President Jones Welcomes Class of 2017

Convocation marks the beginning of the College’s 190th academic year

Convocation Address
Trinity College
August 29, 2013
James F. Jones. Jr.


Auto-Correct and the Class of 2017

A public confession: I have been involved in a love-hate relationship for the past four or so years.  You see, it was five years ago that I bought my first iPhone and began my hesitant foray into the world of smartphones.  It is one of the features that makes these devices “smart,” namely the auto-correction ability, with which I have this particularly difficult love-hate relationship.  Now, auto-correct has saved me countless times from sending silly and sometimes embarrassing typos, but it has also contributed to a great deal of personal humiliation.  I know that you students are probably laughing to yourselves right now, thinking that members of the older generation such as your president are more likely to commit an auto-correct blunder than you, but all of us, at one time or another, have fallen victim to our over-reliance upon the omniscient, artificial brain that runs our smartphones.  One of the funniest auto-correct bloopers I can share with you that is not so impolitic as to be verboten in a Convocation speech concerns a text between a father and his son on the way to Trinity in August of 2013.

[Dad to son going off to Trinity]:  Did you finish loading up the car?
[Trinity student, Class of 2017]:  Yes, but I ran out of space.  Is it okay that I strapped grandma to the roof?
[Dad]:  You did what?
[Trinity student]:  Guitars!  I thought I wrote guitars!
[Dad]:  Too bad.  I’m sure Grandma would have loved the wind in her hair while we drove you to Trinity to start college!

At this point, you usually try to apologize, but auto-correct does not let anyone off the hook that easily.  No, you find yourself deeper in embarrassment because the smartphone brain, having just morphed “guitars” into “grandma,” has now decided all on its own to change “auto-correct error” to something like “auto crustacean” or “auto cretin” or some such phrase.  Cue the red face and, in Internet parlance, #fail.

Speaking of phones, each of you has unknowingly brought a piece of Trinity with you to campus.  I am not referring here to the Trinity decal that you so proudly affixed to your cars upon receipt of your letter of acceptance from Dean Dow.  I will bet that the phone in your pocket or purse, whether it is of the “smart” or “dumb” variety, most certainly has a camera built in.  Thanks to Dr. Eric Fossum, Trinity Class of 1979, that miniature camera is possible, and it is powered by the CMOS image sensor he invented.  As Dr. Fossum wrote to you last month, his Trinity education prepared him well for his adult life, and he went on to earn his Ph.D. from Yale, teach at Columbia University and Dartmouth College, work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, and co-found his own business.  

 Now, members of the Class of 2017, all of you are embarking upon one of the most incredible adventures of your entire life.  Consider just one simple fact:  here you are in August of 2013.  You will blink your eyes a couple of times, and you will be back here at your Commencement in 2017, having studied abroad, having conducted research with a member of our faculty, having played on an athletic team, having sung with the Chapel Singers, or having been drawn into the quite remarkable programs at The Fred or the Mill or at another of our theme houses.  If you use your own auto-correct function properly, you are now starting across that sometimes swaying bridge that takes you from your Convocation to your Commencement at warp speed.

No one can provide your own auto-correct except you yourselves.  Sure, you are no longer under your parents’ watchful eyes.  If you want to live on Milky Ways and Pepsi, never go to the gym, never get enough sleep, get behind on your work for class, then your auto-correct system is not working at all.  It is your own auto-correct that will enable you to keep yourself safe, healthy, and positively engaged in both your academic and social life here on campus.

 This might seem relatively minor to you: this notion that you need an auto-correct system to help guide you through the next four years, but my colleagues on the faculty and the staff alongside your parents and secondary school teachers all would understand what I mean.  Without a proper auto-correct system, disasters will surely occur.

 Here’s a brutal but true example.  Did you know that the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Germany that carefully and technologically planned the extinction of the Jews in that part of Europe was peopled by fifteen individuals, all highly educated and trained at some of the most distinguished universities in Germany?  Did you know that of those fifteen people at the infamous conference, eight had doctorates in fields such as law and philosophy?  Their auto-correct systems so failed them that they sat around a table and plotted how to exterminate the Jews.  Those around that table may have been smart enough to mastermind such a hideous thing, but they were not wise enough to realize that what they were planning so carefully was monstrously evil.  Their auto-correct systems went mute.

 We hope that your auto-correct systems are powered up and ready to be tuned during your four years here at our College.  For all of us here at Trinity, this is a great day.  For me, the opening of school has always been the happiest day of the year, a day I longed for as a child more than Christmas, or my birthday, or the Fourth of July.  I think that this is true for many of us on the faculty and staff here:  we walked into kindergarten and fell in love with the idea of school.  The smell of the books in the library, the awesome nobility and wisdom of the faculty, the architecture, our own envy of the older and supposedly much wiser students in grades higher than ours.  The distinguished writer John Barth once wrote about individuals who were “born with chalk dust on the sleeves of their souls.”1   I have always loved that line since it certainly does define my life-long love affair with the idea of school.

 Look around you right this minute.  You are part of a very long legacy going back to the founding of Trinity in 1823 by Bishop Brownell, whose statue looks out upon this august Quad.  When I am perplexed and really need my auto-correct to kick in, I often walk out here alone and commune with the good Bishop to seek his advice.  He always reminds me of the immense debt we owe all those others who passed this way before:  the thousands of alumni who have worn the Trinity mantle proudly after their own Commencements here; the teachers, that noblest of words after mother and father, who have given their adult lives to generations of our students; the workmen who built William Burges’s historic Long Walk buildings, the only two Burges buildings in this country by the way; or the Italian stone masons who continued to build the Chapel, designed by Philip Frohman when he was designing the National Cathedral in Washington, after William Mather, the original donor, had gone bankrupt at the bottom of the Great Depression.  President Ogilby could not even pay them, but they continued to build.  You see, their auto-correct systems worked to the letter.  And today, Trinity has one of the most beautiful Chapels on any campus in the entire country.

 So turn your own auto-correct systems on high.  Make good decisions, not bad ones.  Take care of yourselves and of each other.  Trinity is from this moment on yours to protect and yours to value.

 So when you post the photos of your first Trinity memories to Instagram or Facebook, let that be the prompt for you to take a moment to reflect on Dr. Fossum’s first day at Trinity in 1975 as he sat where you are sitting this very minute ’neath the elms pondering his own future in this place.  Do you think, in his wildest dreams, he could have ever imagined that some thirty-eight years later this large entering class of first-year students, sitting here on this same majestic quadrangle, would each be in possession of his invention?  That his creation would be found in billions of phones and cameras around the world?  And which one of us could possibly have any idea about where each one of you in the Class of 2017 will go in your own adult lives, once the magic of a Trinity education has captured your mind, heart, and soul?  Follow your own dreams, but do so with your auto-correct on full.

Take responsibility for your own actions.  Instead of being a face on Facebook, be a face on campus.  Get personally involved.  Invest yourself in one of the many groups and activities on campus.  Go see your professors in their offices.  Come over to say hello to me at lunch in Mather Hall every day.  Spend some quiet time alone in the Chapel or at Hillel or out here on the Quad communing with Bishop Brownell, especially when you are perplexed, or when you have just gotten back a paper that looks like your professor’s red pen broke and leaked all over every other word, or when your girlfriend or boyfriend has just dumped you for your best friend.

 I have given scores of Convocation addresses over the course of my long career in higher education, and I worry more about this one speech than about all the others I have to give in a normal year because this is such a critically important moment for you, who today join us as fellow learners in this hallowed place.  And year after year, and now decade after decade, I always struggle to find just exactly the right words to tell you how proud we are that you earned admission to Trinity, how grateful you should be to your former teachers and to your parents, grandparents, and siblings for having brought you thus far, and how much we are counting on you to take proper advantage each and every day of the myriad opportunities that Trinity offers you.  Since I always fail to find just the right words to express to each entering class at Convocation every year what I most wish to say, I always close by borrowing words far wiser than any I could ever hope to cast myself.

 For the final time in my presidency here at Trinity, I conclude with something very cherished to me, some lines copied into his journal by one of my undergraduate students at Washington University decades ago, long before you were ever born or even thought of.  We all kept journals in which we inscribed our thoughts about the seminar.  In like manner, you might consider keeping a journal of your Trinity years.  It would be worth a treasure to you in the years to come.  On the last page of my young student’s journal he wrote the following lines:

 “Come to the edge,” he said.
 They said, “We can’t.  We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We can’t.  We will fall.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came, he pushed them,
And they flew. 2

 So fly high and fly far these next four years, auto-correct on full.  We are counting on you big time, as they say.

 Welcome and Godspeed to each of you in this distinguished class.

1. John Barth, “Teacher, the Making of a Good One,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1986, p.59.
2. Years later I found that my undergraduate student had quoted an English translation of a poem by the French author Guillaume Apollinaire.