Thank you Provost Haefner for the kind introduction.
In the spring I was honored to be recognized as an Eisenhart recipient for outstanding teaching; it was truly the highlight of my academic year! But to be asked to give the keynote address today and to get to speak on behalf of all RIT faculty is my new highlight of the year! This is an incredible experience and I thank those who put my name forward for this honor.
Class of 2020, welcome to RIT. Being a new student here you might not be aware of the incredible transformation that your institution has undergone in the past decade or so. RIT has grown in terms of student body, academic programs, national and international presence and in terms of our research and scholarly output under the vision and leadership of President Destler and his team. But what has not changed has been our commitment to education and to helping all of our students achieve academic success. If you read any of our strategic plans you will see that “student success” is the anchor for any and everything we do at RIT. Part of our commitment to student success is in how many of us try to structure courses to challenge and engages all students in the classroom. Because, let’s face it, if someone just talks and talks at you for an hour, you’re going to tune out and play Pokemon Go on your phones. And since I don’t want that to happen now either, I’m going to ask that we all participate in a short activity that I often do in class. It’s called a think-pair-share exercise. I’m going to ask you all a question and you’ll spend about 15-30 seconds thinking about your answer. Then I’ll ask that you turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself, and share your answer with him or her. It should get loud in here for a minute, but that’s OK! OK? Parents and friends, please join us!
The question I want you to answer is....what is one thing that you are really, really good at? I want you to think about that and then share what you’re good at with your partner. OK? Go.
OK. Let’s get some feedback. If your partner said they were a really good artist, can you raise your hand? Who’s partner shared they were a good musician or singer? Who’s partner said they were good at programming or gaming? Who’s partner said they were a great chef? How about partners who were really good at a sport?
I’m going to guess we have at least a few gymnasts in our audience. I bet you all didn’t wake up last month and say, “You know, I’ve never tried gymnastic before but today I’m going to perform a flawless routine on the uneven bars.” I bet we have a concert pianist in our midst and I know you didn’t just sit down at the piano last week and start playing Beethoven’s Fifth. I know, for a fact, the men's and women’s hockey teams here don’t just show up on the ice on a Saturday and hope for the best! They practice.... a lot.
Whatever your talent, you trained and rehearsed...probably for a long time because some part of you knew that by practicing and practicing you would continue to improve. Guess what? That same reasoning holds true in our academic pursuits. Practice and training makes us better. But sometimes....when we try new course...or attempt to study a new discipline...or embark on an independent research project...we tell ourselves that, “I can’t do it” or “I’m just not a math person” or “I’m not a good writer” or maybe even, “I’m not college material” in the face of a poor grade or less- than-stellar performance in a class or lab or studio. And it’s not easy to overcome these doubts about ourselves.... especially when we think about the way that popular culture depicts what a successful scientist, engineer, mathematician, computer engineer, artist, or researcher looks and/or acts like. And often we’ve had to deal with subtle cues along the way that might make us doubt our own ability. Imagine a high school senior sitting down with their guidance counselor saying, “I want to go into a computer engineering program in college.” Does the counselor respond with an enthusiastic, “Wow, that’s really exciting!” or do they suck in their breath a little bit and say, “Oh. Well, just so you know, those are pretty difficult programs, but let’s see what we can find.”
Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Standford University, has spent decades researching and describing something called mindset and how it plays a role in motivation and achievement. A growth mindset means that we believe with practice and training we will continue to improve. And considering the talent pool in this room, and all of the things you are good at, I know you all subscribe to the growth mindset....at least in some domains on your life.
A fixed mindset, however, means that we believe our abilities, talents, and skills, are something that we are born with...or not. For example, our culture believes in and often fuels the myth that certain fields, like mathematics, requires a special innate or inborn talent in order to be successful. So it’s over before you start, right? You either have it or you don’t. Isn’t that a lot of unrealistic pressure? To assume that we have to excel at an academic subject the first time we try? A fixed mindset can also lead us to think that we don’t belong or that we can’t be good at a particular subject or we’re not qualified enough to be in a particular major or may even interfere with our ability to complete our college degree. And that’s a terribly sad outcome because, you know what, our institution and our nation wants and needs each of you complete your college degree. We need all of your ideas, energy and creativity because we have many complex problems to solve and it’s going to take all of us, working together, to solve them.
So maybe, just maybe, we have struggles in a particular college course because the high school we attended wasn’t able to offer advanced courses in computer programming or math or chemistry or graphic design or creative writing. Maybe we didn’t have the opportunity to be involved in a biomedical sciences afterschool club. Maybe we didn’t have the option to go an engineering camp during the summer months. A poor grade means we need more practice at something; we might need a little more time to build our knowledge foundation and skill set. It doesn’t mean that we’re not smart or capable enough.
I’m going to tell you a secret about successful college faculty. No matter how long our list of publications or grant funded research projects or awards received is....the list of manuscripts rejected, grants turned down and awards NOT received is longer. Very, very few people excel at something the first time they try it. The vast majority of us have to work really hard.
Class of 2020, I welcome you to RIT. I wish you the best of luck and I look forward to learning about all of your talents and abilities that you develop and grow during your time with us. Thank you.