Gerald Benjamin’s Message to Political Science Grads: Do Good Work
In a curious way, college professors are like major league starting pitchers. Our work is discontinuous. Over and over we start anew, each time with a chance of achieving perfection. Pitchers do this about thirty times a season. We do it six or so an academic year. As I think about it, the same goes for college students; ten starts a year, ten chances to excel.
Of course, there are few perfect games. But for a professor, in the first minute of the first meeting, even in an often taught course, everything is new again.
I joined the New Paltz political science faculty more than a half century ago and will retire this summer. I’ve done a lot of jobs at the college over the decades, but always tried to teach each year. My offering this spring has been in state government, a course I initiated in our department. It was to be the last of my career. One final shot at perfection. I geared up.
I distributed my syllabus in advance, by e-mail. It set out high expectations. Political Science and International Relations at New Paltz has long been known to be a demanding department, staffed by fine teacher/scholars with a serious priority commitment to student success. We take great pride in that, as do many of our student majors. It makes doing well in our department mean something, and nurtures treasured life-long relationships between students and teachers.
The room was full for the first class. Some students fell away. I fumbled a bit with the technology – as usual – in the early weeks, and complained to the chair about the size and shape of the room before settling in. The students and I met in my office on term paper topics, and we began to get to know each other. I was pleased. There were lots of good, interested people in the room, some very smart. The midterm result was generally quite fine.
Then, as the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” – Man Plans and God Laughs. Campus closed briefly because the village’s drinking water was polluted. We adjusted. Then the pandemic hit. We left campus for sequestration at home, prolonged the spring break, did some crash training, and went over to on-line teaching and learning.
I didn’t love it. But it turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks. We’re in the home stretch. I’ve seen some results in posts and papers; there’s been some serious learning, we’ve had some fun and relationships have begun to sprout and grow.
I’ve long thought we must embrace life’s celebratory moments. That’s why I’ve so valued graduation day at New Paltz, seniors and families gathered on our great lawn, the processional, the caps let fly, meeting and talking with families of our majors. There are too few of these times and far too many of the sadder kind, as we are so painfully aware in this year.
We are denied that very special gathering this May. Out of the same commitment to each other that makes our classrooms so vital, we must celebrate together while apart to make sure we all remain healthy and safe. So graduation will be virtual.
A bit disappointing? Yes. Yet I still look forward to it. However unanticipated, unplanned, and unwelcome, I suspect that our pandemic year “graduation” from our college will be forever memorable for me and for all our majors in the class of 2020.
Congratulations! And remember: Do Good Work.