A series of musings from President Hannigan on contemporary topics that transcend higher education in which she offers thoughts and opinions to the Ursinus family and our surrounding community.


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Marginalia: Rewriting the Script on Normalcy
October 6, 2022

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages
Billy Collins, Marginalia

What, exactly, is normal?

When I flip through news headlines each day—or rather, when I scroll through them—I’m struck by how many of them are attempting to reset my expectations after two pandemic-plagued years. It’s impacting nearly every industry: finance, healthcare, education, and entertainment among them. There’s even a new normal for how we’re supposed to work and socialize. Thanks, Google. I’ll take it from here.

These headlines and stories keep telling me to not expect to go back to the way I was used to doing things before we collectively shifted to a culture that was somehow suddenly even more distanced than we had been—already living in a more virtual world, the pandemic just gave us an excuse to stay there.

But if there is a new normal in this post-pandemic world, what was normal in the first place? Was it something that was routine? Something that was safe? Perhaps the idea of a comfort zone that we never really wanted to escape to begin with?

In my first few months as a new college president, I’ve spoken a lot about probabilities and possibilities: No, not everything is probable, but we must embrace every possibility. For me, that meant pushing the limits of creativity and discovery, and refusing to be confined to boundaries—real or imagined—because inspiration sometimes exists beyond where we tend to fix our gaze. So, each chance I get, I like to scribble in the margins; to jot down an idea, a thought, a question, or a challenge to my status quo.

I’m a scientist, and I’ve been most proud of the research and business endeavors that came about thanks to a healthy dose of curiosity—or maybe it was skepticism. I’m not sure. But in each instance, my students and I embraced a measure of risk to reap unexpected rewards. Oftentimes, those risks grew out of an idea posited to one another—a sidenote marked down in the margins for future consideration that became the basis for our next big project. We must be willing to pilot our own theories and initiatives, test them, see them fail, and try again. Doing so reveals new knowledge and pushes us to see how far that knowledge can take us.

So, perhaps it’s time we put aside our idea of “normal” and escape those comfort zones. Maybe the answer is that the new normal isn’t normal at all—it’s something that challenges us to think bigger and imagine more possibilities; something that takes our marginal ideas and draws them out into the forefront. If we do that—and celebrate our imperfections and mistakes—I think we’ll find that the possibilities are endless.

The excerpt above comes from one of my favorite poems, Marginalia, written by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (are you sensing a theme?). I decided to borrow its title for my periodic communication to you—my new Bear family—because I want you to have a little insight into my thought process. So, I’d like to use this space to share with you some of the things I have on my mind as if they were written on an ink-stained spiral-bound notebook or marked in pencil as personal footnotes in my favorite science journals or fantasy fiction novels.

I read part of the Collins poem to the Class of 2026 during their academic convocation back in August. I told the first-year students that it’s often the asides and the spontaneous conversations that spark our imaginations. Pave the way for your own “a-ha!” moments, I said, and lean into them. Learn from them. Read Darwin and Descartes and Plato and Coates and Bechdel and have a conversation about them. Be an active participant in what you are reading by questioning and coming to your own conclusions.

This isn’t just advice for newly minted undergraduate students. I think we can all challenge ourselves by taking a page from—well actually, by rewriting the page. Doing so isn’t, by definition, normal. And that’s exactly what we want.


President Robyn Hannigan

“Marginalia” is a series of columns from President Hannigan. If you’d like to share your thoughts or reflections on this piece, email presidentsoffic​e@ursinus.edu