Dr. Laura A. Watt's Convocation Speech 2018

Dr. Laura A. Watt

17 August 2018

Hello everyone, and welcome to the new academic year!! 

And particularly welcome to all the NEW faculty, staff, and administrators – we are SO excited that you have joined us!

Particularly following on what was SUCH a challenging year in 2017-18, I think that we are all ready for a fresh start on campus, and I’m looking forward to working with you all to make this an engaging, creative, collaborative, and constructive year for our campus.

For those of you who are new, I’m the Faculty Chair this year – I’m from the Dept of Geography, Environment, and Planning, and I’m also Graduate Coordinator for the Cultural Resources Management Masters program – and I’m joined in faculty governance by Melinda Milligan, from Sociology, as Vice-Chair; Carmen Works from Chemistry is our Immediate Past Chair, although she’s on sabbatical this fall; and Elizabeth Stanny, from Business Administration, is the Senate’s Secretary. 

The Senate is the deliberative body of the faculty, and I hope to increase its usefulness this year as a conduit for communication, between the various arms of the university and also from the faculty to the Senate and back out again.  It’s an every-other-week opportunity to have a check-in and conversation about what’s happening across the campus – and we plan on emailing out some “highlights” from each meeting, so please look for those every other Thursday or Friday!

So, we’re in a period of redefinition or re-articulation of who and what SSU is – a process of re-connecting with a stronger sense of place, identity, and intention – based on a number of recent changes and on-going efforts:

  • New administrative leadership – almost every administrator at the upper levels is new in the past two years – bringing a breath of incredibly-fresher air after decades of opaque campus management and an often-acrimonious relationship with faculty
  • Strategic planning – great work was done by everyone last year to identify our overarching goals and core values; this year will be about identifying more targeted objectives and plans for implementation
  • Major revision of GE program is underway, as recommended by our external reviewer as well as by WASC, our accrediting body – a lot of rethinking is needed here!  The GERS committee has been working hard all summer, they have a website up already, and should have some recommendations for campus soon
  • Student recruiting has re-focused on our local service area (instead of recruiting so heavily in SoCal areas), and combined with our recent designation as an HSI, there’s increased attention to WHO our students are and how we are serving them best
  • Finally, the disruption from the October wildfires last year, really shook us to our core in some fundamental ways, as well as the whole County around us – and we continue to discover the ways in which that event and its aftermath have transformed aspects of our local landscape, economy, and community

As we move forward with tackling these goals and ambitions, we will need continued emphasis on the importance of clear and frequent communication and collaboration across campus – I think we all can agree that we never want to go back to those dark acrimonious days – we cannot waste any energy on in-fighting or misunderstandings.  

So I want to toss out some ideas today, falling under three broad topics, all of which I’m wildly fond of, and about which I have a few images to show sense of place, resilience, and boats. (images not included here)

1. I’m a landscape historian, so I hope you’ll indulge me in a VERY brief landscape “lesson”– Paul Groth, a cultural landscape historian and a beloved mentor of mine, describes landscape as “the interaction of people and place.”  What we experience as a landscape is a combination of what physically & biologically is out there, plus what is in our heads.  How we think and feel about what we see matters, and this in turn influences how we interpret, use, and change landscapes. 

Through constant reinterpretations and changes over time, the visual and material details of a given landscape will gradually reflect the ideas and values of the people who live within its area and/or control its use, in the same way that the ecosystem reflects the area’s basic climatic and geological underpinnings.  Landscapes become, as geographer Peirce Lewis has described them, the “unwitting autobiographies” of those who live and work in them, as the landscape is socially produced and reproduced by people’s activities and ecological forces. 

We may use the terms “cultural landscape” or “natural landscape” to emphasize one aspect or the other – but all landscapes contain elements of both nature and culture, as well as both material characteristics and intangible interpretations or meanings.

And because of this constant interaction between nature and culture, landscapes are necessarily dynamic, shifting with changing environmental conditions and as well as changing cultural values.

So place shapes us just as we are shaping it – and I think it’s worthwhile to stop and think about the history of our place—transformed from a pancake-flat seed farm to a thriving and diverse campus —the ways in which our collective values get written into it, and how we interact in this place, both with our environment and with each other… what autobiographies have we written, and how is that changing now?Which brings me to my second theme:

2. Earlier this year SSU formally joined the Resilience Studies Consortium – a group of nine small liberal-arts schools, both public and private, from diverse parts of the country and representing diverse communities, forming a partnership based in place-based education and expanding educational opportunities for our students. As the first faculty representative to this group, I’ve been thinking about how our campus contributes to a broader sense of place and community resilience in our County/service area – especially relevant after last year’s fires, & as the County is doing some major re-definition too.  And look, they’re using the term resilience too!

Resilience stems from many sources on campus, which I will lump into three familiar categories (and apologies that many of the examples are very my-world-centric, but I’m sure that there are loads more all across campus):

   Teaching – especially, but not limited to, place-based education – examples:

   Research – and note that we do MORE of this than most small liberal arts schools, who may not do much research at all, and we also contrast with bigger R1-types, which (may) have less of a local focus – not all of our research is local, but a large portion is, and there are almost always local applications.  Just a couple of many possible examples:

   Community engagement and service – note the number of our graduates out IN the community, doing things like running the solar installation company, or the environmental non-profit group –here are two of my recent advisees on the staff of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, for example – we all have these extensive NETWORKS, how can we better coordinate those across campus & beyond—to do a better job at knitting these networks together into a more cohesive and strong sense of connection with our neighboring communities?

So, as we tackle our challenges in the coming academic year – both the ones we plan on addressing and those that unexpectedly pop up, as they always do – yes, we have plenty on our plate already, but let’s add articulating and emphasizing our role in increasing resilience and strengthening sense of place.

As part of that, there’s a necessity of working collaboratively:

  • ON campus – cooperation/teamwork & clear and transparent communication between faculty/staff/admin
  • OUT from campus – make sure the County/service area knows what we’re up to, and how we might help, and that we are INTERESTED in working together

3. Which brings me to my final theme, which is really just a metaphor – I like boats, so think about them with some frequency – and in some ways, our campus is like a sailboat, which I spent over a decade racing on the SF Bay, which can present crazily-dynamic conditions within the space of just a few minutes – wind shifts, weird currents, etc.  On a mid-sized racing boat, we often crewed with a team of ten, each person with a unique role; my usual job was called “pit,” I looked after all the lines that move stuff up and down, which required totally different skills and abilities than those for the bowman, or for the driver, or the tactician, etc. 

Yet certain jobs, like raising the mainsail, required several people to work in concert – and it’s always imperative that everyone understands everyone else’s role, and how all the different moving parts interact to make the boat go fast—or can work against each other, something you want to absolutely minimize. 

When a boat crew is really dialed in, they work together quietly and smoothly, often looking as though they are moving to a planned-out script or choreography—but that order and flow arises organically and spontaneously from the combined decisions and actions of all these different players, from constant communication amongst the whole team, and from the trust that they have in each other and the respect for each other’s work.  A strong team has a confidence that each of them knows their own role, and is focused on that, while also always keeping the whole boat and all its interrelated parts in mind – and the result is that the boat sails as fast and steadily as possible, no matter what the often-changing conditions might be.

I’d like to see SSU get to that point – we’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years, but there’s still room for improvement

  • understanding how the roles of administrators, staff, and faculty dovetail and complement each other, and how all those pieces come together to create the best possible learning environment for students
  • keeping clear and transparent communication going at all times
  • and trusting each other to be doing our individual jobs to the best of our abilities while constantly keeping an eye on how the whole thing is moving.

When we are all working together, we truly can go anywhere.

So here’s to having a fabulous, energizing, productive year together!