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Commencement 2013: English Diploma Ceremony Highlights

June 17, 2013

On the afternoon of June 16th, the English department’s graduation ceremony unfolded in Memorial Church. In addition to the distribution of diplomas, we had the chance to celebrate student award winners, and to hear speeches from several English community members. We are pleased to share with you some of these details, including the speeches and the student winners of department awards.

Undergraduate Awards

Holst Katsma - Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence in the Humanities and Creative Arts

David M. Kennedy Honors Thesis Prize - Holst Katsma

Marie Louise Rosenberg Prize - Laura Bomes, Willys DeVoll, and Elias Rodriques

Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence in Honors Thesis Presentation - Zoya Lozoya

Chair’s Award for Undergraduate Research - Zoya Lozoya

Rosenberg Service Award - Vanessa Moody, Kyle O’Malley, and Sarah Weston

Graduate Awards

Andrew Smith Memorial Essay Prize - Vicky Googasian

Excellence in Teaching Prize - Luke Barnhart

Centennial Teaching Awards - Jessica Beckman, Tasha Eccles, and Shannon Pufahl

Alden Dissertation Prize - Michael Benveniste and Steffi Dippold


Gavin Jones, English Department Chair

“Welcome to our graduation celebration. And happy Father’s Day. Do we have any fathers here today?

Take a moment to look at what you’ve done.

We wanted engineers, and you sent us children of the light, mad for the heart’s truth. We wanted statisticians, and you sent us souls who measure life in iambic feet. We wanted reason, you gave us imagination. We wanted precision, you gave us nuance and the glorious acceptance of ambivalence.

Thank you.

We are gathered here today in our Father’s House to celebrate the end of a long road, and to enjoy the Byzantine gorgeousness of Jane Stanford’s architectural vision, driven by her Victorian aversion to blank space and her love of angels and the patterned significance of mosaics.

Daunted by these surroundings, I confess that it’s a challenge for a literary scholar to deliver a graduation speech. One cannot help but overthink the genre, trained as we are to be critical of discourse. What are the hidden meanings of the “value of a humanities degree” kind of speech? Or the “fail early, fail fast, fail often” kind of speech? Or the skeptical, skewed, and vaguely leftist speech about the realities of what lies ahead?

Fortunately we’re saved from these questions by a text. For today is Bloomsday -- that global celebration of the work of James Joyce, the Irish writer whose novel Ulysses takes place on this day, June 16th, 1904. It’s one of those rare holidays in which we celebrate the events of a fictional day -- a moment when the literary world breaks into and determines our own.

Ulysses chronicles the wanderings of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on a very ordinary day, and his encounter with Stephen Dedalus -- a college-educated, somewhat pretentious young artist figure, perhaps an ironized alter-ego of Joyce himself.

One of the greatest and most challenging novels of the 20th century, Ulysses is not the easiest book from which to glean graduation advice -- although Bloom does think at one point “Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character.”

Ulysses is a mythic celebration of the everyday that foregrounds the process of thinking as a beautiful, associational magic. It’s about the fundamental importance of the inside life. It’s about the struggle to awaken from the nightmare of history by finding freedom and dignity in the here and now. For those of you who’ve read the book, you’ll remember how the abstract, over-intellectualized thoughts of Stephen Dedalus get overshadowed by the sensual everydayness of Leopold Bloom -- his ineluctable humanity, his love of fried kidneys, his compassionate consciousness, his ongoing search for value and meaning in routine and petty frustration.

It’s these values that we think about today, the transcendent humility that we glimpse in a character like Bloom and a book like Ulysses -- its creation of a fictional universe that teaches us to be critically aware of ourselves and our certainties. It overwhelms us with that more significant, that more glorious and textured reality of an advertising agent on a single Dublin day -- today.

Perhaps we’re in the church for a reason. We all need to worship something, whether it’s money or God. And you’ve chosen what to worship by choosing what to think about. You’ve chosen a certain way of thinking, always open to other possibilities -- always ready to care about other minds, other pasts, other futures... In the words of Martin Evans, a beloved professor of English who passed away this year: ‘What the study of literature has to teach us is a recognition and acceptance of the other as other, not as a mere reflection or extension of ourselves. By learning to know that other life, we both escape from and enlarge our own identities; we grow, as selves, because other selves flow into us, and add their strengths and weaknesses, their ways of knowing and not knowing, to our own.’

So, may you bloom and keep on blooming on this Bloomsday and beyond. May you always know that the world is on fire. May you tirelessly seek the beauty of what’s hidden in plain sight all around us all the time. May you find poetry in line (and you’ll be in line a lot). May you pull the joyous thread of story from a world entangled in text. And may your life with books help you find the signs of your significance and your insignificance on the road ahead.

Or to quote that other great guidebook to life’s journey, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Don’t panic. And always know where your towel is.’”

Kyle O’Malley, B.A. 2013

“The photo for the cover of last month’s Time Magazine shows a young woman taking a ‘selfie’ with an iPhone. Above her are the words: ‘The ME ME ME Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.’ Underneath this indictment, the Times’ editors generously squeeze in a final, whiplash-inducing line, revealing the point of the story inside. It reads: ‘Why they’ll save us all.’ According to the wizened sages of ‘Generation X’ and the “Boomer Generation,” we Millennials represent a paradox: our generation possesses unprecedented capacities both for static self absorption and collective global action; we’re a generation, you might say, of navel-gazing saviors.

I can’t say that I agree with this characterization entirely. To borrow some words from a very famous boomer: I believe I have seen the best minds of my generation. I submit to you that the Stanford English class of 2013 contains some of its greatest, and we are no navel-gazers. It is true that we’re not starving,hysterical, or naked. On the contrary, by all measures we’re doing quite well. Graduates here today have published papers, fiction, and poetry; they have presented research at academic conferences nationally and internationally; they have won prestigious scholarships such as the Fulbright and Rhodes. To this we owe those who came before us as much as we owe ourselves. Our parents and families, our professors and mentors, the people who prepared us for and engaged us with the difficult, inspiring, and timeless questions posed by the humanities. These people put books in our hands and worlds before our feet. We owe them both for creating these worlds and for equipping and encouraging us to journey deeply and fearlessly in, so that, when we come back up for air, when we leave the fictional world, we can bring with us new meaning, new language, new ways to make sense of the real world: to read, to interpret, and so solve its problems with fresh insight.

But when I think about what I have learned at Stanford, it is not -- not at first -- of what I learned from my professors, or even what I learned during the thousands of hours reading I did for them, but of what I learned from you, my peers. That learning -- the learning we did together over the past four years -- has been rich because it has been diverse. By that I don’t mean simply that we come from different places, or that we look different from one another, or that some among us adore the Oxford comma and others despise it. This kind of diversity certainly describes us, and it enriched and enlivened our learning here, but its differences are superficial. What I mean by “diversity” is something else entirely---something that exists among us as a collection of wide, varied, and virtually unlimited intersections of perspective, something that we participated in, and indeed made ourselves -- every day -- as a part of the practice of literary creation and analysis that we undertook here during our undergraduate careers.

The diversity I’m talking about is a form of intellectual diversity that is rare outside of the humanities. This diversity is valuable, moreover, for the distance it travels in order to become real. It’s born in the solemn and lonely act of reading and then renewed and sustained in the nourishing ambiguity of talk. It’s something that begins when the word on the page, unmoored by the eye, takes on new life on the tongue---when that which is individual and subjective is tested by the multiple and the objective. This diversity is a kind of intellectual practice that takes special collective concentration, the type of concentration that comes from intense and jealous focus, from an unsparing attentiveness which is directed at the self because it is directed at the world. It’s an unceasing suspicion that the beauty of the world, by being examined and then discussed, can be alternatively discovered and created; that in being discovered it is created, and in being created, discovered.

There’s a short poem by Mary Oliver called ‘The Summer Day’ that captures what I mean, and I’d like to share it with you.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean the

one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

And so, as we prepare to leave this place, even though we may not know exactly what a prayer is, we must ask ourselves what it is that we will do with the things we have learned here, what we will do with that practiced attention to the details of the world that we have developed here. My deepest hope and sincerest belief is that we will leave here emboldened to continue to ask the difficult questions and seek their elusive answers -- that when we receive none we invent them, and that wherever we encounter the singular, the prescribed, the obstinate and the resistant, we will overcome it with the multiple, the possible, the flexible and the adaptive.

So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Elda-Maria Roman, Ph.D. 2013

“Good afternoon! Like many of you here, I’m so happy to be graduating. But not because I’m looking forward to leaving Stanford. Because I’m not. Stanford is Paradise on Earth! It has brilliant minds, beautiful grounds, and eateries and volleyball courts at every turn. So if I could renew my membership and restart my resort-style graduate education, I would in an instant. But it’s time to say goodbye. And I do so today with utter gratitude for having been a part of the wonderful community that is the English department and for the lessons I’ve learned as a student here.

This is a community comprised of administrative staff that has seen cohorts of grad students come and go, but still offers loads of advice and anecdotes to each one, making us all feel like valued members of the department. It’s a department with faculty whose minds and careers are inspiring. They seem to lead superhuman intellectual lives with how much they do in a day and how much they produce in a year. But these are also faculty who care deeply about their students. They often go above and beyond to ensure that students are equipped with the tools they need to navigate their own academic paths. It has been an honor to take classes with these professors and to get to know them as scholars and as people.

It’s also been an honor to share this community with my fellow grad students. In our time here, a lot has changed. We’ve seen the addition of new students and faculty, curriculum developments, and new teaching opportunities. We even saw the fruition of redecorated graduate and undergraduate student lounges, complete with a built-in Espresso machine on the third floor. And with new couches and a coffee maker, really, why would anyone ever want to leave this community? But many of the changes that led us to this moment are internal. They arose as a result of facing challenges and learning lessons that are part of the process of starting out as students and leaving as scholars. While these lessons will vary from person to person, I think there are some commonalities:

First, in graduate school, many of us learned that failure could be productive. A lot of us tend to be the overachieving types. The kind who strive for the gold star on our papers. The A ++. So it’s hard when we feel we’ve failed. When we didn’t pass an exam on the first try, when we’ve gotten dissertation drafts all marked up, when we didn’t get our dream jobs. If we were literary characters, we might be saved from utter failure by getting a surprise inheritance or marrying up. But as grad students in charge of our own plots, we had to chart out realizable courses of action. We had to assess what went wrong in the first place. Sometimes it really was out of our control. Other times there were skills we needed to develop in order to move forward. We learned that we didn’t have to see failure as an end-point. Instead it could serve as a marker of when we needed to gather more information and a marker of where we could potentially grow.

Another lesson we came to value emerged from recognizing that knowledge is a communal enterprise. It was easier not sharing our work with others, out of fear that our ideas would be shut down. But when we opened ourselves up, formed dissertation-writing groups, or spoke up at workshops, we gained the chance to see from other people’s points-of-view, and they from ours.

And related, we also learned that it’s one thing to write scholarly essays, but another altogether to translate our ideas into ones that others care about. We spent years reading and thinking about books and we learned a highly specialized language. These are gifts that we can take away from our grad school experience. But how do we give back? How do we communicate our ideas so that they have meaning to others? How does our ability to read and write influence the way we interact with the world? Maybe it’s in the way we revise in order to write without jargon. Or write op-eds on social phenomena so that we can understand society better. Or take our students to see the rare books at the library, so that they can read nineteenth century diaries for themselves. The necessity of translation is a lesson that we learned early on because it has daily application.

Lastly, we may have learned that when addressing a crowd of people sitting in a church while we wear robes and speak from a pulpit, it’s tempting to slip into a sermon. But that is the last thing I want to do. Today is a day to reflect on our lessons, but more importantly it’s a day to up the celebrating! Congratulations to all the graduates!”

Willys DeVoll, B.A.H. 2013

Willys DeVoll closed the speeches with a Marianne Moore’s Poem “What are Years?”

What is our innocence,

what is our guilt? All are

  naked, none is safe. And whence

is courage: the unanswered question,

the resolute doubt,—

dumbly calling, deafly listening—that

in misfortune, even death,

     encourages others

     and in its defeat, stirs

  the soul to be strong? He

sees deep and is glad, who

  accedes to mortality

and in his imprisonment rises

upon himself as

the sea in a chasm, struggling to be

free and unable to be,

     in its surrendering

     finds its continuing.

  So he who strongly feels,

behaves. The very bird,

  grown taller as he sings, steels

his form straight up. Though he is captive,

his mighty singing

says, satisfaction is a lowly

thing, how pure a thing is joy.

     This is mortality,

     this is eternity.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013!