9/10/2020 Kim O'Brien

Common Hour Offers Poetic Approach to Leading & Learning in Uncertain Times

Sometimes … you come / to a place / whose only task / is to trouble you / with tiny / but frightening requests.

Reciting the words of English poet David Whyte, Franklin & Marshall President Barbara Altmann tackled the topic of leading and learning in uncertain times to commence the College’s fall Common Hour season on Wednesday.

Traditionally held on campus, the event is being broadcast virtually this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Common Hour provides a weekly opportunity for the College community to assemble for lectures on a broad spectrum of topics.

In her talk, Altmann drew on poetry to navigate “learning to live in conditions of which we have no previous experience and to prepare for a world that has irrevocably changed.” 

“There are no practices and there is no rigor that prepare us for this particular scenario, for this intentionality to continue to function fully,” she said in reference to the pandemic. 

The key, Altmann advised, is adjusting your perspective.

“Try to change the frame. We need to try to reframe this as an exercise and get beyond our fear and our stress, and raise our sights a little bit. Look at it all from a higher elevation,” she said.  

Alluding to the frightening forest in Whyte's poem “Sometimes,” Altmann listed the many requests the pandemic has burdened us with – requests that go far beyond washing hands and wearing masks.

“Summon the courage to be alone more than you’re used to. Summon the courage to ask and expect many, many others to do those same things,” she said.

Common Hour — Leading and Learning in Uncertain Times

Student leaders Adney Silva '22, Hermela Assefa '22 and Holly Batchelder '23 joined Altmann to discuss their shared, yet diverse experiences of leading and learning during a global pandemic.

Students discussed topics ranging from classwork and internships to broader issues of activism, equitable learning and faith. The candid Q&A session was moderated by James Strick, professor and program chair of environmental studies and program chair of science, technology and society, and co-chair of the Common Hour Committee.

“All the first-years are experiencing F&M in such a weird, new, uncertain way,” said Silva, reflecting on his leadership experience as a house adviser. 

“I've been trying my best to bring energy and life into their day-to-day, but there are some mental and social obstacles that feel impossible to overcome sometimes,” Silva added. “I would say the most important thing that I've learned in leading through this is to provide hope.”

When asked to describe this year to future generations, Assefa aptly summarized her experience in two words:

“Uncomfortable and insightful.” 

See the Fall 2020 Common Hour schedule.

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