First Collection 2012: President Rebecca Chopp

Rebecca Chopp

"I invite you to be a wizard or whiz at metaphor: listening, learning, creating, respecting, being illumined, and living in wonder," said President Rebecca Chopp. "Doing so may well be your greatest adventure, your wildest ride, the most precious jewel you discover in your time here with us."

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President Rebecca Chopp joined Dean of Students Liz Braun, Professor of Spanish Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, and Ian Perkins-Taylor '13 in welcoming the Class of 2016 to Swarthmore. During an event that evokes the College's Quaker roots, this student-designed tradition is held during each new student orientation in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater.

An Adventure in Metaphor

Good evening. Since your arrival earlier this week, I imagine everyone has been welcoming you to your new home, to the incredible adventure ahead of you, and to this challenging yet supportive community. And I am sure everyone has been giving you lots of advice about courses, life in the dorm, studying, food, parties, wellness, Swarthmore-speak, Philly, and the Bolt bus to New York, among countless other things.

To their good wishes, I add my welcome.

But I won't give you any advice. Who in the world would remember the advice of a college president given at the end of an exhausting week? When I think about my own college orientation program many years ago, I recall only two things: 1) the incredibly cool upper-class woman who was my orientation guide and my immediate, immense and intense desire to be as cool as she and 2) a faculty advisor who told me to take the toughest classes possible in my first year-an effort at which I was considerably more successful than my attempts to be as cool as the upper-class woman. I have no memory of the college president even speaking at the orientation, though I assume he must have done so. So I am humbled to stand before you, especially when a student and faculty member follow me. But, if you would like advice from me, please come visit me in my office. What I would like to do tonight is invite you to join me in my love of metaphor and for engaging with others in what I will call the adventure of metaphor at Swarthmore.

I invite you to inhabit-intimately, rationally, intuitively, and emotionally-metaphor making and unmaking, crafting and deconstructing metaphor during your four years with us at Swarthmore. I invite you to become a wizard or perhaps just a whiz at metaphor.

Metaphor has a proud and significant history at Swarthmore. The College traces its roots-a great metaphor-back to Hicksite Friends. The Hicksite Society of Friends believe that the light of truth (or of God) is in every person. Because of their faith that everyone is carrying within them the goodness of Truth/God, and therefore the light, the Hicksite Friends believed that everyone deserves great respect. And, by logical and practical extension, everyone must be listened to deeply, since the illumination of truth will come from the light within other persons as well as from the light within one's own heart and soul. Today we understand that the more diverse a community is, the closer one can come to understanding true reality. Only through listening deeply is truth respected and connected within the community.

A metaphor begins with listening deeply. To accept my invitation tonight is to begin to practice deep listening, opening oneself to another's experience, listening for the difference that is there, that beckons, invites, confronts, and may even offend. Becoming an artist at creating metaphor is one way to really engage diversity and thus find the pathways to truth within this inclusive community.

I love metaphor; indeed, collecting and thinking about metaphors is one of my favorite hobbies.

I love to recall traditional or what some call dead metaphors:

All the World's a Stage - Shakespeare.

Or to feel the warmth when I remember my dad's voice saying:

Time is money.

I also enjoy Swarthmore-specific metaphors like "misery poker" to describe a favorite pastime among Swarthmore students of comparing with each other their monumental workloads-"I'll see your two seminar papers and raise you one lab report and a dance performance."

I love new metaphors: The Black Swan to describe outlier events that change history in an unpredictable and irrevocable fashion. 

And I worry a lot about the metaphors that would aptly nail the current presidential race!

I have spent much of my academic career studying metaphors and thinking about how they really work.

A metaphor is a surprise, an insight, a wow, a wonder, and a moment where you see something revealed in a new way. Monroe Beardsley, philosopher of aesthetics, argued that a metaphor is a poem in miniature.

Metaphors make sense, but not literally so. You might even say that a metaphor is an intentional creative mistake. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle called it a category mistake, and Paul Ricoeur described it is a calculated error.   Or one could say, with Richard Schiff, that a  metaphor is a leap in meaning

Isn't it interesting that to speak about metaphor one must of course speak metaphorically?

According to one of my favorite American thinkers, philosopher Kenneth Burke, a metaphor is  "a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the this-ness of a that or the that-ness of a this."

Linguistics philosopher Max Black is a bit more exact: "It would be more illuminating to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing." So the world really isn't a stage, and time really isn't money, but in making the metaphor, the similarity is created, and one catches sight of a truth or meaning suddenly revealed.

Metaphor is about creating, pretending, and performing some similarity between two different objects. It is performance art. It is not about cementing sameness or engaging in cultural reductivity.

There is no technical formula for creating metaphors-making a metaphor requires art as well as science. Whatever characteristics help define your sense of who you are, listen deeply. We are each made up of unique and complex combinations of the interwoven elements of our identities. For example, if you are from New York City, you shouldn't assume that you know the experience of another student based on the fact that she/he is from rural North Dakota. In addition to being from North Dakota, the student might also identify as LGBT, Jewish, multiracial, a first- generation college student, and an only child. All of these different elements shape who that person is, and it will take deep listening and time for all of this to be revealed to you. Don't assume you know someone because of the high school they attended, the color of their skin, or the pictures they've posted on Facebook. In addition to listening deeply to others, and at all costs avoiding assumptions, we should listen deeply to the wide variety of ways we experience our own identities. The more fully we know ourselves, the more we will be able to both listen to and truly hear another person's experiences.

One final component-one I think our Hicksite founders would very much want mentioned-is that a true wizard at metaphor is always humble, for metaphors can be very problematic, even dangerous, if they are taken literally. Metaphors, to be good-or gold-must garner respect for how they reveal what is not literally true even as they reveal new meaning. Never, ever think you really understand fully the extent of difference between you and another person. A metaphor, remember, is a poem, a category mistake, a calculated error. To learn and to wonder requires the humility of always listening for more, remaining open to being confronted by more difference, always taking another leap. There are limits to understanding one another perfectly, yet the opportunities to continue trying are boundless, and the resulting richness to be shared is priceless.

To live in metaphor is to live humbly and, I think, with integrity, the type of life that our founders hoped our students would lead. To be a whiz at metaphor is to learn to live the wonder that can illuminate us, if only for a moment; to experience another human being and still always know that he or she or they are, will, and should remain different from ourselves. I invite you to be a wizard or whiz at metaphor: listening, learning, creating, respecting, being illumined, and living in wonder. Doing so may well be your greatest adventure, your wildest ride, the most precious jewel you discover in your time here with us.

Welcome to Swarthmore, Class of 2016.