Dean Preston’s Pre-July 2010 Residency Letter

Dear Learners,

In a few short weeks, we will leave the comforts and discomforts of our most-of-the-time situated places and come together, for the entire time of 3:00 p.m. on July 2 (EDT) through 1:00 p.m. on July 10 (EDT), for nine essential days.  To borrow a term from Cherie Moraga I emphasize to the point of tears:  essential, we, for the entire time of. 

Why essential?

In The Dancing Mind,* Toni Morrison, 1993 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, presents the following account of a woman who came up to her during a meeting of the Parliament of Writers in Strasbourg.

“[The woman] asked if I knew anything about the contemporary literature of her country.  I said no; I knew nothing of it.  We talked a few minutes more.  Earlier, while listening to her speak on a panel, I had been awestruck by her articulateness, the ease with which she moved among languages and literatures, her familiarity with histories of nations, histories of criticisms, histories of authors.  She knew my work; I knew nothing of hers.  We continued to talk, animatedly, and then, in the middle of it, she began to cry.  No sobs, no heaving shoulders, just great tears rolling down her face.  She did not wipe them away and she did not loosen her gaze.  ‘You have to help us.  They are shooting us down in the street.’  By ‘us’ she meant women who wrote against the grain.  ‘What can I do?’ I asked her.  She said, I don’t know, but you have to try.  There isn’t anybody else.’”  (pp. 12-13)  

Why we?

As those of us who are continuing in the program, and as entering learners will soon come to experience, the we who are members of this doctoral program—learners, faculty, staff, administrators—come from a multiplicity of social and cultural backgrounds (by race, gender, religion, spiritual/secular orientation, economic background and occupation/profession, age, and more), from many states and a number of countries other than the United States, and carry with and within us a complex array of intellectual, political, philosophical, and aesthetic approaches, accomplishments, and capabilities.   

Partly by design and very much by accident, we, then, also reflect the hybrid, polyglot backgrounds and ideational/creative capabilities that Edward Said has reminded us are essential as a counterweight to and a possibility of moving beyond an omnipresent and enervating power-over that, perhaps by necessity within the situated-ness of our lives, we embrace and need to embrace even as it has come to define us and overwhelm us.  Edward Said:**

“All these hybrid counter-energies, at work in many fields, individuals, and moments provide a community or culture made up of numerous anti-systemic hints and practices for collective human existence (and neither doctrines nor complete theories) that is not based on coercion or domination…  The authoritative, compelling image of the empire, which crept into and overtook so many procedures of intellectual mastery that are central in modern culture, finds its opposite in the renewable, almost sporty discontinuities of intellectual and secular impurities—mixed genres, unexpected combinations of tradition and novelty, political experiences based on communities of effort and interpretation (in the broadest sense of the word) rather than classes or corporations of possession, appropriation, and power.”  (p. 335) 

With this in mind, it is important for all of us to acknowledge and keep in mind that, for the nine days we are together twice each year for the academic residencies, the we of this exceptional academic community is comprised of—indeed, only comprised of—those of us who are its doctoral learners, faculty, staff, and administrators.  As with any healthy community, there will be events and activities where we invite guests—evening keynote lectures, conference day, the MLK Legacy luncheon.  Otherwise, the important work that we do is work that can best be done, perhaps can only be done, with and among ourselves.  This is the reason for the policy in the Handbook that states:      

 “[L]earners are asked to be in residence without spouse or guests for the duration of each academic residency.”

It is important for all of us to honor this policy. 

Why for the entire time of?

 Certainly, the financial costs, time commitments, and balancing study, work, and obligations to those close to you involve serious hardship and are managed with tremendous difficulty.  In the several months between the residencies you are, pretty much simultaneously, spouse or significant other, sister or brother, mother or father, leader or member of this or that organization, neighbor and confidant and friend.  Yet as 1996 Nobel Prize Winner Wislawa Szymboraka reminds, in the midst of all this, those of us who are privileged to study and think and create are privileged in three extraordinary ways.  First, we have been provided the gift of intellectual and creative ability.  Secondly and even more extraordinarily, Szymborska reminds us, that whatever our background or the nature of our work, we carry within us “the blessing of an inner impulse,” of a calling, to use our intellectual and creative gift. And thirdly, in the midst of whatever else we do, we have the rare opportunity, as well as the profound obligation, of time available to use this gift.         

Wislawa Szymborska:***

“There is, there has been, there will always be a certain group of people…  It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination.  It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions.  Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it.  Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity…

There aren’t many such people.  Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by.  They work because they have to.  They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion:  the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them.  Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries.  And there’s no sign that coming centuries will produce any change for the better as far as this goes.  (pp. xv-xvi)

 So:  there is essential intellectual and creative work to be done.  We are among the few who are positioned to do this work.  Such work is our passion, our calling.  The academic residencies provide that rare opportunity, even for us, to pursue this essential work, this calling, continuously for nine days, without interruption.  Indeed, for all of the time of each residency’s nine days, I urge that pursuit of our essential work, by and among ourselves, is our single calling.  

 This is the reason for the policy in the Handbook that states:     

 “All learners are required to be in attendance throughout each Cohort Ph.D. academic residency from beginning to end and engaged with the academic work for the current term, as verified by program administrators via the Attendance & Engagement form. The daily schedule during the academic residencies is determined by the graduate college…  Attendance at all scheduled activities (unless indicated as optional) during the academic residency is required for continuation in the program.”

 It is important for all of us to honor this policy.

 Nothing that I have written above is new or surprising.  All of us who are members of this doctoral program—learners, faculty, staff, administrators—know that we constitute an extraordinary, polyglot intellectual community.  We are the color we are; we are all colors.  We have paid the taxes that must be paid and, until death does its thing, will work to become citizens of future jurisdictions with the borderless boundaries we imagine in our minds.  None of us knows the moment or moments when, during a residency, this or that deliberately-spoken or casual word, when this or that woman or man from her/his own desperate circumstances will come up to us after a seminar or over lunch or from across the street and say:  Help us.  There isn’t anybody else.

During our nine days together, we, those of us who constitute the distinctive we of our extraordinary academic community, have the inexplicable gift and privilege that Szymborska speaks of—and thereby the compelling responsibility of being and becoming Edward Said’s unorthodox, essential intellectuals.  And again, with Toni Morrison:  There isn’t anybody else.

My very best for the few weeks and days until July 2.  Safe travels.

Larry Preston

Graduate Dean

*Toni Morrison, The Dancing Mind.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.  1996

**Edward W. Said. Culture and Imperialism.  New York:  Vintage. 1993.

***Wislawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected  1957-1997.  New York:  Harcourt.  1998.

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