New Student Convocation
August 29, 2002
Welcome to the University of Michigan! Its wonderful to have you here at lastour fabulous class of 2006. Even from this distance, I can see the spark in your eye that says Here I ambring it on! I know exactly how you feel Im as excited as you are, because Im new here too. So were setting out on a great adventure together.
Michigan attracts extremely bright students and a superb faculty from all over the country, and all over the world. And I know all of you are here for the same reason I amwe all want to be part of one of the finest universities on the planet. On the Ann Arbor campus alone, we have a huge array of top-ranked programs in the arts, sciences, humanities, and professional studies. We have 19 schools and colleges, 38 academic and research centers, 18 institutes, and a wonderful library system of more than 7 million volumes. On the undergraduate level, we offer 200 areas of study, from aerospace engineering and Afroamerican studies to sports management, statistics, theatre, and womens studies. I am dazzled by what Ive seen so far, and I know that you will be tooyou are going to love it here!
If youre still feeling a little lost and uncertain, dont worry. Just a few weeks ago, I couldnt even find my way across campus. I had to ask somebody to show me where the Diag is, that landmark everyone keeps talking about. As you have probably already discovered, its much more than a big M on the campus map. It seems to be the center of everything, a place for rallies and observances, the backdrop for posters and banners touting all kinds of causes, interest groups, and special events. Rich in tradition and pulsating with energy, the Diag is an ideal starting point for exploring the new world you have entered as a first-year student at Michigan.
If you stand on that big M in the middle, youll have a good view of the diagonal walks that give the Diag its name. I see this intersection as a metaphor for the experiences just ahead. If you liked those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the 80s, youll recall that each chapter ends at a fork in the plot, and it was up to you to decide which clue to follow and what part of the book to read next, to create a unique adventure. Well, the University of Michigan is the real thing. Those walkways that angle off the corners of the Diag lead to top programs in every field of study you can imagine. So go ahead and choose your own adventureyou cant go wrong!
The Diag also represents where you stand now, in relation to a complex network of other ways of thinking, alternate interpretations of familiar texts, different cultural perspectives. Instead of hitting problems head-on from one all-purpose 90-degree angle, you will take a more oblique approach, investigating other theories, considering other points of view. The further you go in your studies, the more you will discover that each diagonal path intersects with many others, opening the way to still more choices and perspectives. At each juncture, youll have tantalizing glimpses into roads not takenstill other subjects, other possibilities, other ways of knowing. All these intersecting diagonalsand the knowledge that there are many more than meet your eyewill contribute to your education. Paradoxically, no matter how many forks in the road you encounter, or which paths you choose, by the time you graduate you will realize that all roads lead to the same destination: the cultivation of a clear-thinking, well-informed, and still-growing mind.
So dont hesitate to pursue the first intriguing side path that veers off from your main course of study. Professor Nicolas Delbanco, director of our MFA program in creative writing, notes in an essay called Less and More that some memories and speculations bear only a tangential relation to the straight line of progresshe puts progress in quotation marks. He goes on to say that these tangents engage the straight line indirectly if at all. In another context he writes that Sideways motion equally may represent advance. Not all progress is predictable or regular I especially like what he has to say about the dialectical relationship between opposing principles: [T]he dialectic offers us our dance step: one forward, one back, sideways slide.
Here at Michigan, I hope that you will often perform that little sideways slide that energizes the dance of new ideas. Learning should be a joyful, exciting experiencenot a dogged march from the first day of class to a pre-determined finish line, or the first day of your first job. Loosen up; explore those tangential paths while you have the chance; you will never regret it. I was a chemistry major, and science had been my passion from junior high school on. But in college I decided to take a class in studio artIm not quite sure why. I had never thought of myself as artistic. But I found that I loved getting my hands into clay, melting down metals, forming new shapes out of my imagination. My little step sideways into an alternate pathway led to other art classes, and I ended up graduating with four years of studio art! For me that was what Professor Delbanco would call a life shift that starts with a little sideways motion, a small alteration of emphasis, a line crossed that we fail to notice till were on the other side.
As you get into the routine of your fall schedules, I urge you also to make time for your own small alteration of emphasis. Maybe you signed up for one of the First-Year Seminars. Maybe youll join an organization devoted to one of your side interests. Why not get hold of a Calendar of Events and start making plans? After this program, be sure to stay for the Artscapade. Did you know that the Museum of Art, from now into September, has shows on Abstract Expressionists from the New York School, courtesans and cross-dressers in Japanese popular prints, photography commemorating the Word Trade Center attacks, and master works by Picasso from our own permanent collectionto name just a few? The Exhibit Museum of Natural History is offering a show on Michigan powwows, one on the summer night sky, and another one on native fish of the Great Lakes. Earlier today there was a performance of Midsummer Nights Dream in the University Hospitals Courtyard. Next month Hubbard Street Dance of Chicago will be appearing at the Power Center for Performing Arts. But dont over-do itwe all have to keep space open for the main eventthe kickoff on Saturday at noon, when the Wolverines take on the Huskies!
Theres a more serious reason to keep your eye out for diagonal paths in the years ahead. Whatever your college and career plans may be now, you cannot possibly predict how sharply your own personal path may twist and turn.
Just think of your predecessors at this New Student Convocation only a year agobefore 9/11, before all these recent corporate collapses, before the ground seemed to shift from under our feet. Those students, the Class of 2005, came here with a whole different set of expectations and assumptions from yours. Now some of them may be rethinking their majors and career plans; some may be questioning their value systems; some may be searching for new goals. But the University of Michigan is still the right place for their education. Thats because the University is a fluid, dynamic system of obliquely related lines of inquiry, always shifting, always branching in new directions, always adapting to change.
Your life, too, will be filled with unforeseen challenges, unforeseen opportunities, responses to unforeseen world eventsso you need to get used to thinking on the diagonal, sometimes against the grain. In that way youll develop the intellectual nimbleness and agility you need to stay open and flexible, and be able to keep on learning for the rest of your life.
As classes begin next week, expect challenges to come at you from all angles; expect confrontations with teachers and students whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to yours; expect to be thoroughly unsettled. Thats what youre here for. And when youre knocked off your feet, jump back up, pick up the beat, and remember Professor Delbancos words: one step forward, one step back, and a quick slide sideways. Welcome to the danceits your first year at the University of Michigan!