Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Acceptance Speech, Jerome Balmuth Award for Teaching, May 3, 2018, by Christopher Vecsey

Christopher Vecsey, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities and Native American Studies in the Department of Religion; Chair, Department of Religion

Acceptance Speech, Jerome Balmuth Award for Teaching, May 3, 2018,

I read these articles in The New York Times and elsewhere, about higher education. The articles describe faculty who could care less about their students. Faculty who give their lectures and disappear, leaving undergraduates to on-line functions and teaching assistant functionaries. These stories make me shake my head in dismay and non-recognition.

Come to Colgate! See education in action: scholars who are masters of their disciplines and who are committed to teaching -- committed to their students as well as the subject matter -- and are effective in communicating their expertise in classroom, labs, studios, performing spaces, etc. Colgate has many, many superb teachers who deserve this award as much as Lourdes and I do.

Colgate holds its teachers to standards of excellence. The Faculty Handbook describes what excellence might look like, in terms of mastery, commitment, and effectiveness. In reviews we analyze peer appraisals, candidate statements, as well as student evaluations of teaching (what we call SET forms). We have a scrupulous system in the Promotion & Tenure Committee for judging teaching accomplishment.

Colgate faculty live by the code of Tony Aveni’s beautiful book. For Colgate faculty, “Class Is Not Dismissed.” We take our teaching to heart. We take our students to heart.

Sometimes the evidence for excellence in teaching reaches the level of the marvelous.

A few weeks ago we held a symposium, WOMEN AND RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY AND FEMINISM: THE COLGATE HERITAGE IN HONOR OF PROFESSORS MARILYN THIE AND WANDA WARREN BERRY, where we were fortunate to measure the effect of two extraordinary teachers.

As we enter our bicentennial celebration, we must acclaim the most important historical change at Colgate in the past half century: the arrival, in 1970, of women students, formerly excluded, followed by the “Year of the Women,” 1974, when Colgate hired female faculty such as Marilyn Thie, Margaret Maurer and Lynn Staley, who joined pioneers like Wanda Warren Berry and Jane Pinchin. These women saw the need for curricular correction and expansion, and thus Women’s Studies blossomed in 1983.

At our symposium we invited six scholars, all alumnae of Colgate, now professors of Women’s Studies, Religion or Philosophy -- including a member of Colgate’s Board of Trustees and our Provost – Dean of the Faculty -- to reflect upon their experiences as Colgate students, as women, and the influences of our two honored professors, whose pedagogies shaped these alumnae’s vocations.

What we heard in their testimonies -- before audiences of several hundred, over two days, as well as in visits to a half dozen classes -- and you can hear and watch it, too; it is still available on Colgate’s livestreaming archive -- What we heard in their testimonies was absolutely inspirational: testimony about transformational teaching in the feminist mold. So inspirational that we plan to publish the proceedings through Colgate University Press in 2019.

Marilyn Thie, of course, was the first winner of the Balmuth teaching prize; indeed, she won every faculty teaching award at Colgate. Wanda Warren Berry is the most recent recipient, just this past week, fifteen years after her retirement, of the AAUP Professor of the Year Award, for her service in behalf of Affirmative Action. Talk about staying power! Talk about heritage!

Almost everything I will say from here on is from the symposium.

We heard reflections by these two honored teachers who perceived the need to create a wholly new academic discourse, Women’s Studies, bringing the Feminist Movement from the streets to the campus. More than a safe place in East Hall (although it was that), Women’s Studies aimed to include the excluded; to question the doctrines of every discipline; to empower women -- and men, too -- to re-evaluate human values by and for themselves. This was an epistemological revolution, a partnership of teachers and students engaged in disruptive praxis -- re-arranging the seats in a circle, organizing study groups where students could learn from (not merely about) overlooked peoples, disenfranchised base communities inspired by Liberation Theologies.

Our faculty were faced with textbooks in Religion and Philosophy that rarely had considered women’s experiences or perspectives. They had to adapt their scholarly heroes -- the great men in their heads, like Alfred North Whitehead for Marilyn, Søren Kierkegaard for Wanda -- to feminist applications. They had to locate, excavate, and shape a canon of feminist authors, like precious ore, filling their and their students’ bookshelves, in order to educate -- in order to re-educate -- themselves. At the symposium we heard the names of many feminist and womanist authors; we were told how citation has become a form of feminist memory.

As our alumnae describe it, these teachers distinguished themselves not only by their unflagging generosity -- the countless hours of personal mentorship (feminist mentoring matters, we heard repeatedly); the keys to a mentor’s home in order to find a room of one’s own to write a senior thesis -- but also by their revolutionary insights: their consciousness-raising.

Students might have been nonplussed, even enraged at first, by feminist rhetoric. But these students stayed with it. Some said that they underwent something akin to conversion experiences. Employing hermeneutics of suspicion, they came to recognize patriarchal captivity, in which dominant symbolism kept women from articulating their own perceptions, their own identities. The very power of naming had been stifled by hierarchical structures, a matrix of domination. These students felt welling up in them a conviction that the subaltern must speak, and that there is a voice at their disposal; there is a language that formerly could not be articulated. Women did not have to be defined by man-made traditions. Marilyn and Wanda opened the way for women at Colgate to use their God-given intellect to think for themselves. They taught these students the Three R’s: how to read, how to write, and how to roar.

Knowledgeable teachers? Committed teachers? Effective teachers? These descriptors sound like faint praise when applied to Marilyn Thie and Wanda Warren Berry. Their collective political project reached beyond gender differentials in order to address even broader realms in search of justice, especially for the marginalized of the world, indeed, even for the earth itself. Their feminist pedagogy encouraged risk-taking activism toward the undoing of privilege, even the privilege of the academy.

This was (and is) a big job for feminist pedagogy at Colgate, with its male-centric baggage. I still have on the bulletin board of my study at home the famous manifesto by five student feminists in the school paper back in April of 1984. It proclaims, “The Writing is on the Wall.” I say this to students, staff, faculty, and trustees: Check it out. It still reads true.

If Colgate began 200 years ago as a seminary, where men were trained for the ordination track, Women’s Studies galvanized women for the insubordination track. This was teaching to transgress, teaching that instilled confidence in students -- now professors in their own right -- women energized by their own perception, their own coherence.

This form of feminist teaching need not be -- and it should not be -- the only mode of teaching excellence at Colgate. Certainly Jerry Balmuth’s philosophical goading had its own worthy style and content. The Balmuth Award has been won by scientists as well as humanists, conservers as well as reformers. Each winner has his or her own guiding star.

But Marilyn Thie and Wanda Warren Berry met the challenges of their time and their place with vigor and they have left a vivid, living legacy. The infamous wall still stands but there is writing, writing all over it. The curricular call still beckons, to come read that writing, and roar!

Marilyn and Wanda can’t be with us tonight in this room. Marilyn is engaged in the leadership of her religious order, the Sisters of Charity. Wanda is attending a Madison County Democratic Party meeting, organizing toward the future. But they are here in spirit. So, let us give these marvelous teachers our own uproar of applause.

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