Thank you students of the class of 2006, honorable parents, and distinguished guests, faculty, and staff, and my personal family and friends. Today you have made one of my imaginary dreams come true, that dream wherein people who matter think you are worth listening to. I am truly and deeply grateful. It is not quite the fantasy of having brunch with Ben Folds, starring opposite Mark Ruffalo in a movie, or singing in a rock band with the drummer from Guster, but believe me when I say it will do.
I also want to thank Jill Gladstein, friend and Director of the Wring Center. When I accepted this assignment two weeks ago I did what many of you do. I headed to the Writing Center and had my draft WAed!
On the eve of your graduation you must be pleased and proud, maybe even relieved to be done with the intensity of a college such as this. But I also suspect that your parents and loved ones, who sit among us today, may be just a bit worried about what this liberal arts education gets you in terms of a career, a paycheck, and the current gold-standard of adulthood, HEALTH INSURANCE. As a parent with two daughters attending liberal arts colleges, I worry too. I am enjoying my empty nest with my husband too much to give it up if they end up moving back in. The good news is that most of you will be fully employed or in graduate school within the next year. The unknown is how many of you will land in a career or a calling that you prepared for or how many of you will land somewhere that will be a complete surprise to you.
While some of you always knew you would graduate from a prestigious place like Swarthmore College, others may be a bit surprised, maybe even in awe, that you are here today. In some ways you may feel like interlopers. Some of you were born to be here, you were born into a legacy family or born with an intelligence that looked distinguished at just that right moment of applying to college. Some of you were not born to be here, not from where you are from, not given your lack of pedigree, not given where people like you (and me I might add) are likely to go, no matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you work. But, somehow, you got here. You are now in the club of people with an elite education and that, according to those who study such things, will provide you with an automatic career network and an entry into many professional and social circles in your future.
All of you, however, are here and ready to graduate because either you or someone you know imagined, for at least a second, the possibility that you could be here. You may have worked hard to get here and while you were here, taking the necessary steps to learn a discipline - the courses, the exams, the never-ending labs, field placements, and papers, papers, and more papers. When you had time you were involved in War News Radio, you sang in the chorus, played in the orchestra, performed in dance, played sports, interned in a non-profit, and committed yourself to community service. Perhaps you traveled outside the activities of high school or the safe intellectual gifts of your childhood to something bigger than yourself, participating so that this college would be an enriched as well as a rigorous place. If you were among the most fortunate you discovered a talent, a field, a friend, or a calling that will sustain you for the rest of your days, or at least until tomorrow. In any case, one thing led to another, and now you are all here, together, on this glorious day.
A number of Swarthmore students have spoken to me over the years about who they are and how they feel about themselves and their futures at the end of a Swarthmore education. Some feel exhilarated about the prospect of changing the world, only to find out later how hard that is or how few people in the outside world agree with their visions or their methods. Others feel paralyzed by the tons of theories and facts, some conflicting, bouncing around in their heads, and feel that they have not a clue as to how to use all of this education in the world without offending someone or some group of some ones. They are often paralyzed by theory. Others find the pressure to change the world and to do something remarkable absolutely daunting. Often it is the very students who have been honored, recognized and enticed with the expectation of great things to come that feel the most burdened at the end of this academic ride.
Today, however, I am not going to talk about how your Swarthmore diploma will get you a job or make you sound really smart when you spout theory at a party at your new bosses' house. I want you to imagine how you might use what you have learned at Swarthmore College to navigate the so-called real world outside of this campus. Today I am going to talk about imagination, that thrift shop of the mind, that place where you can try on a wide range of roles and identities, where you can discard what doesn't look right, pass it on, or save it for another day. I chose the metaphor of the thrift shop to signify the ways in which, without much effort or expense, we might try on what educational theorist Jerome Bruner calls "possible selves and possible lives."
I am suggesting, now that you have satisfied graduation requirements, and aside from career choices and mating choices, that you might want to think about your "possible selves and possible lives" with imagination. As an educational studies assistant professor I have a tendency to connect theory to practice, what we call praxis, and to give too much reading and too much work. So, let us do a bit of praxis work towards the following goals today. Let us think together about 1. How to be a lifelong learner 2. How to have and maintain respect for others in your daily life, no matter how smart everyone has been telling you you are, and 3. How to develop a conscience of humility by figuring out where you stand among others. I believe that who you are and who you become is as much about how you conduct yourself among others as you walk down the street or respond to a stranger as it is about your grade point average or what a great college you went to or what fine accomplishments you achieve in your lives.
I believe that, while we are all happy to bask in the glory of your brilliance, that it is dangerous indeed for you to believe that you are brilliant at the expense of denying the brilliance of those who have not obtained the same kind of pedigree for brilliance that you will obtain tomorrow. Now that you are leaving Swarthmore for the so-called real world I ask you to imaginatively apply a few educational theories to your life in the world that starts the day after tomorrow, when you leave this green campus.
Let me just say, before I launch into this praxis of theory and practice, that I have a couple of personal biases to admit at the outset. I think these biases, we like to call them "lenses" or "frames" in academia, come from my training as an educational sociologist and anthropologist. One is that I am just generally amazed at how smart people are, how much they learn just by waking up in the morning and going about their business, and how well most people seem to manage their lives. This is not to say that I am not critical and judgmental -- I am, as my children will readily tell you. But I am simply in love with people and how they solve problems, take care of business, and navigate the stresses of post-modern life. Second, I LOVE theory, and I love it because theorists do such a good job of explaining the world to me AND I enjoy puzzling out theory with students.
With those cautions in mind, let us begin. What can imagination and theory do for you? I have some ideas and, since I am an Educational Studies Professor, let's call these homework assignments.
The first assignment is that I want you to explore being a lifelong learner by practicing the ability to learn in unlikely places from a wide range of people. For this unlikely places and people assignment I will draw on Lev Vygotsky's theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Development, better known as ZPD, is the idea that our most effective learning takes place in that space just beyond what we already know. A great thing about this theory is that it helps us to understand how, once we figure out what the learner knows, we can support the learner through to the next level of learning. All that is needed is someone who knows a little bit more. For me, the greatest thing about this theory is that it helps explain why so much learning takes place in the world outside of school, away from highly credentialed experts. Vygotsky's zone of proximal development assumes that people know a lot and that they do not always need a certificate or a Ph.D. to teach everything that is worth knowing. VygotskyÕs work assumes that learning is a social activity, a phenomenon that takes place between heads as well as within heads. It explains how Sally can teach her younger brother how to ride a bike, how Raphael can teach his best friend how to play a computer game, and how the guy who worked in my grandfather's coal yard could inadvertently teach me so many new curse-words.
Imagine, with Vygotsky's ZPD in mind, that you have much to learn from one another, those "others" being people that pop up in the most unlikely places. If you need to learn something, you simply need a more knowledgeable other, someone who can work in your "zone of proximal development."
Basically someone who can support your learning through what you need to learn next. If we take Vygotsky seriously then that person would not necessarily need a certificate, they just need to know more than we do. And, as smart as you are, as much as you will be credentialed as superbly smart tomorrow morning, guess what? Those people are everywhere.
At Swarthmore College, this kind of learning happens everyday in the Learning for Life Program, where students and staff members, mostly from dining services and environmental services, work together in learning partnerships with one another, on topics of their mutual choice. Sometimes a student will teach a staff member how to use computers, how to do their taxes, how to access the library resources, how to write a paper for community college, or how to study for the GED. Sometimes student and staff partners learn together, such as when EVS supervisor Don Bankston and alum Liz Derickson worked together on learning web design. And sometimes a staff member will teach a student. For example, this year, Joe, a Swarthmore student who I have known since being his adviser his first year, wanted to learn how to play the piano. But, since he takes about 6 courses (illegally I think. Sorry Martin Warner) every term, he has not had the time for formal lessons. So, and this is how I know Joe is really smart, Joe found Joan, one of our Dining Hall workers, who, guess what? Plays the piano! Joan agreed to teach Joe.
Now Joe is not always an easy student. He is both energetic and demanding and, as much as I love him, he presses buttons even while making us all proud. Joan, who works here in Dining Services, has had her hands full, I am sure, but she spent last semester teaching Joe how to play the piano. Joan, who knows quite a bit more than Joe about playing the piano, turned out to be a fabulous teacher for Joe. Joan gives Joe a hard time, and they laugh a lot, and Joe learned how to play "Jingle Bells" by the end of the term.
But here is a little anecdote about this learning partnership that contains a lesson for all of us in why assumptions can be problematic and why we must be open to learning from others in unlikely places. Remember what I said about who was teaching whom here? Joan, the Dining Hall worker, was teaching Joe, the college student. Another college student, Teresa, filmed one of their learning sessions for a presentation we were making about L4L at a national conference. A third college student walked by in the dorm, saw the Joe and Joan teaching session as Teresa was editing and said, "Boy, Joe isn't a very good teacher." You see, the detached observer assumed that Joe, the young male college student, was the teacher and that Joan, the older dining services worker, was the student. She missed the point completely, perhaps because it is so often assumed that you smart college students are more likely to have something to teach a staff member than a staff member is likely to have something to teach a college student.
In this particular case, Joan had something to teach Joe and Joe wanted to learn, their lives intersected, and although I am sure that Joan learned in this partnership, Joan was the brilliant instructor teaching in Joe's ZPD.
This brings me to my second assignment for you. I want you to use theory to develop a healthy perspective on ideas that are not yours and to have respect for people unlike you. Our Swarthmore College t-shirts proclaim that "anywhere else it would be an A, really," "Guilt w/o sex," and "Swarthmore College: Contents under pressure." It is as if we think, work, and suffer more than anyone anywhere. But the truth is that most people have busy, complicated lives; most people have landed where they are for complex reasons; and most people do what they do, the way they do it, because that is how things are done from where they come from.
Where people land, in careers, families, and even voting tendencies, is about many things, from the parents and social classes into which they are born, to gender, race, linguistic resources, to development, history, timing, and luck. Dalton Conley in his recent book, The Pecking Order, has shown that there is as much variation within families as there is between families. That would be true in my family of birth, where the children of my sisters, who test well and found their way into gifted identifications in school, who are as smart and wonderful as my two daughters, went to state colleges, community colleges, and tech schools, if they even went to college, because that is how, in the working to middle class world in which they live, higher education gets done. The theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls this habitus.
Habitus is the way a group of people tends to do things and it may describe as well how people in a community tend to view, or even notice, learning and intelligence. Another way of saying this is what Andrea Fishman found when she studied the literacy practices among Pennsylvania Amish families. Fishman tried to get Amish children to keep personal journals as a way of collecting data on how they write. But the Amish children resisted; they did not and would not keep individual journals. When she realized that Amish children were not socialized to be individualistic, as much of U.S. society socializes its children, she ditched the journal idea. It was then that she discovered the circle letters that Amish children use to keep in contact and to share news of their communities with Amish children that do not live nearby. Fishman later conceptualized her understanding of habitus as if the Amish were saying, "This is what we do and this is how we do it because this is who we are."
Which brings me to my third assignment for you. While Amish children may not appear to be highly literate if we gave them a test in which they were asked to write a personal essay or analyze literature, we can see that within their community they are appropriately literate and they have literate identities. In other words, both they and their communities think of them as readers and writers.
Yet literate identities and the roles that people take on in their lives can be problematic. For example, the Center for Literacy in Philadelphia brochure claims that:
Recent studies by the Educational Testing Service have found that nearly one out of every two adults has difficulty performing everyday tasks, such as reading a bus schedule, adding entries on a bank deposit slip, or responding to a job announcement.
But it is also true that a man named George Dawson learned to read at the age of 98 after living a life in which he performed everyday task pretty well, by his account. As we see in his book Life is So Good, co-written with Richard Glaubman, his life was good, in spite of his lack of literacy skills. He worked, he traveled, he raised a lovely family, he made sure his children obtained an education, and he kept his children from knowing that he could not read by having them read to him from their schoolbooks. While it is true that his life's trajectory was impeded by his lack of literacy skills, it is also true that he lived a noble and worthy life. And so we must work to correct the inequities of educational injustice while still valuing and respecting the lives and legitimate learning of all persons.
I know that what you have learned at Swarthmore about the cultural relativity of intelligence and the power of cultural capital to shape destinies will help you to value and respect the intelligence and learning of others. Many of you will make it your life's work to effect social change for those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. I also implore you to practice this knowledge in the local and personal worlds in which you live. Unfortunately our culture may encourage you to think there is a direct, causal link between intelligence, education, literacy, and accomplishment and financial reward. But the world is too messy for this to be true. Literacy researchers, for example, have found that when some ancient cultures have become literate, the effects of literacy can empower some but disadvantage others. And literacy is not always personally liberating, as ethnographers have found in disadvantaged populations in the U.S. To be literate does not guarantee the goodies that one would expect from literacy, nor does it mean one gets to see oneÕs self or be seen by others as a literate person.
I became acutely aware of the inherent contradictions of literacy, social practice, and identities when I taught in a rural summer school program one year. One student, Jerry, was in 7th grade yet he tested at a 2nd grade reading level. In school he considered himself stupid and illiterate, usually sitting quietly and sullenly as far away from the teacher and the books as possible. In our small summer school class he had difficulty hiding. I felt that I had tried every possible teaching strategy with him but teaching him felt like rowing upstream in oatmeal. One day, in a bit of a fit of exasperation, I said, probably too loudly, "Oh, come on! You must read something! You must have some books at home! Tell me, what do you do in your spare time? You must have some interests!" This was when I was young and not always as patient as I should have been.
Maybe I had scared him. But he answered me. Very quietly he said. "I raise pigeons. I get a pigeon journal at home." I said, "Bring it in." And guess what? He could read the pigeon journal! This was a technical journal about the care of pigeons, something I certainly knew nothing about and had difficulty reading. Now, he did not read quickly, and he was not accurate in pronouncing every word, but he read his pigeon journal so he could know about taking care of pigeons. And, his pigeons did not die. When we used that journal as his primary text in summer school his reading scores started to rise.
Here are some other examples of problematic literacy practices and identities: When I talk with a group of adults, maybe teachers, maybe parents of school children, and I ask them if they are readers and writers, their answers come out like this. Those who are highly educated tend to identify as readers and writers. Those who read novels identify as readers, while those who read newspapers, instruction manuals, work reports, and train schedules do not identify as readers. Among those who are not highly educated, only those rare few who have been published identify as writers, even if they write everyday in their personal or work lives. And I don't, in my naivete, understand this, because if you read and write, then you ought to be able to obtain a readerly and writerly identity.
In my own work as a literacy researcher, I use ethnographic-type methods of qualitative inquiry to see how children and adults are participating in literacy practices. I do this because the numbers on literacy rates and performances in school testing tell only part of the tale of literacy in this country. They often obscure the truth as much as they reveal facts. Testing scores tell us that poor children cannot read and write; yet when I go into urban classrooms I see children reading and writing, as my research seminar students were able to do this semester.
One of the examples that resonates most for me, and some of you heard this vignette in my faculty lecture, is that of Danny, a three-year-old in an urban preschool who plays Chutes and Ladders. When he plays with the researcher, he double counts in order to land on the ladders and avoid the chutes, dancing a jig every time he outwits his opponent. His teacher, however, instead of seeing his double counting as sophisticated mathematical strategy, thinks of Danny as a "cheater," who only wants to win, and warns him not to cheat. And why does this matter? It matters because Danny, at the age of three, is already having his identity constituted as a cheater rather than as a mathematician and his teacher has already pegged him a middle level child intellectually and a behavior problem. I would argue that constituting Danny's identity as a cheater instead of as a mathematician may have profound consequences for him in the future. As another teacher said, with prejudice, Danny could end up in jail. I want, instead, for Danny to end up at Swarthmore College, as a mathematics major.
Lave and Wenger, two social learning theorists, claim that "identity, learning, and social membership entail one another... learning and a sense of identity are inseparable; they are aspects of the same phenomenon." Which brings me to another assignment for you. Try, and I paraphrase Lisa Delpit, to see the brilliance in the social activity of the people you encounter in the world in your daily life. You will be amazed at what you see. In seeing the brilliance of others, you will find your own humility and feel some of the burden of being among the elitely educated lift from your shoulders. You will find that you have collaborators in your projects for social change.
For example, while we are not surprised at the brilliance of our students on this campus, or the professors who teach them, we do not always look beyond those two thirds of this community. But what would we see if we did? We would see many non-faculty members who write, who learn, who paint, and who start small businesses. We would encounter people who lead rich and varied lives, who are learners who deserve recognition and respect. We would see learning, identities, and social memberships that work powerfully in daily and local worlds.
There is an Internet story that has circulated called "The Most Important Lesson." It goes something like this:
During the second month of nursing school, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and I had breezed through the questions until I read the last one: What is the name of the person who cleans the school? Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her fifties, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade. "Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile, say hello, and clean up your own personal messes." I've never forgotten that lesson. I learned that her name was Dorothy.
We have our own Dorothies at Swarthmore and today I want to share a poem written by one of the staff members on this campus. Mrs. Elizabeth Dozier, who retired from Swarthmore College just two weeks ago, spent 21 years cleaning the Hicks Building. She is an Environmental Services Worker with many other identities. Liz is also a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother; Liz is on the Steering Committee for Learning for Life; and she is a public speaker who has presented at national literacy conferences at the University of North Carolina and in Philadelphia. Liz is a member of the learning and creative community at Swarthmore College in the fullest sense of the word. Liz is also a published poet. This is Liz's poem called "Survival" (which may also describe how some of you graduates are feeling about leaving Swarthmore). In Liz's case it is about her experience surviving breast cancer. While others walk for the cure, Liz writes for the cure.
By Elizabeth Dozier
My main focus was the early leaving.
All these things happened
As I went along.
Cells rotten, decaying,
Being removed, washed away with water.
Waiting for the bus
On the street.
Wind blowing leaves in the air.
Look for any change of body feelings
Waiting for the results of tests.
Long wait for public transportation.
Nurses. Friendly temperature takers.
Speak with soft voices.
I met a lady on the bus,
And we talked the whole trip.
"Are you going where I'm going?"
"Are you a survivor?"
Bus stops. Picks up passengers.
Deposit fare. Tokens, bills, change.
Walk the aisle. Sit. Stand. No seats.
Hospital stay not long -- two days.
Like the quietness of sleep.
Rain, rain, rain. Standing in large puddles.
Wet feet, wet clothes. Umbrellas up. Wind strong.
Rain like many teardrops.
Sitting in the chair
Watching the drip, drip, drip of medicine.
Patience. Wait for the next moment.
Liz, would you please stand so that we can thank you, recognize your brilliance, and know your name and your face?
And here is your last assignment. Imagine that nothing you do is yours alone or original with you. Imagine that everything you might accomplish, publish, say, make, or do, if it were footnoted completely, would trace back every concept, every sentence, cliché, every utterance to someone or something that preceded it. As academics we know how to put citations into our papers. Perhaps the more important skill is to put citations into our lives.
How can we keep our identities and those of others open to revision? For those of us who labor in academia, as students and professors, how do we prevent our identities from solidifying such that we keep our possible selves in play? As Barry Unsworth said in his novel Morality Play, "We can lose ourselves in the parts we play and, if this continues too long, we will not find our way back again." While most of you want to hold fast to the identities you have constituted in academia, you now need to find your way back again to the world out there. For most of us, living in the world is not optional; we must go there at the end of the day, for our research, or at the end of four years of study at Swarthmore College. The world is, after all, where the other people are.
Like you, I too, have had literacy and identity projects of my own. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. French, would be very surprised that I am before you today. She was the teacher who told my mother that, although I was pretty smart, I was too shy to ever be able to get up in front of a group and speak, that I was always hiding behind my books. What she didn't know was that, sitting in the front row in front of her direct line of fire, I was merely avoiding the spittle that came out of her false teeth whenever she spoke. Although Mrs. French never imagined that I could speak in front of a group, I did. In fact, I imagined that I could teach her class and I imagined some ideas that she never thought of, such as treating ALL students with respect, including the religiously and ethnically different boy in the class, who happened to eat paper. I may have been quiet in her eyes, but I was already exercising a critical imagination in the classroom. This may be one reason why I always pay close attention to the students in my class who do not speak up much - they may actually be listening and thinking!
And I too, had an identity planted in my childhood, although I didn't know it at the time. Again, as an Educational Studies professor, I need to bring out an artifact from my childhood. This is my Professor doll. He symbolizes, for me, how an idea of who we might become can be planted fairly early in life and somewhat surreptitiously. For me as a child, he never had a name; he was just The Professor. He is a he, although there were few male dolls in the nineteen sixties, and he is anatomically ambiguous, as was also common in those days. He has white jockey-like underwear, black pants, a black cape, and a felted mortarboard. He used to have a golden medallion on a pink ribbon, but that is long since gone. Maybe the pink was the feminine touch that lured me in. He looks quite goofy - not intellectual, not professorial. But I liked him. I do not remember doing much with him, but he came along with me like a wart that you can't quite get rid of so you might as well consider him a friend, or at least a familiar appendage. Eventually he became the embodiment of my daughter Morgan's imaginary friend, Go-Go. (She also had a herd of imaginary sheep, but that is another story altogether.) I think of him now as Professor Go-Go, a fusing of his identities, a name that captures his goofiness and perhaps his malleable persona.
But here is the part of this story that has shown me the power of imagination and identity, and why it matters that we use our imaginations and keep our identities in open play as "possible selves." I must have missed the lecture on gender boundaries because I identified with Professor Go-Go. I imagined I was him. This doesn't mean that at that age I aspired to be a professor or that I was questioning my gender identity. In my rational mind I actually never thought that it was possible for someone like me, someone from Runnemede, N.J., Exit 3 of the N.J. Turnpike, someone whose grandparents never graduated from high school, someone whose parents were hard-working farmers, small business merchants, truck drivers, and lawn mower repair persons, to be here. In my childhood, perhaps with the help of Professor Go-Go, I merely imagined that I could "possibly, maybe, not really, who knows," be a professor. I also imagined that I would be an artist and live on an island, but that didn't come true. But becoming a public school teacher was more likely, so that is what I did. I aspired to be a principal because that was what all of the smartest women in education did where I come from; but I held in my imagination many things I could become, from lawyer to doctor to professor. And somehow, through a longer and more alternative route than many professors at this college, I have landed here, with you on this day, older than most junior faculty. I am grateful to Professor Go-Go and you for the privilege of speaking today and for the honor of teaching you.
While it is important to remember our roots, I am sometimes surprised at how literally dirty those roots can be. I share this last story just to show how unexpectedly one's name can become famous. This week my family name, Downer, received an honor that stands in some kind of counterpoint to being with you here today, a counterpoint that is unearned and humbling. This week, my family name was honored when a headline on the second front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed: "All hail Downer dirt, the finest in New Jersey." It seems that the strata of soil that runs through Downer, N.J., my ancestors' homestead when they immigrated here in the 1860's during the Irish potato famine, is now the official state soil for N.J., like the state bird or the state tree. I like the way the dirt was described by Chris Smith, soil scientist. "It's sort of a workhorse soil. It's not flashy, it doesn't have outstanding color. It does a little bit of everything pretty good." Perhaps there is a message in that description of Downer dirt, that pretty good may be good enough most of the time, if we just get the job done that needs to be done. Occasionally that job will be remarkable.
On a final note, whether these were fabulous college years or awful years, I hope that these were NOT the best years of your life. I hope that while this time spent at Swarthmore College may have been a fine time for a certain kind of reading, writing, talking, thinking, experimenting, and building "possible lives," that tomorrow and the days to come are days of joy and accomplishment for you. Because I am from the Educational Studies Department, I expect you to be critical and discerning about everything I have shared with you today. And, my last bit of advice to you, to quote my friend Liz Dozier, "Patience. Wait for the next moment. Enjoy now."