University of Vermont

Ceremonial Events - Convocation

Closing Reflection Trina Magi

Closing Reflections
Trina Magi, Library Associate Professor

I’m Trina Magi, a member of the library faculty. And I have a really cool job.

I’m a reference librarian, and we reference librarians hear all kinds of questions. Here are some of the most memorable:

What’s the permeability of plastic wrap?
Was my name on President Nixon’s enemies list?

Here’s a good one:
Where can I find photographs of Jesus?

It gets better. . .
Do you have any sound recordings of dinosaurs?

I love questions.

They make the library a special place. Libraries are sanctuaries for inquiry—safe places where you can ask any question and pursue any topic or idea—even those with which you disagree.

Today we have advised you to do a lot of things: to get involved, to be active, and to try doing things you’ve never done before. We’ve asked so much that I almost feel sorry for you. But not too sorry to ask you to do one more thing: to keep asking questions.

I’ve been invited to end this auspicious event with a closing reflection. Many people have reflected on the importance of questions, and I’d like to share some of their wisdom with you.

When I started college, in a meeting much like this one, a college administrator said: “If you want to succeed in college, go to class, sit in front, and ask questions.” Now it’s true--this is a man who liked to hang out his office window and bark like a dog. But on this point, I believe he was right.

And it’s not just because by asking a question you get an answer and then learn something. It’s because when you sit in class with the intention of formulating a question, you will be a better listener and more fully present throughout the entire class period.

It’s not always easy to ask questions, but it’s the smart people who do. Business guru Peter Drucker said “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

It also seems that smart people are a little slower to sweep up their mistakes and throw them in the garbage can.

Let me tell you a story. In 1903, a French scientist named Edouard Benedictus was working in his lab and accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor. As he bent down to clean up the broken glass, he was amazed to see not ragged shards of glass, but small pieces that hung together. You see, the flask had been full of liquid plastic. The plastic had evaporated, but left behind a thin coat that held the broken glass together. So he paused--and asked himself a question: How could this be useful? And the answer became safety glass in car windshields.

Throughout time, scientists have dropped things, overheated things, undermixed things, and ended up with unexpected blobs and sticky substances. There are stories of mistakes, accidents, and surprises behind all kinds of wonderful things—things like x-rays, penicillin, vulcanized rubber, post-it notes, and the ever-important silly putty.

Think about it—nobody sets out to invent something like silly putty. It was a mistake. A failure. And 300 million little plastic eggs later, it is also a favorite toy. All because someone looked at a little beige blob in his hand, and paused to ask a question: Now what the heck can I do with this?

Some say there’s no such thing as a bad question. Perhaps, but some questions are more important than others. Some of the most important questions—and most courageous ones—are those we ask about ourselves. As writer Marilyn Ferguson put it, “Fear is a question. What are you afraid of and why? Just as the seed of health is in illness, because illness contains information, our fears are a treasure house of self knowledge if we explore them.”

So try out some risky questions. Explore those things that are uncomfortable. Try to “lean into the points,” as the Buddhists say.

And try out some frustrating questions. Questions that seem to have no answer--or for which many answers seem to make sense. Hang out in the space where you’re not absolutely certain. That’s where growth happens.

And where do these important questions come from? Often they grow out of the in-between spaces of your life. They are like plants that push up between the stepping stones of a well-traveled path. Important questions—and answers—often sprout during times when you are quiet and not active. It’s hard to find those spaces in college, but it’s important that you do. As Ghandi said, “Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth and the soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”

So right now, let’s see what just 10 seconds of unplugged, silent reflection feels like. During those 10 seconds, you might ask yourself what you want this year to be, and observe what sprouts in the spaces of your mind.

Poet and critic John Ciardi said, “A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landcscape of idea.”

Welcome to the UVM landscape of idea. You have all my best wishes as you help us keep it green.

Last modified September 17 2006 07:59 AM

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