Commencement 2019: From Problem to Project

The 2019 Commencement Ceremony was Saturday, June 8th. The weather was perfect and the entire ceremony felt like a perfect tribute for our graduating seniors and their friends and family. These were my words to them.

I’m so honored and humbled to serve this college as president—and I’ve never been so overwhelmed by honor and humility as I was yesterday. The board discussion, senior project presentations, the Laurel Ceremony, the celebration on the Turrets porch, the dinner at Havana with Koko. I can’t believe I get to be a part of this.

One of the best moments was former COA president Steve Katona’s words about retiring faculty member Bill Carpenter—it was as if Bill and Steve’s brains became a collective mind with an obliterated corpus callosum. As a way to encapsulate that moment, I am here recognizing Steve’s lifelong commitment to this school by honoring him with the title President Emeritus.


Every summer we bring college counselors to COA and I give them an overview of what we do here and of how we do it. In my first such event, I passionately described human ecology as an approach to solving the world’s most pernicious social and ecological problems and talked about human ecologists as problem solvers. I was feeling quite content with my words that day and, so, was surprised when faculty member Karen Waldron pulled me aside and asked, “do you think problems are really what we work on here”?

I‘ve meditated on her question for eight years and have come to think the answer is “no”—problem solving is not exactly what we do here at COA.

Today I want to unpack that and offer a better way to frame our work.

Unpacking begins with Ron Beard.

Ron is many things: among them, a trustee of the college; a Scotiaphile, proud of his Scottish heritage; and someone who takes firewood very seriously. So it was a nuisance when he received two cords of 24-inch firewood—too long for his wood stove. But I have a Rumford-style fireplace, where you stand the wood vertically and 24-inch logs are perfect. We negotiated a deal and I spent last weekend moving wood from his house to mine.

Millard let me borrow the pickup. My neighbor let me use his driveway, so I could avoid hauling tons of oak and beech up two flights of stairs. It would take four trips: out the Park Loop Road, passing the tourists at Great Meadow, past the ducks dabbling in the Tarn, into Ron’s driveway and greeted by his golden retriever MacDuff, and after a vigorous scratch of MacDuff’s belly, I’d load the wood, head back to town, past the Corvette show with the spectacular 1967 fastback Vet, by the girls softball game where every player wears a face mask, up the neighbor’s driveway, reverse down to the sexually dimorphic striped maple tree, and unload. Repeat. Repeat, Repeat.

It was during those trips that I understood the power of four letters—from PROBLEM to PROJECT. My universe changed completely.

Like my father-in-law Darrel in the audience today, I love projects, and during the firewood project I landed on the idea that a world through projects rather than problems is so much more appropriate and rewarding and more effective.

Problems encourage the wiping of hands—a false sense of completeness. Box checking. Projects embrace time. You see the fruits of your work, but understand the woodpile is endless and there will be more next year.

Problem solvers bifurcate the world into right and wrong; success and failure; good and bad. A problem is an annoyance, something to go over, around, or through. Projects encourage reveling in complexity and ambiguity. My wood is stacked, but there’s great subjectivity in whether it’s a good stacking.

Problem-solvers seek to fix the wrong and the bad and that’s presumptuous; project-oriented folks addressor encountersomething, and take on an “I-Thou” relationship with things like Martin Buber suggested; I am one with and in dialogue with my wood pile.

Problems are one-off, projects require repetition; through repetition, projects develop a deep understanding of tools; they encourage constant assessment and incremental refinement. By the end of the day I could pitch a piece of oak with incredible precision.

Problems tend to deconstruct, tend to say “this is why you’re wrong or why it won’t work;” projects tend to build, to construct. Analysis is important, but the wounds on my knuckles are evidence enough that my pile of wood is real.

Finally, problems inspire overconfidence, projects inspire humility. I kneel in humility to my stack of wood.

I was going to bring each of you a piece of firewood, but instead chose the equally unwieldy piece of slate under your chairs. I want these awkward-to-carry slices of stone to be a reminder of the power of projects. Do not put them in your carry-on bags, TSA does not approve.

The slate comes from Monson, Maine, at the foot of the 100-mile-wilderness. It was quarried in the 40s from the same veins of stone that adorn President Kennedy’s gravesite. The fire of ‘47 that ripped through these grounds didn’t destroy Turrets, but did damage the roof, and in 1948 the cypress shingles were overlain with slate. We repaired Turrets in 2013, but could only reuse half of the original slate. Millard, Bruce Tripp and others helped me move the cast-off pieces; Zach Soares cut a plexiglass stencil; Duffy at the Hardware store suggested the paint; I painted and carried them to your seat.

The paint will fade, the edges will chip, but let the slate be a reminder of this college and the power of projects.

Also remember two other projects. First, the Center for Human Ecology, emerging from the 450 million year old stone immediately to our east; a workshop for generations of projects beginning in the fall of 2020.

And remember the HELIO project on Osakikamijima, Japan, and the possibility of a small human ecological toehold in that beautiful country. Our work there is what brought us in touch with today’s speaker, Koko Kondo.

Remember that it was during your graduation that we celebrated the new adventures of four retirees who embody the concept of a project-oriented approach to learning:

Bill Carpenter, a man brimming with curiosity and wonder about everything, and there’s nothing that fuels projects better than curiosity and wonder.

Remember Andy Griffiths, our Dean of Administration, who taught me and so many others the power of incremental change and continuous assessment.

Remember Bruce Tripp, the curator and sculptor of these grounds, who has workshopped thousands of projects with hundreds of students, and who demonstrates that projects powered by mentorship, apprenticeship, patience, and kindness have the most profound, lasting impact.

Remember John Visvader, faculty member in philosophy, who wrestles with our deepest, archetypal projects of who we are and how we know, and addresses them with mind, with hands, with spirit, and with body.

Finally, remember, you have been architects and builders of this, the COA project, which will forever remain unfinished. Like all those who have moved onto new adventures—you have a place and a home here, you are forever a tinkerer in the COA workshop, you are always one of the eight brains of the COA octopus.

Thank you, congratulations, and remember to always be scrappy.


Postscript, June 11, 2019

During the performance of this writing I remembered that I had borrowed Faculty Member Emeritus Elmer Beal’s belt sander; two of them, to be honest. One of the biggest sins of any project is to borrow someone’s tools and fail to return them. I’d had these tools for a long time.

So this morning I cleaned both sanders up nicely, bought some extra belts of sand paper and headed to Elmer’s with my tail between my legs. Elmer’s kindness washed away my sins. Then he turned to me and said, “You know, I was just thinking about those sanders and was wracking my brain about who I’d lent them to! See this stair railing here? As I’ve gotten older I’ve needed it a lot more often and it desperately needs a good sanding.”

“Should I begin with the 50 grit?” was my response. Half and hour later, I called into The Burning Tree kitchen (the restaurant owned by Elmer and Allison) and yelled: “If anyone hears Elmer hooting and hollering, that would be him sliding down the outside railing–it’s smooth as silk.”

Again, the beauty of projects.


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