Dr. Tom Meyer
What will it take for you to learn - here?
First of all, welcome. Welcome to SUNY New Paltz. I came here in 1999 after having lived in California for 14 years and having spent several years before that in the Midwest. As I searched for the school where I would start my career as a professor, I looked all across the country and visited several campuses.
Before I could commit myself to any school, though, I made a short list of things I needed to succeed in an academic community. Although there were several items on the list, let me share two that were most important to me: I wanted to live in a place where I could easily enjoy the outdoors – I love biking, hiking, and jogging. And I needed to work with colleagues that I admired and respected. I found those things and more, something I will return to in a few minutes as I describe what I have discovered about what I need to put in place for my own learning.
The punch line to my talk today is this: there is no “best” way to learn. The key thing any of us can figure out is how we, ourselves, learn best and then to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that come our way.
Here at SUNY New Paltz, I work with students enrolled in the Secondary Education program: people who want to become teachers, a career that I have found incredibly fulfilling. If you were in one of my classes, we would start the semester with writing. In fact, on the very first day, for the first forty-five minutes, all of us - including me, would write; we write for about 3-5 minutes at a time, in response to several questions about learning. Today, I would like to try a thought experiment. I would like to ask each of you just two questions to get you thinking about your learning and how you are planning to learn here – at SUNY New Paltz.
If you have something to write with and write on, great; you may want to jot down a few short notes. If not, don’t worry. My plan is to ask the first question twice, and then to give you some time to think before I ask the second question; I will then ask you to share some of your thinking out loud. I understand that this is a variation on a regular speech where the protocol is that I’m supposed to talk and you’re supposed to listen. I’m switching up. Here we go, the first question:
- What is one thing you need to do in order to learn? Not someone else, I mean you. What do YOU need?
- Here is the next question: Imagine one of your best teachers ever to help you here; describe how a teacher helps you learn.
Let me repeat the questions
- What is one thing you need to do in order to learn?
- Describe how a teacher helps you learn.
Ready? Here’s the part where you talk and I listen. Pick one of your thoughts about learning and share it with a person next to you. Each of you will talk for about a minute each while the other one listens.
Okay. Thanks for trying that out. Hopefully, you said and heard something interesting.
Earlier I mentioned that I brought my own hopes about starting a career at SUNY New Paltz – hopes about the outdoors and hopes about the people who worked here. These weren’t random hopes. They were selfish hopes, borne from taking time to know myself as a learner.
One thing about any school – and I have basically been in school my whole life (I am very old) - is that I have needed to produce writing; I’ve had to write essays, journals, articles, memos, emails, grants, poems, agendas – you name it, all kinds of writing, and for all kinds of audiences and purposes. And under all kinds of time constraints.
Writing in middle school, high school and most of my first two years at college, however, was incredibly difficult. I spent so much time worrying, how will I get that writing done? I’ll never get that done. I have nothing to say. And in my worry, my thoughts went around in circles. I would write a first sentence, cross out a word, add a word, change a word, rewrite and rewrite and rewrite some more. Let’s just say it was painful and slow figuring out how to express myself. And, of course, in school our writing is so often graded. That just compounded the pressure that I felt.
Here’s the thing, I needed to work my way through the challenge of thinking I was doomed when it came to writing. I didn’t know that my style of learning was different than others’ and that sitting at a desk in my dorm or in a carol at the library was not the best place for me to start my writing.
Over the years, I have learned that some of my best thinking occurs when I am moving. Somehow, when I walk, jog, or bike I can make strides in planning writing. In movement I can productively think about what I want to write about, how I want to write, and what I need to gather in order to get my writing done. So, New Paltz is a phenomenal place for a learner like me. There are walking and hiking trails, nature preserves and an amazing array of bike paths and bike-friendly roads. I often work though some of my best ideas riding my bike by the base of the Gunks – that’s what we call our mountains, here - before I sit down somewhere to get those ideas onto a page.
Earlier I said that I searched for a place with great colleagues. You will have to trust me when I say that I found them. But why did I need great colleagues? I have come to realize that talking helps me sort out my ideas and clarify my thinking.
Today I don’t feel too nervous speaking in front of you. Dial it back thirty some years, though, when I was a college freshman, I barely uttered one word in any classroom. Seriously, I remember listening hard in those classes, taking a bunch of good notes and being afraid to speak. I quietly goaded myself. “Speak. Say something. Come on.” My heart would race as I rehearsed what I might say aloud; but invariably the conversation in class moved to another topic and another. I just sat there taking my notes. I said nothing and frankly, I felt isolated and discouraged. And it wasn’t because I was trying to get participation points. I’ve never been that kind of learner. So what was it?
Well, honestly, over time I realized that another way that I learn is by speaking my thoughts aloud, trying out and exploring ideas among others in and out class. As I look back at those early college years, I believe now, that my worry of performing the right answer ended up robbing me of the chance to learn. I was speaking only in the silo of my head instead of trying out my thoughts in conversation.
That was not productive for the kind of learner that I am in or out of classrooms. Now, I regularly seek out my colleagues – professors and students here -- to try out ideas or to see if I’m on the right track in how I want to teach a class, start or refine a piece of writing, really anything.
As I think back to my early writing fears, it’s a funny twist that I now direct a program called the Hudson Valley Writing Project at SUNY New Paltz. In fact, I spend a considerable amount of time working with teachers, and together we work to improve the teaching of writing and thinking in the Hudson Valley for students of all ages and students of all subjects.
Let me end today where I started. I sincerely hope that you will take some time to do a couple of things. One – think about how you learn and what you know you need to do to make it happen; AND let me now add a discovery I made about professors. When I started college, I didn’t exactly know what professors did when they weren’t teaching. I wish I had.
We have offices and office hours and we are here for you. Visit us. Visit me. Honestly, it may be productive for you to talk through some of your ideas. For me, it’s always interesting to meet my students, to understand where my students are coming from, the hopes that they have, their questions, and how I can best teach them. Maybe you want to talk about a career in education. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs you could ever imagine. Whatever it is - you are always welcome. The School of Education is in the Old Main Building.
All the best to you on your learning journey here. Good luck and, on behalf of the great folks with whom I work and our returning students, I welcome you to SUNY New Paltz.
I want to join President Christian in welcoming our new students to campus, and welcoming everyone to the start of a new academic year. Like our freshmen students here today I too am brand new to SUNY New Paltz. I am very excited to be part of such a great college and to join you in starting a new academic year.
Every new beginning starts from some other beginning’s end, wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca nearly 2,000 years ago and I think that applies to all students here. Convocation in part represents a turning of the page, an end to one chapter of your life and the beginning of another. As you leave behind the routines and comfort zones of high school and elsewhere, you face an opportunity to reassess your goals, discover new interests and make new friends. This is an exciting time in your life. Keep in mind that you do not travel down this road alone. At New Paltz you are becoming part of a new learning community made up of faculty, staff and fellow students who will help you succeed in every way possible.
Before the introduction of our main speaker, I want to reflect on why you are all here on campus. I could take a few hours on that theme, but I promise to keep it to a few short minutes. Upon graduation, you will receive a diploma, certifying that you have met all the requirements of the degree. But never confuse the certification that a diploma represents with an education. A certification merely says you have met requirements. Being a college educated person means possessing the knowledge and skills that turn you into a life-long learner. You cannot learn everything you need to know for the rest of your life in four years of college. What you can learn, and what is at the heart of a college education is learning how to learn--becoming someone who has learned how to grow intellectually, adapt to change, stay curious, and be open to new experiences and ways of understanding the world around you.
I know that many students and parents see the college years as a path to a diploma that leads to a good job, and in difficult economic times like those we recently experienced, that is especially of concern. To truly succeed in your career of choice you will need to demonstrate and utilize the knowledge and skills acquired in college. In a rapidly changing world, where many of the careers of today will be replaced by new ones 20, 30, 40 years from now, your success will depend on how quickly you can learn new ways of thinking and understand changing technologies in a globalized world.
You don’t have to believe me. In a recent survey of business executives, over half of them said they wanted students who had a well-rounded education with broad knowledge and skills that apply to a variety of fields, in addition to those in their specific field. This is why you are asked here to take courses in areas that may be beyond your immediate interest, such as art, literature or science. It is also why you will hear about skills such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, teamwork and written and oral communications, so often. Whatever career you embark upon, you will not reach your full potential unless you master these skills as well as the broad knowledge you acquire here.
But there is more, I would say far more, to college than preparation for your chosen career. We are all part of a broader society and an educated person is someone who takes on the responsibility of becoming a socially responsible citizen, which means recognizing that better communities, a good society and a just world require our engagement. As citizens of a democracy we are called upon to make important decisions that will impact our communities, nation and the world, involving everything from environmental zonings to going to war. What college should provide you with is not only a deeper understanding of democratic values and principles, but recognition that democracy is always a work in progress that requires each generation to recommit itself to advancing those values and principles.
A final quality you should take away from your college education is an ability to create for yourselves a fulfilling life. This is more than achieving your career goals or accumulating wealth and fame. A central part of a fulfilling life is developing a life of the mind, or as a former provost at Bryn Mawr put it, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”. Once you enter the “real world”, as life after college is sometimes called the pressures and obligations of career, family and society will accelerate dramatically. In a busy and cynical age, we sometimes don’t spend enough time contemplating the beauty of the world around us or thinking about our place in the universe. College should be a place where you start that voyage of self-discovery over your lifetime, and the many new beginnings that await you after you graduate.
As you embark on this new chapter in your life, I hope you approach the work and experiences of this academic year with an open mind and have some humility about the things professors ask you to think and learn about. The meaning and importance of what you will be learning may not actually become clear until many years after you graduate.
Before I close, I want to thank our faculty and staff for their dedication and hard work. To our students, especially those new to the College, these people are here because of their commitment to your learning and success. Their work at the College is more than a “job”, it is a labor of love because they value the opportunity to help you learn and grow intellectually. Get to know your professors and the staff who you meet, as the relationships that you will build with them during your time here will be an important part of your education.
I wish each of you have a successful and productive academic year. With that, it is my pleasure to introduce the Associate Dean of the School of Education Karen Bell, who is standing in for Dean Michael Rosenberg, and will be introducing our main convocation speaker. Thank you for your attention.