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College of Arts and Sciences

Keynote for the Inaugural Undergraduate Research Symposium

college of arts and sciences

Mark O'Connor
Director, A&S Honors Program

Friday, February 2, 2007

There's nothing I like better than being asked to sing to the choir. I don't have to convince you folks of the worth of doing research in the first place, nor of the need to carry through on what you've begun until you reach some sort of stable moment that's worth sharing with others. I can't begin to express how giddy with anticipation I am, as a life-long lover of languages, to listen to what you've learned about Welsh, or Icelandic, or Bulgarian. But that anticipation is already tinged with regret that I can't clone my way from across the hall back into this room to hear what will be said at the same time about the relation between global poverty and models for economic growth, about the effect of migration on both poverty and productivity, and all of this done from a perspective mainly informed by Hispanic culture. One of the most influential experiences of my recent life was a learning trip I made to Nicaragua a couple of summers ago, and as it happens, I've got a meeting with Provost Garza this coming Tuesday to talk about a new model for learning immersion in other cultures which Professor Purnell and I have collaborated on, and feel passionate about. I could really use what you've discovered to inform more knowledgeably the case I will try to make.

Because as all of us in this room know, that's precisely what first-rate research does: it sheds light in ways that make brighter both the person who produces and the person who receives. But as we all know, too, this new knowledge doesn't come easily. Studying something worth a grown man or grown woman's time in order to achieve, in the end, something worthy of other grown-ups' learning is a process at once intensive, and extensive. You've each invested months in these projects. Now perhaps you're getting ready to invest years, whether in a university setting like this, or more likely in settings that will take you far away, whether in distance or simply world view, from a college campus. You may already know well that really good research is inherently a risky business. I didn't learn this myself until graduate school, when I spent the first six months of round-the-clock dissertation research on a topic of my making which in the end turned out to be a dog, and such a dog that it would never ever hunt. I had to change direction completely. I threw up a lot before I got up the courage to throw out my failed idea, and start again. Yet as bad as that experience was, nothing gives me more pain in my current capacity as Director of Honors than counseling students whose thesis projects have crashed and burned not because of what I'd rate as 'successful' failure--invested all of themselves but come up dry as I once did--no, crashed because they simply didn't commit as consequentially to the rigors of research as this very demanding and distinctive form of learning inevitably requires. For there is far more success than failure in learning where the limits of your ability reside, just as it really is a success of sorts to demonstrate that a seemingly promising line of investigation leads to a dead end. Of the compliments I've been given in my life, maybe the most meaningful arrived the day when a very distinguished scholar at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, having reviewed a piece I had composed in Polish for publication, finished his commentary by saying about my style, 'It is grammatically correct, Professor O'Connor, but we would not say it this way'. I left his office that day in just the right place, at once thrilled and humbled.

On the one hand I had finally conquered which verbs take accusative, which genitive, and which dative case. On the other, I was never going to do for Polish what Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad, did for English when he picked up my native language at the same stage in life I'd started learning his native Polish.

What ultimately makes research hardest to do is, very simply, not doing it--however legitimate the reason. Nothing so undermines the investigative process as interruption or distraction. Getting back in to the complicated current is much harder than the most strenuous swimming upstream. What all of us here today share is a sense of just how enjoyable research can be when done day-in and day-out, even when the work would seem to any disinterested observer as more pain than pleasure. When the International Research and Exchanges Board funded me for a post-doc year in Eastern Europe now more than a quarter century ago, all the material hardships and separations of life led behind a curtain that was no longer iron, but at least tin completely paled before the possibilities. Hence the unpleasant fact that from the time I set foot on Slavic soil I had what was called in those days, with typical Slavic black humor, an 'aniol str�z'--my very own 'guardian angel' who would do surveillance on me everywhere I went--only made me feel more like Indiana Jones than the prospective pigeon I really was. Even when that guardian angel had the local police at one point come looking for my wife Mary, me and our newborn baby and we had to take a bus out of town in a hurry carting our kid in a laundry basket (a boy by the way, born in December--It perhaps needs to be stressed we never made Egypt. We only ran as far as Krakow, not Cairo), well--I was so zoned in on the research that what most bothered me was missing two days in a row at the Czartoryski Archives, where one would normally find me from 9:00 until 1:00, and then 3:00 until 7:00 six days a week. The archivists actually had the temerity to shut down for the midday meal, can you believe that? And just how hard were the chairs in the Czartoryski reading room? I'm glad you asked. They were so straight-backed and stiff that I ended up having to stand all day to relieve my sciatica. And yet! I of course still regard this period of extended, painstaking, monk-like living--no computers, trying to decipher bad 18th century handwriting where it was common for the aristocrats to start a sentence in French, continue in German, then finish in Polish, plus throw in from time to time a dollop of Latin to prove your intellectual bona fides--I still think of this time in my life as magical.

In fact, that stage of my career was so magical that the next time we stayed abroad this way we brought three young boys along, and both Mary and I had fellowships to exploit, though I was still the only one of us with my very own guardian angel. If you ask my middle son Timothy Mark what made him want to grow up to be the Boston College trained geophysicist he is now, he'll tell you it was because geophysics was the one academic area where he was completely sure his parents were totally clueless. But if you press him he might just say what he wrote on his college application essay, that he found piercing rock and thinking about what he found inside a marvelous alternative to piercing himself, as he must--at least until one of you finds a cure--several times daily for his diabetes. As Sarah Thibadeau wrote last term on her Rhodes Scholarship essay, studying astrophysics has inspired her to look at least as far into her self as it has trained her to look out at the stars. Good research invariably brings this sort of introspection along, usually as a bonus, sometimes as a consolation prize. Tim has trekked across the Caucasus, often in snow that almost measures his 6'3" height, trying to track whether a major geological fault does indeed pass through this region, and if so, just where. The geopolitics of the principal country in question, Gruzja--Georgia as we call it--are for sure way more unstable than the tectonic plates. Moreover, were he to lose his insulin up there, somewhere in the mountains, he'd be in a lot deeper dodo than the snow. There's no comparable insulin made within a seven-hour plane ride. As his father I was constantly anxious; as a professor I completely understood. This sort of research, as with so many other fields of inquiry that take the researcher to potentially unstable places, is worth the calculated risk.

The week before the start of term I participated for three days in a Halftime at the Snowy Owl Inn. Those of you who have done this retreat know that the idea is to provoke thinking, roughly halfway through the undergraduate experience, about how your studies and your life are, or are not, coming together. The French have a great expression for this sort of reflection, reculer pour mieux sauter they like to say--you step back in order to leap forward better, and I do think that a retreat defined along these lines is an experience that can make steps turn into leaps--heck, bounds even--and so I recommend Halftime to those of you who haven't yet tried it. I mention how I partly spent my semester break because the adult participants are each asked to bring along a 'symbol of discernment', and I've got mine with me again today. I looked at it on my home desk from time to time while I composed this talk; it was given to me by my sophomore year seminar in 1998 to commemorate a trip we'd taken together, with Virginia Woolf as our guide, To the Lighthouse. I used this little prop to speak to what the great poet William Butler Yeats entitled The Choice: perfecting the work or perfecting the life. The first lines of that brief poem go like this:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work

Up at the Snowy Mountain Inn I spoke, as the Ignatian tradition has guided me to do, about the need to perfect the life. I pointed out that this Jesuit tradition in one way enjoins us to engage in a quest Woolf will have us ponder in a very different fashion, namely, how to create 'lighthouses' on firm land, places where family life is perfected, the sort of place one of the characters in the novel sees as he comes in the crepuscule on the Ramsay's lit-up beach cottage. But I also spoke about then, and want to stress now, the lighthouse that rises out of the sea, to which, in Woolf's odyssey, Professor Ramsay and his children Cam and James will make their epic journey ten years in the making. I noted that a lighthouse, like Woolf's superbly written masterpiece itself, is in no way 'natural', but a product of human inventiveness and ingenuity, and that this sort of lighthouse is meant to keep us safe from quite literal rocks and shoals. To build any sort of 'lighthouse' that improves the material circumstances of our human existence is no easy thing. It demands high intelligence, perseverance, strength, and more often than not, courage. I noted that among the many kinds of places where human invention shines bright we had all chosen to come to a lighthouse called Boston College, and that it was incumbent upon each of us to use the best of our wits as industriously as we each can to make its light shine a bit brighter. St. Ignatius, recall, even went so far as to invoke his fellow Jesuits to make their meager lights set the world aflame.

There are many other reasons yet why I selected this metaphor of the lighthouse that day, but I close now with the one that mattered most to me. I wanted to pay special homage to what every member of the Boston College community could then see when they opened up their web browser to the BC Info page: four members of our Physics department beaming proudly because they had brought into the world a tiny fiber of artificial light. Granted, that new light is yet but a flicker, but it promises much. So, too, does your research when, for example, it begins to cast new light as you will this afternoon on dark places such as depression, on the 'casual cruelty' we so often bestow on the disabled, on the 'artistic cruelty' of inventive intellects which results in racism or genocide. All of these are aspects of the human condition much in need of intelligent investigation by highly educated, enlightened, well-trained minds, just as well-trained minds need to hone in on potential solutions to complex, vexing problems such as health care, or waging peace as an instrument of public policy. What starts as a flicker can grow into a flame, if well-nurtured. Congratulations again on what each of you has already accomplished. I am sure I speak for my faculty colleagues when I pay tribute to how much we are warmed and inspired by its glow.