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W&L Opens 259th Academic Year with Reminder of the Power of Words

Addressing the annual Fall Convocation at Washington and Lee University on Wednesday, Sept. 3, Suzanne Parker Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at W&L, reminded members of the community that their words carry both power and responsibility.

W&L welcomed an entering class of 454 first-year students to its 259th year of instruction. Classes began on Thursday, Sept. 4.

Keen, who addressed her remarks principally to the newest and youngest members of the community, explained “we live inside a medium of language” from our birth. “By the time we are twenty-four months old most of us are engaged in shaping our reality with the words we speak,” she said. “So it matters which words we choose when we describe ourselves and our aspirations, when we greet or characterize others, when we say who we are and where we want to go.”

Keen, a 2008 winner of the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education, said that the commitment to civility and respect means that “community standards are violated if and when words bring harm. Our words are deeds. They can tear down as easily as they can build up, and no constitutional protection of speech or press exonerates a person from the responsibility for the consequences of his or her words if they harm others.”

Keen invited the first-year students to take positive and promising risks—such as “committing to the study of Chinese when you place out of Spanish” or “choosing an unfamiliar discipline to fulfill a . . . requirement.”

Another risk that Keen recommended to the students is to preserve W&L’s historic Speaking Tradition—to respond to the greetings of others they meet on campus. As Keen noted, that tradition is challenged these days by what she labeled “technologically induced solipsism,” a reference to the common practice of walking while either talking or texting on cell phones.

That risk is worthwhile, Keen said, “for if in every relationship with another there is an element of risk, an opening up of the self that makes us vulnerable to rebuff or misunderstanding, we must take that risk daily, or be shut out from the experience of care, to lose the chance at that most fundamental of the social virtues, friendship.”

In his introductory remarks to the gathering, W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio said that the Convocation is one of those occasions that “remind us why we do what we do . . . why, as faculty, we have chosen the life of the mind, and not just a solitary life of the mind, but one that is shared with students and colleagues . . . why, as students, you have chosen this special place to spend the most special time of your life . . . why, as staff, the arrival of students in late summer reminds us that W&L is not merely a workplace, but a chance to influence a person’s life every day we come to campus.”