August 18, 2023
Provost Convocation Remarks
I have to admit, I struggled this summer to figure out what literary or scholarly metaphor to use this year for my convocation remarks. It’s become something of a tradition, as many of you know, to bring some piece of scholarship into this annual address, and I am certainly feeling the pressure to one-up myself. Especially when I have, in past years, felt strangely compelled to take on topics like predicting the future, the end of the world as we know it, and the bleakness of pandemic and postapocalypse. Last year I contemplated the absolutely carefree subject of existential crisis–being and nothingness via Shakespeare. This year, if I were really bent on gloom and despair, I could have, of course, made an attempt to decolonize Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and deconstruct or at least analogize its anguished cry of “the horror, the horror.” You’ll be pleased to know that your Senate chair, Laura Krier, put the kibosh on that idea–you can thank her later for that important act of shared governance.
Those of you who have been indulging my gloomy literary flights of fancy over the last three years know that I can’t ever really leave you in the lurch. I never completely succumb to what the 1970s country variety show Hee Haw labeled “deep, dark depression, excessive misery.” There is always in these convocation remarks a shift, a moment when we literary types–and sociology types, math types, criminology types, and business types, to name a few–reach “the turning point.” Andrew Abbott, the notable University of Chicago sociologist, defines the turning point as a “narrative concept” that concerns two points in time, a before and an after. He argues that you can’t know a turning point has occurred until afterwards, a point I’ll return to later. Dr. Abbott suggests that social process can be defined in terms of trajectories, which are inertial, a straight path towards sameness, and turning points. He explains that “[social] actors proceed through trajectories to their ends, then face the striking and to some extent randomizing moments of turning points.” Literary scholars find common ground with Abbott in the context of narrative. In a novel or literary text, a turning point is a “defining moment,” an “epiphany” by a fictional character and “invariably it involves a high moment of tension and action and may be followed by some sort of resolution.” Turning points involve serious events, sometimes a crisis, or a significant change in direction. What turning points do is move the story forward. As opposed to Abbott’s trajectories, in which society moves along as it always has in a given direction, turning points are twists of fate, forks in the road, choices, and ultimately moments of evolution in which both the character and the world around them changes in some profound way. Turning points lead to character development.
Abbott suggests turning points are constructed, often ex post facto, after the events have occurred. As a student of prophetic literature, I’ll argue however that predicting the future is all about trying to cause a turning point at a later point in time. When a sixteenth-century Scottish poet predicts in colorful animal metaphor that the Scots will, in a great battle, overthrow their erstwhile foes, the British, they are trying to make history, turn the tide, manifest a future in which their political ambition becomes fact. They are trying to construct a turning point.
You know where all this is going, right? Here at Sonoma State, we are in the process of constructing a turning point. We are moving the story forward. The trajectory we’ve been on for the last twenty years or so has shifted, and now we have to travel into new territory, what Gene Roddenberry called a strange new world. And the real question is how we make the turning point. Shall we boldly go?
This year, this semester, is pivotal. During the pandemic, we learned to “pivot,” and we learned to get tired of that term, but I submit to you that the last few years were mostly about survival. We did it. We are doing it. We survived and we learned a lot and lost a lot along the way. We are tired still, and we are only just now recognizing what those years did to our students, to higher education, to Sonoma State. But we are, I will argue, in a new moment. Those years were the crisis, but they were not about the future. Now, now, we contemplate the future, and our job is to lean into the change, lean into decision-making, lean into leadership. Now we turn.
When faced with change, we often ask why. Why do we have to change? Why me? Why do I have change? You will not be surprised to hear that I get that question a lot. As we contemplate some really tough decisions this semester in Academic Affairs about our mix of academic programs, about our organizational structure, about how we as academics relate to one another in the project of educating our wonderful students who have been through so much, I submit that the answer to the question why is that we can and should be better. The turn we make is about mindset. We do have to change–the budget, enrollment, those are catalysts, but they don’t drive real change. Real change comes from a vision of the future that can and should be better than today, better than what is and has always been. Real change comes when we own change rather than letting it own us.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a novel that I have come back to again and again in recent years because it is about turning, about change. Butler acknowledges, “There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.” While times are tough in that post-apocalyptic novel, there is an “influence that is strong enough to unify.” Lauren Olamina, the young, Black protagonist of the novel, as one critic puts it, has the audacity to be hopeful in the face of climate change, violence, and hate. The audacity of hope, a phrase that Barack Obama adopted, is the gift that informs Lauren’s leadership, and President Lee has just espoused that same hope and positivity in his address this morning. He urges us to “be our best,” to take on big ideas, to help Sonoma State excel.
Butler says, “All successful life is Adaptable, Opportunistic, Tenacious, Interconnected, and Fecund. Understand this. Use it.” And so we must. We must grow, we must change, and we must do it together, not in our separate spheres, not in our silos, our distrust. I challenge us to learn from and with one another. I challenge us to move outside comfort, outside the known, the trajectory of inertia. Let’s learn what our colleagues do, let’s learn the common ground. Let’s grow and change and adapt.
We have a few signposts to guide us through the turning point. The academic master planning process we initiated last fall has given us direction. Last August, we were worried about identity–our institutional identity, even our identity crisis, but through the efforts of the Liberal Arts Identity Working Group led by Professor Wendy Ostroff and Dean Laura Alamillo, we have recommendations about what it means to BE a liberal arts and sciences institution. They have offered five pathways to leverage our identity to grow enrollment and challenge ourselves and our students to be their best. We are, they say, a liberal arts institution that is committed to each student’s individuality and personal growth, that prepares students of all backgrounds for meaningful and impactful careers by emphasizing learning experiences that address the challenges of our time. That sounds like a mission statement and it is certainly a values statement. We’ll be working this fall to figure out how each of us uses and makes manifest that statement. We have something we didn’t have before–a North Star to keep us true to our path and hold us accountable as we contemplate changes to our curriculum, to our ways of teaching and learning, to organizational change, and to changes in higher education. We will also make use of the recommendations of the Strategic Course Scheduling Working Group led by Administrative Manager Julie Wood and Interim Dean Mike Visser, which took on the nitty-gritty details of course planning, because consistent student-centered, multi-year planning makes more effective and efficient use of our resources. The Current and New Programs Working Group, led by Professor Rich Whitkus and AVP Stacey Bosick, took on the weighty task of developing quantitative and qualitative metrics for academic program evaluation, which merge a liberal arts and sciences identity with the realities of efficiency and effectiveness. There is more to come this semester as that group continues its work and as the Learning Spaces and Technology Working Group under the leadership of Drs. Tom Targett and Justin Lipp gets underway in the fall and as the Academic Support Services Working Group moves forward in spring. My sincere thanks to all the faculty and staff who have participated on committees or working groups, who have provided feedback and answered questions, and who have participated in building a future for Sonoma State. Change is real.
Equally important to the future of change at Sonoma State is our reorganization process. It might be tougher than program evaluation because the trajectory of academic organizational structures are powerful indeed. Disciplinary constructs are fixed, and they control resources. When we change the structures on which our position, our reputation, and our academic power, such as it is, is based, we just plain don’t like it. But the discomfort, the disjuncture we feel is part of the process, and we will get through it. We will get through it together. We are already learning more about the work of our colleagues than we have had reason to do in recent years. We are contemplating the differences of the disciplines and departments and the common ground between them. We have an opportunity to explore purpose, values, intellectual rigor, and new ways of thinking. There are choices–you have choices, we have choices. But only if we can be open to the possibilities.
The turning point is here, the possibility of better is here, and we can be persistent and supportive and determined as we dream big and plan for a new future at Sonoma State. Thank you.
 See https://youtu.be/-IIKE9p5SEw?si=bfPxwrAmZJnklZ8U for the complete song, and https://www.heehaw.com/ for information regarding the show, which aired from 1969 to 1997.
 On our campus, Dr. Stacey Bosick has studied turning points in crime. See S.J. Bosick, “Life course perspective and desistance in offending, Routledge International Handbook of Crime and Gender Studies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 134.
 Andrew Abbott, Time Matters: On Theory and Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 25. See also his essay, “On the Concept of the Turning Point,” on pages 240-260 of the same monograph.
 Abbot, Time Matters, 25.
 A.J. Humpage, “Turning Points in Novels,” Allwritefictionadvice.blogspot.com, March 4, 2012, http://allwritefictionadvice.blogspot.com/2012/03/turning-points-in-novels.html. See also Ansgar Nünning and Kai Marcel Sicks, Turning Points: Concepts and Narratives of Change in Literature and Other Media (Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2012).
 Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Grand Central Publishing, Reprint edition, 2019), 115.
 Paraphrased from Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Grand Central Publishing, Reprint edition, 2019).
 See Carmen Lebar, “Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler,” Cloud Lake Literary, February 26, 2023, https://www.cloudlakeliterary.ca/blogposts/book-review-parable-of-the-sower-by-octavia-e-butler.
 Butler, Parable of the Sower, 105.