Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Moranski
SSU Convocation Address - August 17, 2020
Thank you, President Sakaki, for your words of wisdom and inspiration as we begin the next academic year with the common purpose of being “each other's harvest” and of giving ourselves to a vision of a university that is fresh and new, an intellectual and social force that participates in redefining what it means to educate.
I don’t often have the opportunity to claim my own teaching and research past, but I am going to claim that space today, in the present, because it is singularly appropriate to the work we must do as we move forward into the future. One of my earliest research interests was apocalyptic prophecy in medieval political texts, ranging from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, with its proto-Arthurian narrative and its oblique Prophecies of Merlin to rabble-scrabble Scottish poems that foretold victory (over and over again) in the Scots’ centuries-long rebellion against the English. (If you can’t beat ‘em this time, next time will definitely be different!)
Later in my faculty career, teaching in an interdisciplinary, integrated curriculum, I used apocalypticism to teach courses about pandemics (I don’t make this stuff up!). We taught the mid-fourteenth-century Black Death when, at best estimate, one-third of the people of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe succumbed to the bacteria Yersenia pestis. The concept of quarantine, by the way--the forced separation of people to prevent the spread of disease--was introduced in 1377 in the city of Dubrovnik. Then, as now, vulnerable populations were most at risk, and the plague was accompanied by hatred, violence, and structural racism.
I also taught about the 1918 flu, when troops returning alive from a terrible and devastating world war ended up in hospital wards (quote) “bloody and dying in some new and awful way,” as John Barry notes in his study of the influenza virus that killed millions world-wide (4). Today, we empathize in new ways with Miranda in Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, who exclaims just before she succumbs to the Spanish flu, “There’s too much of everything in this world right now.”
In the course I team-taught on the Cold War, we confronted the fear of nuclear armageddon, teaching Dr. Strangelove to students who had never learned to love or hate the bomb. In one of our most engaging exercises, when groups of students stayed long after class was over, we had students design their own apocalypse. It was an exercise in the application of received knowledge, and it engaged our students in ways a test on our textbooks would not have. It was also a different world--a world between pandemics, a post-soviet world. What we are experiencing today is no movie, no novel, no exercise.
But the focus of all that work on prophecy and pandemic and totalitarianism never focused solely on historical events. The rhetoric of apocalypticism--prophecy of all kinds--focuses on the future, on what can and will be. And that is where we must focus our time and our energy.
What comes of plagues and social upheaval, of racially motivated killing, of a lack of trust or confidence in the structures that are supposed to keep us safe and preserve our democracy is change and the possibility--the opportunity--to redefine our purpose and our work.
In higher education, change has been coming for a long time. We know that a college education has been castigated as inequitable, inaccessible, unaffordable, siloed, and even somehow unclear in its impact. But that is not the only way to define a college education. Toni Morrison, after all, tells us that “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” We have a moment to transformatively rethink what we are doing and the way we are doing it. A moment to stop thinking that we have always done things that way. A moment to stop narrowly defining our disciplines and start thinking about how our structures can support working together interdisciplinarily. A moment to break down barriers between curriculum and co-curriculum, between classroom learning and experiential learning. A moment to rethink what scholarship and creative activity can be. A moment to say that just because universities have primarily been pathways for European knowledge, as my own discipline suggests, it doesn’t mean our outlook has to be primarily European. We might ask different questions at an institution that privileges Black, LatinX, and indigenous voices, questions such as why those communities are suffering disproportionately from COVID right now in Sonoma County.
It is a moment to start making change--in ourselves and to our campus--that will create what Dr. Terrell Strayhorn calls a sense of belonging, “the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the campus community.” We won’t create that sense of belonging until we own and disrupt white supremacy. As Gloria Anzaldúa notes, “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” It’s a moment to really, truly, deeply change the images in our heads and then to change how we teach, how we hire, and how we unthinkingly accept stereotypes that limit how much our students can learn and who can be powerful. We must stop saying “I can’t do anything about that,” and decide to act.
Here’s the good news: the last five months have taught us we can make real change here at Sonoma State. Who knew it would suddenly be possible to put our forms in AdobeSign and accept digital signatures without the world coming to an end? Who knew, more importantly, that we could commit ourselves to offering an excellent, rigorous, engaging, and human education in an online format? And yet we are doing it, not just as an emergency “have to” but as--do I dare say it? --an intentional act of resilience, of continuity of learning that will be impactful and long-lasting, even after we are able to be together again in classrooms and offices. The value of our residential campus and our liberal arts and sciences focus can be even more evident and important for a “worst case scenario” having come true.
Our faculty, our staff, and our graduate and undergraduate students have dedicated themselves to teaching excellence and student success--and it is that effort that will define Sonoma State. Therein lies the strength of the future and strength of our community. Let me call out right now the extraordinary efforts of our faculty to keep students motivated and connected and to provide equitable, humanizing learning experiences, whether we are on-ground or online. Here are just a few examples of what our faculty is doing. Professor Teresa Nguyen from Psychology is engaging students in dialogue about the impacts of microaggressions using media clips and discussion forums. Professor Mark Gondree from Computer Science is creating a sense of belonging using welcome videos, micro lectures, and formative check-ins on class material and student wellness. In the arts, Professors Jenny Bent and Clea Felien are bending software to the task of making art and music and sparking the artistic sensibilities of students who haven’t stopped creating just because there’s a pandemic and who want to give us artwork that challenges, inspires, and motivates. Let’s give credit to Justin Lipp, Matthew Paolucci Callahan, the faculty mentors, and the other staff of the Center for Teaching and Educational Technology, who pulled out all the stops to help faculty make transition after transition, to take us all beyond pivoting into teaching and learning. We must also celebrate the work of our housing staff, our student services staff, our advisors, our financial aid staff, our facilities staff, to name a few, who will be engaged in-person and online to keep our university working and who will find new ways to help our students make college the experience it should be.
There is much to be thankful for and many ways to find hope. And there is a lot of work to do. Post-apocalyptic imaginations transform the world, after all. Nothing is ever the same. There is loss and fear, but there is also the opportunity to genuinely make things better. Let’s go there. Let’s do that. In his 2017 book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis urges us onward: “We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”
 Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (New York: Modern Library, 1939), 214.
 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 190.
 Terrell L. Strayhorn, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2019), 4.
 Gloria Anzalduá, Borderlands: the new mestiza : 25th anniversary = La frontera (San Francisco: aunt lute books, 2012).
John Lewis, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (New York: Hachette, 2017), 43.