Address to Convocation of Advisors

August 22, 2013

August, 2013
Laurie L Patton,Durden Professor of Religion and Dean, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Welcome to the Convocation of Advisors. I have come to think of this event as the true start of the autumn season. You will notice that I have said autumn season, and not autumn semester. It’s partly because I think of all of you, this advising team gathered here this morning, as a unique natural phenomenon—perhaps even worthy of being classified as a wonder of nature. The complexity and energy that goes into welcoming and guiding our students unfolds through the academic seasons like the diverse ecosystem that it is—in waves, in intricate relationships, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible, and always delicate, always restorative, as only forms of nature can be.  Perhaps we might think of advising at Duke as the “Piedmont Plateau Ecosystem” of Higher Education.

Waverly Fitzgerald, an urban naturalist, explains the study of the passing of seasons as the field of phenology. She writes,

I’ve been a phenologist for ten years. Phenology is the practice of tracking unique seasonal events: birds returning, buds opening, leaves unfurling. Being a phenologist means you have to pay attention and when you pay attention, you see remarkable things. When everyone is complaining about the wintery days in January, I’m watching witch hazel bloom and buds swell on the cherry trees and the flush of red in the tops of the alders.

Every time I note one of these seasonal markers, I write it into the pages of a Book of Days I keep for this purpose. The entries form a palimpsest through which I glimpse the shifting boundaries of the natural world around me, the slide of lilacs towards the end of April, the upswell of woodruff in time for May Day, the layers of fragrance weaving in and out of my summer walks.

Project Budburst is an immense tracking system of phenologists in the USA. They provide lists of flowering plants, trees and weeds they are tracking, along with definitions of the various phenophases. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the color of the new leaves is visible through the openings in the swollen bud. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen.

If you join Project Budburst, you can submit your observations to the web site where they will become part of the data available for scientists all over the world to study. Or you can just keep track in a Book of Days, as I do, so that you can say things like “The tulips are late this year.”

An urban naturalist of the higher education ecosystem might observe that this Convocation of Advisors is a sign of seasonal change. When the distinguished teachers, scholars, researchers, administrators, at Duke University stream into Scharfe hall I rush to join them, and begin the season of advising. And as advisors we exist in both worlds that Waverly Fitzgerald writes about: the world of tracking data so that the, we, our students, and the whole community can learn from it, and the world of close personal observation, where we might keep in our hearts and minds a kind of Book of Days of advising.

Last year was my first year being an advisor, and I noticed how we dwelt in these two spheres. The world of tracking data involved the regular emails that Dean Beth Fox sends out in her newsletter, the ways in which the advising system on DukeHub and STORM is set up to take account of our last conversation with our advisees, and the extraordinary ways in which she and her team use that data to think through the ways which we can engage our students differently and better. All of this is like tracking the data of the changing of the seasons as our students progress from one semester to another, one class to another, one summer experience to another. And these data push us to change and to grow into even better forms of mentorship.

Being a religionist and being hungry for as much student contact as possible to break out of the remote netherworlds of the Dean’s office, I am also compelled by Waverly’s idea of the Book of Days. The Book of Days are simple statements about seasonality, seasonal markers as she puts it. But these small events can be filled with larger meaning. My personal Book of Days of advising was filled with the seasonal markers of learning and intellectual growth. It included my students’ first academic successes, first academic failures. It contained my meeting their parents and having heard I was a dog lover, receiving specialty dog biscuits as a form of parent-advisor bonding.  It had notes about preparing them for interviews for programs on campus. Helping them write applications. Talking to them about the homeless person they are trying to get emotionally stable in their service learning program. And it contained an account of having them over for Valentine’s dinner and thinking that I would release them early so that they could get to their other Valentine’s dates, and having them stay late because, well, this WAS their Valentine’s Day date. And my Book of Days had thoughts about sending them off to the summer with entirely new intellectual and even athletic orientations than when they began nine months earlier. And now I long to see them again, so I can write this new seasonality into my Book of Days of advising.

And each of you has his or her own Advising Book of Days—those small and yet intensely meaningful events that mark the passing of the intellectual seasons. My guess is that you all of kept one, even if it is only a mental one, and that it describes your intellectual neighborhood, your natural habitat in the world of higher education. This is a good thing, and a habit to be encouraged. I want to leave you by reminding you of one of the most important things about keeping this Book of Days. As Waverly writes, while people are complaining about the wintry weather, she is looking at the slight change of the tips of buds that herald another season. One other naturalist put it the following way: in the depths of one season, we can see a small, almost imperceptible sign of the season to come, if we will only listen and watch. In late January, a naturalist would see there is an extra layer of mud and sticks on the beaver lodge in preparation for spring breeding. The American Goldfinches are already looking much more yellow.  European Starlings are losing body speckles and looking a bit glossy.

And these tiny details are what we, too, need to observe and watch in our students. What is the tiny sign of a new season in our students’ lives, and how might we, together with our students, draw attention to it? We might see a pattern of taking classes on a particular topic that the student him or herself may not notice. We might see the beginning of a new capacity for risk- taking in a previously shy or anxious or frightened learner. These new changes of intellectual life are like the small changes in late January—those tiny signs, shifts in color and hue and song that guarantee that some unexpected and joyous form of blooming is just around the corner.

So think now as advisors and mentors: what is our Advising Book of Days? How are we going to write it this year? Can we deepen our capacity for attention so that we see those signs of new seasons in our students’ lives, those subtle shifts of color in the life of the mind that heralds important and meaningful change?  And if we can, then we might all become better observers and nurturers of the life of the mind. I look forward to writing that Book of Days together with you this year.  Thank You.

And now let me turn things over to Beth Fox, the Dean of Advising and a great master of both realms—the realm of data tracking and the realm of critical reflection. I have greatly enjoyed working with her this past year on many different topics, not the least of which was our new ritual of academic homecoming. She is a most creative and conscientious leader from whom I have learned a great deal and we are quite lucky to have her at the helm.