Rachel Nicole Pollinger ’15 delivered the address “Contemplating the Unknown” as part of the 2014 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day exercises.
Thank you all for being here to celebrate the academic achievement of Bowdoin students. I would also like to thank the Internal Student Fellowships Committee for selecting me to speak before you all today, in addition to those involved in making Sarah and James Bowdoin Day possible. Lastly I’d like to thank my parents, as well as my sister, Jinny, for continuing to both support and inspire me.
I’d like to begin with a story. I find this to be much more informative than simply dictating what I’d like to discuss today. As many of my professors have told me – show and don’t tell in your writing.
My story takes place this past summer in Washington, D.C. I spent eight weeks living in the city, interning for a financial consulting company. My most powerful learning experience did not happen inside the office building, but rather in a metro station plaza fairly early one Saturday morning. I had plans to visit a museum, but arrived a bit early and decided to sit in the empty plaza and read. About five minutes later, a security guard approached, commenting on how it was a nice morning to be outside reading. I nodded, fully expecting this to be our only interaction. I’m very happy to say that I was wrong.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, we proceeded to have one of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had. I told him about my sister who is out in California pursuing a career in screen acting and he relayed the story of his son, currently an engineer. I told him about my studies at Bowdoin as a Math and Education major. He then commented on his interest in math, describing it as “the music of the universe.”
As we continued to get further into discussion about various aspects of math and physics, he paused to direct a family to the National Mall. When he turned back to me, he asked, “what do you think the universe looks like?” I paused, taken aback by the gravity of his question (no pun intended). When I didn’t respond, he rephrased it, inquiring, “what my conception of the universe was.”
Needless to say, I loved this conversation. I wandered through the National Museum of American History less concerned with the intricacies of Julia Child’s kitchen and more enthralled with thinking about an image of the universe, something so much bigger than I am, in both senses of the word – something that I’ll never know completely and fully.
Looking back at my time at Bowdoin, I find that I’ve become much more accepting of open-ended, thought-provoking questions: questions that don’t have an answer, or at least a clear answer. Questions that you find yourself thinking about when you go to sleep or when you take a long car ride. I’m glad there’s so many of these types of questions because otherwise I think education, and life in general, would be quite shallow.
I think my parents could attest to my inquisitive nature. I love watching baseball, but I often feel like I am more interested in past games and players or hypothetical scenariosthan the actual game playing out before me. Every time I’m watching the Red Sox with them, I ask questions such as “if you had to pick one player for each position, who would you choose to compose your team?” or “is a triple play or an inside-the-park homerun more likely?” I frequently look up lists of the most improbable baseball plays.
While not necessarily completely open-ended, the questions still allow me to see them think. Something about having people give time and genuine thought towards something I’ve developed is satisfying. It’s like when you recommend a movie to a friend and then internally take credit when they enjoy it even though you had nothing to do with the actual production of the movie.
I also think I ask a lot of questions because it gets someone else to speak instead of myself. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I like to let other people do the talking. Open-ended questions that will take them a long time to work through and discuss is a subtle way to get to know somebody really well without saying more than a few words. I think that DC security guard probably knows me better than a lot of people I’ve known for many years. And it’s simply because he asked the right questions; not factual questions about who I am, but questions that really got at how I think and how I interpret the world around me.
In the past, when people asked why math was my favorite subject, I used to say that it was because everything has one right answer. I have since altered my thinking on this topic. I like to think of math as a discipline inherently about asking questions. For example, why is it that an even number added to an even number is always even? Math at Bowdoin challenges me to think about a problem multiple ways and there are certainly questions that remain unanswered. In fact, in my introductory analysis class last spring, Professor Pietraho used to put currently unsolved problems on homework sets. He said if we solved any of them, we would automatically get an A in the course. I’m fairly certain no one was successful in this endeavor.
In my philosophy of education class last semester, Professor Santoro would write questions on the board to start every day. I frequently came out of class with no answers, but a plethora of new questions. These were the sorts of questions where you could find yourself sitting in the dining hall for hours talking about one word or one idea. What does it really mean to be “emancipated” or to “understand” something? The intellectual conversations I’ve had outside of class are one of my favorite parts of going to a liberal arts college.
Returning to the security guard, I wonder if he has those types of conversations often. I hope he does because when you are asked a question you’ve never thought about before, it changes your whole day. Suddenly you’ve got something bigger than yourself to think about and you have to accept that that is really all you can do – think. You can’t say anything with certainty, and in a way that’s sort of comforting.
I would challenge everyone to ask a question today. Give someone else food for thought that will take them away from their daily life, if only for a moment. Maybe you can ponder a little bit yourself as well. Thank you.