Brown ‘will live with you forever,’ says convocation keynote

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

“The very act of reading is an act of profound displacement and boundary-smashing, charting the central voyage that takes place incessantly at this institution,” declared Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein in this year’s keynote Opening Convocation address.

The highly esteemed Weinstein followed President Ruth Simmons in welcoming new students to the University’s 244th academic year.

After the new students poured through the historic Van Wickle Gates, Simmons heralded the 2,105 new members of the Brown community as a source of constant revitalization for a university that is always changing. The procession included 1,486 first-year undergraduate students, as well as Resumed Undergraduate Education students, transfer students and first-year students in the Medical School and Graduate School.

“Even for those of us that have been through this ceremony more than a few times before, it’s hard to miss the excitement and symbolism of that procession through the Van Wickle Gates to this opening convocation,” Simmons said.

The president touched on the various new additions to campus, mentioning the relocation of the Peter Green House, the temporary swim center and other projects that were undertaken during a construction-filled summer for the University.

“There are new courses, new services, new buildings. Even the walkways and the sod under your feet are in many cases new, and there is the promise of much more to come,” she said.

Simmons also spoke of “less visible” changes on campus, such as research projects tackled by various professors and efforts from the staff and volunteers that enabled the Campaign for Academic Enrichment to reach the $1 billion mark.

Simmons explained that the University has never had a larger faculty – 43 new faculty members joined Brown this year.

“All of this effort and all of these improvements are in the service of one aim – to make possible at this university the highest level of scholarship with the highest degree of integrity. … So your march through those gates and your presence on this historic green renews our enthusiasm for the 244-year-old mission for this university,” she said.

Weinstein is entering his 40th year of teaching at Brown.

His address, “Reading Proust, Tracking Bears, at Brown,” was in reference to the literature of Marcel Proust and William Faulkner. His discussion on Proust resonated with first-year students, who were required to read “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton over the summer.

Weinstein’s speech, which detailed key scenes from both Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses,” was an homage to books and the importance of learning to read “the books of your culture,” he said.

He used a scene from Proust in which the narrator flashes back to foregone, idyllic memories to describe how Brown will represent an indelible part of its students’ lives.

“All of you who are about to undertake a year of study at this institution are on the threshold of the sets of experiences that will live within you forever. … It will become a part of the living sediment of your brain and heart and memory,” Weinstein said.

His references to tracking bears came from Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” in which the narrator learns to hunt bears through their tracks. Weinstein likened the tracks to words – they first seem like “cryptic markers” before you learn to read them, he said.

“The project of education itself is little more than learning to translate such markers into their fuller – sometimes unbearably fuller – dimensions,” he said.

“On this day when we celebrate the opening of this university, I wish you happy reading and happy hunting,” Weinstein said in closing.

After Weinstein’s speech, Simmons asked the community to “take care to remember the many students who begin this year with the weight of loss, fear or isolation upon their shoulders.”

She referred to the campus of Virginia Tech, those still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and those “shut down by war and censure.” She also mentioned campuses feeling “the sting of intimidation,” alluding to her public condemnation of the suggestion by the Union of College and University Professors in Great Britain to isolate Israeli academics.

“Let us renew a commitment to be a community of rigorous inquiry, a community of mutual respect, a community that values academic freedom, a community that pays more than lip service to diversity and a community that returns something to the public good,” she said.