2021 Convocation: Schools Visible and Invisible

September 30, 2021
Mark Jordan
HDS Professor Mark Jordan / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Delivering this year's Convocation address, entitled "Schools Visible and Invisible," was Mark Jordan, Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Research Professor of Divinity at HDS. The ceremony included a welcome from Dean David N. Hempton, music by Christopher Hossfeld, director of music and ritual at HDS, and readings by HDS students Cassandra Montenegro and Alex Baskin. 




DAVID HEMPTON: Hello, everyone. I begin our convocation, our annual gathering ritual, with an acknowledgment of land and people. Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself, which remains sacred to the Massachusett people.

So good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to Harvard Divinity School's 206th convocation. My name is David Hempton. And as dean of Harvard Divinity School, I'm delighted to welcome all of you, colleagues on the faculty and staff of the Divinity School, our colleagues from other schools here at Harvard University, all of our incoming and returning students, and our alums and friends near and far from all around the world. Welcome, everyone, and thank you for joining us.

While this is a 206th time that the HDS community is gathering for the festive opening of an academic year, this is only our second and hopefully our last virtual meeting together. Although we are excited to be back on campus and in our beautiful new spaces in Swartz Hall. We're still being careful not to take unnecessary risks with our community's health and well-being, so thank you for your patience and your understanding.

Please permit me a word of thanks to everyone at HDS who helped put together today's festivities. A special thanks to Karen Grundler-Whitacre and everyone in the Dean's Office and the Office for Academic Affairs, to our communications and IT staff for tech support and guidance, and to Christopher Hossfeld for the wonderful music he will contribute to today's event. Many thanks also to our student readers, Alex and Cassandra, and of course, especially to our speaker, Professor Mark Jordan.

These are difficult times and all our lives. We are living through the worst public health pandemic in over a century. We see violent acts of systemic racism almost every day. Our civic institutions are under unprecedented stress and strain. Truth and trust are bent, distorted, and undermined. We see it with our eyes, and we feel it in our bones. We are tired and sometimes despondent.

At HDS, we are not and should not be isolated from these challenges. Last year, we launched a yearlong reorientation and Common Read program to reorient ourselves around our shared HDS values of respect, dignity, mutual understanding, and trust. We spent the year engaging with the text The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice-- Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation by Fania Davis.

This book allowed us to explore restorative justice as a holistic way to practice our values as we work to build an anti-racist and anti-oppressive HDS. As a result, our Racial Justice and Healing Committee voted to amend our vision to include this intention. So now, our vision is to build a restorative, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive Harvard Divinity School.

This year, we are expanding our reorientation program and reframing it as the reorientation in common conversation. Once again, the Common Read program will be our anchor initiative. We will read Red Nation Rising-- From Border Town Violence to Native Liberation by Nick Estes and other contributors. The first year class is reading the book as part of the Theories and Methods course.

Through our engagement with this text and the conversations it stimulates, we will deepen our understanding of structural racism and oppression in this country, which will also support our efforts towards structural change within our own institution.

Over the past 17 months, we have learned to wear masks and to distance ourselves from others, to be mindful not to shake hands, and to find community and learning online in a virtual reality. We wish we could gather in person to celebrate this ancient rite of convocation, but we're still delighted to gather, even virtually, to listen to our recently retired colleague Mark Jordan, the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Research Professor, who is hailing us from Texas today.

Mark, we are most grateful for your wisdom and for all you have done for our school and our students over many years of distinguished service as a scholar, teacher, and mentor. We look forward to your keynote address on the subject of schools visible and invisible and to learning more about the medieval roots of the university traditions we have inherited and which still shape our collective pursuit of knowledge and transformation, personal and social.

I know Mark does not need an introduction, and I also know that he would not feel comfortable with me noting and recounting all his many honors and scholarly accomplishments. I simply want to say how delighted I am to hear from one of our outstanding colleagues, who combines deep knowledge of the medieval world with equally deep reflection on the ethical imperatives of our own times.

We look forward to today's address and to the festive opening of our academic year. Thank you, everyone, for joining us and please enjoy our convocation.


ALEX BASKIN: Dean Janet Gyatso likes to remind us that awakening in the Buddhist sense is not just a shift in mindset, but that it's actually a bodily transformation. In the Pali Canon, there are people who have become fully liberated from the cycles of suffering through the realization of nibbana or nirvana. And the thing about these people is that they can be spotted from a distance, and that's because, reportedly, their skin glows.

So here I am. It's a far cry from awakening, but I'm wondering about how my time in Divinity School is changing me. And not just how it's changing my mind, but how it's changing my body. How is this degree program shaping me literally?

I think of a year and a quarter in Zoom classes and the way that I tensed and contorted my muscles in front of that screen. Now, these bright new classrooms and faces masked. The hours and hours spent hunched over a computer, a text, a notebook, what bodies do when they're in conversation with other bodies working through ideas, the many different ways that bodies move or don't move in our many different communities and sub-communities.

How are our years at this school forming us? Do we embody what we learn? Is it seeping into our bones?

I'll share a poem that I think, speaks to the simple fact that being a person means being a body. Can you listen to this not only from a cognitive or cerebral place, but can you listen with and through the body? Can you let the words of this poem land in your belly or in your bent knees?

This is a poem by Ocean Vuong called "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong," and this is from his 2016 book from Copper Canyon Press, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

"Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong." "Ocean, don't be afraid. The end of the road is so far ahead, it is already behind us. Don't worry, your father is only your father until one of you forgets, like how the spine won't remember its wings no matter how many times our knees kissed the pavement. Ocean, are you listening?

The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls. Here's the house with childhood whittled down to a single red trip wire. Don't worry. Just call it horizon and you'll never reach it. Here's today. Jump. I promise it's not a lifeboat.

Here's the man whose arms are wide enough to gather your leaving and hear the moment just after the lights go out, when you can still see the faint torch between his legs. How you use it again and again to find your own hands. You asked for a second chance and are given a mouth to empty out of.

Don't be afraid. The gunfire is only the sound of people trying to live a little longer and failing. Ocean. Ocean, get up. The most beautiful part of your body is where it's headed. And remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world.

Here's the room with everyone in it, your dead friends passing through you like wind through a wind chime. Here's a desk with the gimp leg and a brick to make it last. Yes, here's a room so warm and blood close, I swear, you will wake and mistake these walls for skin."


CASSANDRA MONTENEGRO: "AfterLife," to Jason, my poetry sherpa, on graduation eve.

"What does it mean to graduate a master anyway? Should we even be striving for the master anymore, to be a master of anyone, anything? I think we know the answer to that. Conflating mastery with dominion only brings misery.

My friend Claudia says we shouldn't confuse knowledge with knowing, and she's right. Let us instead confer degrees of kindness, of compassionate concern of the kind some knew possible, for it is possible to meld the heart and the intellect. Otherwise, your paper is nothing more than a cheat sheet on how to supplant your heart with a scarab instead of proffering the soft means to mend it. Otherwise, all we have are priests in power and pharaohs in ruins salvaging scripture and holy reason at the expense of the real.

Sure, it's a marker in time, a degree conferred, a paper that might mean purported paper, or pleasurable pastime, or petty profession if you let it. So how will you let it bleed itself into becoming something more than what you were promised?

Or will it merely be another on your wall of literary academic poetic ascendancy or an ascension of the spirit of heart mind? Both or neither, something else entirely?

What is it, this paper privilege you shall soon find yourself holding, its sheen wearing thin, not wearing you? Knowing this, will you let it spill into a prism more sacred than any Pyrrhic incantation, bringing you through what is deadened in this life, heart poised, measured against the softness of a feather in the weighted balance. Healing, heating what is calling you to your next source of truth."


MARK JORDAN: Here we are again in our garrets, talking to screens. It's disappointing that we can't perform this ritual in person by sharing space within Swartz Hall. Still, if we have conducted classes online, meditated, prayed, sung, graduated online, then I'm confident that we can also be convoked online, or at least begin to be.

Even if we were gathered indoors today, some things would need to change. Many HDS complications have elicited soaring oratory. I can't soar. I tend to walk in slow circles around outcroppings of words, so I'll speak to you as if we were in seminar. I'll offer fanciful variations on archaic words to articulate questions about what we do. Fanciful variations, mind you. Medievalists, cover your ears.

During a typical convocation, you would by now have heard of fanfare or march, and you would have witnessed as much of a parade as this faculty can manage. You would have gazed upon our finery, a rainbow of robes and hoods, curious hats, too, including satires on lampshades. No silk and rainbow today, but I put on a plain master's robe to signify the honorary degree I received from Harvard once appointed to the faculty. Its diploma tells anyone interested that I am to be counted into Harvard's flock, and that's our task today, flock counting.

Putting on an academic robe recalls how much we inherit wittingly or unwittingly from medieval European universities. The cuts and colors of our regalia, of course, ceremonies for the academic year, like this in-gathering, even when it comes weeks after the start of classes.

Most of all, we inherit a vocabulary, like the always confusing use of commencement, which translates the Latin [LATIN], beginning. Medieval scholars concluded, of course, of study by appearing publicly in their new role, their new robes.

Or today's Latin word, convocation. [LATIN] calling together. [LATIN] was a Roman verb. Romans convoked soldiers and senators, but also bees and forces of nature. That poses an obvious question for this convocation, what is being called together? As what are we gathered?

By the middle of the 13th century in northern European universities like Paris, Oxford, and the other Cambridge, a precise answer would have been, we gather as universitas. Some fanciful etymologies interpret the word as an aspiration to universal knowledge. But in early academic use, universitas named the whole body of recognized scholars convened to continue their studies. The answer still holds. We assemble now as universitas. We assemble.

Medieval scholars often crossed great distances to convene. Arriving at their destination, they were met by inflated prices for crowded rooms and unsavory food, not to mention drunken brawls, tyrannical local governments, and sultry temptations against virtue, or so complained the scholars.

Here's one stylized lament about university life. "The labors, the vigils, the exertions, the deprivations, the troubles and catastrophes that scholars undergo to seek the pearl of knowledge. How they also leave their friends, their family, how they forsake their homelands, their fortunes and possessions. They come thirsting to drink the waters flowing from a living fountain."

You may detect a little fancy here, too. But do notice how a lament turns into a quest saga. The unglamorous troubles of university life are retold as heroic deeds. Medieval allegories of learning are more than a little fanciful. There are crowds of personifications. Their countenances and hairstyles, postures and costumes signify in numbing detail the progress of learning.

More allegorical persons regularly announce the help they can supply to your quest. Your pearl of knowledge, your living fountain can be reached only with a guide to celestial realms. You'll need new skills, of course, but you must also ascend in a new character. To allegorically tuned ears, convocations says you have come to the right community for questing. You are no longer alone.

Don't let allegories or other advertisements distract you from that word, universitas, from the thing that you and I are supposed to become. It is not a celestial word. Before schools appropriated it, universitas named guilds of artisans like stonemasons or wood carvers. A university originates in Paris with the adoption of the organizational analogy between congregated scholars and a craft guild.

The rise of universities is not the birth of arts and sciences. The knowledge that medieval European universities issued from ancient schools of philosophy, healing temples, rhetorical competitions, rabbinic academies, Roman legal institutes, desert hermitages, poets circles, esoteric sects, Islamic madrasas, and houses of wisdom, to give a brief genealogy. Universities are distinguished from these other learned communities not by what they teach, but by legal provisions borrowed from the guilds' apprentice systems.

We should debate the analogies' advantages and disadvantages-- certainly, our medieval predecessors did-- to re-conceive a Christian theological school, for example, as part of the local universitas offered a ready-made civic identity, measure of self-governance, certain rights of ownership or litigation, and an institutional connection to other powerful expertise. Namely, law and medicine.

But the analogy brought dangers, too. Objections were raised against removing theological teaching from older sites of religious formation, like large churches or monasteries. Could you teach theology beyond the sites, separating it from regular prayer, efficacious ritual, intentional community, and bodily training?

Should you liken theology to civic law or professional medicine? These questions continued to press. The new religious movements that spread alongside faculties can be understood as efforts to balance university membership with intense religious practice.

Other questions, other dangers arose as the guild analogy worked itself out. For example, one privilege of civic guilds was a monopoly on specified skills or merchandise within a city. The medical faculty at Paris rather quickly claimed a right to police local physicians and pharmacists.

In 1322, to choose one case, a woman was accused of practicing medicine without having graduated. There was a good reason. She had no degree. Women weren't admitted to the Faculty of Medicine. Monopoly logic concluded that since she lacked a degree that she couldn't possibly have, she must also be a charlatan. It didn't matter that many witnesses testified to her success in healing.

Members of the Parisian faculty of theology used the monopoly model to supplement their existing church authority. A dozen years before the medical case, university theologians participated in condemning a book written by Marguerite Porete. The book is a masterpiece that discovers in vernacular literature fresh language for narrating a soul's ardent pursuit of the divine.

But the book had already been burned once in Marguerite's presence to scare her away from teaching or writing. She didn't scare. She was arrested again. This time, her teaching was rejected by the awesome authority of 21 credentialed theologians. When she refused to repent, Marguerite was executed by the civil authority and another copy of her book destroyed.

The guild analogy carried by universitas has political consequences. It directs flows of power. It encourages corresponding vises or abuses. When we renew our inheritance of medieval academic structures, we should attend to such dangers, not just the monopolistic analogy, but its many reformulations across eight centuries and around our globe. Academic guilds change but also persist.

I don't suggest that we discard the guild analogy altogether. It can still help us. Externally, it pushes us to prepare for the inevitable, political, and economic challenges to freedom of learning. Internally, the medieval analogy reminds us of the necessary connection between learning and teaching.

Joining a craft guild, you commit yourself to three things, learning the guild's craft, contributing to the craft's advancement, and handing on the craft as best you can. Our medieval names four university degrees still say as much. Master and doctor correspond to later stages of guild membership, and both derive from Latin words for teacher.

Cassie Montenegro has just reminded us of the dangers in conceiving mastery as full possession or domination. Better to understand a degree instead as a renewed promise to continue cultivating your craft alongside others who practice it.

Today, we renew the recognition of each other as universitas. That seems to me a good thing. But it is also good to remember that the old analogy has produced an ambivalent inheritance. Its history is beautiful and ugly, nourishing and violent. A school may strive sincerely to offer you what you need, but it may also pass on the illusion of monopoly, the conceit that it owns what it gives. It may even imagine that it owns you. Once inside the universitas, you, too, may succumb to either illusion or others more recent.

So how can we resist such damaging illusions? How do we inherit structures of university life without succumbing to them? Here's one suggestion. When we put on our guild robes or perform inheritance in other ways, we can recall that the visible institutions of an universitas have always been surrounded by other gatherings for learning and teaching.

However proud or disappointed you may be in the visible schools that count you in, never forget your invisible schools. The phrase "invisible colleges" describes informal networks of sustained conversation, creation, and criticism. Sometimes the networks are informal because the learning they carry is too new, or too local, or too controversial for institutions. Sometimes networks are informal because their members cannot enter visible institutions.

Scholars work hard to reconstruct invisible colleges of the excluded or persecuted, like the two Parisian women I mentioned who belong to robust but separate networks. Since I mean to emphasize how far these invisible networks range outside universities and how many of us belong to them, I'll replace the Roman word "college" with a looser group name, "school."

Let me give you just three examples of invisible schools before inviting you to perform your own convocation. One invisible school comprises those with whom we write, beginning with those to whom we send embarrassing drafts, our first audience, in several senses.

In fictionalized diaries, the Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia remarks, "a writer's public consists of their friends. Beyond that circle, shadows." I suspect that I've written most of my books for a circle of friends, written books and not just drafts. They don't know each other, but they do constitute a school, a persisting group that I rely on for teaching.

But here's the strange thing. Some of the members of this school are living and some dead. If I get comments on drafts by email and telephone, I also hear inwardly comments from the voices of teachers long gone, many of whom I encountered only through their writings. They all school me when I try to practice to improve my craft because, of course, we can never finish learning craft.

Other invisible schools are found in communities of ritual. Today, we're trying to do the essential part of an academic ritual online, but recall the fullest meanings that the word has for you. Perhaps you mean by ritual the deliberate repetition of prescribed words, or song, or silence, or thoughts, or no thoughts, of disciplined bodily actions, including stillness.

You may notice especially how ritual draws boundaries in space and time, within which it bends perceptions by music, or incense, by altering light, and modulating duration. Many religious communities use ritual to bring about encounters by spirit possession, or vision, or eyebrow to eyebrow transmission, by re-enacting stories that make and undo calendars, by picking up an ancestor's burden, or addressing coming generations. Teaching them, transforming them, ritual incorporates those who perform it into invisible schools. And here, I underline Alex Baskin's urging us to pay attention to our bodies ourselves

Finally, consider the invisible schools of your non-human teachers, other animals, of course, but also plants, trees, what we abstract as landscape. Places have seasons of weather and of human habitation. One hour crawling over cracked black clay to prune old hollies, I may have glimpsed a scrap of what Dogen Zenji means in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra when he says that an ancient Buddha's teaching are already carved on trees and rocks. If you cannot see mountains walking, he insists, you aren't yet looking.

Lisa Brooks, an Abenaki scholar, traces her resolve to see beyond New England's colonies back to her father, who taught her to read the lands and waterways, to understand the depth of history that lies within the land, to laugh at our human fallibility in the face of so much power. Fallibility and transience.

Will it shock you if I report that I find February the bleakest segment of a Cambridge winter? So I search for the early flowering of witch hazel and crocus in February? The witch hazel around Divinity Hall, the crocus in a shielded bed near the corner of Shepard and Avon?

If you look at old prints of HDS buildings or read Henry James, you may find it hard to recognize Cambridge in the 1850s, harder still to imagine this land before everything on it was renamed according to one colonial analogy or another. Through a succession of names. Underneath all of them, an invisible school girdles our small corner of Harvard.

I'll stop the examples, but do notice one last thing about them. Adopting the phrase "invisible colleges" or "invisible schools," we confine ourselves to institutional valuations. Harvard is a visible school, we say, while the landscape around it is not. But that's backwards. If we measure visibility and invisibility with our eyes, the universitas should be counted as invisible while early flowers, and bodily rituals, and writing partners are delightfully visible, or at least audible. And the shifting names, old or new, they link visibilities to invisibilities.

If we were in seminar, I'd stop now to propose that we do some writing together in response to prompts and then share the results. We can't easily do that. Let me end with a different sort of prompt instead. You are the only one who can conclude this convocation, or rather, begin it. You must count yourself into this flock, and then you must keep counting daily, sometimes hourly, for this and all your other schools. May the flocks have a good year.


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DAVID HEMPTON: So thank you, Mark, for your thoughtful, wise, and engaging remarks about skills visible and invisible, past and present. We're indebted to you not just for your words today, but for your years of teaching, mentoring, and scholarship in service of our community at HDS. We miss you and hope to hear from you many, many times in the future.

We are grateful to have celebrated the ancient ritual of convocation, even with the tools of modernity helping us along. I wish you all a safe and satisfying year of study, engagement, and service in pursuit of a more just world. Thank you, everyone, for joining us, and have a great year ahead.