Campus News

Remarks delivered by Susan E. Bell, Professor of Sociology at Opening Convocation August 28, 1996

Story posted August 28, 1996

I would like to welcome members of the class of 2000 to Bowdoin College. Although others have already welcomed you here, and my colleagues on the faculty will welcome you again when you cross the thresholds of their classrooms for the first day of class, Robert Edwards has given me the honor of officially welcoming you to the start of the academic year. I've chosen a title which I intend for you to hear on multiple levels; and in fact, I will spend my time today expanding and reflecting on that title.

First of all, I intentionally use the word "connecting" instead of "separating".

Going to college is often, if not almost always, depicted as a time of separation from your family, as a time of leaving home, striking out on your own, and beginning an important stage in the process of forming an individual identity and becoming an adult person. Until a person can take care of his or her own needs and have a sense of his or her own identity, s/he cannot form lasting (loving) relationships with other adults.

In addition, leaving family and home to enter the world of College -- of scholarship and rigorous study -- is frequently equated with leaving the "real" world and entering an "ivory tower". In this ivory tower, scholar/teachers set aside the distractions of the real world and give their attention to the development of knowledge, making sure that they do not bias the results of their work; examining society, culture, politics, economies, and nature objectively, impersonally, impartially, and detachedly. These scholar/teachers may feel passionately about their work, but when they are in the laboratory, the field, or the library they remain emotionally neutral. Separation and objectivity are, according to this view of scholarship, prerequisites to knowledge.

By using the term "connecting" in the title of my talk, I am questioning these assumptions about "separation", evoking two enormous debates within and about the Academy -- about the meaning of adulthood and pathways to it, and about the meaning of knowledge and ways to develop it. Regarding "adulthood" the questions asked include the following: for whom does this pathway apply, and when? (How do women compare with men? able-bodied/disabled? middle-class/poor? African-American/white? What about Americans compared with Japanese? And so forth) And, related to these questions, how was this knowledge about adulthood developed, by whom, and according to which ways, forms, and techniques of thinking? (To complicate matters further, these two debates are themselves connected to one another!)

These debates are enormously important in and of themselves -- for in the process of engaging in the debate and of amassing evidence, scholars are enlarging, enriching, and complicating our understanding of "identity" and "knowledge". But beyond this, the debates are important because by deliberately and actively engaging in controversy, scholars are (in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills) "cultivat[ing] and sustain[ing] publics and individuals that are able to develop, live with, and to act upon [democracy]."

Second, I use the term "world". You are indeed, entering a world, the world of Bowdoin. While this world is not an ivory tower, entirely separate from the world outside, it is also not a summer camp, as implied by the belittling and simplistic nickname "Camp Bobo" which some of you may already have heard.

Bowdoin College is a world in which our central task is the construction and exploration of knowledge. In this world, the world of liberal arts colleges, we have the privilege, and I believe, the responsibility, to take thinking seriously. In this world, our work is to engage in focused, sustained, intellectual activity; to connect fully with the intellectual world.

The center of the world at Bowdoin is the classroom and the relationship between students and faculty. In the classroom we read texts with one another, learn how to see the texts as part of sustained discussions within and across disciplines, and learn how to connect the texts with the world beyond the disciplines, the "outside" world.

So Bowdoin as an intellectual world is also necessarily part of an intellectual world beyond. It is simultaneously a privileged, separate world, and a world that can only exist in connection with the broader world of scholarship. What this means for a faculty member is that I am expected to be actively engaged with scholars beyond Bowdoin; with the creation of knowledge, engaged in a sustained conversation with members of my discipline and of the Academy as a whole. In this respect, I serve as a bridge between the world inside Bowdoin and the world of scholarship outside Bowdoin. The job of faculty members is to make the world of scholarship visible to students, to connect them to it, to invite them to participate in it, and in the best of possible circumstances, to make students feel as passionately about scholarship as we do.

Regarding passion, let me give you a personal example. While I was writing my doctoral dissertation I spent months in the stacks of the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School, reading journal articles from the 1930s and 1940s about menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, and hormones or, as they were called then "internal secretions". Brandeis, where I did my graduate work, didn't have a medical library, and so I was able to get a courtesy card to the Countway. I spent hours in there translating my notes into the text of my dissertation. I had my favorite table and chair, preferred elevator, most private public telephone booth, and a free parking space where I never got a ticket and my car was never towed. Even after I completed the dissertation, I spent two more years in the Countway, walking daily through the tangle of Harvard hospitals from the office assigned to me as a postdoctoral fellow to my favorite spot at the Countway. When the postdoc ended, I came to teach at Bowdoin. About two months into my first semester here, I managed to sneak away to the Countway, this time taking a pile of blue books to grade. When I walked into the stacks, I felt giddy with excitement. The musky smell, the sight of frayed and torn volume covers, the dim lights, narrow passage-ways between the stacks, simply overwhelmed me. This is the passion of a scholar! I am still waiting, now over a period of 13 years, to hear a tale of such passion concerning Hawthorne-Longfellow Library from one of my Bowdoin students.

Bowdoin is also more than a world of scholarship and the job of faculty members concerns more even than connecting students to the world of scholarship beyond Bowdoin. As the sociologist Dorothy Smith writes, "our intellectual work ... [is] very much a part of [the rest of ] society." The task of producing and constructing knowledge is "situated in institutional contexts we did not make, though we are working to be part of their remaking." The world of scholarship is connected to the rest of society. An additional task of faculty members is to show students how it is connected and to invite them to think about how the production and construction of knowledge can lead to "remaking" society. One of my favorite descriptions of how society might be remade is Donna Haraway's: a society that is "friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness."

In my work at Bowdoin I attempt to link together the worlds of scholarship and society. In the time remaining I would like to show you how one of my research projects links my students with the world of scholarship, invites them to think about the connection between the production and construction of knowledge and the institutional contexts in which it is made, and how this knowledge can lead to remaking society.

About fifteen years ago the Boston Women's Health Book Collective invited me to revise the birth control chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves. This revision was published in 1984 as The New Our Bodies, Ourselves; I updated the chapter for the 1992 edition, and I am now revising the birth control chapter again for an edition that will appear on the World Wide Web and in print in 1997. (So that I won't confuse you, I'm going to refer to all editions of the book by its original name, Our Bodies, Ourselves.)

The first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was published in 1970. Since then, more than 3 and a half million copies of six versions have been printed, in 12 different languages. It was the first book to provide information about women's health and sexuality, and it has gained almost legendary status. It has been called "the bible of women's health" because it revolutionized "the way a generation of women [think] about their bodies." Our Bodies, Ourselves is a feminist text. Each edition of the book weaves together scientific information with quotations from women about their personal experiences. Each edition of the book also encourages women to act collectively "to bring about change and innovations from the most personal to the most universal levels."

In "Birth Control," my work consists of reviewing the scientific and medical literature about current and possible future birth control methods, reviewing national and international policies about the development and distribution of birth control, talking with scientists and clinicians about their research, distilling these materials, and translating them into a text that people without any specialized scientific knowledge can understand and use. In "Birth Control," I connect the world inside the Academy to the world outside of it. This is an enormous task. The field is vast, the work highly is specialized, and there are uncertaintities and differences of opinions amongst scientists about the safety and effectiveness of different birth control methods. For me, the "stakes" are high: I want the text to be accurate and accessible. I want it to reflect a range of scientific views, and I want it to provide a critical perspective on this knowledge. I want to provide all of this for readers who are thinking about using birth control because they don't want to get pregnant!

At first, the flow of knowledge went in one direction: from the Academy to the world outside the Academy. However, over the years, the connection has begun to go in both directions: from women to the Academy as well as from the Academy to women. I'd like to give you two examples of how the world outside the Academy has influenced and been recognized by the world inside the Academy. First of all, in my review of the literature about birth control research in preparation for next revision of "Birth Control," I have been impressed by how the research establishment has begun to incorporate women's health needs (as articulated in Our Bodies Ourselves) into their policy statements and funding priorities. Second, this spring, members of the editorial board of Contemporary Sociology, a journal sponsored by the American Sociological Association, included Our Bodies, Ourselves in a list of what the editors believe are the ten books of the past 25 years that have had the most "influence on both academic disciplines and the world." Our Bodies, Ourselves is in the company of nine other books by such intellectual luminaries as Pierre Bourdieu, Clifford Geertz, Michel Foucault, and William Julius Wilson. This is a startling event (and certainly a contested one within the discipline).

I would like to close with describing one other way that this research project connects worlds with one another and to return to the College. The first time I wrote "Birth Control," I was the only author. For the update, I was joined by three other women: a member of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, a physician, and an instructor of "fertility consciousness/natural birth control" groups. This time, we will be joined by a recent Bowdoin graduate, Lauren Wise. Her participation grows out of her splendid year-long honors project at Bowdoin. Lauren wanted to find a way of connecting her interests in feminism and science. In a project supervised by me and Patsy Dickinson (in biology) Lauren explored the relationship between policy and research in two areas of reproductive health: birth control and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. By joining us, Lauren has become one of the new generation of women who are co- authoring Our Bodies, Ourselves. It has been incredibly gratifying to me to see my worlds of teaching, research, and activism come together in my work with Lauren.

You, members of the class of 2000, are about to enter the world that Lauren is just leaving. While you are here we will weave the worlds of scholarship and society together in a focused, rigorous way across the disciplines. Remember, Bowdoin is a special, but only partially separate, world. I invite you to engage in your work here passionately so, to return to the words of C. Wright Mills, you can "cultivate and sustain" democracy when you leave.

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