Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some Dreams are Bad Dreams

Today I was perusing online some of the 2010 commencement speeches given thus far; skimming transcripts, watching some videos. I am particularly fond of the videos because they capture the energy and excitement of graduation ceremonies more than a transcript does.

Or, at least, they capture the energy and excitement of graduation ceremonies if these exist. My university is particularly skilled at conducting boring graduation ceremonies that suck the soul out of anyone daring to sit through one. That's part of the challenge of a BigU; in terms of the thrilling atmospherics of a graduation, it's hard to compete with a small but joyous crowd of graduating students and their families all packed into an historic quadrangle at a college.

I am quite choosy in my commencement speech grazing. I do not watch commencement speeches given by a university administrator. I am not that interested in celebrities who are famous for being famous. Some speeches I do not read/watch because I have read a synopsis, and that is enough for me. [Commencement speech 2010 trivia: Which speaker's speech included an endorsement of Louis Vuitton shoes?]

I am potentially interested in speeches by authors, journalists, scientists, and heads of state.

Some speeches I read/watched all the way through. For example, I liked Gail Collins' speech at Mount Holyoke College, especially this part:

Ellen [Goodman] said her women friends tended to be much happier than her men friends. And she theorized that was because the men had all grown up expecting to be president of the United States. But instead, they became state department officials or college professors. And the women had all grown up expecting to be receptionists. And they wound up as state department officials or college professors.

That refers to a generation before mine, but nevertheless the statement resonated with me.

For another example, I was intrigued by Rachel Maddow's speech at Smith College. It started with a description of events leading up to Prohibition, with a focus on the activities of Carry Nation (Google Carry Nation if you want to read about why she is known by this spelling as well as by Carrie). I had no idea where this protracted anecdote was going, although I hoped it was going somewhere interesting. And it did.

Said Maddow:

I would like to offer the hypothesis .. that personal triumphs are overrated.

And later in the speech:

Some dreams are bad dreams.

I like that. Graduates are often told to follow their dreams blah blah blah, but Maddow is right: Some dreams are bad dreams, especially those involving achieving galactic fame at any cost (even if the dreams are of the obscure academic sort within particular disciplines).

Another piece of classic commencement advice is typically along the lines of "Live each day as though it were your last". Maddow thinks that it is a bad idea to live as if you will never be older than you are right now.

I agree. Despite the carpe diem appeal of "live each day etc.", imagine if we really did live according to that philosophy. We might find it emotionally freeing to tell ourselves "This is the last time I ever have to grade a stack of illegible problem sets that have so many cross-outs and scribbles that the pages could be mined for graphite" or "I never again have to sit in this small room with all these obnoxious colleagues who say strange, irrelevant things (at length)".

Maybe it helps you get through these trying activities to think this way, but imagine the behavior of your colleagues at a faculty meeting if they really believed that they were never going to be held accountable for what they said or how they voted. Imagine how someone might behave if they knew that no student would ever question their grading decisions.

These are little academic examples of what is ultimately a cosmic point, but, speaking as a middle-aged person, I can see the benefits of taking the long view in life and work. For example, it would be nice to think that, little by little, in the various ways that we professors have at our disposal, it is possible to make a positive impact on someone's life (as teachers and mentors) or on the world (via our research, however impractical it is or seems).

At the very least, it is probably a good idea to assume that you will be accountable for your actions and that what you do and say can have an effect (for good or ill) on other people.

For no particular reason, I was recently remembering one of the summer students who came to work with my research group years ago. This summer student (SS) was 20 ± 1 years of age, and obsessed by the fact of being younger than anyone else in the research group that summer. I noticed this youth-mania right away because SS kept saying things to me like "I can read that sign at the end of the corridor, but, since you are so much older, you probably can't read it." (me: "Do you mean the sign that says [FSP reads sign aloud] or the invisible one next to it that only professors can read that tells me to tell you that people don't automatically lose their eyesight when they turn 40. And even if they do, so what?"

Even my 20-something grad students complained about this student. This SS made a 25-year old feel ancient and deteriorated. What was this SS thinking and what was up with the obsession with youth? And what would happen when SS turned -- eek -- 25, or 42, or .. (impossible to contemplate) 50+.

SS is now closing in on 30. Perhaps SS's definition of Youth has expanded, or at least 'matured'.

Perhaps SS now realizes that, if we are lucky, life is long (to paraphrase another part of Maddow's speech) and there are many interesting things we can do at every age.


GMP said...

I like Rachel Maddow's statement (I'm paraphrasing from the linked transcript) that between fame and glory you should always choose glory, and act with integrity and regard for long-term consequences.

I think it's a good motto to stand by in science: rather than chase flavor-of-the-week problems, perhaps more focus should be on the really important and difficult problems with potentially high impact... Provided, of course, that you should get funding.

Anonymous said...

I do not watch commencement speeches given by a university administrator.

You're missing out on the great Jeffrey Sean Lehman and his dirt speech.

Alex said...

This is the best commencement address ever.

Anonymous said...

My favorite commencement speech, J.K. Rowling speaking at Harvard:

Patchi said...

I really enjoyed the speeches at my undergraduate SLAC graduation. Wynton Marsalis played for us after saying he was better with music the words. Now the BigU PhD graduation was very boring - only administrators spoke. If the first commencement had been boring, I'm not sure I would have attended any other ones...