One more speech: get what I came for

At my undergraduate graduation ceremony, the one thing I remember most was the heat. It was an outdoor ceremony, under the beautiful oaks at Spring Hill College. I also remember worrying that it was outdoors. As an allergy sufferer who spends much time indoors, away from the film of yellow coating everything in sight, willingly sitting in the midst of the trees was a big deal.

I don’t remember, in much detail, the commencement speech. There are bits that stuck with me – mostly the platitudes and the quotes that I had heard before. On our chairs were pencils to tie in with the speaker’s focus on St. Teresa of Calcutta: “You are pencils in the hands of God.”

In the excitement of marching across the stage and the anticipation of grasping your diploma, the commencement speech often becomes the part of the ceremony that fades from memory. After all, the diploma on my wall is a physical reminder of that symbolic transition: the movement from the theater of college to application in the so-called real world. 

The commencement speech, unfortunately, simply fades away. It can cause an uproar, in terms of the speaker, but the message is, undoubtedly, the same: Conquer the world, create change, remember your accomplishments.

As I reflected on my own graduations, I realized that the commencement speech was the least anticipated aspect of graduation. Perhaps it’s because I never had a high-celebrity speaker. Perhaps it’s simply the length of the ceremony. Or perhaps it has more to do with the placement of the speech. Usually occurring before the conferral of degrees, the speech itself seems an impediment to that which graduates anticipate most: their moment in the spotlight.

Next semester I’m teaching a survey of British literature. As I prepared my book orders, I began thinking of the immensity of my task. Four centuries of literature packed into a 14-week semester. For much of that semester, the literary greats will need to share their spotlight as themes intersect and students begin acknowledging that threads of concern remain the same, even as artists use different approaches to treat that concern.

In creating a course that seems to privilege breadth over depth, I thought back to the commencement speech. After all, isn’t that the problem with most commencement speeches? The question isn’t how do you charge up the graduating class. They’re already electrified at the finale of graduation. The question is how to sum up their experience in a way that makes sense, that urges them to use their potential and embark on the world. It’s a monumental task that often falls short.

The message of the commencement speech is one of action – a complete contrast to what the graduates are actually doing. Yawns escape, boredom ensues, talking occurs. It’s much like the lecture hall. 

But perhaps that’s the point. After all, as a teacher, I don’t gauge my students’ successes in their ability to summarize the knowledge they’ve gained. 

I gauge success in their actions and application. I gauge success in their ability to think critically, to challenge a specific reading and, most importantly, in their defense of their beliefs.

The genre of the commencement speech simply cannot allow for that kind of action. And until it does, it’s the one part of graduation that fades from memory almost as soon as it occurs.

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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