Dr. Mary Ann O’Farrell – College is for Changing Your Mind

Each fall, just before the start of classes, the Texas A&M University Honors Program welcomes our incoming freshmen students and recognizes the newly-selected University Scholars at an event called the Honors Welcome. This event provides an opportunity to communicate our high expectations for our first-year students and provide them with good examples to follow in the persons of the new University Scholars.

The invited speaker for the 2015 Honors Welcome was Dr. Mary Ann O’Farrell. Dr. O’Farrell is an Associate Professor of English who has taught at Texas A&M since 1990. She has been recognized with the Texas A&M Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching, the Honors Teacher-Scholar Award, and a Teaching Excellence award. Her research interests include nineteenth-century literature and culture, the novel, history and discourses of the body, literary and cultural theory, and contemporary popular culture. Below is the text of Dr. O’Farrell’s address to the incoming Honors Students.

In teaching and writing, as I do, on nineteenth-century novels about manners and on more contemporary popular culture (things, especially, about gangsters and their manners), I find myself thinking often about the ways our minds work as we come to know the things we know. And, in doing that, I’ve noticed that one of my favorite cognitive processes (one of my favorite ways of knowing things) is frequently maligned in our public conversation. When we talk about politics, for example, we tend to call the thing I have in mind “flip-flopping,” and we set it against consistency for comparison, beside which it presumably looks bad. I’m sure we all have some sense of what a genuine failure of integrity might look like in a politician or in any human being, but it seems to me a serious error to confuse that failure with the active and profound, sometimes shattering and sometimes liberating process that, for me, is the thing I’m talking about: changing your mind.

Dr. O'Farrell speaking at the 2015 Honors Welcome.
Dr. O’Farrell speaking at the 2015 Honors Welcome.

Changing your mind has an unfortunate history in our rhetoric and discourse. My grandmother and her generation used to refer to it laughingly and dismissively as “a woman’s prerogative.” Members of that generation used the phrase when they were talking about promises to marry, and what they knew when they said it was that their world offered to men opportunities to make material successes of themselves that it did not offer to women: a man changing his mind about marriage would be materially endangering and jeopardizing a woman he jilted, while a woman changing her mind–though she might well be making him quite sad–would not be endangering a man financially, socially, and circumstantially in the same way. That’s why changing your mind about marriage was a woman’s prerogative and not a man’s. Somehow that old phrase—“woman’s prerogative”—(along with the way of thinking about changing your mind that it implies) has persisted outside its earlier marital and frankly sexist contexts to retain an unfortunate connotation of flightiness, duplicity, girliness (as if that had to be a bad thing), and a lack of moral seriousness.

But sometimes the most responsible thing to do in all the world is to perform the work of changing your mind. And it’s also sometimes pretty fun. So if our clichés somehow give only women the prerogative to do this thing freely, then let us all be women for a while. Because the truth is: college is for changing your mind.

It’s for changing your mind and your self in small ways: it’s for new haircuts, new hair colors, and new shoes, new smart phone covers and new fandoms; it’s for ridding yourself of old nicknames and old identities–you don’t have to be the geek or the bro (perhaps “brah”) or the good girl or the hacktivist anymore unless you want to be—and in truth you can decide to embrace these and other identities, too, once you’ve tried them on, if it was only locker room and lunchroom anxiety that kept you from them. But thinking of college as for changing your mind also means something bigger than these small pleasures: it means learning that everything in the world is to be thought about, and it means acting on that knowledge by thinking really hard. Nothing is self-evident, and those things that pretend to be so turn out to be the things that you need most to subject to examination.

This—the moment of college—is the moment that you’ll have the space and the time and the help you need to take out of your pocket all the ideas that you’ve been carrying around in it like stones or coins or marbles, so that you can look at them all closely. Keep some of those ideas; throw others away; pick up some new ones; notice how the ideas you’re hanging onto change their shape and weight and value as you add to your thought-store. But be sure you do engage in this process; be sure you let college change your shape and weight and value, too; be sure you recognize and reject consistency when it is foolish rather than integral and when it weighs you down.

There are people here to help you deal with the practicalities and the consequences of using ideas to change your mind. They call us faculty and staff. An important part of my job and a really joyful part of my life involves not merely doing what my job title says I do—professing—but talking to and with students and also shutting up sometimes and listening to you guys, too. And I know that the faculty and staff in the Honors program office are every day enormously helpful to students in ways that involve the great questions of living an ethical life as well as the smaller but no less crucial questions about the quotidian (the dailiness) of life in the university: they’re there to advise on courses and programs of study, on scholarships and careers, on the mind-stretching activity of developing a research project or writing a thesis, and on finding your way to the people and things that will encourage, nourish, challenge, and stimulate you.

There is so much here on offer at Texas A&M: find it, watch it, listen to it, talk back to it, dance with it, buy it a coffee; head on over to Aggie Horticulture and even smell it: engage with it all and let it change you the way you are changed by the things you eat and breathe. Make friends with the university’s events calendars. They are festivals of new things to do, to hear, to watch, to think.

A warning, though: It is possible for us simply to attend such events and even to participate in them as unchanged and unchangeable scary monoliths, erecting and maintaining ourselves in rigidity, in a refusal to let ourselves be moved or touched. It’s possible simply to like yourself a little too much for being active, while remaining smugly unengaged. What it takes to go to class or to a party, to an online discussion, or to one of these events and to do so in a way that might let you change your mind is a quality of openness, of curiosity, of analysis, of interrogation, and, most importantly, of self-interrogation. Nurture this in yourself. It needs tending.

I think I’m one of those professors who has a little a reputation for being funny. You will not know that on the basis of today, and something about that has made me a little uncomfortable (as I wrote this and as I speak it) in the very ways I, too, have learned go along with changing one’s self and one’s mind. I’m being, this minute, somebody who is a little bit not the self I’m most accustomed to being. It’s just that I really mean this thing unironically, and so I’m saying it a bit uncharacteristically:   letting yourself go a little in the service of changing your mind may be the truest to yourself you’ll ever be.

Congratulations, you guys, on the achievements that have brought you here today. And, as you get started, know that all of us in the university community are waiting to see what you look like next.

We are grateful to Dr. O’Farrell for sharing this important message about the important work of personal growth that takes place in undergraduate education. The Texas A&M University Honors Program depends on the dedication outstanding faculty like Dr. O’Farrell, as well as on the generous support of the Association of Former Students, to ensure we are providing support for our bright, motivated, and curious students to get the most out of the experience!

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