A Dis-Orientation for the Class of 2002

By Paula Vogel / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
In keeping with our current political times, I would like to begin with a confession: the last convocation I attended was my first convocation during my freshman year. In a moment, I will tell you why.

I am somewhat bemused by this singular honor, for, in fact, I have had a very checkered academic past. But the more I've thought of this, the more I am aware that anti-drug public-service announcements are perhaps most effective when offered by ex-addicts. Convicts, especially lifers, are extremely effective speakers to first-time juvenile offenders, giving warnings of the hazards of a life of crime and prison.

And in this spirit, I offer you reflections based upon my academic experiences. I will tell you three lessons I learned in the course of my education: how I received a second-rate education at a first-rate school, how I received a good education at a second-rate school, and how I finally earned a very good education at a very good university.

The first and last convocation I attended, until today, was at Bryn Mawr College in 1969. Before the bells had tolled for my first class, an administrator greeting the class of 1973 had informed us that of this entering class, only twelve freshmen were below a combined score of 1300 on their SATs. I sat there, ashamed but at least knowing where I stood - one of twelve at the bottom of the class. I tell you this as a little gift to all of the freshmen who may be wondering whether or not they belong in the class of '02. For those of you whose SAT scores are above mine, congratulations. For those of you whose scores are below those of your classmates, I smile and point to my Pulitzer Prize and say: Well, so much for SAT scores.

In my undergraduate days, I thought such things as SAT scores indicated my promise. I accepted what I was told by an administrator, who told me in private that the large numbers of working-class women and women of color admitted to Bryn Mawr College were a social experiment. To offer excellence in education, an institution must be committed to diversity. And so the social experiment failed; very few of us completed Bryn Mawr. We transferred to other colleges.

At Bryn Mawr I obtained a second-rate education from a first-rate institution. I collaborated with class-bound prejudices by skipping classes, staying up all night, writing assignments hastily, and in general, wasting my time and their money. On the other hand, I learned my first lesson: I discovered what I loved. And I followed my love. I did write and stage three musicals, as well as two straight plays, in two years. I had a few magnificent professors who encouraged me to pursue drama and writing, who motivated me to learn how to write papers and do research, spending extra office time on teaching me skills lacking in my high school preparation. One of my professors told me in no unmistakable terms that I had a gift for dramatic writing, and I must take it seriously. Today I am indebted to her, and I follow her example each time I teach. Her first duty was to identify and motivate talent. But none of this support prevented the dean of the college from encouraging me to leave. Bryn Mawr and I, she informed me, were not a good match.

At Catholic University, I learned how to earn a first-class education from a second-class institution. I joined a department where faculty members, burnt-out and demoralized, went through the motions of teaching. Questions from students were ridiculed in class; any attempt to answer rhetorical questions from professors was likewise a target of class amusement. Professors there threw me out of their offices when I requested supplementary reading and refused to allow me to audit classes. (One faculty member, the managing director of the theater, refused to let women touch his lighting board; only male undergraduates could serve on the lights crew.) The atmosphere, in short, reminded me a great deal of my high school, where learning was supposed to be passive, not participatory. I got through by overloading my credits, taking six courses a semester, which was still easy, if not boring, and by working twenty hours a week as a late-night motel clerk, which allowed me to read my textbooks in peace.

But I did manage to get through Catholic University, where I learned my second lesson: not to believe in the opinions of my potential, or the predictions of my future, from those embittered by their past. I learned not to let the negativity of a few stand in the way of my hope. I learned how to mentor and be mentored by my peers. The forging of friendship in the academy is particularly important. I urge you to pay close attention to those who share your passions.

The reason I wrested a first-class education from mediocre instructors at Catholic University is due, in large part, to my friendship with Molly Smith, then a transfer student from Alaska. Every week we went home to discuss the reading and pay close attention to the issues that were slighted in our classes. We fought intellectually and rigorously, which forged a respect that has lasted twenty-five years; two years ago, at a theater my college friend founded in Alaska, I wrote my Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, for Molly Smith. She has recently been hired as the artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where I will be playwright-in-residence over the next three years, continuing the dialogue we began in our undergraduate classes. Your future collaborators and your colleagues sit beside you today. A first-class education is as collective and communal as it is individual.

At any rate, I was released from Catholic University and fled to Cornell and a doctoral program where I finally managed to integrate a first-rate education from a first-rate institution. It was at Cornell that I had time to reflect on my educational experience: first as a working-class student at one of the most socially upper-class schools in the nation; secondly as a lesbian feminist at a Catholic university. At Cornell, I concluded that the state of being an outsider is crucial to the academic experience. All of us are, in some way, outsiders; each one of us is responsible for molding and forming the institution that at times may marginalize us. At Cornell, I encountered the work of a Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, who not only would form the aesthetic basis of my work in theater for the next twenty years, but who also helped me process what separates a great education from mere rote learning.

Viktor Shklovsky, in his witty essay "Art as Technique," argues that the way we learn in this culture is to become so familiar with the material, the thought, the subject matter, that we become unconscious of it. Thus we are said to be good drivers if we automatically avoid pedestrians while being able to continue our conversation with passengers in the car. We become habitual in our learning; indeed, learning is often a process of reducing thought to the algebraic. Original thoughts become a sentence, which becomes a cliché, automatically intoned without reflection. To quote Mr. Shklovsky: "If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic....Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war." And he continues: "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they have never been."

As a remedy to such sleepwalking, Shklovsky proposed art. The purpose of art, he argues, is to make one notice. To slow down or impede perception so that we do not habitually absorb the concept; to stop the habitual. And the process by which one notices he terms "defamiliarization." One notices the process of driving in the midst of an accident; the automobile is estranged, our bodies become foreign objects, time itself seems distorted. Art seeks to defamiliarize and make strange.

I would argue that defamiliarization is not only the aim of art, but of great education as well. Second-rate education teaches by rote; first-class education is a process of disorientation from the familiar and the habitual. Thus, the university environment at first will seem alien. It should. You are entering a period of dislocation, of dis-orientation, if you will. Here at Brown in these four years, every value you took for granted should be and will be questioned by you and your colleagues: the role of the family, religious ideology, your class, societal notions of gender and sexuality, your race, your history, your notions of nationality. You will, in this volatile time, no doubt reexamine your friendships, your lovers, your home and town. Your roots, in other words. You will examine and change your relationships to your parents and your teachers. In the crucible of a university, we learn to feel passionate about thought.

The process of art and the process of education should be comparable: in these four years, you are involved in a great creative endeavor - the making of yourselves.

At Cornell I learned my third lesson: how to become comfortable with the dis-orientation of academic training: how to love defamiliarization. I also discovered that I could learn valuable insights by pursuing not only what I loved, but more importantly, what I hated. I ask that you pay careful attention in the coming years to those ideologies, writers, and concepts that are at first repellent to you. Books may induce fury. That is a very interesting state. At Cornell, I threw the collected theories of Bertolt Brecht across my room in anger. But today I realize that I am more shaped by his influence than the writers I loved as an undergraduate. Pursue not only joy and pleasure; but become curious at states of discomfiture and un-ease. The acquired taste is as valuable a tool in the making of selves as the native gift.

I offer a few more reflections on education as the daughter of a secretary whose family once lived below the poverty line, as the offspring of highly intelligent parents who, although they never graduated from high school, nonetheless introduced me to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the Brontës: education is about class. For me, education is about class mobility. But intelligence and class are not related. If we have the privilege of attending a first-class institution of learning like Brown or Bryn Mawr, I think we have an obligation to think about our class and our responsibilities, to ensure that mobility remains not only possible, but encouraged.

I feel sure that you possess the makings of a first-class education, starting today. Brown is first-class only by the interaction between administrators, faculty, and, most importantly, students. First-class administrators and faculty understand that Brown belongs more to you the student than to those of us who work here. Brown needs to mold itself to your needs; we who work here must be flexible while preserving continuity. First-class administrators and educators also are those who hope that our students will surpass us; who take pride and joy in your accomplishments; and who remain open to learning. Who continue to love what they do. And who continue to embrace defamiliarization. For me, the excitement of teaching at Brown University has been the education I've received at the hands of my students, who have challenged all of my assumptions, and constantly dis-oriented and estranged the rules of my craft.

Fourteen years ago, when I began my career at Brown as an assistant professor, I vowed that I would help my students graduate into my field as peers. Today, scarcely a week goes by that an ex-student does not audition for one of my productions in some regional theater. When my New York production of Drive closed at the Century Theater, it was replaced by a play called Stupid Kids - a play I produced here at Brown in 1990, written by one of our graduate playwrights, John C. Russell '91 M.F.A. And when my friend Molly Smith left her Alaskan theater, Perseverance Theater, this past spring, she hired a new artistic director, Peter Dubois '97 A.M., a theater graduate student who had recently worked with me directing a play by the very talented Sarah Ruhl '97. I have had great pleasure in seeing former students in the audience, onstage and backstage, in theaters wherever I travel. Well. I am reminded of the story of Katharine Hepburn, who apparently had a similarly rocky freshman year at Bryn Mawr, and flunked out at the end of her first year. Her father, a prominent New Haven physician, sent his daughter back to Bryn Mawr at the beginning of her sophomore year with a note telling the college that when he had sick patients, he did not discharge them from the hospital. I think, after fourteen full-time years here among my students and colleagues, I am well enough to be discharged. The classrooms and workshops which will teach me now are located not only at Brown but on the stages and sound sets in New York and Los Angeles. I am grateful to President Gee that I may remain as a part-time participant but full-time cheerleader, so that I may catch a glimpse of your progress in the next four years. Enjoy your dis-orientation as you form your future selves. I know all of us will be changed and transformed by your presence here in these four years, and I thank you for that.

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November / December 1998