Jeremy Cass, Associate Academic Dean and Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures
August 27, 2018
Welcome to the official opening of the 2018-2019 academic year, Furman’s one-hundred-ninety-third.
I would like to thank President Davis for the opportunity to speak with you today.
It is an honor to do so.
Surely, all of the excitement in this room stems from the start of the semester and from the anticipation of the milestones, adventures, and challenges that the coming year will hold.
Or maybe it’s just the free lunch that we are about to enjoy together.
To our returning staff and faculty, welcome back.
On behalf of the Academic Affairs team, I would like to thank you for your continued and tireless efforts to enrich the lives of our students.
My colleagues and I are inspired by your commitment to our students’ well-being and to their growth.
The challenges that you put before them, and the ways in which you nurture them, will enable them to live lives of purpose long after their time here.
Welcome back, as well, to our returning students.
We hope that this will be a year of engagement and advancement for you no matter where you are on your pathway.
By now, you have much wisdom to share, and I hope that you will seek opportunities to connect with our new students.
I think today’s lunch is the perfect place to start.
We are also pleased to welcome into the fold our new faculty and staff colleagues.
We look forward to partnering with you as we seek to impact our students.
It takes a community to provide an exceptional student experience, and we are so happy that you have joined us.
You start your work at Furman at an exciting time, and we hope you can jump right in.
Finally, it is a great privilege to welcome our new students.
We are so pleased to have you among us.
The entire community takes very seriously its commitment to your learning and to your personal development—and to helping you navigate all the twists and turns therein.
As you travel down your own Furman pathway, we will endeavor to foster your short- and long-term success at each of those twists and turns.
And while as an institution we believe very deeply that it is crucially important for our students to take ownership of their own development, both in and out of the classroom, we commit to partnering with you and to offering support when you are met with challenging circumstances, when you face difficult decisions, and when you simply find yourselves stuck.
On behalf of the administration, staff, faculty, and upper-class students, please accept my warmest welcome and my sincerest best wishes for a productive, challenging, and rewarding year.
Before introducing our invited speaker, the Honorable Keith B. Johnson of Furman’s class of 2005, I would to like reflect with you on how you might go about approaching the coming academic year.
I can imagine that the thought of walking into a college classroom tomorrow, the luckiest among you at 8:30 a.m., might be daunting.
You might be anxious or enlivened at the thought of starting your academic journey.
You might have lots of questions—about how things work, about how difficult the adjustment might be, about how you will adapt to the academic rigor in which we take so much pride, or about how your academic story might develop over time.
Or perhaps you have not given your classes a single thought, either because you have been having too much fun or because you are just not ready to face reality.
Whichever the case, as you get ready to dive in, I want to make an argument for the value of reflection.
Lots of offices on campus are working to find ways to infuse opportunities for reflection into our courses, curricula, and programs, and once you have become a bit more established here, perhaps you will work more closely with one of those initiatives.
But for now, we should start small.
As your minds swirl, I want you to go ahead and build time for reflective pauses into your calendars—a half-hour here; fifteen minutes there; a long walk on the Swamp Rabbit; a solitary run around the lake.
We want you to take your learning seriously, and we want you to commit to full and steady engagement with all of your courses from day one.
Brief pauses for self-assessment are an invaluable tool as you attempt to build and maintain solid academic habits and as you attempt to extract as much as you possibly can from your coursework.
So, find time to take inventory.
What classes am I enjoying?
In which classes am I struggling?
Are those the same classes?
Does that surprise me?
Am I obsessing over my grades, and in so doing, foregoing opportunities for authentic learning?
We also want you to learn how to be savvy about your own learning, and to that end, a few moments of regular reflection can reap much benefit.
You might have heard that academics are challenging at Furman.
We know that growth occurs when we are challenged to push the boundaries that we thought confined us.
Accordingly, your professors are committed to giving all students, especially first-year students, early and frequent feedback on graded work.
You should always respond to that feedback:
first, taking initiative on your own to attempt to sort out what can be addressed by you individually and what cannot;
second, working with your professors to correct issues and refine your thinking;
third, involving other campus partners in establishing deeper support strategies when necessary.
But you might not realize the value of such an approach if you have not been spending the necessary time evaluating your own overall progress.
So, for example, your advisor will be checking in.
Respond in a timely manner so that he or she can have an accurate picture of your progress and strategize about how best to support you.
Then, if you need to consult with your advisor on deeper questions, reflect together—stop by, make an appointment, send an email, or make a phone call.
Another example: a professor might reach out, perhaps with an academic concern, or perhaps because he or she is personally interested in something you said in class.
If your professor wants to meet to discuss an issue, invest lots of time in assessing your own progress beforehand so that the conversation can be more productive.
What was I able to accomplish on my own?
Where did I go off the rails?
Were there parts of this experience that I thought went well for me?
An added benefit: it’s never a bad thing to demonstrate to your professors that you have been reflecting on their course or strategizing about how to make improvements.
If, as you settle into your routine here, you feel like your own efforts are just not sufficing, stop by the Center for Academic Success in the basement of the Duke Library.
Take the necessary steps to equip yourself with additional support, like a tutor, a staff mentor in a related area, or an academic counselor, possibly from the start of term.
Ask around, talk to your advisor, or even scour our websites for potential points of connection.
Students who develop the habit of reflection and taking action are set up for a more lasting success.
As you nurture your reflective habits, I invite you to expand your thinking a bit, casting a longer view.
There’s tremendous value in using your time here as a testing ground—a laboratory-of-sorts for how you will spend your time after Furman.
You might view some, or maybe even most, of our general education requirements as a chore that will distract you from what you currently view as your primary objective.
In the first place, if you all will allow me to channel some solid liberal arts thinking, your primary objective might change, and that’s okay.
Second, you have probably already seen that, around here, we celebrate the breadth of our curriculum; our extensive general education program is perhaps the most salient feature of our liberal arts identity.
Over the years, I have spoken with plenty of students and parents in the Friday afternoon group advising meetings—which you experienced just the other day—who express disdain at having to take a particular course or engage in a particular experience.
Occasionally, parents in those meetings recall their own struggles with certain college courses while their student sinks in his or her chair; the memory of a negative academic experience still fresh.
In addition to helping you understand and appreciate the world in which we live, you will find that taking courses outside of your comfort zone will allow for plentiful opportunities for reflection, all the while allowing you to amass an impressive collection of skills that can be used in a variety of ways during and after your time here.
As you eventually declare your majors and establish yourselves in your home departments, you will start to familiarize yourselves with new ways of thinking, which could be used as testing grounds for the ways you interpret the world as a professional.
Don’t freak out, you’ve got plenty of time before you have to worry about declaring a major—in fact, you have my permission to just settle into your courses and worry about longer-term plans later, maybe even next year.
Furman can also be a profitable testing ground for you outside of the classroom—socially, personally, spiritually, vocationally.
Use your time here to deepen connections with others, to find opportunities for meaningful dialog with those who might hold different views, and to push beyond yourself.
As you cultivate that kind of thinking, a little bit of reflection can go a long way, helping you discern things about yourself that you might not have known.
There is great value in struggling with and making your own decisions.
In fact, there are even practical benefits to managing the consequences of a bad academic decision.
Successful independence requires reflection, and sometimes self-advocacy, ingenuity, and, frankly, bravery—all useful tools in one’s broader personal development.
One year ago, in these very proceedings, Ken Peterson, Dean of Faculty, spoke to our first-year students and gave them incredibly practical advice on how to achieve successful outcomes here.
Most people tend to tune him out when he speaks, so I am going to repeat his instructions, as I find them particularly useful as you think broadly about how you can take an active role in shaping your own pathway.
Dean Peterson equipped the members of the class of 2021 with four strategies: to connect bravely; to explore broadly and with purpose; to reflect frequently; and, to adjust quickly.
This is sage advice, and the earlier you connect, explore, reflect, and adjust, the more rewarding your Furman experience.
I would argue, however, that without frequent reflection, your efforts to connect, explore, and adjust might not come to full flourish.
Finally, a brief word of caution.
For as long as I can remember, there has been talk around these parts about the so-called Furman Bubble, that protective, somewhat magical membrane that partitions this beautiful little campus from the outside world.
I hate the concept, really, and wish we would stop talking about it.
So why, you might ask, did I just throw it back into play in such a prominent venue as this?
Because it is easy to get accustomed to life in the bubble, and I want you to be constantly attuned to that potential trap.
We need you to take the skills and knowledge that you acquire here and fix the world.
The more separated you are from the world, the harder that is.
Do good work, struggle well, seek help when you need it.
And reflect often.
Thank you for your attention and best wishes for a fantastic year.