As this year’s recipient of the Senior Class Charles Bassett Teaching Award, Assistant Professor James Behuniak Jr. was asked to speak on campus May 15. He used the opportunity to lead graduating seniors through a brief responsive reading from a time-honored script—from the 1967 film The Graduate.
Taking the part of Mr. McGuire, Behuniak read: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
In unison, students in Ostrove Auditorium quoted Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock: “Yes, sir.”
Behuniak: “Are you listening?”
Students: “Yes, I am.”
Behuniak, switching to the language of the ancients: “Plastikos.”
And from there he launched into an annotated meditation on the importance of plasticity as a physical and neurological condition of the brain and a critical characteristic of a liberally educated person going forth in the era of information (see full text of his talk).
It was a good semester for Behuniak, who specializes in classical Chinese philosophy and American philosophy. In January he was granted tenure, which carries a promotion to associate professor this summer, and in May he became the 20th winner of the teaching award bestowed by vote of the senior class.
He started with William James, who first described neural plasticity, calling it a state of being “weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once” and a prerequisite for the acquisition of habits, which save us time and permit us to direct energy to areas beyond the rote tasks of quotidian life.
Quoting John Dewey, Lao Tzu, Don Quixote, and Confucius, Behuniak made a case for developing plasticity and habits that permit us to keep growing. “I think I can speak for the entire faculty when I say, ‘You’re welcome,’” he said.
Anticipating the seniors’ imminent attempts to make their way in the world, he cited the Analects of Confucius: “Don’t worry over not having an official position. Worry about what it takes to deserve one”—an aphorism he said he regretted not following better during his own academic job search.
“Consolidate the good habits you have. Free up plasticity for the next phase. This is what employers are looking for. If it’s all you have, you’re going to be fine,” Behuniak said.
Declining to say goodbye, Behuniak told seniors, “I’ll be here on the hill, working at the plastic factory, and you know where to find us.”