President's Summer 2012 Magazine Essay

A Word from the President
Tending the Garden of Scholarship

"The General himself was very near at the time I picked the roses. But I saw only his form, not his face. The Garden belonged to a wealthy Secesh & is very fine. Now it is a city of tents & war horses are grazing on its lawns & among its roses. The wounded of yesterday’s battle are expected in this morning.” --From a letter by William James Potter (near Petersburg, Virginia) to his wife, June 19, 1864

The least known and very essential part of university life occurs in its largest measure during the months of summer. Most St. Lawrence students never experience the emerald beauty and long daylight of the North Country’s pleasantest season, but that is not really so rare an impression for them to forsake because there are other garden places in the earth, in the summer.

Rather, students, alumni and parents may not realize summer’s importance to the St. Lawrence faculty. It is the time when college professors return to their first love of scholarship.

Much skepticism has been expressed in recent years about the life, tenure and benefits of faculties. The assumption holds that the vacations are long, the work pressures light, and the days of ease and plenty abound.

Unfortunately, the criticism has been overblown in caricature and lampoon. Also, in response, the professorial self-defense has generally defaulted to a quiet surrender as the popular misperceptions are heaped higher. College presidents, however, as residents in “the house of the interpreter,” should seize fresh occasion to clarify the expectations of how faculty spend their time, particularly when they are not in the classroom for many weeks at a stretch.

With our daughter representing the fifth generation of her family to be called “teacher,” I can personally dispel the tired joke that the three best reasons to be a teacher are June, July and August. On the contrary, even out of view from their students, summertime for our St. Lawrence faculty is a period of intense thinking, deep reflection and concentrated study. Scholarship, broadly defined as the pursuits of research, creativity and the marking of ideas, matters passionately to college teachers; this piece of their work develops their craft as teachers more than any other professional activity. The best teachers on campus are often the most scholarly. Summers as a boy call to mind my own college-professor-father hunched over a manual typewriter preparing notes and drafts. I can still hear the percussive bip-bip-crackety-tat, like a jazz player’s lick, punctuated by a dinging bell as the carriage reached the end of the row.

Once the summer’s honeysuckle taste of scholarship has first whetted the appetite for finding things out, then even the quest for knowing the smallest degrees of detail will give a sense of excitement, fullness and fulfillment that will, in time, also make learning contagious for students. Perhaps the chase is close to an addiction, but the pleasure of being a full-time scholar again yields incomparable delight, which come late August is translated and conveyed into the best courses of study our students may ever enter and know.

From my own experience, I saved an extract of a Civil War letter as a personal reminder of a June day many decades removed. At a scholar’s table, I had spent countless hours in a library reading longhand letters from a New England family that no historian had ever seen. The lines above trigger a particular feeling of “getting it”: the general mentioned is Grant; the writer’s best friend from college had just been killed by an exploding cannon shell; his wife is pregnant; and inside the letter, as I unfolded it, were pressed rose petals. Summer has never been the same.