Thank you for the honor of addressing you today. Greetings to students of the Class of 2010, the last class to meet at orientation rather than on Facebook.
Welcome to President Chopp, other dignitaries, colleagues, especially in the Deans Office and in the Department of Educational Studies, and families, including my family.
My speech today will be much like my teaching — messy and chock full of too much stuff, like a suitcase packed by someone who thinks they need three weeks of clothing and books for an overnight. There will be something for everyone, but not everyone will find everything of value. There will be affirmations, vexing dilemmas, deathbed statements, including one from a fictional 100-year-old pig, and digital love letters. There will be questions, stories, theory dressed up in costumes, and five chapters. There will also be Barbie dolls, action figures, videos, and things that smell. Did I mention love letters?
The five chapters, arranged as questions, include:
- Who are you and where do you stand among others?
- Who do you want to be?
- Is it best to believe or doubt?
- What should be done in a lousy economy?
- Should you consume or create?
First, let's take a look at a little movie called Jessica's "Daily Affirmation," sent to YouTube by dmchatster. It came across my desk recently from a few of my students. I think it is a kind of love letter and I think it can shed some light on how to start the day, perhaps the day after graduation. I want you to watch how Jessica gives herself a bit of cheerleading every morning, setting herself up for a successful day, a day in which she might be happy and do good. I want you to see how she affirms her existence, and how that affirmation connects her deeply to her family, her home, and even her pajamas.
Besides being adorable and funny, Jessica likes her whole house, her family, her hair, even her haircuts. Maybe her elephants, I am just not sure if I heard that correctly. Jessica recognizes the people and things she loves, even while declaring that she "can do anything good." It is the way that her affirmations propel her to action, to doing "anything good" that I start with today as we take up some vexing questions for your future.
Chapter 1: Who are you and where do you stand among others?
This is not a trivial question. I think this is fundamental to your future and I suspect either you have been too busy to give this question your time over the past four years or it is all you ever think about. Nor is the answer as easy to ascertain as you might think.
I once spent six months in a third and fourth grade classroom doing an ethnographic study of the intersections of literacy practices and gendered representations and identities. This classroom was one of great intrigue around identities and relationships — there were love triangles, cross-gender roles for theater, and sexist power moves that played out as students cast themselves and their friends into flattering and unflattering roles in stories and gossip. In one instance, a group of boys wrote one of their friends into a female role in a play and then killed him off as a way of controlling the amount of time they had to play with him. One of my third-grade "informants" in this class took me aside one day and whispered to me secretively:
Nobody really knows who's who and what's what.
I suspect this may be true of you today, too. In spite of being told how wonderful you are, by your supportive families, inspirational teachers, and significant others, you may be wondering who the heck you are. You are certainly wondering who you might be, now that the college run is over. I aim to shed some light on that little project of yours by letting you in on a very important secret, a phrase I found on a poster with a beautiful photo of a snowflake. The poster said something along the lines of:
You are unique, just like everyone else.
How do I know this? I get some of my inspiration from a little poster and calendar company called Despair.com. They have a series of sayings called "demotivators," although it is not my goal to demotivate you today.
You are special and you have been striving, and working, and sometimes worried about who would find out you were the admissions mistake. You have had both real and imagined reasons for why you needed an extension, an incomplete, an indulgence from a professor or a dean. You have been, developmentally and appropriately, the center of your universe. In fact, you probably needed to be the center of your universe to get to a place like Swarthmore College and to get out of here. But now seems a good time to tell you the truth. "You are unique, just like everyone else."
Your seat at this academic feast could have been filled by many other qualified students, students who were lined up on the wait list. Even those who could not have gotten into Swarthmore College, as you did, are just as unique, just as smart, just as critical, as you. You will find, after you graduate, that there are people who have not had the gift of a Swarthmore education who know what hegemony is, whether they know the word or not, who strive daily for social justice, who speak more languages than you, or who have already changed the world.
So here is the dilemma. How do you shift from the necessary focus on yourself at Swarthmore to a focus on yourself among others, without giving up on yourself? I think there are two ways to do this. One involves envisioning yourself among others; the other involves re-imagining yourself.
Let's start with envisioning yourself among others.
When you look at yourself you should notice that alongside all of your smarts and skills, and that fabulously expensive college diploma, sits a big old smelly lump of the things you do poorly and will probably never be able to do well. Maybe they are competencies you think you should be able to do, or skills your wiser self tells you not to attempt. We all have them. Sometimes we keep them under wraps for fear of being discovered for the frauds we all must be. I have some of those things. Typing. Multiplication tables. Finishing anything!
So please stop for a minute and think about at least one thing you are crummy at doing.
Got it? Smell it. It stinks doesn't it!
The author Eudora Welty has said, "It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are."
Now, look around you to see where and among whom you stand. There are people in this amphitheater and on this campus that can do the thing well that you stink at. How many of you have built a garden bench for this campus? Student Alice Evans and EVS Technician Kenny Whye together built a garden bench that sits on Elm Avenue. How many of you have hosted a radio program? Carson Young '10 and Sharon Pierce in EVS have done that for a few years. How many of you have raised $165,000 for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation by riding a motorcycle? Ruthanne and Lee Krauss have. How many of you can follow and understand football? Even my Emcee Jake Ban can do that after being tutored by Nancy Hunt. How many of you have the love in your heart and the technological skill to get engaged to be married through a beautiful video love letter? Sharples couple Tony Agostinelli and Tara Brickley did just that, with help from senior Roseanna Sommers.
Although I have made a digital story, I do not remember sequences well unless I practice them at least a bazillion times. This semester I depended on Gina Grubb and Eric Behrens to help me use digital storytelling in my course. Jill Gladstein has been my Writing Associate and Ruthanne Krauss edited this speech. Joe Niagara scanned my images. Mike Bednarz, Mike Patterson, Eric Behrens, and Gayle Barton made the techno-visual aspects of this talk possible. To them I am enormously grateful. I could not be up here giving this talk without the help of many, many people, including you.
All those people who know what you do not know, who can do well what you cannot do well, are unique, just like you. If I were you, I would cozy on up to them and be their friend. They will help you and make you more than you can be all by your lonesome, unique self. They will make you look better than you can possibly look all by yourself.
Chapter 2: Who do you want to become?
My second idea for figuring out who you are while maintaining your self is to imagine a new self. As I said, you have been someone special here at Swarthmore. You might be very comfortable with who you are. That person has been good enough to get you in and get you out of this bubble. For many of you that someone is worthy of a job or graduate school or an adventure. That someone was good enough. But who knows if that person can cut it out in the world, where many people will say, "What is a Swarthmore?" This time, like all transitional times, is an excellent time to re-imagine your self.
Jerome Bruner calls this the subjunctive self, the "would I?" "Could I?" "What if?" self. Hazel Rose Markus and Paula Nurius call this the "possible self."
One path to finding your way to your newly imagined self is to tell yourself a story. Michael Holzman has said, "Stories are ways of organizing experience." Memories are often stories we tell that help us to make sense of who we are, of who we have become. Those stories are really important because they are interpretations that reveal us as characters: oppressors or victims; sometimes bystanders; sometimes poets and swashbucklers and computer geniuses and physicists at the Large Hadron Supercollider.
But stories can also be ways of imagining our social futures.
When I was a child, I imagined a number of social selves. I suspect you have done this, too. I imagined that I would be a famous singer like Mary Travers in Peter, Paul, and Mary. We can see that this did not happen. I imagined that I could be an orphan like one of The Boxcar Children. Lucky for my parents, that did not happen either. I imagined that I would be an artist and live on an island. I did not have the talent to be an artist, but my daughter Morgan has become one. I thought I might be a lawyer, but it looks like my daughter Hillary will pursue that path. Sometimes the subjunctive self jumps a generation. One dream did come true — I do live on an island, the one we call "the bubble" — Swarthmore College.
I also imagined that I would have a fabulous career as a good high school English teacher. I had read a story about the brilliant educator Jane Addams in a Childcraft book called Great Men and Famous Deeds. I guess that Jane Addams, the woman who inspired John Dewey's progressive education movement by opening Hull House to educate immigrant families, fell into the famous deeds category rather than the famous men category. I imagined that after decades of teaching, when I was old, grizzled and wrinkly, I might retire and be an adjunct teacher at a state college. I imagined that college teaching could be fun. Perhaps my experiences could substitute for that doctorate that working class kids like me did not imagine they would be able to qualify for or afford. Until one day when my mother-in-law said to me, quite matter-of-factly, "You should get a Ph.D." I paid attention. Perhaps my imagining had been incomplete and substandard.
Of course, it took more than daydreams and a few imaginary friends to find my way to Swarthmore and to get a PhD. It took quite a bit of work. It took sacrifices on the part of my children and Dane Anderson, my significant other. But I swear to you that it could not have happened without the creation of that social identity, that possible self. From where I was from, a town at Exit 3 of the New Jersey Turnpike, I desperately needed to see that possible self before I could make her a reality.
Can you see yourself among smart, talented others? Can you imagine your new self, the one that retains all that is wonderful about you, but allows you to become the person of your best dreams? You are unique, just like everyone else. You are as special as every child who has been loved by a parent, as every person who has worked a day to put food on the table, as every student who has had a teacher tap them on the shoulder and say, "You're it." It is now you, among others, who should take some time to see where you stand. It is time to take all of those skills you have learned at Swarthmore out into the world.
But how will those skills play in the world? One of the most important skills you have learned at Swarthmore has been the ability to be critical, to analyze and make judgments. But will that be enough when you leave? And what happened to your ability to believe and find meaning and joy, pleasure and bliss?
That brings me to Chapter 3 (remember, there are only 5 Chapters!): Should you believe or doubt?
As you know, Swarthmore fosters a number of habits of mind that get you academic accolades while you are here. You become highly analytical and critical, you learn to assert yourself and persuade others, and you learn to act, often in the interest of truth and social justice. These sorts of intellectual, scholarly, and experiential activities are meant to prepare you for leadership, research, new creations in the arts, and social action that will cure diseases, solve intractable societal ills, and make the world a more just place. What I hear from many of you at the end of four years is that you are tired. You are tired of constantly critiquing texts that you once loved. You are tired of feeling like failures for not having changed the world yet. Some of you start to self-medicate: with TV shows like Glee, reading Twilight, sneaking in trips to art museums or seeking out faculty pets for a little low-demand affection.
I would like to propose the possibility that some of you may have lost the ability to believe. Now I am not talking about religious belief, although for some of you that kind of belief is exactly what I am talking about. I am talking, instead, about a more overall disposition to believe, to take a stance of belief as an intellectual exercise.
Peter Elbow explains in Embracing Contraries that "methodological doubt is only half of what we need." He says "thinking is not trustworthy unless it also includes methodological belief: the equally systematic, disciplined, and conscious attempt to believe everything, no matter how unlikely or repellant it might seem — to find virtues or strengths we might otherwise miss."
In fiction, the Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass encourages this sort of belief. She admonishes Alice to "believe impossible things." When Alice says that she can't believe impossible things the Queen encourages her to practice, saying "When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Peter Elbow and Lewis Carroll, in creating this binary of belief and doubt, have not captured the whole of what we must do in our minds and our hearts. If there is anything else you have learned in these four years of the liberal arts, it is that the world is a complex place. I would like to suggest that we must hold both belief and doubt in balance, discerning when and how to use such tools. But further, we must allow our discernments to move us to valuing and appreciating.
Let me give you an example. In a class many years ago, my students were discussing Barbie dolls. They were "doubting" Barbie. As you might imagine they were posing many feminist, critical race, and queer theory reasons for why Barbie was bad, bad, bad! Barbie has that out-of-proportion body. She and Ken as a couple promote hetero-normativity. Ken and Barbie do not belong to the BCC, the IC or Multi! And Barbie is a fashion-addict, complete with those spiked heels and feet that cannot wear hiking boots. My students swore that they would not condone Barbie in their homes or classrooms. Barbie was the worst example of oppression of women through a sexist, racist, homophobic, and capitalist conspiracy.
But, they volunteered that they would allow the new American Girl dolls in their classrooms. These were "good" dolls. They were based in history. American Girl dolls were anatomically girls not Dolly Parton faux women. They even came with, are you ready for this, books! My students believed in American Girl Dolls.
And here is the problem. What was needed was to apply belief and doubt to both dolls, as well as a valuing of what the experience of playing with dolls might mean. They needed to consider the socioeconomics of Barbie, at $12.95 a doll, and American Girl Dolls, at $89.95. They needed to critique the social class aspects of who plays with Barbie and who plays with American Girl Dolls. They needed to probe to see that both dolls are products of companies looking to make a profit. They needed to work hard to find out what playing with Barbie or American Girl dolls might mean to a particular child in a particular context. They needed to see who cuts Barbie's hair, or paints her a different color or who rips her head off. Because children are amazing in how they engage in fantasy play. The culture plays through children, as they draw on stereotypes and role models, but children also disrupt cultural stereotypes.
My students at that time also needed to look at what was missing in this conversation, the negative space that artists are particularly good at seeing. Notice that our critique was of girls and girl dolls. We needed to include hyper-masculine, war and violence-oriented action figures in our interrogation because, after all, boys and girls both engage in fantasy play with dolls. It is developmentally appropriate, culturally reproductive, and yes, sometimes troubling. And so my students needed to believe, to doubt, and to value the experiences that others have with the dolls of their contexts.
Now that we have opened up the subject of money and value, let me raise another dilemma that is facing you, perhaps the scariest of all. This brings us to:
Chapter 4: What should be done in a lousy economy?
When I was five years old, my mother sent me to the store with one dollar to buy a loaf of bread. I know this sounds a bit like a literary cliché, or a dangerous, unsupervised activity for a five year old, but that is how it was in those days. I bought the bread and the storeowner asked me if I wanted to buy candy with the change. I said no. But he persisted, showing me the candy that I could purchase and tempting me. I capitulated and went home gladly with my bread and candy, ready to share with my sisters.
When my mother saw what I had done, she chastised me so severely that to this day I remember the shame, and anger, I felt. Shame because, as she said, I had wasted her last dollar on a selfish, extravagant purchase. Anger because I felt it was the man's fault for tempting me, and heck, I was only five years old, how was I to know we were that poor. I had never felt poor before. But early moments can make an impression. To this day, as many of you know, I am thrifty. Half of my wardrobe comes from thrift stores, my house is filled with curbside furniture, and I have built flower beds of pass-along plants and seeds. I like having a back-up teapot or two. My family is afraid I might be a hoarder, but I am just thrifty.
But one can be too thrifty. One can be too thrifty to give good gifts, one can be too thrifty to tip a service worker generously, one can be too thrifty to send one's self to graduate school, or permit one's self to take a much-needed sabbatical, or to say the cheesy, loving thing. I learned how to be more generous by listening to one of my favorite authors talk about a deathbed statement.
Deathbed statements used to be quite in vogue, but I do not think your generation embraces them in quite the same way as my parents' generation did. Reynolds Price, one of my favorite writers of complex families and histories, tells a story in his book Feasting the Heart, about a deathbed statement that became Price's motto. It has resonated with me so much that barely a day goes by that I do not think on this. It is a story that was passed on to him, and so I pass it on to you.
One of Price's teachers during his time at Oxford (he must have been about your age) was Nevill Coghill. Coghill told the story of leaving his dying mother's bedside after his final farewell, after kissing her on the forehead, and hearing her call to him, "Nevill." According to Price, she then said quite "urgently" "Remember. I only regret my economies."
For Price, this was an epiphany, a motto to guide him into his adulthood, into his future. For Price it became a charge to be generous. I quote Price: "For 40 years now, in all the moments of costly choice — whether to buy this book or painting, whether to risk that chancy love or to write that curious feeling novel — I've heard Lady Coghill's piercing advice; and I've never found cause to doubt her in any particular. I've never regretted a splurge in my life, only the stingy-hearted choices at the sun-baked crossroads of money and passion."
Perhaps that sort of generosity is one kind of investment.
And giving? My lesson here comes from a children's chapter book by William Steig called Dominic, about a dog going into the woods, a Grimm-like metaphor for the loss of innocence and the gain of wisdom. Dominic is like you, perched on the edge of choices, ready to leave home for an adventure. After a few skirmishes with some weasels and stoats, Dominic discovers a wise, 100-year-old pig, a pig dying of, obviously, old age. Dominic is smart enough to pause a while to sit with the pig and learn from him, to make him tea and supper, and play the piccolo to comfort him at the end of his long life. For this kindness, Dominic is rewarded with two chests of treasure from the pig, more wealth than he can imagine. He is gleeful, and sets off on his journey once more, with the treasure chests upon his back. But he soon discovers that wealth is a burden, one that weighs him down and keeps him from realizing his adventures as quickly as he would like. So he begins to give away his treasure, bit by bit, to those he meets along the way, to those who show him kindness or those in need. In these daily acts of generosity, he lightens his load.
Will you save, invest, spend, or give? All will be your choices, sooner or later. This brings me to the last dilemma and chapter, one that is an issue in our schooling, in our culture, and for you.
Chapter 5 (the last chapter): Should you consume or create?
Much of traditional schooling has been devoted to what Brazilian educator Paolo Friere calls "banking" education. This is the kind of education in which we deposit more and more knowledge in people's heads, as if their brains are bank vaults. We have students consume words, facts, and information through textbooks, lectures, and drills. We expect that if we deposit enough, there will be compounding interest and, eventually, a payoff: in jobs, career, and money. But, as Friere and others have shown, this form of learning is usually the diet of the poor and working class masses, imposed by institutional powers, while elites often experience a more inquiry-based or critical education. Friere proposes a different kind of education, one that is problem-posing and liberatory.
I am not convinced that this binary of banking education and inquiry or critical education is the proper dichotomy. If I can use literacy as an example: we seem to have the idea that one must largely learn to read, i. e. consume, before one learns to write, i. e. create. Yet any time spent with learners, either in parenting or in kindergarten, is replete with children putting marks to paper and telling stories, or, when I was a child, decorating the mortar between the bricks on the fireplace with red crayon. Further, we all know that babies and toddlers speak long before they listen in the ways we would like them to.
I propose a different way of challenging the "banking" concept, one that I think Friere might agree is liberatory. I propose that we start with what learners create and produce. I propose that we construct contexts in which learners can, for example, immerse themselves in using, making, and playing with words and texts. They would learn just as much as is testable, but emerge from schools with a deeper kind of competence, a self efficacy as learners, and real connections to their lived worlds. I propose that in this way, students might stand a better chance of growing up to be creators rather than consumers.
Let me show you some examples of what creation can look like. Young children can do it, as can staff members, students, and faculty at Swarthmore.
For example, recall that little Jessica in that cute YouTibe video could create a digital affirmation with the help of her video-grapher. With new technologies she becomes a young creator, rather than waiting for twelve years of banking-based schooling to construct her as a consumer.
This past semester I taught my Literacies & Social Identities class. In this class, we use historical, theoretical, and instructional frames to understand the socio-political aspects of literacy. We look at the great oral-literate divide theories, phonics and whole word approaches to reading, minority language issues, and personal, academic, and New Literacies, such as graffiti and video-graphy. But more than that I try to get students to challenge themselves to create and produce in a range of genres, including memoir and analysis. One final task challenges them to make a digital story that in some way represents or addresses a theory, issue, or question in the field of literacy.
I honestly would not have attempted to do digital storytelling with my class unless I had seen some students and Environmental Services staff make digital stories last summer. Their stories were so powerful that they gave me the courage to change my curriculum.
What amazes me is how many of these digital stories are, once more, kinds of love letters. Darryl Stewart's was a love letter to his niece and to Muhammad Ali. One student made a story for the AIDS patient who befriended him during an internship. Another student unpacked the box of artifacts from his grandparents' early years and, in the process, discovered a hidden love story and photos of his grandfather with The Beatles. Another wrote an un-love story, a story of sexual assault, affirming herself in the process. These stories are made with care and about care, reminding me of what Austrian Baron Friedrich von Hugel said on his deathbed, "Caring is the greatest thing, caring matters most."
Let's look at two of these stories as a way to see many of the concerns I have spoken of today: finding yourself among others, telling new stories, learning and giving. Jenny Akchin, Class of 2010, learned to love a new city.
(Jenny Akchin's story: Patience Brings Roses)
The second is a love letter from an older sister, Lisa Sambat, also Class of 2010, to a younger sister, showing how those relationships we form in our early years both grow and serve as foundations for our futures.
(Lisa Sambat's story: The relationship you have with your sister...)
And what do literacy stories and love letters have to do with you as you head out into the world? They are your charge to care and to create.
How will you see yourself among others? How will you write your story forward? As we saw in the last chapter, you must think about your economies. You must think about how you will spend your time, your energy, and your passions. Will you save, invest, spend, or give? Will you primarily consume or create?
And this brings us to the end of our time together today, my last love letter of this speech, my cheesy letter to you:
Dear Class of 2010:
You are more than Facebook, you are real and wonderful faces.
Tomorrow you will be affirmed with a diploma.
You are unique, just like everyone else.
Look around you at the "everyone elses" in your life.
Find yourselves among them.
Find your way to careers, as well as to generosity.
Write a love letter or two, in ink or digital video.
Find your way to liking your "whole house" and the people in it.
Please do anything good.
Consume critically, create passionately.
Learn how to save, invest, spend, and give — wisely and with care.
Care, you see, may actually matter most.
I sure do like you;
I will miss you.
But it is time to leave anyway.