Wheelock College formally opened its doors for the 2014-2015 academic year on September 2 with a Convocation Ceremony featuring an address by Eula Biss, author of 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award winner—and Wheelock summer reading assignment—Notes From No Man's Land. The book centers on Biss's exploration of racial identity from the heart of Iowa to the halls of New York City's Public Schools.
In her remarks, Biss focused on the issues surrounding race in America. "Race is a social construction," she said. "Until you can define a word in the terms a three-year-old can understand, you are not ready to define it." She said talking about race can be difficult—noting that white people in particular are often afraid of saying the wrong thing—but it is important to try. "It is better to be embarrassed than it is to be silent," she said.
Convocation is Latin for "coming together," and this important Wheelock tradition is part of a day of learning for the campus, with special activities planned for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the larger community. All incoming first-year students, for example, read Notes From No Man's Land prior to arriving on campus, discuss the book in small faculty- and staff-led discussion groups prior to the Convocation Ceremony, and will continue the conversations throughout their first-year courses. In addition, Wheelock continued its popular Annual Senior Symposium Luncheon with the senior class and our guest author, as well as arranged opportunities for student leaders and participants in Wheelock's Honors Program to engage in discussion with Ms. Biss. There was also be a book reading event for alumni and community partners, featuring Notes from No Man's Land and Biss's upcoming book, On Immunity: An Inoculation.
"We are pleased to have Eula Biss as our 2014 Convocation speaker; Convocation is a special time that provides an opportunity for the entire community to join together in conversation around important issues of social justice," said Wheelock President Jackie Jenkins-Scott. "By sharing her experience and wisdom, Biss offers inspiration to our students and helps them envision the impact they can make in our world by improving the lives of children and families."
Jenkins-Scott said Wheelock was especially pleased this year to welcome its largest incoming class in the history of the College. She also announced that the Campaign for Wheelock raised a record-breaking $82 million in support of the College. "This has been an amazing few weeks for Wheelock," she said.
Notes From No Man's Land was chosen as Wheelock's common reading book through a process overseen by faculty and staff committee. All nominations were evaluated according to three principles: alignment with Wheelock's mission of "improving the lives of children and families," balance between intellectual merit and accessibility, and connection to the transformative first-year college experience.
Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her second book, Notes from No Man's Land, received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Her work has also been recognized by a Pushcart Prize, a Jaffe Writers' Award, and a 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and has the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and an NEA Literature Fellowship. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Columbia, Ninth Letter, the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, the Seneca Review, and Harper's. Her latest book On Immunity: An Inoculation, a powerful examination of what vaccines mean for our children, our communities, and the world will be published by Graywolf Press on September 30, 2014.
The day began with book discussions with First Year students and multiple facilitators. That was followed by a Book Discussion with Honors and Student Leaders with Author, Eula Biss. The author then took part in a facilitated dialogue with Wheelock's seniors. Biss made her formal Convocation remarks to a packed house in the Wheelock Family Theatre. The day wrapped up with a Book Reading Event for Alumni and Community Partners , featuring Notes from No Man's Land and Biss' new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation in the Towne Art Gallery.