Prof. David Zimmerman (Director of Undergraduate Studies)
My name is David Zimmerman, and I am the Associate Chair of the English Department and the director of its undergraduate program. The Chair of the department, Caroline Levine, is unable to be here today. It is my honor and pleasure to welcome you on her behalf and on behalf of the whole department.
Today we celebrate these incredible students. Congratulations, graduates; and congratulations, parents.
While today is a day of celebration, I want to tell you why it’s also a sad day for me and my colleagues: graduates, we’ll miss you. Over the last several years, we’ve come to know you really well. In each class you’ve taken with us, we’ve spent 40 hours with you in close conversation, being astonished and transformed by the literature, the language, and the ideas we’ve explored together. In some cases, if you’ve taken more than one class with a professor, and if you add the time we’ve spent talking with you in office hours and poring over your remarkable essays and creative writing and thesis projects, we’ve spent 100 hours with you, maybe more.
We’re intensely proud of you, of how you’ve grown as thinkers, writers, and readers. But we’ve also come to like you, a lot. We like your curiosity, your compassion, your commitment, and your good humor. As English professors, we teach literature and writing and language, but first and foremost we teach students. It’s been a joy spending these years with you.
It’s a sad day for us, but it’s a thrilling day, too, a day we’ve been excited about all year. Today is a commencement day, a day when we face forward, not backward, but I want you for a moment to think back to when you decided to come to the UW. You came from tiny high schools and gigantic ones, some of you confident and some of you nervous. You came with different ideas about what you wanted to study and what you wanted out of college. And from this scatter of backgrounds and interests you all decided to become English majors. And as English majors you became a dynamic community. You exchanged ideas in your classes, read each other’s writing, worked together on journals and magazines, dropped your jaws at the same staggering poems, wrestled with complex social problems, and took intellectual risks together.
And you learned a ton: think about all that you know now that you didn’t know four years ago. Think about all you can do now than you couldn’t do four years ago. What good is an English major? — you learned how to write and speak effectively; you learned how to interpret and engage complex cultural questions; you learned how to understand other people’s perspectives so that you can collaborate with people who have different experiences than you; you learned how to identify and question assumptions (including your own) and to reflect on your methods of reasoning and arguing. You learned words you never imagined existed, like “post-human” and “counter-hegemonic.” Some of you coined words of your own for concepts you created.
In thinking about our good fortune in having had you as majors, and in thinking about your good fortune in graduating as UW English majors, I thought about fortune cookies and how there are three kinds of fortunes you might get when you break open the cookie. One is a description of you, sometimes incredibly detailed: You enjoy training falcons. Another is a prediction for you, also recklessly specific: You will run into an old friend wearing a leotard. (It’s not clear whether you or the old friend will be the one wearing the leotard.) And the third kind of fortune is a maxim, a pithy statement about life: If you are afraid to shake the dice, you will never throw a six. OK. I thought I’d end this congratulation address by giving you your fortunes, courtesy of the English Department. They are slightly longer than the average fortune, so you have to imagine very large cookies to house them.
First, the description: You imagine richly. You see language as magic, magic as power, and power as possibility. For you, words matter. They make the world.
Second, the prediction: You will be the one in your company who writes all the reports. You will reread a Shakespeare play for the fun of it. You will see life as poetry, story, essay, and play. If you’ve been my student, you will come across a muted post-horn spray-painted on a wall in some foreign town, and you will send me a photo of it.
And third, the pithy truism: English majors may not save the world, but they make the world worth saving.
Congratulations, English majors. And congratulations, parents, on raising such skilled, motivated, curious, and, yes, employable men and women. They are our future, in every sense, and this should give us all hope.
It’s my pleasure to introduce the first of our senior speakers today, Sophie Heywood.
Sophie Heywood (graduating senior)
Thank you, Professor Zimmerman taught the first class that I took as an English major, which focused on the theme of time travel in the 20th century novel. This was the first of 18 classes that I took in the department, and it occurs to me that like so much of literature, graduation provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the past, as we begin to look towards the future. I’d like to extend a warm welcome to the parents, families, and friends that have gathered to celebrate this year’s graduating class, and thank you for being the ones who dropped us off in the beginning, provided support through the middle, and now join us for this moment of closure.
When I was struggling to define my point of view in the early stages of writing my senior thesis, my advisor wisely quoted Oscar Wilde.
He said to me: “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Ar
ts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.” As English Majors, we are well versed in perspective, as we spend our academic careers engaging with viewpoints radically different from our own, expanding our critical vision beyond the limits of our own experiences, and drawing attention to the voices that may have otherwise been passed over in silence. This is the immeasurable value of the English major. Those of us who chose to study literature chose to value empathy, connection, and introspection; and no matter how challenging it can be at times, we have the tools to speak powerfully, to disagree productively, to love profoundly, and to express difficult ideas in new and meaningful ways.
I would like to thank the mentors that have guided us through this process—the ones who have taught us to see so many beautiful things—for their passion and patience in helping us to build the vocabularies that will enable us to carry forth our own visions into the world. In doing so, they connect us to the teachers of the past; and in the future, we can draw upon these lessons in moments of uncertainty: if the turning world frightens you, remember that the poet T.S. Eliot taught you to sit still. If you are lost for inspiration, remember that the novelist Ernest Hemingway taught you to write hard and clear about what hurts. And if you feel lost, remember that the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, taught you that to understand is simply to love, and to be happy is simply to be. And if you hold on too tight, the novelist, E.M. Forster reminds you that you must let go of the life you had planned, so as to live the life that is waiting for you. And finally, if you experience doubt, remember that Shakespeare taught you, above all, to thine own self be true. So thank you to my teachers—for breathing new life into old words, and, more importantly, for the comic relief, the last-minute meetings, the thoughtful silences, and for always keeping your doors open—for challenging us to write clearly, to think deeply, to aim higher, and to find the humanity in what can be, at times, an inhumane world. You’ve helped us to look at one another, to speak to one another, and to see the potential depth of our own experience; so now, surrounded by our families, advisors, teachers, and friends, we can cross the stage, taking confidence in all stories that we carry with us.
Micaiah Faraj (graduating senior)
Good afternoon my fellow graduating seniors of 2016! Is anyone exhausted like me? Relieved? Take a moment to breathe deep and relish this moment! Through hard work we have earned the right to take that deep breath, but we would not be here today without our families, friends, instructors, advisors, and our other supporters on and off campus. They have made this beautiful journey of ours possible. Please join me in thanking them.
To all of our supporters, I want to let you know that your hard work paid off. The English major has enriched us, expanded us, and energized us. We have learned to think critically as readers, writers, and speakers. We have discussed groundbreaking literature. We have probed the words and actions of literary characters like and, more importantly, unlike us. We have explored how authors have given form and force to their works. We have written ambitious stories and poems of our own. We have constructed painstaking analytical arguments and played devil’s advocate, questioning our own assumptions and assertions at every step.
Each of us has employed these skills not just in, but also outside of the classroom. I have been able to apply these skills within the Men’s Project, a newly formed initiative in response to sexual violence on our campus. I have taken the critical reasoning and the compassion I’ve learned in my English classes and, as a Men’s Project Ambassador, studied and shared how the conventional idea of masculinity that I and other men have inherited ultimately encourages violence. I have learned that violence can sneak into my assumptions about other men and women. And I have learned to build my own definition of what it means to be a man. Being a reader of literature helped give me the tools to do this. It did this by giving me—and all of us—empathy, the capacity to understand the experience, feelings, and beliefs of others. Fertile and provocative literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and Jean Toomer’s Cane, unveil the conflicts, confusions, and contradictions of characters across vastly different worlds. The literature we’ve read shows how individuals test out ways of bridging this difference, and how they succeed or fail. This literature has inspired me to try new ways of bridging differences between people from different communities, not just through the Men’s Project, but also through UW’s Multicultural Student Center and the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Scholarship family. I have heard and been moved by the stories of people who have very different backgrounds than I have, who hold very different perspectives than I do. I have been welcomed into these communities as someone desiring to learn of our differences and share in our similarities.
Just as you have explored characters’ experiences and feelings in order to better understand them, I urge you to go out and connect with people, hear their experiences, practice empathy. Be an attentive reader. Because [as someone says], “In our differences we have strength, and in our similarities we have comfort.”
As English majors we have learned to answer many different kinds of questions. We have become able to respond to writing prompts, discussion cues, and exam questions. We have learned how to respond – to become response-able. To be responsible doesn’t just mean being able to respond, however. It also means being committed to respond. No matter how difficult, we have a responsibility to respond. The problems I have chosen to respond to concern sexual, racial, gender, and class violence. I have only begun to scratch the surface of how to use my poetry and art in response to these problems. To what problems and questions will you respond?
As graduates, we will be readers no longer of just literature in English classes but also of the communities around us and the different people in them. We have learned to become powerful readers. As the saying stays true, “With great power comes great responsibility.” How will you respond?
Thank you to everyone who has supported us, and congratulations, fellow English graduates!
Meghan Villalpando (graduating senior)
Good afternoon graduates, faculty and staff of the English Department, parents, friends, and families. I am delighted and honored to be closing today’s ceremony and sending the Class of 2016 into our bright futures.
As an English major, one of my most formative experiences has been serving as the Co-President of the Madison Undergraduate Society for English, which many of you know simply as MUSE. Serving as Co-President, I have been given a unique perspective on how the skills obtained throughout our English coursework transcend the classroom and are brought into our daily lives. I’ve witnessed curious yet shy students share their creative writing at our Literati conference, critical thinking skills brought into social justice conversations at coffee hour, and creativity fostered through collaboration with classmates. Nonetheless, the greatest lesson that I have learned as Co-President and through the relationships formed with many of my classmates is that no English major’s experience is quite the same. Although we have taken nearly the same classes, we have asked different questions, gleaned different insights, and reached different conclusions. Yet, despite these differences, there are common themes that have grounded our education, unified our experiences, and will forever mark us as graduates from UW-Madison’s Department of English. These themes are some of the pillars of the English major: critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity. To demonstrate how these pillars will follow us after we depart UW-Madison and into our roles in the workforce and as global citizens, I will share with you the experiences of several of my classmates.
The first pillar: critical thinking. When I asked August Glomski to share with me one of his lasting lessons as an English major, he explained that following the tragic killing of a local nineteen-year old African American, Tony Robinson, Professor Kate Vieira encouraged her students to critically reflect on the types of educational inequalities that abetted this tragedy and the injustices that are threaded into the fabric of our society. For instance, they considered how the situation could have played out differently had Tony Robinson been a UW-Madison student on campus. In this discussion, students came to understand some of our privilege as UW students as well as investigating and reflecting on the many institutional barriers that make higher education difficult to access for marginalized students including students of color. As graduates, we are moving into a society rife with debates about college access, affordability, and equity. However, as English majors, equipped with powerful analytic and communication skills, we will not shy away from these passionate and challenging debates. For example, many of my classmates, will be entering elementary, secondary, and higher education institutions as either educators or administrative professionals. Looking into the future, one of our classmates may work in a college admissions office that has proposed adding an additional placement test for STEM majors. In this admissions office, it will be the English graduate who critically analyzes which student groups this additional requirement will advantage and disadvantage because of challenging English classes at UW-Madison that engaged with issues of social justice. Because of our critical thinking skills, we will know how to listen sensitively and take action to spread awareness.
The second pillar: collaboration. When I asked Madison Oberg to share with me one or two of her favorite memories as an English major, she flooded my inbox for nearly an hour. Nonetheless, all of her stories emphasized the value of collaboration. For instance, Madison shared that she enjoyed the opportunities to brainstorm paper topics and ideas, share theses, and unapologetically ask questions of her classmates. As we take our degrees into the workforce, one of us may work at a marketing firm that has been tasked with creating a new advertising campaign for the latest iPhone that charges itself with solar energy. Confronted with this exciting and challenging project, it will be the English graduate who seeks out a diverse group of individuals to test the product and brainstorm campaign strategies. Because of the value we found in our fellow classmates’ perspectives and expertise, English graduates will actively collaborate with individuals from various backgrounds because we understand and appreciate that collaboration produces a richer experience and a better outcome.
The third pillar: curiosity. When I asked Caroline Carlson to share with me her favorite lesson learned, she explained the “awesome yet horrifying” lesson that no matter what how great an essay is, it can always be re-imagined and revised. Similarly, every novel, poem, and theory that we have studied can be analyzed with new perspectives and experiences—even when we think that one cannot possibly say anything new about Paradise Lost, we learned that great literature always invites fresh readings and tests our theories and assumptions in powerful ways.
As we keep our spirit of curiosity with us, we will continue to ask complex questions, learn for the sake of learning, and try new experiences. As global citizens, we will let out curiosity guide us into museums, countries abroad.
So, Class of 2016, it is now time for us to leave the classroom, leave Helen C White Hall, and leave UW-Madison to enter a world that desperately needs our critical thinking, our collaboration, and our curiosity. So, we say thank you to our advisors and professors and all of you family, friends, and supporters for building our experience on these strong pillars and giving us invaluable experience and confidence. The world needs English majors, and we are ready and able to meet the challenge.