Roanoke's own Dr. Chris Lee addresses the College community at opening convocation

Dr. Chris Lee, associate professor of mathematics and recipient of the 2009 Dean's Council Exemplary Teaching Award, was the speaker for Roanoke College's 2009 opening convocation ceremony. Speakers from past years include Carl Bernstein, one of the journalists who broke the Watergate story, and Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lee reflected on the beginning of the year as the best part of the year, noting all of the plans that are still intact and the clean slate that marks a new beginning.

The bell used at the opening convocation and commencement exercises to mark the beginning and end of the year is a replica of the real bell, dedicated in honor of Henry Hill in 1954. Hill was a beloved custodian and faithful ringer of the bell. He spent 42 years -from 1911 to 1953-ringing the campus bell to signal meals, chapel services and classes.

Lee spoke of another beginning with the new Intellectual Inquiry curriculum, saying that inquiring is what really makes an academic environment such as Roanoke unique. Lee challenged the audience to realize how much a liberal arts education has to offer and what the effect is of only wanting to know what is on the test or what is important to learn. The text of Lee's address follows:


Roanoke College Opening Convocation
September 1, 2009
Dr. Chris Lee

Thank you Dean Smith, President Maxey, I'm honored by the invitation to speak today. While I have now been at Roanoke College for a full 15 years, and by my calculations have spent around 4237 hours in a Roanoke College classroom, the task of preparing 10-15 minutes of remarks for opening convocation proved to be quite a challenge. I was talking to one of my colleagues about this, pointing out that while I couldn't be more comfortable in front a class, winging my way through some complicated mathematical derivation, this was my first "prepared speech". Her response was a less than sympathetic: "You got a teaching award for winging it?" ...Thank you Jennifer.

I then, as I usually do, I turned to technology. Along with about 30 other faculty, I'm participating in the Roanoke College iPod Touch Project, working together to find creative ways to incorporate this technology in the classroom. I went to the Apple applications store and starting looking around for something useful for this speech. One application I found looked like it could be helpful, and from apple's own ratings its popularity has grown tremendously this year. The Teleprompter application...

I began to think about what this day is truly about. Opening Convocation is very appropriately named as we are here to officially open the 2009-2010 academic year. But, to a good 560 of you sitting before me, it does not just mark the opening of this year, but rather the beginning of your college career at Roanoke. If I achieve anything today, I hope it is to warmly welcome you to the Roanoke College academic community.

Whether this is your first year, your final year, or just one of many more to come, we all are probably feeling very similarly at this moment: This is the best time of the year. All of our plans for what we will accomplish are still fully intact. This is the year we're going to get it all done. That fifth class will not push me over the time management edge, nor will that extra ad-hoc committee assignment, nor will all of the tantalizing social opportunities. We get a clean slate each year, a fresh start,.... a clean slate...... let's enjoy the moment, and more importantly, commit to getting this feeling of optimism and confidence to last a full eight months.

As a member of the faculty I am keenly aware that the class of 2013 is the first to enter under our new Intellectual Inquiry general education curriculum. Intellectual Inquiry.... questioning... it's at the heart of what we do at Roanoke College. Questions are a vehicle for learning, for discourse. Questions are what make an academic environment unique.

We learn from the answers to questions, but more importantly, we learn as we struggle to understand the reasoning, the processes involved in determining answers. While facts and techniques are important, a good percentage of them are doomed for some form obsolescence. Could what you learn become obsolete? Absolutely. If your knowledge revolves solely around facts and specific techniques. If you're not sure of what I mean by this, note that the first computer science course taught at Roanoke College used punch cards and was entitled: "Computer: Friend or Foe?". To the professor of this course, Bill Ergle, this was not a trivial question.

There is a large difference between learning, and learning how to learn. When I'm successful, I don't just teach my students mathematics, I teach them how to learn mathematics. This may even involve them reading the text book. You're not here to learn the answers to questions, the solutions to specific problems, you're here to learn which questions need to be asked. In the spirit of this, my remarks today are going to revolve around a single question. It is one of the more revealing questions I know of. We learn from its answer, and we learn by noting who is asking this question. I am willing to bet that everyone in this room has asked this question, or more recently been asked this question.

The question is.... "Will this be on the test?"

"Will this be on the test" - one simple question that completely justifies the need for a liberal arts education.

"Will this be on the test" - one simple question that unfortunately sums up the state of education in a majority of our nation's high schools.

Don't worry, we all suffer from the type of thinking that leads to the asking of this question. The phrasing may not be as obvious as "will this be on the test", but the question is being asked. Freshman, Seniors, Faculty, Staff, Administration.... we've all played the game.

To help organize this a bit, let's divide your lives up in to three separate stages: life before Roanoke College, life at Roanoke College, and life after graduation.

High School. For a good majority of you, high school included being subjected to standardized testing. In Virginia this is in the form of our beloved SOL exams. What standardized testing does is completely institutionalize the question "will this be on the test?". The focus for the students turns to getting a question correct on a test at any cost, regardless of the path that led to that correct answer. In standardized testing, a random correct guess is every bit as valid as a well-reasoned conclusion. When a high school student asks "Will this be on the test?", that is most often a very fair and appropriate question to ask.

The institutionalization of this type of thinking heavily affects the teachers as well. Let me give you a personal example: Every spring I used to get invited to a "pre-college math" course taught at one of our local high schools, William Fleming. I would go spend an hour with these students, talking to them about all of the varied and incredibly interesting careers that studying mathematics prepares you for. It was fun, the students typically asked great questions, and I'd like to think I played a small role in convincing some of them to continue on with their studies.

Then came Virginia's adoption of the Standards of Learning tests. I received a note from the teacher of the class, apologizing that she would not be able to have me visit any more. The problem was, none of what I was talking to the students about was material that would be on their SOL test at the end of the year. Her valid concern was that if one of her students didn't pass the test, a phone would ring with a parent or administrator on the other end, pointing out that the teacher "wasted" a full hour, a full hour of material that would not be on the test. What a shame. For many high school teachers, they now have no choice but to simply "teach the test?".

You've made it to college, one very large standardized test in the form of the SAT's is over with, and it is time to move on from thinking solely about "will this be on the test".

At Roanoke College, we will do everything we can to free you from that mindset. It is not just me... and this is not new for us... reading from the college's "Goals for Liberal Learning"

[Education in the liberal arts] leads us out from small, safe worlds into larger, more interesting ones by training in us a dissatisfaction with partial knowledge, with sloganeering, and with fixed ideologies. It instills in us instead an appreciation for the true complexity of things and a lifelong commitment to learning.

A liberal arts education frees us from superficiality and distraction into the satisfactions of knowledge in depth, in which depth of learning leads to useful understanding.

"Will this be on the test....?" I don't see that question fitting in any where in what I just read.

If you feel you need to ask a professor "will this be on the test", chances are you are not spending your time effectively. Why is this question asked? What really lies at the heart of the question? A couple things come to mind:

First, the topic at hand is probably getting complicated, or is subject to some form of interpretation to understand. Personally, as a professor I feel I am not challenging my class sufficiently until someone asks "will this be on the test". I have never gotten that question when going through the rudimentary repetitive formulas for calculating derivatives...

Students can also have a very real concern about what is the "right" answer to a problem, or the "correct" interpretation of a passage being studied. The fear of "not knowing the right answer" before a test can be overpowering, causing panic, and a feeling that everything must be quickly memorized. We need to get past that. I often tell my students you can get close to full credit on a test question for virtually any answer, as long as you back it up sufficiently. It is this "backing up your answer", this "showing your work", this "arguing your conclusion" that allows you to demonstrate that you understand the process involved in answering the question, that you can think critically, think logically, and have moved beyond rote memorization.

A wonderfully pleasant side effect of depth of knowledge, of awareness of how a course fits in to the big picture, of truly understanding the discussions and arguments that are at hand, is that you'll be well prepared for the tests.

A related idea in a college context involves the "worthiness of knowledge". While you are (typically) at Roanoke College for just four years, we're focusing on preparing you for the rest of your life. If your approach to an education gets broken down into successively smaller and smaller pieces: years, courses, final exams, tests, quizzes, daily homework... and each of these is simply seen as a hurdle to overcome, a point after which what you've learned can be forgotten, then we've clearly failed as an institution. You're not taking these courses to prepare for a single, contrived, transient situation, so as you go through the semester do not simply focus on preparing for single, contrived, transient situations, like tests. What you're learning in your classes is worth a lot more than a score on a test or a grade in a course.

And, there is so much to the college experience that is not measured by tests. A simple example of this is the important connections that can be drawn between courses. If you want to get our faculty really riled up, just refer to the new curriculum as a "checklist". That'll do it. Writing, no longer taught in one course, but in all INQ courses. Quantitative Reasoning - no longer simply satisfied by taking a few math classes; Oral Communication - History - Social Sciences, we've mixed it all up, exactly as it should be. What are the connections between the courses, how can I relate their content? Those are much better questions than "will this be on the test?"

This leaves us with life after graduation. I've picked on the undergraduates a bit, how about everyone else? Do you think we've stopped asking "will this be on the test?"

...give president Maxey a call the night before one of his presentations to the Board of Trustees.

... or consider the faculty. A couple weeks ago we finished up a 37 year project of rewriting our guidelines for tenure and promotion. The culminating 8 hour faculty meeting was a great example of 125 academics sitting in a room very carefully paraphrasing and re-asking the question "will this be on the test" over and over again. Yes we all worry about it, worrying about how one will be evaluated is one of life's constants.

But, one thing changes, and I'm going to give Dr. Shende credit for giving me a great example to use here. During the debate over what we as faculty had to do to qualify for tenure or promotion, Dr. Shende pointed out that what the guidelines were aiming for was rewarding a way of life, rewarding the fact that you've chosen to spend each day working towards academic growth, towards personal distinction, towards commitment to the college. The same should apply to how you approach your college education, or any job that you currently have.

So, what changes? After college you don't get to ask "will this be on the test?" anymore. There aren't any more tests (maybe grad school), yet the learning is expected to continue.

No one gets hired for a job for which they know how to do everything. While you should clearly have the background skills, you're being hired for your ability to learn, your ability to grow, your ability to contribute to an organization. I can use myself as an example: as an applied Mathematician I have work hard to keep current, to learn what is new, to find ways to contribute to the mathematical community. And, sometimes we are pushed to learn, heck, 8 months ago I had no idea I would need to learn to count to 9 trillion.

Questioning... it's at the heart of what we do here. Ask questions, but, always be aware of what others will learn about you from the questions you ask. Note that asking "when we will ever use this" is akin to "will this be on the test?". Again, the implication is that there is a set, possibly unique moment in time for which this knowledge is useful. And if you really want to endear yourselves to your professor, wait until the day after you miss a class, then fire off an email asking the question: "Did I miss anything important?" Another favorite.

Let me finish up with what I see as a challenge for us all: let your perception of education, your focus on what is important, your reasoning for why you are here evolve. It has to change from "will this be on the test", to a realization that everything is on the test, and every day is a test.

Everything is on the test, every day of your life is a test.

That is what Roanoke College is preparing you for.

Released: September 1, 2009
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