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Distributed September 7, 2004
Contact Mark Nickel

Kay Warren
The 241st Opening Convocation Address: “Creative Minds”

Kay Warren, the Charles B. Tillinghast Jr. Professor in International Studies, professor of anthropology, and director of the Politics, Culture and Identity Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies, delivered an address titled “Creative Minds” at the 241st Opening Convocation of Brown University, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004, on The College Green. The text of Warren’s address follows here.

It is a pleasure to welcome the 1,434 members of the Class of ’08 and the new cohorts of 415 graduate students, 76 medical students, 108 transfer students, and 7 Resumed Undergraduate Education students. We are excited by the renewal you represent – new minds, new interests, and new hopes. You were selected for admission because of your individual creativity, energy, and striking self-motivation. You impressed us with your achievements in different fields of study and with your zany interests. Your originality is very important to the faculty and your fellow students.


Just knowing that there were over 15,000 applicants for this undergraduate class demonstrates Brown’s continuing acclaim.

Today I want to share with you my view of Brown’s uniqueness as a university community. Since I am a cultural anthropologist who joined the faculty just last year, consider this a report from another pair of fresh eyes. In my anthropological research on young Mayan activists and their efforts to revitalize indigenous culture and press for their rights, I combined interviews to appreciate their views and opinions with my own observations as I participated in community life. When I came to Brown, I naturally brought this participant-observer method to my new home base. The illustrations in this talk come from my teaching and research as a social scientist working on contemporary international issues. No doubt, faculty from the sciences and humanities would have their own stories to add.

During my first year here, I have been impressed by Brown’s uniqueness in terms of its

  • rich educational environment,
  • mix of interdisciplinary programs that crosscut our excellent academic departments,
  • striking diversity of students, and
  • strong leadership that is making this wonderful university even greater.

(1) Let’s start with the rich educational environment. Young women and men at Brown stand out by virtue of their striking independence and creativity. Over the last 30 years, I have taught at Mount Holyoke, Princeton, Harvard, and now here. Brown is where I have experienced the most dynamic undergraduate student engagement inside and outside the classroom.

In my judgment, Brown is unique in its highly participatory classrooms. As undergraduates here, you can feel free to bring up your interests and questions with the goal of continually influencing the lines of inquiry in your courses. The synergy of student and faculty efforts to puzzle through challenging issues is magical. The intellectual initiative of Brown students is a force of nature, a central aspect of undergraduate culture. Critical engagement, intellectual initiative, and risk taking – so common at Brown – are not as easy to find at other schools. Learning flows in a variety of directions, though all sorts of unconventional dialogues and flows of knowledge, rather than unilaterally from faculty to students.

At Brown, students are fun to be with because they share their ideas, come up with fresh views, and, most impressively, follow through on their imaginative suggestions. This was certainly the case in my “Violence and the Media” course last fall, which is cross-listed in Anthropology and International Relations. I designed this course to examine international patterns of violence (not just clashing armies but also ethnic conflicts, urban violence, genocide, counter-terrorism and terrorism, death squads, interpersonal violence, and violence against transgendered persons). We explored the way that media – from mass media to intimate stories told by the victims of violence – is used by protagonists to incite and justify violence and to argue for peace. How are various kinds of media used to convey images of suffering or images of “the violent other” and “the dangerous other” for different publics to consume? What are the interests of those propagating these images? What are the consequences? In addition, we studied how the global communication industries create the news as they cover violent conflicts for viewers around the world. The course compared different accounts of the same events. We questioned the conventional claims of neutrality by news commentators, claims which one can challenge through critical readings of what is left out as well as what is covered in their accounts.

I have many stories of student initiative and collaborative generosity from this predominately undergraduate course. In larger courses – mine had 65 students –, faculty can make room for panel presentations so there is more direct student input into the creative teaching of course materials. One group of my presenters decided to illustrate the impact of the 24-hour news cycle on American viewers by setting up a TV broadcast studio in class. In this simulation, we saw the journalists’ behind-the-scenes discussions of how to report the breaking story of a violent “ethnic” clash between two groups and possible U.S. casualties in a far away country – all before the facts were clear. The clock was ticking. Quickly they settled on a storyline of “ancient ethnic hatreds” to explain the outbreak of violent conflict. On went the news anchor’s suit jacket, tie, and well modulated voice just in time for the cameras. Later in the cycle, the producer and anchor decided to invite a “talking head,” an anthropologist and expert on that part of the world, to explain the situation. We watched the anchor deftly interrupt the expert who was trying to convince the viewers that the tensions were anything but “ancient” or “ethnic.” “In fact,” the anthropologist observed, “the groups had a long history of living together before the colonial powers separated, stereotyped, and favored members of one group at the expense of the other.”

In this explanation, ethnic identity, for all its dynamism, is marked with historical traces of the colonial encounter and its racist practices and policies. Yet there are many other dimensions of identity that individuals embrace in day-to-day social relations in their communities. Anthropologists argue that violence is more a product of current politics and economic tensions than the result of ill-defined ancient hatreds. One has to look for the way some leaders strategically disseminate hateful, polarizing propaganda to their communities to demonize other individuals in culturally powerful ways. Are leaders acting to legitimize and stimulate pre-emptive violence by emphasizing ethnic difference? One also has to ask who decides to resist this polarized rhetoric, given their own experiences of community and diversity. These are precisely the kinds of stories that merit greater news coverage in the midst of violent conflict. During the broadcast, it was fascinating to watch how the tyranny of time, conventions of TV reporting, and political and economic concerns guided the announcers’ questions and observations.

The newsroom presentation was riveting because these students found such an effective way to integrate the course’s readings on news production and reporting with their own experiences working in radio, interning at a TV station, and pursuing public interest anthropology. The presenters had special meetings with me and the marvelous graduate assistant for the course, wrote the script, rehearsed, and created the newsroom set at the front of the classroom. So much for old fashioned book reports.

After the panelists finished, the class responded during the open discussion with observations that went well past scathing critiques of the news industry. They shared ideas for working toward a more sophisticated representation of violent conflict in the news. These undergraduates saw themselves as agents of change who might well go into journalism. The graduate student “talking head” wondered out loud about how technical experts could introduce more effective explanations of violence without excessive jargon or too much detail. She saw herself as speaking to wider publics in her professional career. Moving from negative criticism to constructive criticism, a vibrant aspect of student culture at Brown, is unusual at many schools. I was fascinated by the way students brought up important ethical as well as political issues in this instance and throughout the course. Ethics seems to be very much on the minds of young people these days.

Student projects can have a big impact on courses. One choice I gave students for the take-home final exam was to redesign our course syllabus by incorporating their own ideas for case studies of violence. “Just imagine yourself,” I explained, “as a new junior faculty member at Brown, co-teaching with Professor Warren. What new case study of violence would you be eager to introduce?” The students had to justify their choice, and show how they would teach the topic to highly engaged students, select the readings and documentaries for the week, work with the student presenters, and design media archives for our website. Here’s the tough part: they also had to decide which case study to drop from the existing course when their new idea was adopted. I did this so that students would face the pressures that news editors and documentary filmmakers confront. In the real world, you have to find a way to edit the rich possibilities generated by your critical imagination to convey your message to audiences in the time and space you have.

Students had all sorts of ideas for new case studies: the international market in organ transplants, humanitarianism, the Columbine school shootings, youth gangs, trafficking in persons, embedded reporters in Iraq. To make room for the alternatives, the students had to decide: Would they forego the Rodney King beating and police trial, death squads in Latin America and South Asia, charges that Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú fabricated her eyewitness accounts of atrocities, the Rwandan genocide, the fast-to-the-death and no-wash protests by IRA prisoners, or the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII? These exams were so persuasive – students at Brown are excellent marketers of their own ideas – that I invited the authors of the very best ones to further refine their suggestions so I could use them in the future. In this instance, we see the flow of knowledge moving from the students to the faculty and on to the next generation of an undergraduate course.

At Brown, all regular faculty teach undergraduates, so you will have unsurpassed access to advanced researchers working at the frontiers of knowledge in their fields. Brown funds research assistant jobs for students so they can work with faculty and offers special grants, called UTRAs, that allow faculty to hire talented students for summer jobs working on original research or course development projects. These opportunities are another good reason to get to know your professors.

(2) Let’s move on now to the interplay of interdisciplinary and departmental programs at Brown. University study offers the opportunity for you to pursue your own passions and explore fields that are not generally part of high school curricula. Many of us recognize that there are questions that are larger than any one discipline. By studying issues from a range of disciplinary perspectives students learn deeper lessons about reality and about the implications of alternative ways of conceptualizing problems. Brown has a rich array of interdisciplinary opportunities for students who seek the freedom of thinking, learning, and interacting across the conventional disciplines.

International Relations is a good example of an interdisciplinary program that draws on faculty from many departments and the research programs at the Watson Institute for International Studies for courses on global security, environmental issues, political economy and international development, and the dynamics of cultural identity. In IR, students learn global perspectives on change and explore the policy implications of different kinds of interventions with practitioners as well as with academic researchers.

Other interdisciplinary initiatives allow students to prepare for work after graduation as part of their undergraduate studies. In the UTEP program, students combine a conventional major in English, History, or another field with courses in education. They graduate with a BA in their preferred discipline of study and Rhode Island certification for teaching at the secondary level which is reciprocally recognized in 44 states. Secondary schools throughout the country benefit from the fact that Brown students are able to master the substance of a discipline, gain background in education, and teach right after they complete their studies.

Still other initiatives make cutting edge technology available for use in a variety of fields for experiments with new forms of interactive representation and ways of understanding complex phenomena. Faculty and students from a number of departments and programs, including Computer Science, Engineering, Math, Applied Math, and even Creative Writing and Literary Arts, have collaborated to create the multidisciplinary Center for Computation and Visualization. Brown’s virtual reality room, “The Cave,” has been used by fields as diverse as Archaeology in their re-creation of an excavation site and the Medical School in their demonstration of how blood flows through the body.

These examples are but a small sampling of the many interdisciplinary initiatives the university offers you.

(3) Brown’s impressive undergraduate diversity is another aspect of its uniqueness. This is the most diverse and lively student body I have encountered. Brown’s richness as an educational community comes from our diverse individual experiences, sensibilities, and identities. We are heterogeneous in the cultural, linguistic, religious, and geographic backgrounds of our families; their different social and economic histories across the generations; the variety of multi-ethnic and multi-racial backgrounds we represent; and our citizenship in different countries. We are also diverse in our own choices about the mix of identities we embrace and advocate as individuals in a free society: religion, ethnicity and race, sexuality, politics, and future professional aspirations. All of these differences in backgrounds, experience, and hopes for our future make for lively dialogues and classroom discussions.

Because of this diversity, there are fascinating opportunities in our classrooms to learn from each other. Careful listening to others makes it natural to think about the factors that shape our own individual perspectives, the limitations as well as the insights of our views, and how much we can learn from people with different backgrounds. In this environment of openness and dialogue, there is room for you to engage in self-exploration and collaborate with students of diverse backgrounds in ways that may mirror the workplaces you will encounter after graduation. Getting to know your fellow students and the faculty can also foster internationalism; that is, the ability to see issues from multiple international perspectives and from multiple American perspectives, rather than mastering a single dominant view in our studies of society and the individual.

(4) Finally, I want to talk about the remarkable leadership in this institution. The Brown students I spoke to as I prepared this convocation address emphasized student leadership, that students feel empowered here to focus not just on vocational issues, but also to challenge their own world views and assumptions. They feel it is important to question whether democracy is still working in the U.S. In a healthy democracy, controversial issues do not pass by without open debate by the citizens. They see Brown as a liberal campus, with a mix of political perspectives, where students promote dialogues to understand other sides of important issues. The word they used is “willingness”: Brown students have a willingness to throw themselves into the arena and explore critical issues about the self and wider world. This culture of willingness makes it possible to take the extra step and engage others.

Brown is renowned for its faculty leadership in national and international forums, research associations, and scholarly exchanges. We publish for transnational audiences in our fields of study and collaborate with research networks that link Brown to the rest of the world. You will see signs of these networks when Brown hosts conferences and visiting lecturers. Students are welcome at all public events.

Finally, it is a pleasure to praise President Ruth Simmons, who is a gifted leader with a striking educational vision. You have come to Brown at a decisive time in the development of the institution. President Simmons has spearheaded efforts to increase the size of the faculty, created new programs of study and research, and attracted academic leaders in a variety of fields, even if it means stealing them from Harvard. As you know, she has been a strong advocate of need-blind undergraduate admissions so that Brown can attract the very best undergraduates from all backgrounds. On the post-graduate level, she has pursued greater financial and programmatic support for graduate and medical students. Growth in the Bio Med program will have important ramifications for graduate students in these fields and for interdisciplinary initiatives at Brown.

I knew Ruth Simmons many years ago, before she became famous, when we were both at Princeton. I was impressed by her inclusive vision for higher education, her insights into the challenges of diversity in university settings, and her integrity when no one was looking. She is a person with great energy, wonderful values, and a deep appreciation for students. With no lack of courage, she has raised controversial questions such as slavery, justice, reparations, and Brown’s connections to these difficult issues so that our community can rethink its history as an educational institution. You will find her door open to students. Take advantage of her openness to get to know a remarkable person. With her leadership, this is a very exciting time to be at Brown.

Let me close with some anthropological observations about the frenetic moment at the beginning of Brown’s semester known as “shopping.” Now is the time to treat your intellectual life to a banquet feast: be omnivorous, flex your brain, see what classes match your goals and challenge your views. Are you satisfying yourself as a person? Uncover new talents you have by trying fields of study that were not offered in your high school or topics that are dealt with in a multi-disciplinary way. Why not take some risks: explore diversities that are new to you; collaborate with different sorts of creative minds. If you have been U.S. based, then pursue important global issues and confront the human cost of international upheaval. If you have been internationally based, then see who is offering interesting courses on the U.S. and its ties to the world. Find faculty who value your individual talents and contributions, and courses where you are excited about the prospects of being highly engaged in your own education. Good luck in your shopping, and enjoy the uniqueness that makes Brown a great place to be.


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