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Marion K. Stocking
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THE ARTS IN THE LIBERAL ARTS
BELOIT COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, 15 MAY 2000

President Ferrall, all you about-to-be alumnae/i, good old faculty, distinguished guests, families and friends:

I am just delighted that Beloit has had an official Year of the Arts. and I'm delighted to say something about the role of the arts in the liberal arts. But I have to ask myself: with such splendid people on the platform here, why was I selected to speak to you today? One reason might be that when you get to my age you discover that you are, willy-nilly, a custodian of the history of your time. I'm remembering Memorial Day when I was six and I was taken to shake the hand of a Civil War veteran who recalled that when he was my age his father had taken him to shake hands with a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill. That battle (of course you all know) was in 1775. So there's only one hand between mine and our land before it was a nation. More to the point, since coming to Beloit in 1954 I have been, though not an artist myself, profoundly engaged in the arts, as teacher and as editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal.

(Oh, I have to mention parenthetically that I was delighted to learn that Beloit's Year of the arts was also Queer Year. Of that I'll say no more, except that I am thinking fondly of the many students, faculty, administrators, and alumni/ae of the past, among them some our most distinguished, who would have reason to rejoice at this news. End parenthesis.)

What I want to do here for a few minutes is share some of the history of the arts in the liberal world of Beloit College, as I have known it for almost a half century. I have to begin my story in my last months teaching at the University of Colorado, when I accepted the assistant Professorship in English here at the munificent salary of $4000. When I told my Boulder colleagues where I was going, I got an interesting range of responses. The director of the University Museum lit up: "They have magnificent archaeological collections. Wait till you see their Mimbres pottery." My friends in the theater brought me the latest issue of Theater arts to show me a story on Kirk Denmark's program, including the innovative Court Theater. A painter friend said, "They must have a good art department. I see they just had Ben Shahn there." And I already had a subscription to The Beloit Poetry Journal, by then almost four years old. The school sure looked good to me. There was, however, a professor at Boulder who had actually taught at Beloit briefly. He was dismayed. "You won't be able to stand it, Marion," he exploded. "It's the most puritanical place I've ever been. I even had to pull down the shades if I wanted to light a cigarette." Well, I didn't smoke, so I decided to take a chance.

My arrival in '54 happily coincided with that of Miller Upton as president: a new president is always a turning point in a college's history. Beloit had just completed a year-long self-study, underwritten by the Ford Foundation, which recommended a radical revision of the entire curriculum. In addition to interdisciplinary majors, it proposed a substantial core curriculum, including a sophomore course in the arts. Although the faculty had approved the plan, there was substantial resistance among some senior professors. President Upton brilliantly exploited this ferment by immediately establishing six, not three, academic divisions and asking each division to define what an educated person should have learned in it. Our conclusions were intended to define graduation requirements. I chose the new division of Creative arts. and despite the Ford report's emphasis on appreciation, we decided in our division that a person should not just learn about something. We should take a stab at actually doing it: write a story, paint a portrait, sing or play an instrument or compose a song.

The arts were already strong at Beloit, but pigeonholed within academic departments. We immediately went to work in extending the arts across the curriculum--and beyond. I want to discuss the arts in the context of the academic history of the college--with two more brief parentheses.

First, as for myself: I went right to work on The Beloit Poetry Journal. Not only did I handle the business and the screening of submissions--as I still do--but I compiled a chapbook of folksongs I'd been collecting and I even once designed a cover. In my literature classes I learned to integrate film and the other arts into the literary matrix. My creative writing class met in the Wright Art Center, in a seminar room where the entire west wall was a glass case displaying the college's ravishing collection of Chinese court robes. I had never seen, nor have I since beheld, such gorgeous brocading, such glowing patterns of birds and trees and flowers and dragons. It was my first glimpse of the strength of the China connection at Beloit. One hand would not go very deeply into the history of China.

Parenthesis Two:  While I'm on the subject of what Beloit's new world meant to me, I have to mention that my office mate in the English Department was David Stocking, one of the young Turks on the Ford committee and an editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. By Thanksgiving we were engaged, and on the last day of classes we were married. So in Dave Stocking I found the best possible companion and partner for my life in teaching, scholarship, and the arts, including the applied arts of child rearing, bird banding and wilderness canoeing. Close parenthesis.

Beloit's new direction meant not only a multiplicity of demands and opportunities for the faculty; it had a revolutionary impact on the curriculum. The English Department was especially enthusiastic about the new interdisciplinary direction. Fred White, the brilliant department chair, was a comparative literature scholar, specializing in utopias. He had brainstormed a radical Freshman English program in the spirit of the Ford Report and put me (gulp!) in charge of it. We divided the first semester between ancient Asian texts (the Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu, Confucius), and in the second half ancient Mediterranean (Homer, the Oedipus cycle, Plato). The second semester opened with modern humanistic views (Darwin, Marx, Freud) and closed with the Judeo-Christian view. (Only the Greeks and the Bible had I ever encountered before.) Most of these works were then taught nowhere else in the college. For us, creative thinking in memorable language in any field was art. We avoided drawing a clear line between the literary arts--high poetry, great drama, epic fiction--and powerful texts in philosophy, biology, and psychology.

In 1964, when Beloit went to a year-round calendar, we built on this foundation to develop the utopian Underclass Common Course (UCC), pronounced UCK (we weren't very good with acronyms!). In addition to its intellectual content, UCC was also a writing course, but one that was taught over three semesters by faculty from all departments. I was--and still am--enormously proud of this course. Eventually I came to be the director and naturally was known on campus as the Mother-UCCer. The third semester of UCC was typically devoted to the creative process, not just in the canonical arts, but in the social and behavioral sciences and the physical sciences and mathematics.

In President Upton's third year I was appointed to a committee to create an all-college honors program, for outstanding seniors with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. For them we created seminars, each taught by faculty from three different fields. Student work could be scholarly, critical, or creative. My own contribution was a course in Living Opera, taught by the head of the music department, the head of the modern languages department, and myself. Our texts were the works in that year's season of the Lyric Opera in Chicago, which we attended each week via our Opera Bus, which carried us with our picnics and wine to the door of the Lyric and then home, singing and snoozing blissfully. Eventually the program dropped the honors requirement (on the assumption, I suppose, that all Beloit students are honors students).

Third and final parenthesis: We had named this the Porter Scholars Program after a wonderful Beloit alumnus, Lucius Porter, who had been raised in China and was a founder of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Lucius seemed to us the ideal of a Beloit graduate, for his political activism, his commitment to a global perspective, his wide-ranging expertise in the arts and humanities. (How pleased Lucius would be to hear of Beloit's exchange with Fudan University, to know that we are honoring Jonathan Spence today, and that next year's Mackey professor of creative writing will be China's most distinguished living poet in exile, Bei Dao.)

I can't think about the arts in the liberal arts without remembering some of the generously funded major events that were integrated into the Porter Scholars program and UCC, bringing in challenging people to keep us from fossilizing a good thing. Just one example: in 1966 UCC sponsored a festival of the avant garde, with John Cage doing a "concert" that turned out to be a lecture/poem. Merce Cunningham and his great dance company gave workshops all day and in the evening presented a dance program with David Tudor at the piano. As part of that same festival the Wright art Center mounted a Robert Rauschenberg show, and we had a wild concert of avant garde music as well as a festival of experimental film. We published a booklet to memorialize the occasion, including some wonderfully imaginative concrete poetry by UCC students. Mr. McFarrin, I wish you could have been there to share the energy of the occasion.

I've talked about the impact of the arts in the liberal arts on myself, on the faculty, and on the curriculum. But the students were the whole point. And the students were more than ready for the fresh air of the new administration. In 1955 they founded a campus humor, art, and literary magazine that they named Satyre--spelled S a T Y R E--to suggest both the comic spirit and the classical. They later changed the name to Avatar--an incarnation of the arts. It varied wildly in form and content, but over all these years it has never missed a year and has always been completely the production of the students. And then in the sixties a student underground theater erupted. The students produced Beckett's End Game among these Indian mounds. When the scientists vacated Pearsons for Chamberlin, the crew staged Marlowe's Tamburlaine all over the building, with the audience following the actors from one deserted lab to another. A student director produced a dramatic performance of Pound's Cantos that rivaled anything I'd seen off-Broadway or on the Edinburgh fringe. Then there was their unforgettable Vietnam era production of Lysistrata. (Since it was performed here again last year, many of you will remember Aristophanes' play, in which the women decide to stop a war by denying their men sex until they end the fighting). The students seated the men and women on opposite sides of the chapel basement. The war was settled by single combat between two faculty men--a slender mathematician and a great hulking sculptor. They strutted on in all their armor, with huge false phalluses, and fought to the finish in a game of rock/paper/scissors.

From the sixties on, the arts served social demands impressively. Black students became more and more powerful in political action and the arts. I remember a stunning production in the chapel by black women from the community and the college in Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. And when the black students formulated their demands for more attention to their culture and their needs on campus, and the faculty met to consider their presentation, we walked to that meeting down the corridor to Richardson auditorium past a formidable row of student drummers in African costume. I assure you we paid attention. Mrs. Bond, I imagine you remember those historic days.

And finally (that word you've all been waiting for), I stand here conjuring up all the great artists I've experienced on this campus and how they have colored my life. In 1954 Pete Seeger, still unknown despite being on Senator McCarthy's black list as a pinko Commie sympathizer, filled the chapel with song and pennywhistle and steel drum. And I shiver remembering a young black soprano none of us had heard of, making the chapel vibrate with her magnificent voice. She would soon be well known--Leontyne Price. And then there are the poetry readings! Galway Kinnell and Gwendolyn Brooks, Albert Goldbarth and Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, Carolyn Forché and Denise Levertov and W. H. Merwin, and and and and. . . . When I come back to campus I feel as though I am walking on holy ground.

I do hope you all have your own lists of arts that have empowered your liberal arts education. President Ferrall has made support of the arts a hallmark of his career here, with the poetry. garden a perpetual witness to his vision. and 2000, like 1954, is the beginning of a new administration. John Burris, our new president, says he chose Beloit for its openness to change, its "willingness to pursue important innovative initiatives." We Beloiters will be watching eagerly to see what will emerge from the new ferment in this new century, confident that the arts will always be a radical force in the liberal arts at Beloit College.

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