Thursday, March 10, 2011

Graduation Speech by Rebecca Sundin (1999)

Rebecca Sundin is a 1999 graduate of Shimer College, where she attended Shimer's Weekend College program. She is currently a Trustee of Shimer College, and a customer service manager for AmericanEagle.com.

When I was first asked to speak at graduation, I was told that many students like to reflect upon their general experience at Shimer and talk about what that experience has meant to them. Those who know me well and who have already heard my reflections realize that were I to do this, it could take several hours. So instead, I’ve tried to think about the most valuable lesson that I have taken from my Shimer experience. And after considering the matter carefully, I realized that the most valuable lesson I have gained has not come from any one text or class – it is much more fundamental than that.

As Shimer students, it is often difficult to explain our motivation for pursuing a liberal arts degree to people who are not involved in the school. A common question that non-Shimerians pose is “How are you going to use a degree from Shimer?” And while I’ve heard many different and eloquent responses, my favorite response was given by one of my fellow graduates – he tells people, “I’m going to use my degree any time I want to think about something.” I like this response for several reasons. First of all, it’s clever – and it usually prevents people with poor intentions from pressing the matter. However, it succinctly explains even more than that. It is an honest response telling the rest of the world that Shimer cares about teaching its students how to approach significant issues. And Shimer teaches us how to do this in our class discussions.

Everyone knows that this model of class discussion is what makes Shimer unique. While there are other schools that may also teach the great books, Shimer is dedicated to teaching its students how to engage in conversations about them. For the past three years, I feel I have been very fortunate to take part in these discussions. Not only have I learned how to think about ideas, but I have also learned how to participate in valuable conversation. The techniques of participating in good conversation are the most valuable assets I will be taking with me as I leave Shimer.

After having experienced classroom discussion at Shimer, it is difficult to think about taking classes anywhere else. However, many of us aspire to attend graduate school, and therefore must prepare ourselves for more “traditional” models of education. When I began my graduate program last fall, I was mentally preparing myself for lectures and class notes. I thought that there was little hope for the kinds of discussion that I had become accustomed to at Shimer. I was wrong. True, I do have to attend lectures and if I wish to make a verbal comment, I’m required to raise my hand. But the very first thing my program director told my graduate class was that we needed to think about how we were going to enter the “conversation.” Instead of verbal discussions, he said we would be conducting discussions through our written work. I was extremely happy to hear about this written conversational model. But, there is one catch. He said that we not only have to decide the content of our writing, but we also have to choose a specific audience that we wish to address. Additionally, we are required to make our contributions relevant to the audience whom we are addressing.

He then went on to explain that there are many conversations already in progress and that the most conventional way of building our careers would be to choose one and join in. He had the very best intentions in giving us this advice. He admitted that this model was necessarily exclusionary and that to start a new conversation or a different model of conversation would be difficult at best. He also encouraged us to think about the implications of joining an elite community of experts that withdraws, at least in part, from the larger community of scholars.

I am bringing up this issue today because I think that most people in this room will be facing it – in either an academic or professional setting. While Shimer has been accused of “elitism,” all one needs to do to participate in this community is read the text and prepare questions. Anyone with a serious interest in the great books would be welcomed here. That isn’t necessarily true of the other conversations taking place in the academy today. Extremely thoughtful contributions, which are at the same time of interest to the experts, are required if one is to have any part in these communities. Shimer, I believe, has prepared all of us to participate in these small communities of experts. But I think Shimer has also taught us to carefully consider what that participation would mean.

So far, I fear I may have painted a negative picture of the conversations taking place in the academy. I don’t think that it would be entirely fair for me to do this. On the one hand, there just may not be that many people interested in the precise genetic code of the common fruitfly or the importance that gender roles play in determining who can be considered a Romantic poet. Also, the jargon, which is sometimes accused of being impenetrable, usually emerges as a kind of shorthand intended to facilitate discussion – not to exclude people from participating. And yet, as well meaning as these conversations might be, the language that is employed is often very difficult to comprehend and can act as an insurmountable barrier for even the most intelligent people.

Considering the large number of conversations taking place in the academy, I think it is reasonable that the people in this room will find one, if not several, of interest. I think that with a Shimer background, students will have much less difficulty in participating. I also think that the people here today will want to participate. Because weekend students must wait three weeks before having class discussion, I believe that weekend students know how the desire for higher level conversation can build as well as the frustration of not finding someone who is willing to discuss the issues immediately. The conversations taking place in the academy and our Shimer classes act as a kind of outlet for this desire – both give academics and professionals a forum for voicing new ideas. Unlike Shimer, however, in the conversations of the academy, there may be such a thing as a dumb question. The academy’s conversations assume a level of proficiency that is automatically above the heads of the majority. They also do not spend time helping interested people gain proficiency. One must act on one’s own initiative – through graduate school and hours of independent study – in order to participate.

Again, let me state that I think Shimer students are prepared to do just that. However, what I’m suggesting is that as we join these conversations and become experts in our fields that we not forget the community at large. I’m asking that we remember our experiences at Shimer and have patience with those who have interest in our subjects, but do not have the driving passion that causes them to spend the rest of their lives immersed in interesting questions of genetics, literature, social science, history … well you get the picture. Many experts would respond to my request by saying that they are so busy solving highly technical problems that they simply do not have the time to spend explaining their ideas to non-experts. However, I’m asking that we remember academics such as Albert Einstein – the icon of the academy, one could argue. As busy as he was revolutionizing the world of physics, he still found the time to write Relativity – making his highly technical theories available to the interested public. In closing, I would like to ask that in addition to participating in highly specialized conversations, that we all resolve to take the skills we have honed at Shimer, our willingness to listen, our abilities to respond thoughtfully in conversations, our general classroom demeanors, and use them to communicate with others in the larger community.

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