Convocation Essays

Convocation and The College Reads! are important focal points for each year’s incoming class.

The College’s convocation welcomes new students to the liberal arts and sciences community and encourages them to consider their own intellectual journey. This occasion also serves to familiarize incoming students with the College’s academic traditions as well as the institution’s history, symbols and mottos.

Convocation Essay Information

All students will receive a copy of Rising Out of Hatred and the convocation essay prompts at New Student Orientation if you are attending in June or July. The students attending in August will receive a copy in the mail in July. 

Students are expected to complete a convocation essay for new student convocation on August 19, 2019. 

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Faculty Letter to #2023

Dear Class of 2023,

We have read your essays, and we were impressed by how you connected personally with the story of Derek Black’s path toward the renunciation of white supremacy in Rising Out of Hatred. Your responses showed that many of you could visualize yourselves in similar situations as both the witnesses and targets of hatred. You thought about not only the best strategies for countering hatred but also how comfortable you would be with employing them.

Your personal response to Derek’s story focused on a pair of difficult questions:

  • How do we confront those in our community whose thoughts and actions seem misinformed at best, and hateful at worst?
  • How do the ways in which we learn about the world, and communicate with one another, serve either to deepen our prejudices or to open the door to greater understanding?

Regarding the first question, many of you endorsed the approach that Eli Saslow also finds most compelling: Allison’s patient, critical, and persistent probing of Derek’s belief system. For many, her interest in understanding Derek’s views before refuting them was key to getting him to interrogate his own ingrained prejudice. As one of you remarked: “The best way to change ideas is with better ideas.” Many of you commented on the futility of fighting hatred with hatred, citing the landfall of hatred that Derek received once he was outed as a white supremacist. 

Some noted how emotional comfort with Allison, coupled with her rigorous adherence to facts and the evidence for them, persuaded Derek to imagine the possibility of a different worldview based on sound reasoning. As one of you wrote, “The main reason I find the friendly and slow approach most effective is because every time someone aggressively confronted Derek for his beliefs, it reinforced his greatest fear: the white race coming under attack. Meanwhile, when someone like Allison would challenge his beliefs with logic and facts, Derek would begin to backpedal and eventually change his convictions.” 

For many of you, Allison seemed to strike the right balance between the less judgmental fellowship offered by Moshe and Matthew during weekly Shabbat dinners on the one hand, and the unequivocal vocal rejection by many of Derek’s peers on the other. She did not disguise how intellectually bankrupt and personally painful she found Derek’s views, and yet she continued to engage him, drawn by what she saw as his capacity for growth and change. 

However, you also expressed some uncertainty about the potential for individual growth in our current social and political climate. About 50 white nationalist groups, including Stormfront, continue to maintain influence in the US by promoting white nationalist ideologies and inspiring horrendous acts of domestic terrorism. Within the last month, a white supremecist group called Patriot Front invaded our own campus as part of their “national campus campaign.”  Given these realities, some of you questioned whether the example of Derek’s turnaround would apply to many of those who promote hatred--whether, as one of you put it, “Derek is the exception or the rule.” Is his case too exceptional to serve as a model for anti-racist activism? Some of you noted the extraordinary effort required to change just one individual who fortunately proved receptive. What if the vast majority caught up in such ideologies are not intellectually and emotionally so open to change? 

Likewise, what if Derek’s carefully hidden views on white supremacy--while leading a double life as an academically gifted and culturally sensitive peer--had not been so easily exposed at New College? Once the full extent of Derek’s views became apparent, some of you understood the urge to reject and confront, outright, anyone whose words not only espoused hatred, but inspired violence. Addressing the point that Derek’s story might be exceptional, several of you expressed concern that the book could leave the impression that compassion and reasoned debate are sufficient to change someone’s worldview, especially given the counter-example of Derek’s father whose opinions were not changed: “Derek’s talking points do nothing to move his father’s opinion.” 

While most of you were drawn to the first question--with responses about the transformative power of personal relationships and collective engagement--a few responded to the second question that focused on what we termed the “visible and invisible infrastructures of hate and tolerance.” This question was motivated by conventions that enable or constrain racist ideologies and our responses to them. One of you recalled the intimidation you felt as a child growing up in a southern town with confederate symbols in public spaces, “having a history filled with racism...through statues, TV, online sources can teach you a lot and shape your ideology for the worse.” At New College we witnessed the dissonance of Derek’s continued racist activities enabled by Stormfront’s broadcasting infrastructure, even while he was embedded within a community devoted to open communication. In fact, a range of cultural and technological supports--most prominently, the student forum at New College--enabled students to debate Derek’s presence and, ultimately, to bring about changes in his worldview. 

Focusing on technologies, many of you noted how online communication can facilitate open conversation but can also provide incubators for hateful thought, as seen in the rise of Discord, 8Chan, and other sites. Others pointed to the value of platforms you use--like Instagram, Facebook, and GroupMe chats--for enabling exchange across cultures. Among these observations, we saw interest in access to a space like New College’s student forum for student-led campus conversation. As far as we know, this kind of platform does not exist at CofC. We invite you to agitate for change--either through the founding of a College-wide platform like New College’s or by taking initiative yourselves to develop a digital space for campus-wide conversation among students. 

In conclusion, we leave you with the challenge issued by one of your classmates: “So what are you actively doing in your sphere of influence to positively provoke hard conversations and build difficult relationships for a larger picture of inclusion, love and mutual understanding?” 

Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. We hope you will continue the conversation by attending “An Evening with Eli Saslow” on Tuesday, October 29 @ 7:00pm in RITA 101.

Sincerely,
Your Faculty

 

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