by Charlie Hungerford
The lights dim. A wiry, balding professor climbs the steps to the stage of Clara Thompson Hall and takes his place behind the podium. He begins to introduce the morning's speaker.
If this scene played out 35 years ago, the Convocation speaker might have addressed a nearly-empty room. Today, near-capacity crowds of students, faculty and community members are the norm, and speakers draw on computer projectors, video, live performance and other media to supplement the power of their words. The students with laptops and flip-flops experience a talk that is likely to be more dynamic, more relevant to the world outside campus and - dare we say? - more interesting than the Convocations of old.
Convocation is a Drury tradition. For more than 60 years, Drury students have enjoyed, criticized, tolerated, and praised some of the nation's leading scientists, authors, historians, sociologists, theologians and lecturers. Yet there was also a time when "Convo" was widely unpopular. Students went because they had to.
In recent years, however, the tradition has found new life, thanks to "Theme Year," a program that links Convocation to broader topics studied on campus and around the world. Other, bigger changes have been in the works, too . . .
Origins of the Tradition
In 1941, a new curriculum was introduced at Drury. Commonly called "The New Plan," this new curriculum, required students to attend "Assembly" on Thursdays at 11 a.m. Tuesday's chapel attendance was also a requirement for students. By the 1944 fall semester, the term Assembly had changed to "Convocation" in the school's course catalog.
Required attendance at both Convocation and chapel services continued to 1968, when attendance became voluntary, but encouraged by the school. In 1969, Drury welcomed Sen. Edward Kennedy and consumer advocate Ralph Nader to the stage. (Nader, now a candidate for President, is scheduled to make a return visit this fall.) Despite speakers of this caliber, by 1970 Convocation ceased because of poor attendance. (A similar fate awaited chapel services, which ended in 1978.)
The tradition of exposing young minds to great ideas did not lay dormant for long. A curriculum revision in 1978 revived Convocation, tied it to the Freshman Studies Program, and renewed the required attendance for freshmen. Watergate figure John Dean III headlined that year's roster of speakers.
In the mid-1990s, Drury's core curriculum went through a transformation as deep as the change to The Drury Plan some 60 years earlier: the introduction of Global Perspectives 21, or GP21. GP21 was crafted by a dedicated group of faculty, led by the late Dean of the College Stephen H. Good, who wanted students to understand not just their local environment and culture, but how what happens in the Ozarks ties into the rest of the nation and can have a worldwide impact.
As GP21 took root, Convocation became closely linked with Alpha Seminar, GP21's freshman course. Alpha Seminar students must attend five Convos each semester.
As Convo aligned itself with the broader curriculum, faculty discussed how to make the links even stronger, and in 1999 the Theme Year program was born.
The Theme Year program transformed Drury and energized the academic atmosphere. Before Theme Year came along, Convocation presentations were selected based on faculty recommendations and unrelated to each other. Now a group of faculty, the "Theme Team," determines each year's theme, which then becomes an organizing principle for courses, teachings and extracurricular activities. Theme Year's most obvious impact is on Convocation. Built around the theme, attendance at Convocation has grown as the university brings a wide variety of presenters to the campus.
Theme Year had a trial run of sorts in 2000-01, when several talks centered on the theme "A Celebration of Diversity," under the direction of James Murrow, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Breech School of Business Administration. But the Theme Year program really got rolling when biology professor Roger Young, Ph.D. stepped forward as Drury's first Theme Year director. Appropriately enough, Young's 2001-02 theme was "Origins."
Directing a Theme
The single greatest challenge a Theme Year director faces is lining up a roster of guests who are interesting, informative, occasionally controversial and balanced. "It's important for students to be both inspired and provoked during the year" says Charles Taylor, Ph.D., Dean of the College. "I think we're doing our job well if there is a sufficient range of ideas to irritate everyone at least once - as long as that leads to a productive discussion of the issues."
Finding those presenters is not always easy, as R. Robin Miller, Ph.D., 2004-05 Theme Year Director has discovered. "I had to research dozens and dozens of people," she says, "and most of them fell through. Many of them are very expensive, too, and I don't think we've fully realized that . . . Getting people who are willing to fit to the theme and respond to the students was a challenge. But, we've got some excellent speakers coming next year."
That year of organizing and pre-planning was also challenging for Young. "It was a completely new experience dealing with agents, the media and working with the Drury administration."
"I asked [the faculty and staff] via e-mail and voice mail if anyone had ideas and they always did," says Murrow. "Then I would call the suggested folks or one I found for a subject or theme, like our 125th anniversary year. We used a lot of successful alumni as program presenters."
Drury's approach to coordinating Convocation and Theme Year has always been unusual. "It's not something you usually see in academia," says Miller. "Usually, you have a person who is the convocation director and he's been the convocation director for years. There are strengths there, because you can get really good at it."
Instead, Drury's Theme Year directors serve for two years, the first as associate Theme Year director, planning and preparing for the next year while learning from the director. The following year, they assume the role of director, implementing their carefully laid plans and helping to mentor their successor in turn. As 2003-04 director Randall Fuller, Ph.D. has observed, by the time he became director most of his work had been done; the speakers were booked, contracts signed, budget allocated, hotels reserved. He handled a few unexpected bumps, but mostly watched as the plans he made last year unfolded. The constant turnover ensures there will be fresh ideas and approaches to Theme Year.
The role is demanding, though, as 2002-03 director Jo Van Arkel discovered. "The most challenging aspect of directing Convo was the magnitude of the details, and the degree to which it pulled my energies away from the classroom." But she also found the aspect of bringing emerging leaders and leading experts to the campus a very rewarding component of her position.
However much the faculty members enjoy serving as Convocation director, they are equally glad to hand the baton to the next director. "I gave Roger [Young] my files and blessing, told him to call if he needed anything, and then changed my number," jokes Murrow.
Crafting the Year
Theme Year affects more than the Convocation series. While the immediate impact may not be felt in every class, faculty are deeply involved in discussing and choosing a theme, and their awareness of it carries over.
This year's theme, "Creativity, Exploration and Discovery," celebrated the ideas that drove Lewis and Clark's expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean 200 years ago. The choice of theme has an immediate impact on the Alpha Seminar. New students were asked to read A River Runs Through it before they arrived for classes. Richard Schur, Ph.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Center, which coordinates the GP21 curriculum, says the book was chosen for its relevance to the theme. "It really gets at the notions of exploration and discovery in particular," he says, "what the characters discover about fishing, and what fishing teaches them about life."
As Alpha Seminar students spent the first semester studying the American Experience, a trio of early Convocations on Lewis and Clark were fantastic, indicates Miller, who also teaches a section of Alpha Seminar. "We were able to, along with the readings and the speakers, get our students to focus on the idea of being American: what does that mean, and where did our identity come from? Alpha students read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, women's movement documents, those 'beginnings' type documents. At the same time, they were hearing from Native American speakers and historians. They were hearing the same things they were reading in their Alpha classes." Says Fuller, "the theme of creativity, exploration and discovery has dovetailed nicely with creativity explored classes," another component of the GP21 curriculum.
The Theme Year program encourages a variety of events, not just lectures. Some of the biggest events of each year so far have been annual concerts, combined efforts between the music department and the Convocation program. The concert reflects the Theme Year concept and is a solid example of how, according to Young, the "theme idea . . . provides links between different educational topics."
For the Origins Theme Year, Young worked with Associate Professor of Music David Goza to present Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Played in Springfield for the first time, "The Rite of Spring" showcased a combined force of area musicians and set the stage for what has become a formal performance component of Theme Year.
For the 2002-03 year, under the theme of "Gender and Sexuality," Van Arkel took a different twist on the fall concert with "Jazz and Blues: The Estrogen Effect," an evening of woman-powered jazz and blues.
To reflect the 2003-04 theme, "Creativity, Exploration and Discovery," Goza rounded up faculty, staff and students for a semi-improvised work, performed in Clara Thompson hall this spring. The concert was part of Theme Day, a day set aside to provide campus speakers, special class sessions, seminars, workshops and films centered on the annual theme.
Just as it has expanded to include global topics, Convocation can now be heard around the world: most presentations are carried live on KDRU, Drury's student-run radio station at http://kdru.drury.edu. Audio archives of nearly every talk since 2000 also are available on the Drury Web site, www.drury.edu. While it brings a new world of ideas to students, the series is also helping elevate Drury's reputation locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
A Tradition Restored
The new Convo is quintessentially Drury: a collaboration among faculty and staff across many departments, all focused on making sure students have the chance to listen, learn and discuss ideas from leading thinkers and doers. Convo has "provided continuity for the university community," says Van Arkel. The commitment across campus to Convocation and Theme Year has generated a contagious excitement; week to week, nobody's sure what to expect. That anticipation is slowly spreading to the students. More upperclassmen attend Convo, and it is much closer to being the shared experience many alumni recall fondly. Across the campus there is a renewed sense of pride and satisfaction. "At the end of a really good Convo," said Young, "when you overhear students talking about how good it was, you smile and think, home run!"
Excerpt from Convo presentation
F e b r u a r y 1 5, 2001
It was a pretty conservative little community I grew up in. But, you know, every morning we walked out in front of that little school and they raised the American flag and we placed our hands over our hearts and we pledged allegiance. And I remember then how proud I felt to be an American.
There is also an ill wind blowing across this nation and there is a battle going on. And that battle is: Whose America is this? And whose version of America is going to fail? And I can assure you that you are going to be a part of this whether you intend to or not. Because if you do nothing, somebody else will set the agenda. And you can participate, though, to help this country be the great nation it can be. There are those people who feel very strongly about their version of this nation. They feel strong enough to drive a truck filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer soaked with diesel fuel up in front of a federal building and explode it with little or no thought to the innocent men, women and children inside. And when Timothy McVeigh drove away from the Murrah Federal Building he couldn't have helped but heard and felt that awful explosion that was the result of him striking a match to make his political statement about the kind of nation this should be. And when he heard that explosion, it probably would come as a surprise to you that he thought of himself as a hero; as a good soldier and as a patriot.
"The Theory of Everything"
F e b r u a r y 6, 2002
Even though Einstein has undeniably had a profound impact in the way we think about the world, there was one goal that even eluded him. That was the goal of finding what he called "a unified theory." That would be a theory founded on principles of such depth, and such breadth, that perhaps there would be no question about the physical universe that would be beyond the theory's ability to address.
In fact, in 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey, in a hospital on a bed that would turn out to be his deathbed, Einstein asked for the pad of paper on which he had been scribbling his last few equations, in the hopes that in those final moments, he would find the unified theory, he would complete this quest, he would reach the end of his life's work. He didn't. He never found it.
But, you can ask yourself, what is it about finding the deepest laws of the universe that can drive somebody like Albert Einstein with such passion, with such dedication, to try to complete the theory. I think part of the answer is that all of us, when we go out on a nice, dark starry night, we look up and we experience the wonder of it all, we have a gut sense that there has to be an explanation that has the same beauty and wonder and elegance of the universe. Thankfully, in our age there is a new theory. It's called superstring theory, which we think may be the unified theory that Einstein was searching for.
"Different Bodies, Different Brains"
F e b r u a r y 2 0, 2003
The most important difference that I stumbled on is that I think men and women very regularly, think differently. As Plato once said, "When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself." And indeed, when you are thinking, you are assembling data, you're accumulating facts, you are assimilating them, you are building patterns and relationships in your mind. It's as if you've got a committee meeting going on up here as different parts are assembling themselves. Women tend to generalize and synthesize. They tend to contextualize. They tend to see the large whole. They tend to think in terms of webs of factors, not straight lines. So, I coined a term for this. I called it web thinking.
Men tend to focus their attention. They tend to get rid of the things they don't think are valuable to the issue. And then they move in a linear, more straightforward pattern towards the goal. I made up another term and I call that step thinking.
I think that it evolved for a very important reason, that a million years ago, on the grasslands of Africa, a female, a woman sitting at the camp had to rock the baby, stoke the fire, look at the four-year-olds, supervise the construction of the hut, doing a million things at the same time, multi-tasking, whereas men literally went and sat behind a bush on the African grasslands and focused his attention on hitting that buffalo on the head.