Learning in Unexpected Places

Convocatiion keynote address by Dean William M. Tsutsui given August 22, 2010

I am thrilled to be here this evening and to join my colleagues in welcoming you to college and particularly to SMU. 

Late August is always an exciting and magical time on university campuses.  After several tranquil months of summer, suddenly the sidewalks and hallways begin to fill up with fresh, young faces, the roads around campus and the parking lots begin swelling with traffic, and the lazy hum of cicadas gives way to an insistent symphony of ringtones.  It's an especially exciting time, of course, for freshmen and for others new to campus: here at last is the long-awaited adventure of college life, of discovery and opportunity, of taking that big step from home and family to adult life and increasing independence, of dorms and dining halls and Saturdays on the Boulevard and, oh yes, of classes and labs and term papers too.  For you parents as well, this is a time of exhilaration: there's the joy, to be sure, of seeing your sons and daughters take flight from the nest, but there is also the delightful promise of more room in the driveway and quieter Saturday nights.

Believe it or not, even faculty members get excited about the start of classes every August.  As blissful as those long summer days can be, there is something intoxicating about a new semester and about the surge of energy that accompanies the students back to campus. 

Even I felt the tingle of a new school year about to begin as I was putting together my comments for this evening.  As I thought about the teaching and learning that will commence on this campus tomorrow, I couldn't help but let my mind drift back over my almost 20 years as a history professor and I recalled fall semesters long past, students who have meant so much to me, and special moments in the classroom that have remained etched on my memory.  One experience stands out from all of the hundreds of lectures I've delivered and seminars I've led, an experience that captures, in some odd way, the delight I feel in being a teacher and the wonderment of still being a learner myself after so many years at the front of the classroom.

Six or seven years ago, I was teaching a class on modern Japanese history in a whiz-bang new technology-enhanced classroom, a room filled with more electronic panels than a nuclear power plant and an array of switches that raised and lowered, dimmed and illuminated, muted and amplified just about everything imaginable.  Being a professor of Jurassic vintage, my classes seldom go too far beyond the time-honored staples of lecturing, discussion, debating, and scratching a few words on the board.  As a result, my first job in the high-tech classroom was invariably disabling, stowing, and neutralizing all the digitized and mechanized systems that other, more tech-savvy faculty members no doubt made excellent use of.  So one day, in October I believe, I walked in at the start of class, I powered down the PowerPoint apparatus, and I flipped the switch to raise a huge floor-to-ceiling projection screen in one corner of the room.  The machinery engaged and the giant screen began to retract slowly upwards.

I noticed, however, that someone had pushed a metal cart right next to the screen, and on the cart was sitting an overhead projector.  Soon, of course, no one will remember what an overhead (or an OHP, as it was futuristically called in the 1960s) even was; it, along with papyrus, illuminated manuscripts, mimeographs, VHS tapes, chalk, and books will join a long list of obsolete technologies beloved only of educators.  But there it sat on that October day, perilously close to a screen ascending unstoppably into the ceiling.  I saw the bottom edge of the screen catch one of the shelves on the cart.  I expected the cart to roll away or tip over harmlessly, but instead it hooked onto the rising screen and began to lift off the ground.  For two feet or so, the cart and the projector upon it levitated almost magically; as it neared the ceiling, however, suddenly gravity kicked in and the overhead was propelled off the cart and into the air.  It did not drop like a stone and clatter to the ground, but instead seemed to float through the classroom, tracing a gracious arch and performing a half-back-flip (like a highly trained diver or gymnast at the Olympics) as it fell towards the linoleum floor.  Impact was a thing of beauty, shattering glass, twisting metal, little mechanical parts shooting out from the cooling fan, a sharp electrical sizzle and a little wisp of smoke coming off the overhead's splintered frame.

I should have looked around first to see if any of my students had been hurt (happily, none were), but the flight of the OHP and its belly-flop into oblivion were simply so awesome that all I could do was shout with a kind of primal joy.  I wasn't alone: several folks in the classroom joined me in a festive whoop and an awed wow.  Many things ran through my head in a split second: the story of Icarus falling from the heavens, David Letterman's old trick of dropping large objects (like watermelons and TV sets) from tall buildings, and the tricky question of how I was going to explain this little incident to my department chair.  And then I realized this was a teachable moment.  I thought immediately of Homer: not Iliad and Odyssey Homer, but Homer Simpson.

I recalled an episode where Homer seeks to pass along to Bart his greatest wisdom: the three sentences that will get you through any situation in life.  With the mangled remains of the overhead before us, I thought my students were ready for this valuable knowledge.

Number one, "Cover for me."  Number two, "Oh, good idea, boss."  And number three, "It was like that when I got here."

Remember these lines: they are actually surprisingly powerful.  My students in that class many years ago sure did: in the evaluations at the end of the semester a full half of them mentioned the overhead projector incident and quoted the line "It was like that when I got here."  Deep in my heart I wish they would have mentioned something about Japanese history as the major learning outcome of the semester, but that exploding OHP and Homer's lessons, I suspect, have served them better over the long run than knowing the date of the Meiji Restoration or the name of Japan's first emperor.  As you will all find in the coming weeks, months, and years, education comes in unexpected places, at unexpected times, and in unexpected ways when you are in college and, indeed, throughout your life.

As you all may have discovered already, one of the most annoying things about college is that people will always be giving you unsolicited advice.  Professors, parents, friends, coaches, advisors, heck, even people in the street will be telling you what to do (and what not to do) during a time that almost all of them will describe as "the best years of your life."  You might as well get used to it, and you might as well start getting used to it right now, because I am going to share with you my two cents' worth about how to make the most out of the next four years.

First, learn a world language (and note that I do not say a foreign language, since virtually all of the globe’s languages are alive and well now in the United States in immigrant communities, ethnic enclaves, and on college campuses).  It doesn't matter too much which language you choose to learn (Spanish or Hindi, German or KiSwahili, all are good) since America is in such desperate need of world language competency.  Our nation's time-honored monolingualism is a huge detriment in the global economy: it's stunning (and more than a little scary) to consider that only half of American high schoolers can locate India on a world map and that there are more English-language-learners in China today than there are people in the United States.

So learn a language, and learn it well, well enough to talk with a native speaker or to easily read books, newspapers, and websites in the language.  Whole new worlds will be opened up to you.  

And while you're at it, go abroad.  A study abroad trip or overseas internship might be best, but don't turn down any chance to travel internationally.  And don't choose a country to visit just because they speak English there and have lax drinking age regulations. 

Second, take the opportunity to get to know at least one of your professors.  In office hours you don't need to focus on the course you're in or get advising for your major or ask deep philosophical questions.  Just talk with them about sports or current events or what their inspiration was in becoming a scholar.  You can always come chat with me and see my collection of Godzilla action figures, which I have displayed in my office in Dallas Hall.  The collection actually had its beginnings in a meeting with a student: about 15 years ago I was talking with a young woman about how much I loved monster movies; she brought me a Godzilla toy and now generations of other students have followed suit, coming home from study abroad in Japan with little Mothras and Hello Kitties.

Third, let me encourage you very strongly to spend some time, optimally every day but more realistically every week, just sitting and thinking.  Unplugged.  Take out the ear buds, power off the computer, set aside the cell phone, disconnect yourself from everything that has a little "i" or little "e" in front of its name.  We live in a time of constant stimulation and ubiquitous data, a surfeit of tweets and posts and blogs and texts and scrollers and tickers that have brought us all to a state that the New York Times recently described as "information obesity."  So just as you want to avoid the "freshman 15" around your waist, you want to avoid overindulging on all the cognitive static that hits you every day in college.  Unplug to reflect and contemplate, to focus (if only briefly) on matters that you feel are important, to cut through the trivia and distractions to look for real meaning in your education and your life.

Fourth and finally, I want you to be very sensitive to learning where you least expect it, when you least expect it, and what you least expect ever to be useful to you.  Be prepared to learn more than you ever thought possible from your new roommates, from standing in line at the cafeteria, from fighting parking tickets, from navigating the complicated hierarchies and procedures of a university, from living in communities like SMU and Dallas and Texas.  Learn from a computer crash that actually does eat your term paper, from your first all-nighter, from friends of very different backgrounds and beliefs, from an exhibition at the Meadows Museum or a service at Perkins Chapel. 

Above all, perhaps, watch out for overhead projectors flying off their stands and exploding right in front of you.  I don't mean literally (since the classroom technology is very up-to-date and guaranteed safe here at SMU), but figuratively.  You never know when something great is going to happen.  So be ready: unexpected and wonderful things lie just ahead for all of you.

Thank you and welcome to SMU.

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