Year 13—A Saddle Point for RCAH

August 27, 2019

By Stephen Esquith, Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities


The number 13 is usually associated with unhappy occurrences, and not just on Friday. Some multi-story buildings will use “M” (the 13th letter of the alphabet) instead of 13 in the elevator, or they simply jump from 12 to 14, as if the 13th floor doesn’t exist. It is not clear why the number 13 has this negative connotation in our culture. Some associate it with it Judas, the 13th apostle at the Last Supper, who betrayed Jesus.

However, in other cultures, 13 is a lucky number. For example, in Cantonese-speaking cultures, 13 sounds like the words meaning “sure to live,” as opposed to 14, which sounds like “sure to die.”

There are always things to be on the lookout for these days. Fear of the number 13 is not one of them. In fact, I would argue that fear and luck are both overrated. We should stop fearing that our country and our communities will be invaded by outside forces, and we should not chalk up to our good fortune—or lack of it—to luck. Our electoral system may be corrupted by political hackers, foreign and domestic, but this is not a mass invasion. Refugees seeking asylum should be welcomed, not feared and rejected as a threat to our way of life. Some communities may be richer or poorer than others, but this is not a matter of sheer luck. There may be a “luck of the draw” in poker, but not everyone comes to the table with the same experience, the same bankroll, and the same options to walk away. Those things are not a matter of luck; they are the result of a specific history of development.

The same can be said about RCAH in its 13th year.

Instead of fearing what’s to come, as if every day were Friday the 13th or, alternatively, hoping that year 13 will be our “lucky day,” I suggest we think of RCAH 13 in terms of another image: a saddle. What interests me about the saddle is that there is a point in the middle that is both the highest point and the lowest point. It’s called, no surprise, the saddle point. If you think of an actual saddle for a horse, the saddle point is the highest point where the two sides of the saddle meet, and at the same time the lowest point where the front and back of the saddle meet.

We are at a high point, having created a strong program supported by faculty, staff, and alumni. The faculty have grown along with the College. They have explored new courses, created new art, published new research, and often done these things in collaboration with community partners in our signature civic engagement programs at home and abroad. The staff, working hand-in-hand with faculty and students, have made significant strides, as well. You can see it in the way we project our image and tell our stories, in the way our informal learning spaces—the theater, the LookOut Gallery, the art studio, the music studios, the Language and Media Center, the Center for Poetry—generate new knowledge, and the support we receive from alumni, young and old.

We are also poised to build on this platform. We are making important changes in our curriculum, including a new team-taught course for all entering students. Our Student Affairs Office, including our advising and recruiting staff, is consolidating its activities and opening up shop in its own set of connected spaces on the second floor of the College near the Serenity Lounge. Just as our students and graduates have built successful academic and career networks that are reflected in their extraordinary graduation and placement rates, RCAH is increasingly integrated into the fabric of the University. For example, as the leader in an emerging Network for Global Civic Engagement, RCAH is bringing faculty and students from other colleges together with RCAH faculty and students.

Is RCAH “in the saddle”? Very much so. Will there be bumps along the way? There always are. In a world in which fear-mongering is becoming more common and luck is too often used as a coverup for privilege, we cannot afford to succumb to the former or rely on the latter.

Better to “saddle up.”