The Chance to Explore
Dear Saint Mary’s Community,
When I ended my letter to you last month, I was feeling the heady rush of the Le Mans start: I compared launching my first week as President of Saint Mary’s with revving up for that classic endurance race involving high-powered automobiles. But at the end of my message, I promised that while I would continue to move quickly to get up to speed (as it were), I would also slow down and balance important decisions and actions with research and reflection on the unique character of this College.
I’m back to report that I surprised myself last week by trading my metaphorical race car for a literal bicycle. Yes, like so many other people in this pandemic moment, I bought a new bike! Riding a bicycle is not new to me—in fact, it was my primary form of local transportation for about half my life. I never owned a car until I was almost 30 years old, and I got myself around a lot of places on two spoked wheels: I pedaled a cool banana-seat bike in grade school, steered a basic comfort cruiser to my lifeguarding job in high school, and then perched myself on a snazzy 10-speed Schwinn racer when I graduated in 1976. I cycled that Schwinn around the University of Kansas as an undergraduate, took it home to Heidelberg, Germany after my junior year, and conveyed it to England for my senior year abroad. When I showed up at Notre Dame for my graduate work in 1980 — forty years ago! — the Schwinn came with me. That bicycle was so well made that my youngest daughter took it with her when she moved to Washington, DC a few years ago.
And now I have a new-fangled road bike to help me explore the Saint Mary’s campus and local environs. Below, you can see that I stopped to snap a picture one recent evening at South Bend’s East Race Waterway, a man-made stretch of recreational rapids and waves that replicates some of America’s fastest natural whitewater rafting locations.
Yes, my new bicycle is literal. But as I’ve been touring around on it, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve covered roads, paths, bridges, and paved-over railroad beds. And in part, I’ve been thinking about how slower movement — like cycling and walking — connects people differently to the place and the time they are in and also to the deeper time that is inscribed in a place. Inevitably, I recalled a marvelous book I read a number of years ago by Harvard landscape historian John R. Stilgoe titled Outside Lies Magic. A practitioner of what he teaches, Stilgoe promotes the art of being explorers in our everyday environments, of creating habits of acute observation, of actually looking with fresh eyes at the world we mostly pass through unthinkingly every day. If you want a taste of what he does, a quick Google search will land you at a 10-minute video called “Touring Harvard Yard with John Stilgoe” — it’s truly eye-opening.
From Outside Lies Magic I learned to take time to notice — to find secrets and mysteries around me and available to me . . . and that required slowing down. Stilgoe suggests that walking or pedaling can offer the perfect speed for looking around, for being observant: “Bicycle to the store,” he says, “then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory, pedal harder uphill toward the Victorian houses converted into funeral homes, make a quick circuit of the school yard, coast downhill following the sinuous curves of asphalt covering the newly laid sewer line, tail the city bus a mile or two, swoop through a multilevel parking garage, glide past the firehouse back door, slow down and catch your reflection in plate-glass windows.” Even these few sentences remind us of how we can observe the evolving history of a particular place, the ways we hide elements like utility lines in our built environments, the fact that nature will reclaim what we abandon, and even — with the reflection in the windows — that we (and our consciousness, even subliminally) are part of our environments. What we experience outside truly affects us inside.
“Why not explore by car?” Stilgoe asks. His answer is pretty matter-of-fact: “Automobile exploring insulates the motorist from every sort of nuance. The car moves too fast for its driver to notice much, and when it slows, it obstructs then jams traffic.” And of course, a car frames the world differently to our sight; it obstructs the sounds and smells of a place; it separates us from the tactile connection of a bike to the road or our feet to the ground. Cars are made to absorb shocks and defend us against the elements. We need to cultivate a more unprotected curiosity and wonder.
Being back in the saddle again for the past week, I realize that experiencing the world around me from a freewheeling bicycle might be thought of in tandem with what a college like Saint Mary’s offers to its students. If they really take the ride, if they approach their studies with deep inquisitiveness and marvel at both the novelties and the profundities they experience, if they let themselves feel the bumps and the rough patches and figure out how to absorb them, if they figure out their pace and the degree of momentum they need to maintain balance — equilibrium — and if they deliberately immerse themselves in our shared undertaking at Saint Mary’s in all of its dimensions . . . then they will leave not just with knowledge, but with some degree of wisdom. They will have accomplished the discovery that is at the heart of our promise to them. That feels like magic — not just magic outside but inside as well.
Those of us who have the privilege to work in colleges — faculty, staff and administrators — have the responsibility to take this journey too: to cycle and re-cycle the terrain, to imagine and reimagine the environment that makes this magic happen, to build it and rebuild it by design. Obviously, the pandemic we are experiencing has forced us to approach a Saint Mary’s education in a differently deliberate way. I am astonished by the creativity of the faculty as they plan their approaches to teaching and learning in this current context — how they are using the limitations it places on our spaces and our interactions to try new strategies for engaging our students in learning. From lecture halls to small group discussion, from laboratory experiments to performing arts, the faculty are crafting different — and sometimes technologically enabled — ways both to preserve and to reinvent the high-touch experience our students expect.
As a new leader, I am spending a lot of time being a student myself — a student of Saint Mary’s: its history, its enduring values, its curriculum and its campus, its expressed aspirations. As Stilgoe reminds us, any space “is a rich visual environment, and it rewards scrutiny.” For now, I have only new eyes for Saint Mary’s, and as I observe, inquire, and share what I learn, I hope I can help bring the outside inside and inspire others to join me in looking anew at this special place.
But I can’t close without getting just a bit more mileage out of my bicycle. As the new semester draws closer and closer, I want to assure you that all of us here on campus — literally and virtually — are pedaling hard to ensure the smoothest way forward for our students as we all come together in just a few weeks. Eventually, we’ll all have a chance to catch our breath and glide.
Katie Conboy, PhD
P.S. For details on all the work we’ve been doing to prepare for reopening, please visit our Fall 2020: Live Learn Work webpage.