Students speak

The two student speeches at graduation yesterday were structured loosely around the usual themes:  how nice life had been at college, how scary it was to be leaving, and how the members of the graduating class should forge ahead and make their mark on the world.  Given the content of the speeches, though, it is entirely mysterious how this mark is to be made, as for all one could gather they might have spent the last four years at summer camp.  Memories of drinking featured prominently, as did sex:  the first speaker mentioned her bikini wax in the course of a list of “firsts,” and the second speaker opened with a joke about how he too was going to speak of her bikini wax, with apologies to her boyfriend.  (Likely it was this that prompted Eila’s third grade teacher, who had attended the ceremony to see her student helper graduate, to ask me whether I found the speeches “inappropriate.”  The word vulgar is no longer in common use.)  Neither of them said anything about politics;  neither took a stand in any way on any topic whatever.  And neither mentioned a class, or a professor, or a book, or an idea.

Part of what accounts for this might be the college’s focus on we used to call extra-curricular education and now call co-curricular education.  One could imagine two reasons for changing the term from extra- to co-, the first being to emphasise the interplay between the two, such that ideas in the classroom were discussed and tested on the playing fields, in public debates and lectures, and over beer — and vice versa, with the things they were thinking and experiencing outside the classroom brought up in seminars where they might be reflected on and challenged.  But I think the actual reason is simply to imply that what they do outside the class is of equal importance to what they do inside.  Which is a short step to more important, or all-important, and in any case severs what should be a meaningful tie.

As I listened to the students speak, I cast my eyes over the list of prize winners at the back of the programme.  It was a heartening list.  I know these students.  Many of them have taken my classes.  They are fabulous, smart people.  All of them, any one of them, would have given a very different kind of speech.  So how are the valedictorians chosen?  And could we change the way?

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5 thoughts on “Students speak

  1. Ah wait. They did mention a book and a professor: Harry Potter, Dumbledore. Throwaway references both — and neither student took my ChL class.
    So now look at this here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Case-for-Breaking-Up-With/131760/
    Here’s an example of how to think about student life and books at the same time: how to actually reflect. I’m not saying it’s a great example; it’s just one I happened to have come across this morning. I’m just saying it can be done.

  2. Yikes. This is disappointing. I cannot remember much of the content of my year’s speeches, but I do not think any books figured prominently.

  3. Yes. I think we need to start outing apolitical stances as political. Choosing to throw up one’s hands, Pontius Pilate style, is definitely a political act.

  4. I would like to point out that our Class Day speaker actually fulfilled several of the conditions you mention here. Among my fellow graduates, there was a unanimous opinion that the Class Day and Commencement speeches would have made more sense had they been switched–the Commencement speech would have been more appropriate for Class Day, and vice versa. Our Class Day speaker spent much of his speech discussing the idea of neuroplasticity as a symbol of the college experience. He also mentioned issues of sexuality and gender, and criticized the administration for its handling of the ongoing labor dispute. I think that had the two speakers reversed places, your concerns would have been entirely answered.

  5. And to answer the question you pose at the end: our class president sends out an email, about 5 weeks before graduation, asking students to nominate themselves for Class Day speaker and Commencement speaker. There are no criteria given, and the only information offered is that the Class Day speech is irreverent and the Commencement speech is less so. (Which, as I said, was actually reversed this year.) Then a week later, the nominees submit 150-word candidate statements, and the students vote on the candidate they most want for each speaker. This year, there were five Class Day nominees and roughly twice as many Commencement nominees.

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