Professor Michael Kolster’s 2018 Convocation Address

Putting Our Creative Dispositions to Work, Across the Curriculum and Beyond

Michael Kolster­–Convocation Speech­–Bowdoin College–August 28, 2018

Good Afternoon.

I want like to thank President Rose for asking me to speak today. I feel fortunate to share some of my thoughts, and humbled to address the class of 2022.

I’d also like to thank a few people who helped me with my remarks: Professors Matthew Klingle and Brian Purnell, students Enrique Mendia and Brennan Clark, both class of 20 20, and my partner and best friend, Christy Shake.

And on a sad note, I learned this morning of the recent passing of a former student and friend, Arnd Seibert, class of 2004. This talk is dedicated to his memory.

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So, the other day George Carlin put a dollar in a change machine. And, guess what? Nothing changed.

Members of the incoming class of 2022, welcome to Bowdoin. You just left your homes and families and friends behind. You are being tossed on a sea of uncertainty: new living arrangements, new classes, new levels of academic expectations, new social circles. And you asked for this!

If only, like in George Carlin’s joke, nothing changed and you could have your lives back!

As you feel disoriented and even a bit homesick, remember, indeed, that you asked for it, and for good reasons. You asked to be challenged, and to grow as a result, which we all know can be a bit uncomfortable, even worrisome, at times.

I want to speak today about three qualities of mind that help us face the unknown. They are curiosity, humility, and gratitude. They comprise a healthy creative disposition, they serve as catalysts for lifelong learning, and they can promote decency, tolerance, and mercy in thought and action.

So, here we are at the beginning of a new academic year, where much is different. A new building, the Roux Center, is almost almost completed. A new cohort of faculty and staff have joined our ranks, to whom we extend a warm welcome. And, as last year’s seniors have departed, a new class, one quarter of the student body, has arrived to complete the circle.

But on campus much still looks the same. As returning students settle into their dorms and fire up Fortnight—among other things—they are pondering the same question asked every late August: how did we survive the summer without the dining hall’s pumpkin chocolate chip bars?

But in some ways, the returning faculty, staff, and students at the college envy you, the new members of our Bowdoin community.

For you everything is new. You are seeing things with a clarity and wonder that have probably faded for most of your older classmates or veteran colleagues. You should try to savor the moment, even if it is exhausting to see and classify all this novelty.

Amy Poehler, the comedian possibly best known for her role as Susie in the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer, says this about life’s twists and turns:

“The only thing we can depend on in life is that everything changes. The seasons, our partners, what we want and need. We hold hands with our high school friends and swear to never lose touch, and then we do….Change is the only constant.”

In fact, the demands of a changing world constantly push Bowdoin to ask itself how to maintain its preeminence as one of this country’s leading liberal arts colleges. Just last year President Rose formed a working group of faculty, staff, and students, to discuss the question “What knowledge, skills, and creative disposition do we want every student to possess upon graduation ten years from now?” The group’s report will be released soon and President Rose will touch on its contents in his remarks today.

Most of us can understand why the K S C D question—that is, the knowledge skills and creative disposition question—asks about knowledge and skills. These are what college – or any education – is supposed to impart. But, you are probably not alone to ask, what is a creative disposition and how does it fit into the bargain? I imagine some of you thinking, “I want to be an economist or doctor or lawyer. I have no interest or talent in the arts, so would it be OK if I work on knowledge and skills and leave creative disposition until later? Two out of three?”

No, that third one matters, according to the college’s mission statement, which reads: “The great mission of the College is to instill in students the love, the ways and the habit of learning.” Sounds a lot like creative disposition to me.

I believe President Rose included creative disposition in his question to underscore the vital place renewal occupies in a liberal arts education. A creative disposition questions and reconsiders everything. The KSCD question implies that creative disposition is not exclusively the purview of the arts or humanities, no more than knowledge and skills are only found in the sciences or the social sciences. Creative disposition brings context and meaning to knowledge and skills, imbuing the entire educational endeavor with a moral armature.

Turning back to the college’s mission statement, we can see that the first sentence of its final paragraph declares: “Bowdoin’s intellectual mission is informed by the humbling and cautionary lesson of the 20th century: that intellect and cultivation, unless informed by a basic sense of decency, tolerance and mercy, are ultimately destructive of both the person and society.”

Decency, tolerance, and mercy are not possible if we neglect to see each other and the world we inhabit with open and inquisitive minds. Any type of creative disposition we seek for Bowdoin’s students today, tomorrow, and in ten years must acknowledge this.

Being disposed to look closely and see clearly precedes any hope to understand and connect beyond our limited selfish perspectives. It needs to be practiced daily, in and out of class, as a natural extension of our behavior, or, in other words, to become part of our everyday outlook. It defines how we greet the day and consider the world, not just when convenient or expected—not just when assigned or remunerated—but all of the time.

Close observation is rewarded if we release our grip on previously assigned labels. This is not an easy thing to do—to rely on our senses more than our beliefs. Yet, this enables us to refresh, even rebuild, our impressions. This retooling is what I call paying attention.

Paying attention starts by engaging our humility and curiosity. Ask questions. Ask some friends about their lives. It can be illuminating to realize how much we did not know about them. Together, humility and curiosity can push us to see things “as if for the first time,” expanding and refreshing our knowledge as the world around us shifts and changes.

Also coming into play is gratitude, the third primary ingredient of paying attention—gratitude for being in the right place at the right time and that we are not too late to the game. Like Uncle Scrooge waking up at the end of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we are all grateful when we are lucky enough to get a second chance to see our lives in a new light.

Samantha Roy is a rising junior, class of 2020, budding photographer, and a member of the women’s basketball team (yes, the one that played for last year’s national championship). Sam worked at Mass Mutual this summer. Recently she shared with me her winning TED talk given to her fellow interns. The title of her presentation was “Accidental Photographs: Taking Ownership of Chance.”

In her talk she asks, “How can I take credit for images that I did not intentionally and mindfully take? More generally I was asking myself — How can I be proud of things I’ve done, when my success is somewhat based on luck?” She went on to say, “That’s why personally, although I worked my butt off in high school, I will never say that I deserve to [be at Bowdoin]. By saying I deserve to go to [Bowdoin], I’m also saying that my counterpart, who worked just as hard as I did throughout high school deserves to go into the workforce right out of high school since her family needs help making ends meet.”

Curiosity, Humility and Gratitude. I recommend that we start practicing them immediately – which means sitting up and listening closely, instead of daydreaming about Fortnight or itching to answer that text message vibrating in our pockets, but more about our phones soon.

Simone Weil, an influential French philosopher, mystic, and activist, claimed that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”

This kind of attention allows us to to ward off the preconceptions or feelings of entitlement that can cloud our vision and bias judgments. It takes us to unexpected places, which can be stimulating but disorienting at times as well. Which is probably how many of us are feeling right now. This is normal. This is the messy part of our love affair with learning.

Speaking of love affairs, I have one with photography, which I entered into a few years after I graduated from Willams College. I remain infatuated with making photographs partly because of the uncertainty that hovers over me as I work. I can never predict if a photograph I have exposed in the camera will be any good until I print it. My photographs fall into two categories: worse than I intended, or better than I could have hoped for. When they exceed expectations they feel like gifts, both humbling and gratifying: they show me aspects of the world that I had not considered before. Even though my liberal arts education did not include any courses in the visual arts, it deserves a lion share of the credit for helping me to fall in love with photography. It trained me to pay attention and ask questions.

Now, I hate to bring this up — I hate sounding like your father, or maybe really like your grandfather — but I believe that one of the greatest obstacles to paying attention is our phones.

These devices pander to what we want and expect. Rather than inspiring original ideas, its groupthink compels us to post canned selfies that typically masquerade as achievements. The result is to “share” obsessively our own story, curated for maximum “likes” while wallowing in an ethos of consumerism. “Look how fast I ran my race! Look at my new shoes! Look at what I ate today! A pumpkin chocolate chip bar!” The reciprocating “likes” become an echo chamber of me, me, me.

Let’s be clear: the phone inflates our sense of self-importance in our own little worlds as it bends us toward mindless consumption.

As Tina Fey, actor, comedian, writer, producer, and playwright says sarcastically, “It’s a burden, being able to control situations with my hyper-vigilance, but it’s my lot in life.”

Being tethered to our phones does not have to be our lot in life. Maybe we should ask ourselves if it already is, and, if it is, how we might get our lives back.

A creative disposition can save us from ourselves—or at least from our weakness for self-absorption—to push us into contact with all that we do not know, a scary yet exhilarating prospect. As the photographer Nicholas Nixon says, “the world is more interesting than my opinion of it.”

In her speech at Baccalaureate in May, Diana Furukawa, a graduating senior and double major in Visual Arts and Sociology, expanded on Nixon’s sentiment by declaring that “knowledge is about accepting how much we don’t know. Locating the blind spots and implicit biases that we all have. It’s about consistently asking, what am I not seeing?”

Every so often, stash the phone in your room and walk around, paying attention to what you may have missed in the daily rush to class, rehearsal, or athletic practice. Rather than feeding your ego by confirming what you already know, set the phone aside and practice paying attention, losing yourself to see the world as if for the first time. And if someone gets mad because you aren’t returning their texts, tell them to take it easy, you are creatively disposed.

Weird, right? Come to school to gather knowledge and then you hear this guy talk about getting lost on the first day! But try it some time, especially if you want to learn how to learn. Let go of immediate expectations. Go beyond yourself to imagine seeing through someone else’s eyes, like those of your roommate, your teacher, the dog on the quad, or even the tree out your window.

Curiosity summons learning and growth, humility minimizes bias, and gratitude brings us closer. Together they guide us toward decency, tolerance and mercy.

I will finish with some words from author and journalist Michael Pollan. In his new book, How to Change Your Mind, he writes, “When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic — that is, more spiritual — idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.”

So, when possible, stash those phones. Pay attention. Practice what it means to love to learn. Your creative disposition will be grateful.

Thank You.

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