COA Graduation – 7 June 2014

The Class of 2014 graduated yesterday on an absolutely beautiful day.  Elmer Beal, who will be retiring in the fall, was the Grand Marshal.  Dr. Wade Davis received an honorary M.Phil. in Human Ecology.  Mary Harney ’96 gave a tremendous commencement address. Sean Murphy graduated!  And, par for the course, the student presentations shook the tent to tears.  My address played a relatively minor role in the day (frankly, it could have been a tad shorter), but here it is.


Thanks very much Will and welcome everyone.

So, I’d like to pick up where I left off at last year’s graduation and continue on with a theme. In all seriousness, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I said at last year’s ceremony and have refined my ideas a bit. This isn’t going to help the class of 2013 much, but I’ve seen a few of them on campus here to celebrate today. I’ll ask them to pass on the news.

Last commencement I played around with this funny word: “scrappy.” I used scrappy to describe a unifying thread running through the graduating class and through the College as a whole.

The word can have negative connotations and call to mind an unkempt dog, so I carefully defined it as having the qualities of being expert at getting things done; of breaking through bureaucratic barriers; of not being held back by the fear of failure.

I still believe the word is spot on for our students and our community. I’m reminded of the concept every time I walk past faculty member Jodi Baker’s office. She has a great poster on her door; it’s called “The Cult of Done Manifesto,” which nicely gets at this idea of scrappiness. My favorite line says “people without dirty hands are wrong.”

But, walking by Jodi’s office one day, it hit me that the term scrappy unduly emphasizes action over thought. And that gave me pause.

I emphasize action over thought, as my brain seems to be wired that way. I’ve seen the good and bad of that quality and I have to work at patience. My wife says our black lab Lucy has a longer attention span I do and she’s probably right.

The more I thought about this dichotomy between thought and action, between theory and praxis, the more I considered it an existential crises of our age. On the one hand, the modern world worships the 140-character twitter feed; we’re constantly asked to develop rapid prototypes; we force complex ideas into simple, elevator speeches. Moore’s Law is law and fast is king.

But there’s also an emerging movement, thankfully, for slow and thoughtful: the slow food movement emphasizes contemplatively grown, prepared and consumed food over fast food; the slow money trend, which is about reconnecting finance back to doing good for people and for place; long reads are an increasingly popular format on the internet and serve as a good counterbalance to twitter feeds. There’s a rebirth of Natural History, which emphasizes patient observation. And there’s even slow TV – in Norway, there was a slow TV program that one in five Norwegians watched one evening – it features burning firewood in a hearth, for twelve hours. The black lab in me thinks that’s taking contemplative a bit too far. There’s got to be a happy medium.

If I could get a do-over for last year’s graduation, I’d refine my message and say that the thread running through all COA students and through the school as a whole is not just that we’re scrappy, but that we get the balance right between thought and action. Hitting this balance I’ll call contemplative scrappiness.

Learning contemplative scrappiness is learning to drive a stick shift. And I’ve got to credit my assistant and advisor Kate Macko for that metaphor. Kate said, “Yeah, it’s developing the feel between clutch and gas, shifting into first gear on some steep San Francisco side street.”

Knowing this group of graduates as I do, I’m 100% confident they’ve got the feel. Their training began with being thrown into and managing a self-designed curriculum. Requiring them to build their curriculum invokes contemplative scrappiness.

  • Ben mastered it by first reimagining Shakespeare’s Othello and then by producing, directing, and performing in Othello
  • Yuka patiently considered the structures of a diabetic’s struggling kidney and then got in there and tried to make an improved kidney at the Jackson Lab
  • Gabi sought an understanding of modern femininity and then created works of art that help explain the concept to her own self and to others
  • Chloe studied the impact of mammals on vegetation of offshore islands and then measured and tested those impacts herself in the field

At COA we emphasize what I like to call expeditionary learning. That often times means manually extracting the brain and body from the classroom. But, clearly, the most meaningful expeditions are both mental and physical and, again, what we get right is the balance of approaches whether we’re in a classroom or not:

  • From contemplative natural history and thoughtful observation, to the proactive and experimental quest for new knowledge of the world around us
  • from understanding law and policy, to the use of activism to promote change
  • from the analysis of economic drivers and economic hurdles to the creation of new and better businesses
  • from the theory of color to the utility of color, and so on.
  • We’re not heavy on requirements here, but we do require you swim in both the pool of knowledge and the pool of action; again, of theory and praxis.

Most importantly, what makes us especially good at promoting contemplative scrappiness is our dedication to mentorship.

At COA the great mentor is not the one who transfers information from their brain to yours. The great mentor is he or she who helps you work through failure; who pushes on those uncomfortable weak spots of your character and brain to identify weakness; who helps cultivate passions; and, most importantly, who suggests when it’s time to pull back and slow down, and when it’s time to run and get things done. It’s the sometimes-annoying parent or friend in the passenger seat yelling “gas, gas, gas!!” or “clutch, clutch, clutch-excellent job!!”

Our mentors – faculty, staff, trustees, fellow students, partners here on Mount Desert Island – those mentors and our commitment to the process of mentorship. That is what we do better than anyone out there. That is the value proposition of COA I’d ask all of you to scream from the rooftops. That is the piece of our pedagogy, which cannot be replicated, in a massive open online course or in a lecture hall filled with 1000s.

To slow down and balance this presidential optimism, I looked toward less biased sources and found them in the New York Times and the Gallup Poll. A few weeks ago, on May 7, Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a piece called “In College, Nurturing Matters.”  Blow wrote that nurturing – or what today we’re calling mentoring – is the key indicator of both success in finding engaged work and in finding a sense of well-being after graduation.

Blow based his theory on a Gallup Poll of six questions, which together characterize this concept of nurturing. He concluded that more than a college’s selectivity; or ranking in the US News and World Report; or size of the library and endowment; or the number and novelty of labs, strong mentors, consistent interactions within a community, and long-term, team-based projects have the most profound, positive impact on a graduate’s career.

I then flexed my own contemplatively scrappy muscles and conducted an experiment with the people sitting patiently in these rows. Unaware of my intentions of using these data in today’s ceremony, they filled out a similar questionnaire and, sure enough, COA more than doubled the national average on every single question – a strong indicator that our approach to mentoring is both felt and working.

So, after this slowing down, I’m now doubly confident that a self designed curriculum, a focus on learning in a community as we do here at COA, expeditionary teaching that balances active and contemplative work and our dedication to successful mentoring has given these 74 individuals the firmest footing possible for taking on the challenges of a tumultuous world; it’s given them a great starting point for a life dedicated to improving the condition of humanity, nature, and themselves.

COA is a citizenry based on contemplative scrappiness and this group of graduates, now growing tired with my long-windedness, is ready to take the world by storm. We’re ready to let ‘em go, celebrate, and move mountains.

Today is our 41st commencement ceremony and today we will graduate the 2000th alum – somewhere about 2/3rds of the way through the alphabet. They will join an alumni group that began with our first graduate, Cathy Johnson from the class of ’74.

Do you know she was ¾ of the way through her degree at Yale when she picked-up and left and transferred to COA, then a start-up school of 36 students, half a dozen faculty, a handful of staff, and a herd of dogs; still unaccredited and unsure of what would happen in 1975. Her parents were skeptical. But she, like all of you, was contemplatively scrappy. Now Cathy is a senior staff attorney for the National Resources Council of Maine and is a leader in the struggle to protect the ecological integrity of Maine’s Northern Forests.

In joining Cathy and all the others, I’ll ask you, graduates, to find time in your busy, adventurous lives to be that mentor in the passenger seat, to advise on action and thought, on doing and thinking, of slow and fast and to help future cohorts of COA students realize their own dreams

Thank you all and, graduates, welcome to the family.






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