciation for art, literature, theater, film and the various fields of study that your professors have found interesting enough to engage them for a lifetime.
Take it from someone who has been in college since the fall of 1976. Life is complicated, but college is pretty simple: you pay your money and you make choices. The great thing is that once you pay, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, so if you’re hungry and willing to try something new, you really can get your money’s worth.