Commencement Recap 2013
Follow the links below to read the transcripts of Denison’s 2013 Commencement speakers:
Members of the Class of 2013, parents, family members, Trustees, faculty, and honored guests, on behalf of the Board of Trustees of Denison University, I am delighted to welcome you to Denison’s 172nd Annual Commencement exercises concluding the 182nd year of the college.
Today is a special day in the life of our college. Class of 2013, this is the day you become alumni, joining the ranks of over 40,000 distinguished men and women who have gone before you as graduates of this institution of higher learning. The Trustees, faculty, and staff congratulate you on your accomplishments, and we look forward, as we know you do, with great expectations for what you will accomplish in the years ahead. Equipped by your education to be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens of a democratic society, we trust that you will serve your communities, your nation, and your world with distinction. This is the mark of a Denisonian: The capacity and drive to achieve and a desire to make the world a better place.
Today’s ceremony is made particularly special by the fact that you will celebrate your graduation as President Dale Knobel presides over his last Denison Commencement. Dr. Knobel has served long and well, completing 15 years as Denison’s 19th president, and today, a grateful college will express its appreciation and esteem by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Letters. As is our custom with honorary degree recipients, he will bring the Commencement address, reflecting in a way he is uniquely positioned to do the academic mission of this great institution.
Graduates, today we mark the conclusion of your academic enterprise over the past four years, but we do much more than that. Today we look with anticipation into the future you and others of your generation will create. You will be professionals, parents, artists, activists, citizens, and friends. You will occupy roles that none of us can even imagine right now. Who knows? Perhaps a future Trustee or college president sits among you. We do know this: Wherever life takes you, you will represent your Alma Mater admirably.
On behalf of all alumni who have served as Trustees through the years, I thank you, Class of 2013, for joining the Denison family. You have allowed Denison to become a part of you, and you have given the college and its community much in return. Congratulations, and welcome to the Society of the Alumni!
This is the 172nd Commencement of Denison University, but, members of the Class of 2013, you are graduating in the college’s 182nd year since its founding in the fall of 1831. There were no graduates, of course, in the first years of the college’s existence and the Civil War interrupted the progress toward a degree for many students a century and a half ago—thus the discrepancy between the college’s age and number of its Commencements. On this special day we have heard the fanfare for the Class of 2013 performed by an ensemble of the Denison Orchestra conducted by Professor Andy Carlson. Graduates, you’ve heard the fanfare before; it was written for your induction onto the rolls of the college in 2009 by Dr. Ching-chu Hu of the Department of Music.
In the 182 years since its founding, Denison has evolved from a frontier academy into a leading undergraduate arts and sciences college with a national and even international reputation. It has not stood still during the last four years, either, and maybe just a few highlights of the changes around you will encourage you as about-to-be graduates to reflect upon the personal evolution you have experienced since you arrived here from high school. As I point out to graduates every year, since you arrived on campus, Class of 2013, about sixteen hundred other men and women with whom you shared this campus in the fall of 2009—the sophomores, juniors, and seniors of your first year— have already graduated and a similar number have taken their places in the classes that follow behind you. While at any point in the last four years, we have been a college of approximately 2100 on-campus students, you’ve actually crossed paths with, learned with and from, and made friends among nearly 4,000 Denisonians during your four years here, and your sense of comradeship will only grow as you become reacquainted with them at reunions and alumni activities in years to come.
Change has come to the faculty during your time at Denison, too. Not only have there been four years of retirements of accomplished senior faculty and key college staff, including two professors who we especially recognize today, but forty new professors joined the permanent Denison faculty since you arrived, bringing their special skills and energies to the classroom, laboratory, and studio. And because foundations, alumni, parents, and friends of Denison have generously endowed new faculty positions, the faculty is actually larger today than when you began, enhancing the student-faculty interaction that is at the heart of a Denison education.
Although you may have forgotten it, when you arrived on campus in the fall of 2009, Cleveland Hall had just completed making its transition from a 1904 men’s gymnasium to the impressive Bryant Arts Center. The construction fence that went up around Ebaugh Laboratories at the end of your first year was down when you returned as juniors and in its place were renewed state-of-the art facilities for Chemistry and Biochemistry. This fall, another new building for apartment style housing emerged out of historic Chamberlin Hall and the truly awesome Trumbull Aquatics Center and the Red Zone atrium entrance to the Mitchell Athletics and Recreation Center opened for use.
Nor will the campus freeze itself in time after your departure today and preserve itself unchanged as you begin to enjoy your new status as alumni/ae. Ten new tenure track professors will join us in the fall. And soon, of course, taking your place on campus will be some 605 members of the Class of 2017, men and women a little like you were in the fall of 2009, but different, too, with their own experiences, tastes, and perspectives.
Physical changes are coming, too. In just a few weeks, the bi-level Crown Fitness Center will open in the renovated and enlarged Mitchell complex, occupying the old footprint of Gregory Pool. It will be accompanied by new athletic training and wellness facilities, a renovated weight room, and new staging areas for intramural and club sports.
When classes resume next fall, Huffman Dining Hall will reopen with thoroughly renovated seating, serving, and food preparation areas, helping the college meet the dining preferences of our campus community. No, Denison won’t be EXACTLY the same each time you return to the hill as alumni/ae. And I hope you wouldn’t want it any other way; it will be better!
But these are just road signs of the changes that have come to you as women and men. There are certainly more profound indicators of those changes in the collective accomplishments of the Class of 2013. In all, you number 544 graduates and you have earned 6 Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, 91 Bachelor of Science degrees, and 454 Bachelor of Arts degrees. Seven members of the class have earned double degrees—both the BA and the BS. And if you think you are hearing or, in some cases seeing, double as the names of graduates are called, we have three sets twins in the class: the Shobys, the Wilsons, and the Zachars.
The Co-Valedictorians of the class, who had identical 3.97 grade-point averages (drat—that pesky A-!), are Ashley Heestand, who majored in both English—with a Writing Emphasis—and French, and Katherine Waggoner, who majored in History. There is one Salutatorian, Nathaniel Kell, who earned both a BS in Computer Science and a BA in Mathematics. Actually, 112 of you have prospered so well in your studies that you are graduating with Latin honors—51 cum laude, 45 magna cum laude, and 16 receiving the highest honor, summa cum laude—recognized by different color shoulder cords on each recipient’s gown. Yesterday, I participated in the induction of 37 members of the Class into Phi Beta Kappa, the historic national academic honor society, joining 3 members of the Class who had the rare honor of being inducted last year as Juniors. And across the college, 49 of you are recognized for the special success of your senior research projects, which are the result of sustained independent scholarship and close collaboration with a faculty mentor.
Several of you have represented your classmates especially well by attracting national attention for your academic achievements. Post-graduate international Fulbright research awards were earned by Evan Pugh, going to Morocco to study a new soil and water conservation technique, and Annelise Thomson, working on the development of a new class of antibiotics known as thiopeptides at the University of Jena in Germany. Rachel Loper has a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Austria and Laura Saenz is an alternate for a Fulbright Assistantship in the Dominican Republic, though she also has a Fulbright opportunity in Brazil. Abdi Ali and Amy Huang earned special recognition by having their proposal to work with a women’s health center and provide educational outreach on women’s health issues in Dabola, Ethiopia funded by the international Davis Projects for Peace program.
As these forms of recognition highlight, members of the Class of 2013 repeatedly seized opportunities to challenge themselves both in and out of the classroom. Many of today’s graduates participated actively on one of the 22 service committees of the Denison Community Association or in the America Reads Program, providing this year alone more than 30,000 hours of documented service to area schools, communities, and agencies. Tori Couch received a statewide Charles J. Ping Award for excellence in leadership of the Denison Community Association from the Ohio Campus Compact and Erika Johnson, Caroline Matas, and Elizabeth Shoby were singled out by the Granville Area Chamber of Commerce at the annual Kussmaul Award program for exceptional service to the local community through their work with Granville children and youth. Today, providing visual evidence of the commitment of many Denison students to preserving the quality of life worldwide are the green ribbons worn on many student and faculty gowns that have been distributed as part of a national effort to give college men and women the opportunity to affirm their intention to consider the social and environmental implications of the work they do and the lives they lead.
For twelve of my first fourteen years as Denison president, Denison student athletes have ensured that we have “owned” the North Coast Athletics Conference Dennis Collins All-Sports Trophy. Led by first place conference finishes in Men’s Lacrosse and both Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving; second place finishes Field Hockey, Softball, and Women’s Tennis; and third place finishes in Men’s Tennis Women’s Soccer, and Women’s Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field, it looks like Denison will take the trophy home in my Fifteenth and final year, too. The Men’s Swimming and Diving Team took second in the nation at the NCAA Division III meet and the women earned third in the nation. Graduating Senior Michelle Clark advanced as an individual to the national Division III meet in Cross Country.
I am particularly pleased that so many Denison student athletes were recognized at the conference, regional, or national level by placement on all-academic teams, evidence that the discipline of athletics can help prepare men and women for academic excellence. Members of the class earning national academic awards include Nat Kell, who was both a National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete as well as a Capital One Academic All-American and Michelle Clark who was a U.S. Track and Field/Cross Country Coaches All-Academic honoree. Sara Livingston, a soccer player, of the Class of 2013 earned Denison’s James T. Glerum Presidential Award for having combined academic, athletic, and leadership excellence and Nat Kell and golfer Grace Summers of were recognized with the Scheiderer and Schweizer Awards for turning in the strongest academic performance for, respectively, a man and a woman, among almost 150 graduating seniors participating on varsity athletic teams.
Many Denison students thrive upon the combination of academic challenge, off-campus service, and campus leadership in different proportions appropriate to their own individual interests. Some pursue these combinations with such remarkable results that they earn the acclaim of faculty, college staff, and fellow students alike. Special exemplars of this are recognized as Denison President’s Medalists. The Class of 2012 includes seven honorees, who were announced at the Academic Awards Convocation in April and who will be the first to cross the stage to receive their diplomas today. They are Abdulkadir Mohamed “Abdi” Ali, Hannah Frank, Shiyu “Amy” Huang, Nathaniel Kell, Katherine Kloster, Sara Livingston, and Cullen Marshall.
As a class, 2013, you have accomplished much at Denison—much that builds in the rest of us anticipation for your achievements in the years ahead. Those of us on the faculty and staff of the college and certainly you yourselves recognize that you do not come to this day of passage entirely on your own. Consequently, before we move on to the next events in this ceremony, I’d like us to recognize the large and very special group of people who have made this day possible. We honor them for their commitment and sacrifices and thank them for their sustained love and support. Members of the Class of 2013, would you please stand, turn toward your families and friends who are here to celebrate your achievement, and join me and the faculty in expressing our appreciation with applause.
Finally, we also dedicate this day to the memory of those parents, family members, and friends, whose loss during these college years inevitably makes Commencement less complete for many of us. The Class of 2013 suffered the special loss during its time at Denison of two treasured classmates, Elizabeth Willis Minter and Sarah Elizabeth Starner. This day we hold Elizabeth and Sarah and their families in our hearts.
It is our tradition at Denison that each year a member of the graduating class addresses the audience during the Commencement ceremony. Through a competitive process, a faculty committee appointed by the President of the college has selected as this year’s speaker a Sociology/Anthropology and Environmental Studies double major and a Spanish minor.
Our speaker is an Environmental Studies Fellow who lived out her commitment to sustainability as a resident of the Homestead, Denison’s intentional student community focused on sustainable living. She studied abroad in Ecuador the spring of her junior year, and this year she carried out senior research projects in both of her majors, both projects looking at the roles of media, social norms, and decision making behavior in Ohio natural gas drilling, particularly the phenomenon known as “fracking.” Following graduation, she will spend a year teaching in Spain. One of her professors describes her as “a delight to have in class because she’s genuinely interested in learning. She is very interested in and effective at collaborative work and brings a good and sincere energy to the classroom.”
Our speaker has been very involved in the campus community outside the classroom as an Admissions Tour Guide, Spanish Tutor, and a member of Delta Gamma Sorority, Denison Democrats, and several academic honorary societies. And she plays a mean banjo and toe tappin’ guitar in the Denison Bluegrass Ensemble!
Please welcome to the podium this year’s Student Commencement Speaker, Melanie Stolp.
It was only four years ago that most of us were attending graduation picnics and gatherings intended to celebrate our recent high school diploma marking our academic accomplishments up to that point in our lives. This was a time of celebration, thankfulness, and overall pride as we reached our first big milestone as young adults. We shared with our friends and loved ones our plans for what followed high school, but at that point the future was still vast and unknown. All we knew was that we would all be attending Denison University, a small liberal arts college atop a big hill in central Ohio. I was eager to tell everybody about Denison, pulling from my long list of fun facts about famous alumni, interesting majors and popular activities unique to Denison. But there was just one question that I didn’t feel as comfortable answering…”so, what’s the Denison mascot?”. Officially, we are the Big Red, a combination of adjectives that are commonly confused with a type of chewing gum or an oversized, unnaturally colored cartoon dog. Unofficially we are the buzzards…arguably one of the oddest birds native to the United States.
While many of my peers were attending schools represented by majestic wildcats or the feisty blue devil, I found a common response of laughter mixed with confusion when explaining that the school I was attending is represented by the buzzard, a bird known for eating road kill and urinating on itself to deter predators. Of all bird options for a mascot, how was the Buzzard chosen over a majestic eagle, cardinal or even a phoenix? For those of us that entered this graduating class in 2009, we can recall the student survey that was distributed, proposing to change our “unofficial mascot”. Yet, despite the student efforts supporting the idea of being the “Denison Venison” or the “Denisaurs” the buzzard once again prevailed and remained our unofficial mascot. However, in spite of its comical reputation, the buzzard happens to be vitally important to the global ecosystem known for contributing to the decomposition cycle and cleaning the environment by preventing the spread of diseases. Buzzards play a unique role in the overall wellbeing of ecosystems and are therefore not only found in the dead tree behind Swasey Chapel, but all over the world.
So with that in mind, as we take this time today to reflect on what it really means to be a “buzzard,” sitting here anxiously awaiting the chance to toss our tassels to the other side, we are once again faced with the overwhelming yet exciting “unknown” that our future holds. We are about to receive diplomas marking our academic achievements here at Denison, but what does this simple piece of paper actually symbolize? For one it marks all of the hard work and perseverance that each one of us has given to our education over the years. But, for us, receiving our diploma today is symbolic of something more than just the toil and grind of 4 years of school; it represents our finally complete liberal arts education, which has done more than just prepare us for a certain profession. Each of us has taken an array of classes spanning across many disciplines to fulfill our liberal arts requirements. However, the very act of simply taking these classes is not what sets our degree apart from others. Each degree that will be distributed today is unique and specific to the student receiving it, as it represents an individual’s intellectual and personal path through Denison.
We have not been taught simply to manage taking a wide range of different classes, but by doing so we have become dynamic intellectuals that have learned to think outside of the box not afraid of crossing departmental boundaries. While each of us has found our own path to receiving this degree, we all share a similar understanding and knowledge of how to think critically, adapt to new situations given the present circumstances, and to strive to understand other cultures and environments that are different from our own. These skills, especially valuable in today’s rapidly globalizing world, have prepared us to become leaders. We are not only equipped to begin our specific roles in the workplace, whatever they may be, but also to begin our vitally important role of those who contribute to the overall well-being of society, just as the buzzard does for the ecosystem. Believe it or not, buzzards also are known for easily adapting to new environments as they can live in a variety of different ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the foothills. In each different ecosystem the buzzard serves as an imperative species as it prevents the spread of diseases among other organisms. As we prepare to leave Denison and enter a world that is unknown, we must keep in mind that each of us is well equipped and prepared to play a valuable role on this earth knowing that we have the skills to adapt, problem solve, and most importantly think critically. These skills are worth far more than textbooks can offer and will aid each of us in pursuing the paths that we desire knowing that we all can make a difference in this world, wherever that may be.
Something different brought each one of us here to the hill four years ago, now as we leave, we not only share a great education but also the skills to become vitally important members of a larger society in which each of us has the potential to do great things. While at first they may not appear the most majestic mascot, buzzards are in fact a key species that play an essential role in the well being of the global ecosystem, a role that cannot be replaced. Although some of you still may prefer not to be compared to a decomposer, I think it is time that we embraced the buzzard knowing that we are about to become unique and irreplaceable members of society because each of us has the qualities we have gained from our time at Denison that emphasize creativity and critical thinking. So, to spare you all from a cheesy quote about spreading your wings and going out to do great things in the world, just remember that greatness can be found anywhere, whether on a hill in Ohio, or even in a weird looking bird, but it is up to each one of us to utilize the skills that we have to make this world a better place, taking with us the bond that we share from being a Denison Big Red buzzard.
Denison University has a long tradition of taking time at Commencement to honor men and women who have distinguished themselves in the arts, in letters, in the Academy, and in public life.
In exercising its right to award honorary degrees, the University links itself visibly and importantly to the community of excellence, high purpose, and of public concern that knows no boundaries in either time or place.
The individual we honor today has distinguished himself as a scholar, as an educator, and most notably to the Denison community, as a beloved college President for the past 15 years. Hallmarks of Denison’s progress under his leadership are numerous. I urge all of you to read the biographical remarks in the back of your program outlining his accomplishments.
The Trustees of Denison University, by virtue of the authority vested in them, and upon recommendation of the faculty thereof, confer upon Denison’s president for the last 15 years, Dale Thomas Knobel ‘71:
An accomplished leader, demonstrating undaunted dedication to the core values of the college, among them, individual responsibility; intellectual inquiry and critical thinking; student and faculty diversity; financial accessibility; and environmentally sensitive sustainable operations;
An exemplary and venerated member of the Denison community in all of its forms: a collective of engaged students and faculty; a residential campus with its tenants of integrity, civility, tolerance and mutual respect; and the Village of Granville and surrounding region, for which the college provides caring community service, refined academic resources, spirited athletic competition, and a myriad of cultural experiences and opportunities;
A committed champion of liberal education as a virtuous model for undergraduate higher learning, supporting the continual development of a balanced, progressive and rigorous curriculum at Denison that has positioned the college well for not only the present, but far into the future;
A respected authority and opinion-leader in the field of higher education, promoting the liberal arts tradition across the nation and around the world;
The degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, presented in the Village of Granville, in the State of Ohio, this twelfth day of May, 2013, being the 237th year of the Republic and of the University, the 182nd.
Dale, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees, and on recommendation of the faculty, I confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, and in token of this action I direct that you be invested with the hood appropriate to your degree.
Now I would like to offer some personal reflections as I introduce President Knobel as our Commencement speaker.
I first met Dale in the fall of 1967. We were Denison freshmen, and we both lived on the fourth floor of what was then called the “new dorm,” now Shorney Hall. Dale left Denison after a year, and I did not see him again until early 1998, when I was chairing a Presidential Search Committee. Happily for Denison, Dale and Tina accepted our offer to come back home to Ohio and lead Denison. What an outstanding and transformative 15 years it has been!
As a result of Dale’s prodigious fundraising, Denison has been able to endow 17 additional professorships, lower the student/faculty ratio to 10:1 and increase opportunities for student research. Financial aid — especially need-based — increased dramatically during Dr. Knobel’s years at Denison, yielding a far more diverse, engaged and inspiring student population. And in recent years, Denison has placed greater emphasis on assisting students with internships, career development and service learning experiences. Denison’s endowment more than doubled, from $314 million in 1998 to its current level of almost $700 million. Our physical campus has truly been transformed, with Samson Talbot Hall of Biological Science, the Burton D. Morgan Center, the Reese~Shackelford Common, the Mitchell Center with Trumbull Aquatics Center, Ebaugh Laboratories, the Bryant Arts Center and numerous new and renovated residential buildings. Throughout Dale’s tenure, operating budgets have been balanced and Denison’s credit rating has remained strong.
Dale Knobel’s passion for the liberal arts, for Denison’s mission and for our students has been evident every day of his 15 years with us. With seemingly boundless energy, and ever-increasing whiteness in his hair, he has attended so many student events, day after day, year after year — simply because he loved being with students and cared deeply about both their academic success and their learning and development away from the classroom. He also has excited and energized alumni through countless events and private meetings. He and Tina have been incomparable ambassadors for Denison.
Dale, you have served the college unselfishly and extraordinarily well. You have touched the lives of so many Denisonians. You have made Denison better. Though you will leave us in a few weeks, your legacy will endure. And Denison will be grateful forever.
It is now my honor and privilege to present to you our president, Dr. Dale Knobel.
After fifteen years as Denison’s President, you’d think I’d have had my say. Just the major ceremonies of the academic year—First Year Induction, Academic Awards Convocation, and Commencement—have given me the opportunity to make 45 formal addresses to Denison classes. Add to that the occasional Phi Beta Kappa address and periodic appearances before academic honor societies or other student recognition ceremonies, and I’ve certainly had many chances to share my thoughts or try to offer a little inspiration to Denison men and women. As I considered what I might say today — as a sendoff for you, and, this year, for me—I wondered at one point whether I should just draw highlights from those talks and make this a “Dale Knobel’s greatest hits” album of ideas. But then I thought, nah, I’ve still got an unshared thought or two dying to get out. Once a professor, always a professor; you can’t pass up an opportunity to teach!
Moreover, I confess that I’m always thinking of new things to say — new to me, anyway. A wonderful thing about being in academic life is that you never stop reading, never stop listening, and never stop encountering new ideas. And there always seem to be new opportunities to share what you’ve learned. But hold it! That’s what all of us of the faculty hope will be true for all of you, and not just those who choose academic careers—that you’ll never stop reading, listening, encountering new ideas, and sharing them with others. This, we have confidence, will be an outcome of your liberal education. May you also discover new ideas that you want to share throughout your lives.
One of the concepts we especially talk about in the world of the liberal arts and sciences is “critical thinking.” It’s almost a buzz word. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which promotes liberal arts education nationwide, has a public advocacy campaign called LEAP, Liberal Education and America’s Promise, and, yupp, sure enough, one of what it calls “essential learning outcomes” for college educated men and women is “critical thinking.” AAC&U has just completed an employer survey, too, and what has it turned up among employers’ greatest needs in new college-educated employees? Critical thinkers. Colleges include critical thinking as an educational goal in their mission statements all the time. And while Denison doesn’t use the exact expression in the body of our mission statement, it is prominently featured in a couple of appendices that go along with it. Actually, our mission statement uses a related expression that is meant to get at some of the same things as “critical thinkers” and that is “autonomous thinkers”— as in, we seek to educate “autonomous thinkers.” Throughout higher education, critical thinking is described as one of things that sets the liberal arts apart from more narrow and vocationally-specific forms of undergraduate education. At Denison, we organize our curriculum around it. We intentionally limit the major to about one-third of all courses a student takes and then say that it doesn’t matter much what discipline you choose as a major so long as the major holds your interest and provides you with challenge. That’s because, we would argue, each of our majors provides an essential element of a liberal education: critical thinking.
We all kind of know what we’re talking about when we reference critical thinking. Of course, we mean thinking for yourself (that’s the “autonomous” part that we mention in the Denison mission statement). That is, not taking received wisdom at face value without examination. It means being able to distinguish between unsupported opinion and well-considered points of view based upon evidence. It means—if ideas were automobiles—lifting up the hood and exploring the engine beneath. We even extend the notion of critical thinking to writing. As liberal educators on a campus like this, we take the view of English novelist E.M Forster, who once asked “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” There’s wisdom in that. It’s sometimes in the telling that we come to understand what we really know and how well we know it. We also understand critical thinking to be introspective and intensely personal. The ancient sage’s words may sound a little harsh, but we do implicitly hold with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. Critical thinking, we believe, is at the heart of making the best art and music and is the very soul of science, serving as the basis for the rigorous assumption-testing of the scientific method. So, this is all really good stuff. What’s not to like about critical thinking? What’s not to like that you have all been educated to be critical thinkers?
Here is where I hesitate just a little. Because my own life experience—in academe and out—has suggested to me that there are some challenges connected with critical thinking. This is because critical thinking is necessary but not sufficient in an educated life. The insufficiency is hinted at in the etymology—the history—of the word itself. The word “critical” has descended, through intermediaries, from the classical Greek Krites (Kreetace), which means, as I understand it, to judge—not so much in the legal sense but in the personal intellectual sense of assuming for oneself the privilege of evaluating, assessing, distinguishing, and deciding. There’s a hint of arrogance in that. I get to decide. We start a little at that as we did when a former president of the United States announced “I’m the decider”—even, if in a Constitutional sense, the assertion had some merit. Perhaps what I’m thinking is that critical thinking, unalloyed with anything else —humility, empathy, care, perspective, perhaps—can become, well, just critique or, to put it more baldly, criticism.
The self-promoting aspects of what we sometime take to be critical thinking simply gives me pause. And I’m not just talking about other people’s critical thinking here but my own. I discovered something with a little embarrassment in the last few weeks. As I’ve begun to pack up my office, I’m taking another look at thirty-seven years of published or delivered output as a historian and educator. There are two single-authored books and one co-authored one, twenty-seven articles or book chapters, fifty-nine conference presentations, dozens of book reviews for fifteen different scholarly journals, a fair number of manuscript or grant proposal reviews for institutions ranging from Yale University Press to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a dozen successful grant proposals of my own. When I saw them all together, I was a little shocked by the formula that characterizes my professional writing, displayed usually in the first few paragraphs or pages of a piece: “Professor so and so says this about that, but I’m telling you that she/he has got it wrong and I have got it right. So here it is—the right way.” Now, I know this is a scholarly convention. I’m not the only one using it. Yet it gave me concern, not that I was being a critical thinker, digging deep, but that the rhetorical formula I’ve been using for sharing that thinking seems calculated to puff me up while deflating others—by being, frankly, critical.
A few years ago, my presidential colleague and fellow historian Michael Roth of Wesleyan University in Connecticut shared his own ambivalence about critical thinking, calling the critical thinking that takes place in college classrooms sometimes little more than self-promoting and self-satisfying “debunking.” We’ve all seen what Roth describes, and we may even have carelessly promoted it: “The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship,” Roth wrote, “is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to ‘trouble’ ideas.” Roth worries about an academic “culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker [and in which] our students may become too good at showing how things don’t make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live.”
It’s the latter that, I think, provides a caution. There’s enough careless criticism outside of the classroom on college campuses without facile encouragement inside. In college residence halls and army barracks (and maybe around office coffee machines) you can count on one thing—that criticism (some may less charitably call it “carping”) is one of the things that a) seems to be a social device that brings people together and b) if you do it well, makes you seem important and cool. Awareness of this—maybe even wounding by this—is probably what led one of my Denison predecessors more than a century ago to have chiseled into the college gateway on the stairs connecting College Street and the lower campus to Barney-Davis Hall on the hilltop a quote from late 18th century English poet George Crabbe: “Feed thyself, To thine own powers appeal, Nor whine out woes, Thine own right hand can heal.”
So, wow, am I saying, Class of 2013, we’ve corrupted you or at least just reinforced over four years the temptation of youth to be, yes, debunkers? No. As I shared at the outset, there’s way too much that’s good about critical thinking to throw it overboard. So how do I get out of the dilemma I’ve created for myself? I think it’s this way. I read a piece once by a guy who’s in the leadership business, that is, a fellow who writes about and conducts workshops on leadership for folks in the not-for-profit, for-profit, and governmental spheres. His name is Ed Ruggero, and he’s a graduate of West Point who had a military career before taking up his current line of work. He writes about being overseas as a very young officer under a gruff, no-nonsense more senior commander and being tasked with unraveling a supply mess. Nothing, he reports, was getting as it should to troops in the field: not food or mail or even replacement soldiers. The junior lieutenant applied, well, critical thinking to the situation. In Ruggero’s words, “I did some cracker-jack poking around; I was all about root cause analysis and getting the right data. I got the numbers on how old our trucks were and how often they were breaking down; I detailed the over-scheduling and over optimistic time estimates, which led to missed maintenance and tired drivers who got lost on unmarked country roads. I wrote everything down in my spiffy little notebook and reported to the major.” I’d say, here’s our classic, college educated critical thinker. He’s not only used his powers of analysis but also his sixth sense for de-bunking, too, showing how others had made careless mistakes that exacerbated the problem. Ruggero then shares the punch line, his commander’s response to his fine critical thinking: “What are you going to do about it?”
What are you going to do about it? That, in the language of the 1950s and ’60s era TV game shows is “the $64,000 question.” In the educated life, to be completed, critical thinking requires critical doing. “Critical” is a funny word. It’s got a meaning associated with criticism and critique. But, beginning in late Renaissance, it also became connected with the most urgent period of an illness (like the Plague) , with the “crisis,” when the fever would either break and the person live or the fever consume and the patient die. The word “critical”—or at least the progenitors of our modern word—also took on the meaning at this time of essential, urgent, or timely. I would use it in this way here. After being critical thinkers and getting to the bottom of things, can you become critical doers, taking the appropriate, informed steps to answer the question you uncovered, to solve the unsolved problem, to fix the error you’ve unmasked? In short, how will you make things better—whether it’s a mathematical problem, a social wrong, or a broken relationship?
The first Provost, or chief academic officer, of the College of Philadelphia (the institution that became the University of Pennsylvania), William Smith, got at this when, on the eve of the American Revolution, he wrote, “Thinking, writing, and acting well…is the grand aim of a liberal education.” Not just thinking. Not just writing—in E.M. Forster’s words, seeing what you think. But acting, acting well.
The thing I like about the question “What are you going to do about it?” is that it forces us to go beyond unmasking and debunking. It forces you to question your own assumptions and interests. It places you in the shoes of others. It is a relevant question whether you are in scholarly pursuits, in a profession or career, in a household or family, in a society or organization, in a community.
Judson Harmon got that about Denison. He got it that you begin the habit of critical doing, of acting well in college—at Denison. Who’s Justin Harmon? Harmon enrolled at Denison in 1862, then left college with a number of other young men to join a make-shift, temporary militia, the “Squirrel Hunters,” when southern Ohio was threatened by a Confederate cavalry raid. He returned to Granville, unscathed, to graduate in 1866. He studied law at the University of Cincinnati, and after years of successful practice was appointed Attorney General of the United States by President Grover Cleveland. Subsequently, beginning in 1908, he was elected to two terms as Governor of Ohio. In 1912, he was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, losing to Woodrow Wilson. In 1900, he was asked by the student editors of the Adytum, the Denison yearbook, to write a brief reminiscence. He wrote this: “A college is the world in miniature, and it well for one who is to deal with all sorts of people to begin early.” Governor Harmon, I’m convinced, “got it.” He got it that you begin the process of acting on your critical thinking, of engaging in critical doing that affects the lives of all around you while you are still in those formative college years. You set patterns that last a lifetime.
Class of 2013, I hope that Denison has, indeed, taught you to be critical thinkers. But I also hope that you have begun to assume the role of critical doers, not stopping at figuring out what is wrong or unfinished but continuing on to fix or finish the work. By doing so now and in the years ahead you will enrich your lives as well as the lives of others, give pride to the professors who have taught you, and bring credit to yourselves, and to Denison, alma mater.
Just a little over 130 years ago, German composer Johannes Brahms wrote a musical thank-you to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary degree. He called it the “Academic Festival Overture” and with a certain amount of good humor, built the concluding section around the words of a late medieval student song known in Latin as the Gaudeamus lgitur. The words seem right for this day, and as my final words as president, too.
Vivant membrum quodlibet,
Vivant membra quaelibet.
Semper sint in flore,
Semper sint in flore!
Long live the academy,
Long live the professors!
Long live the academy,
Long live the professors!
Long live each student,
Long live all the students,
May they always flourish!
May they always flourish!
The Singing Underneath Baccalaureate 2013
The Summer of 2011 was when “it” came into our house. We have at home a CD with the label, “Ann’s Vaca Mix”, scrawled across it. Ann Gardner, a Granville resident, burned it for us.
Ann has been a wonderful caregiver for our four girls throughout her high school and college years. We invited Ann to come along on a trip to the beach two summers ago to assist with the children. Along with Ann, however, also came her music that is now forever emblazoned upon our family with that self-lauded “Vaca Mix”. The music — against their father’s initial strong wishes — became a huge hit for my daughters that week… and since (truth be told), as a kind of refrain. The mix kicks off with none other than, you guessed it: Justin Bieber!
Some of you in this room, willingly or not, already know the truly catchy song of Justin’s (who, word has it, has fallen in and out of grace a bit in the two years since — can’t believe I know that!), that infernally catchy song, which is now forever bound to us:
Song plays: “…Baby, baby, baby. Oh! …Thought you’d always be mine. Mine.”
Ahhh… See? Now you’re stuck with it! And all I can say is, well, “You’re welcome!”
There’s something about the way these things just stick with you, and I know it might not be so kind of me, but it helps to introduce the theme for today; plus, I just wanted you to have it. You’ll find it recurring in your skull now throughout the day. When people are talking to you, you’ll see their lips moving but all you’ll hear coming out is “Baby, baby, baby, oh.” Consider it a Commencement party favor.
And not just for today. Tomorrow, during the ceremony, President Knobel, when you’re giving your final address and as you’re doling out degrees in the temperate Mayday sun, and you discern out across the throng of people, shoulders bobbing and heads nodding this way and that “Baby, baby, baby, oh.”
And when the grounds’ crew comes along later to sweep away the chairs, unusual divots in the flattened green grass will be detectible where toes were privately tapping all through the ceremony to the memory of today’s baccalaureate… “Baby, baby, baby, oh!”
As I say, “You’re welcome!”
Every year a phrase, like a musical refrain or melody, ferments in me through each of the seasons until Baccalaureate comes around again. The title for this year’s address is such a phrase: The Singing Underneath. I must have come across the title of Jeffrey Harrison’s poem by the same name somewhere along the way, months ago, but I didn’t actually read the poem until recently, because the title caught hold of me like a Bieber tune, and it spoke to me (unlike a Bieber). It led me, among other things, to revisit verses of an old song I love, written as a hymn over a century ago, that has been recorded by so many artists through the decades (from Pete Seeger to Eva Cassidy to Enya). Do you know it?
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul —
How can I keep from singing?
My life flows on in endless song. What a wonderfully descriptive metaphor. And yet, in all three of these examples in my own life just cited: the catchy-ness of the Bieber tune, Harrison’s poem title that implies something underlying our living, and this haunting hymn alluding to the music of life which compels us to join in the singing, music really does feel to be even more than just a metaphor for something of consequence happening inside us or around us, what we call life. There is a way, wouldn’t you agree, in which music itself actually is the accompaniment of Life to all that moves us. Music, like life, just is, with no full explanation, no thoroughgoing rationale, no absolutely radical formula for understanding it however we may break it down and examine it in all kinds of really fascinating ways.
It’s music! And an echo of the music that plays on, through everything that life may deal us, through every storm, in every adversity and in every loss and grief, is the Song—wherever any song may be found — underneath it all. The Upanishad likens it to joy, much the same, in saying, “For from Joy all beings have come, by Joy they all live, and unto Joy they all return.” There is, to put it this other way, a singing underneath.
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; It finds an echo in my soul — how can I keep from singing?
This is a phenomenon not unique to us as humans. It does have resonance in all creation. Annie Dillard, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, gives this slightly extended description of the singing of birds and a way to make commentary on the beauty, which resounds in them for her each year in springtime.
The birds have started singing in the valley. Their February squawks and naked chirps are fully fledged now, and long lyrics fly in the air. Birdsong catches in the mountains’ rim and pools in the valley; it threads through forests, it slides down creeks. …The mockingbird’s invention is limitless; he strews newness about as casually as a god.
…Some reputable scientists, even today, are not wholly satisfied with the notion that the song of birds is strictly and solely a territorial claim. It’s an important point. We’ve been on earth all these years and we still don’t know for certain why birds sing.
…It’s not that they know something we don’t; we know much more than they do, and surely they don’t even know why they sing. No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. …The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? (pp. 105-6).
“Why,” Dillard asks, “is it beautiful?”
Someone once said, “I care not who writes the laws of a people if you let me write their music.” Why is it beautiful? Wherein is its power? These are the questions that actually do undergird all of our quite legitimate scientific inquiry and other artful expressions in this place; they all come of what Einstein, himself, dubbed “a holy curiosity.” It is an apt way of perceiving what we do.
It is why a scholar can dedicate her life’s work to the wavelength of a cricket’s chirp: not just to know what is being said: is it temperature? Does it indicate time to mate? Or danger approaching? Not only those possible interpretations of the chirping, but the real underlying fascination is in the beauty that it chirps at all. She studies. The cricket chirps. There is a certain kind of reflexive quality of fascination in the fact that we study the cricket at all, to the fact that the cricket chirps at all. Why is it beautiful for us to know and for the cricket to chirp?
These questions themselves are at the heart of the nature of our Being! They speak of Joy unutterable otherwise that undergirds all of Life, including perhaps even especially its’ fragility. The fragility of Life is the source of its intricacies, and therefore much of its beauty, which does, yes, bring us pain sometimes. Deep pain. But in all of Life’s splintering and fracturing a wholeness is unveiled, revealed, that we do recognize… and for which we are made. As the song says,
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation….
The Kabbalists refer to it as the mystery of the splintering of the vessel. All that amuses or intrigues us, or concerns or befuddles, all that breaks our hearts and crushes us, consequently in a way that is mysteriously related, also gives us Joy. Joy actually comes as a result of the fragility of the vessel and intricacies of the Vessel broken. All we may do sometimes is step back and behold it doing what it does. What it must. Like Meister Eckhart says of God doing unto us, overflowing into us: “just as… the sun must overflow into [air] and cannot refrain from doing that….”
When we come to those places in our lives that we do not know what to do with, events or circumstances we just do not understand, when things happen that we cannot seem to bear because they cannot be justified, we have from our better moments in a clearer field a greater knowledge that even what is broken still coheres. A note singly played without its intended setting can be painful, until it is joined by the larger symphony of which it is only part, and then the sense of it becomes what it must become, an acceptable occasion, that would not be, could not be, if ever it were intended for itself alone.
We must see all things in life, as parts of the whole, or else we lose our definition and all perspective, and misery consumes. How do we know the whole? What vision could we possibly have of that?
We see it in music, among other things. We recognize the beauty and the power as we behold what cannot be fully understood when only broken down into its constituent parts.
You might ask, finally, what relevance does this have for this occasion, as a reflection on a college career upon the eve of Commencement?
In speaking with seniors quite a bit over twenty years in this work, I have learned to hear from them, each one, the major transition in their lives this represents. In this particular year, I am also mindful of the transition this is for us collectively as an institution as President Knobel observes his own commencement. And as a personal note, it has been a real pleasure and a distinct honor to have served this institution under his leadership, as a chaplain and as a friend, during the time we have shared here. He will be sorely missed, along with Tina, and their departure brings an acute emotion. What is true of them is also true of quite a few seniors for me this year as well.
Relative to The Singing Underneath, and that which gives us perspective on the parts when we are “tuned in” to the whole, how do we make sense of, or give proper assent to, those myriad moments which comprise a career here as a student [or even as President]? What singing lies underneath those remembrances?
Like the first time we were ill at school and maybe didn’t have the familiar comforts of home to help nurse us back to health. Or what about that unexpected first real pang of homesickness? Or remember when you first sensed an unanticipated pride of school at an athletic event, or at a presentation in the Arts, or at the concert of an a cappella group? What about the adjustment to eating at the dining hall, and resigning yourself to the schedule, when it opened and when it closed? Remembering that feeling in our guts when our views were first challenged in class or on a paper by a teacher at a serious, intellectual level? To have our ignorance carefully exposed and our horizon expanded. How about when our liberation from strict parental oversight resulted in post-adolescent freedom that had an unexpected consequence? Or the feeling that first time you skipped class, legitimately? Right? (Only rarely, after that first time, I know!) What about the life-changing conversation with that person you will never forget and who will forever now be a part of your life’s narrative? Perhaps there was more than one of these.
And then there were moments of awe on certain days when the absolute privilege of what this college experience affords us in the world could overtake us, even if we couldn’t say for sure what that opportunity might look like in the near and uncertain future. We walked about and did our thing like the mockingbird, strewing newness on the world casually as gods.
The Metta Sutta says “Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, may one remain mindful of this heart and this way of living that is the best in the world.”
These are the parts that comprise the whole experience. Each challenging encounter. Each inspiring relationship. Each engagement with the unknown. So we come to this moment with gratitude and nostalgia and a rightful sense of obligation because the whole thing, taken together, carries us into that larger context of life beyond Denison. Life beyond any particular experience or place.
We cannot describe it, exactly. We cannot say precisely what it is, but we know it in glimpses… like when we hear music. It catches us up, and maybe we sing along, and tap our feet — or all-out dance.
“Don’t worry…!” says Rumi. “If one of our instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter.
“We have fallen into the place where everything is music.”
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest
And let the spirits fly in and out.
B.S. Biology; Singapore, Singapore
“The Denison Bubble”
For the past four years, we’ve been enveloped here on this hill by the oft‐mentioned protective shell of Granville. When I refer to our protective shell, I by no means suggest that we have been shielded from the world – but rather been exposed to an environment that promotes exploration and discovery within the safety net of our community. Indeed, one of the most important parts of our Denison experience revolves around the community we’ve created and how it has helped shape who we are today. When I think about the Denison community, there are a number of things that come to mind. I think of a community where students are encouraged to try every opportunity they come across. A community where we hold doors for others, even if they’re at that awkward distance where the other person ends up hurrying to make it there. A community where each student is allowed to be different, be unique, and at the same time be a Denisonian.
We all came to this community from very different ones back home. Coming to Denison as an international student, I entered this school with very different perceptions and ideas of what college would be like. We all did. Each of us came here from a very different place, a very different bubble back home. My place was Singapore, in the heart of Southeast Asia, where my usual meals consisted of Lemon Chicken and fried rice, not hamburgers and milkshakes. Where the weather never reached below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow was a mythical thing. Denison to me was a whole new world with a different set of people and ideas, and as a wide-eyed and bushy tailed first year it was quite a culture shock.
As that unsure and exciting first year began, I had felt like I was leaving home. Now, at the end of our four years here, I have to leave home again. We all, as the Denison community, have helped each other through these past four years, trying to navigate our way through the years of late nights, headaches, and exorbitantly long essays. We’ve built this new community, this new home, so different from what we all expected when stepping into our dorms for the first time, but something we have all grown to love.
In being a part of the campus community, we’ve all had to find our place within the much wider scope of Denison. We’ve each explored our academic passions, and gained much from the faculty and staff that have given their efforts to ensure our successes. We’ve each found our fit within the multitude of campus organizations, such as athletics, Greek life, service groups, the arts, cultural groups, and beyond. Many, like myself, have found our fit in a little bit of everything, enjoying the opportunity to try so many things and discover interests that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Our memories from those organizations are the ones that will carry us through the coming years, the ones that have made our college experience so rich and rewarding. Those same organizations have given us more than memories, however, they’ve given us the tools to move beyond Denison and do great things in the world.
The Denison bubble has allowed us a space in which we have come to know the importance of creativity, of following our heart, and of taking the lead; it has helped teach us how to be part of a team, how to communicate effectively, and how to build something, together. Today, four years after we stepped inside the invisible boundaries of this community, we stand here prepared and able to take the leap beyond our transparent shell and – in a phrase I recall from our own induction ceremony four years past – “pop” the Denison bubble. The skills we’ve learned here are ones that we now have the responsibility to take with us into the communities outside Denison, and bring the sense of unity, respect and courage we have found here to each city, each job and community we choose to enrich going forward.
As we leave this stage today, and step beyond this invisible bubble, there are many things that this community stands for that we will always carry with us. We will never forget how delicious a snagel can be, what a deer looks like from less than a foot away, and how out of shape the trip from South Quad up the hill can make you feel. But we will take away so much more than that. We will always be the active citizens that Denison has molded us into, the go-getters and creative thinkers that we have become. We will always represent the Big Red, and be a part of the community that stands behind it.
Let us all promise to go forward with the same mindset we had going into college. Try new things. Take opportunities that open up whole new perspectives, opportunities that challenge you to rethink and readjust your understanding. Our journey of discovery doesn’t end with our diplomas – there is always more out there to learn. There are many phrases, many ways of saying the point this speech and this graduation and the last four years make, but to the graduating Class of 2013 I say this: Take every opportunity you can, learn from every mistake, be every bit the confident, courageous and effervescent human beings I know you are and show the world what they’ve been missing – what a Denisonian can offer.
B.A. Political Science; West Hempstead, New York
“The Value of Consumption”
I truly believe that the significant steps we take in our lives are less momentous if not shared with those who have helped us on our way to our achievements. Also, I must attend to one other salutation before I begin my address or I promise you I will regret it later. I would like to wish all of the mothers, stepmothers and maternal figures in the audience a wonderfully joyous and happy mother’s day!
When I was first notified that I had been nominated to prepare a possible speech for commencement, several different emotions raced through my body; severe terror, excitement, honor and intimidation. It was at this point in my maelstrom of emotions that I began to consume… or more precisely to over consume. I consumed everything from famous speeches of the past, to speech guides ranging from scholarly articles to “how tos”. Through this consumption I discovered the positive side of over consumption. In conjunction with this discovery I found that the speeches that were most appealing, intellectual and engaging to me were those based on a personal narrative.
Our college narrative began four years ago. We received our acceptance letters, graduated from high school and prepared for what many people would call the best four years of our lives. The campus wide theme for our first year was consumption. The issue of consumption, or over consumption –as it is most often considered- can be related to many topics. Colloquially there are more negative connotations to the word consumption than positive. We over consume natural resources; we over consume unhealthy fast foods, mindless television, detrimental amounts alcohol, prescription and recreational drugs. As a society we do negatively consume, but what if we changed what we over-consumed or how we consumed? What if we changed this typically negative practice to a positive?
The focus of a liberal arts education is to teach students to become critical thinkers empowered with the skills to learn. In my experience, my liberal arts education at Denison may have taught me how to further my education but more importantly my professors, peers and advisors have fostered in me the ability to consider the world from different perspectives. Change is difficult but positive change is necessary. There was a time when we thought that dining halls without trays would detrimentally change our experience here on The Hill but the Trayless Tuesday campaign reduced food waste by 30%. We need to question the consumption practices of the present to ensure that they are still enhancing our vision for the future and refine the practices that are contributing negatively. Some changes may be demanding but the products those changes produce is important for our future and for the futures of the generations that follow us.
When I initially read the section about consumption in my first year orientation packet, only negative themes came to mind. The over consumption of natural resources has directly altered climate patterns; massive earthquakes and super storms have become the norm. The percentage of children suffering from obesity due to overconsumption has tripled in only one generation. The past we have inherited, and are currently living in and building upon, is affecting who we will become. We are dealing today with problems we may have not created and yet are we considering the issues we are leaving for the next generation? Unregulated consumption of plastic, trees and oil in the past is harming our natural environment. The world is in disarray, detrimental globalization, political chasms, violence and recessions are front-page news – we need to reevaluate the situations that have become common practice. We need to utilize the skills we have acquired from our liberal arts education and look at consumption differently. What if we over consumed education or literature? What if we over consumed cultural practices and opportunity? In ten years, would the world be in the same state it is today?
The future is not ours for the taking; the future is ours to participate in, so why not participate in a change? I wont speak too extensively on the future, because I am, for the next hour or so, in the same bubble that you are in. I cannot predict entirely or know for sure what the future holds. I will say that as we are a class comprised of political and social leaders, champion athletes, award-winning scholars, gifted artists, those with bright futures laid out in front of them and those who have yet to choose from the many paths available to them- I do not think we should be worried too much about our futures. We will leave here today with skills, relationships and experiences that will guide and support us through whatever the next days of our journeys bring. We will also of course have a degree from an accredited and stellar liberal arts college … if we decide to succeed - we will.
If I had a time turner, I would return to move-in day, four years ago and I would instruct myself to consume even more of what The Hill has to offer. From speakers like Madeline Albright and The Cookie Monster, to events centered on philanthropy and community outreach, to influential alumni and conferences teaching leadership and involvement; the Denison Community has offered a plethora of experiences to encourage our education to continue outside of the classrooms. However, as time jumps are not possible, I will take this opportunity now to press upon my classmates, myself, and everyone gathered here today that we must continue to consume what is available to us once we pop the bubble and leave this home we have created here. Communities outside of The Hill are full of opportunities for growth, for study and for development and we should not cease to consume just because we are leaving this cocoon of learning. Continue to consume but remember we must consume positively.
Many of you will say that these past years at Denison have been the best four years of your life – don’t let them be. Let them be the four years that led to the best decades of your life. Embrace responsibility and your independence. Continue to the best of your ability to over consume as autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents and active citizens of a democratic society.
B.A. Religion and English; Cleveland, Ohio
“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”
Four years ago, we all embarked on the steep journey up that hill that leaves our thighs burning and our Whits melting. We caravanned with our parents, friends, pets, and more to reach the Emerald City where we would spend the next four years living and learning with over two thousand strangers. On the way up, we met strange and overenthusiastic, upperclassmen Aug-o Staffers. All of whom were anxiously awaiting the arrival of eager and worried first year travelers. After the fast-moving storm of parents clad in brand new Denison gear carrying bins of clothes and ramen, we landed at the giant doors of that glimmering City and the booming tower that we call Swasey Chapel. Our hair askew and disheveled from the tornado arrival that left many of us (only a few literally) saying, “Todo, we’re not in Kansas anymore” and how right we were.
We all walked up the not-so yellow brick path from Swasey Chapel towards our induction ceremony where Dr. Davis made us laugh and prepared us for the whirlwind of education and fun we were about to enter. We had to beg the wizard to let us enter, but once we did: We met Glinda the good witch, maybe in our FYS classes or favorite major courses, or even the sweet woman in Huffman dining hall. Glinda gave us guidance and the courage to continue skipping down that brick every day in a crazy ice storm or covered in chalk for the myriad of every week’s events.
The class of 2013 also met the wicked witch of the west; maybe it was that econ final of freshman year, or the moment where homesickness really kicks in when Curtis food just does not cut it. No matter what obstacles were thrown our way, we were always met by a singing group of munchkins. Bear with me. They could be literal munchkins at weekly Big Brother’s Big Sister’s meeting, or they could be the various theater performances like the memorable clowns act of sophomore year. These acts give a break from academic stress, but also put on display the incredibly talented friends all around us, some of which quite tall in fact.
This is where we fell asleep in the library, or went to a DFS movie where the projector inevitably broke, or cursed your phone when DU Alert called twice, left four text messages and a few emails, or a deer burst into Slayter. We all came together 4 years ago, everyone bringing a horse of a different color, but we united over the fact that we were looking for something that we were missing. We all came to Denison missing a little something, some wisdom, some passion and some bravery, but we uncovered all of them and can leave today knowing that these traits will always be within us.
This is the place where we found our friends, not just passing in the wind friends, but friends that have heart, brains and courage. Moments of despair like losing our own classmates, Sarah and Liz, reminded us of the tremendous heart of this community. Our sadness is memorable, but finding comfort in our neighbors, classmates and professors is even more remarkable. There were also moments of utter fear when our GE science class had an exam about things beyond the English language, and it is in these moments where the physics guru on your floor comes to the rescue. Above all, we encountered moments of unknowing when we had to breach our comfort zones and uncover true courage. Whether we attended a club meeting that we were too hesitant to join or take an economics class, just for the hell of it. At the end of these years, you might wonder if these qualities have always been there, heart, brains and of course courage were never distant, but always somewhat hidden. And now we are here, in caps and gowns, standing in front of the wizard asking to enter into a new chapter.
During our four years, we saw all of these magical things and more. What we may not have realized is that along the way, there were familiar faces from years past helping us along the way. And the new faces we met will stay with us well beyond our years on the hill, guiding us in memory, but also urging us forward. So that one day, today on graduation day, our journey by way of tornado has come to an end, but it really has only just begun. And with that, we click our heels three times and recite, “there’s no place like home.” Only to find that when we wake up, it will be in an old but familiar place—right here on the hill. We will wake to realize that the lessons we learned, the people we met and the good times we had were there all along.
B.A. Spanish and Communication; Mobile, Alabama
“Denison Changed My Life”
Denison University changed my life. That might sound cliché, or one might say, “isn’t that what college is supposed to do?” But I’m here to tell you that Denison changed my life in such a profound way that for the last year I have wanted nothing more than the chance to tell my story to my fellow classmates and the rest of the Denison community today, so that they might be reminded of what a wonderful institution this place can be for one’s identity, and of the incredible role this school plays in each of our lives.
The liberal arts provide a unique approach for us to not only better comprehend the world in which we are destined to make a difference, but also for us to better understand ourselves and the potential we can reach. My roommate Ana came to Denison without any direction of what she wanted to pursue, but after taking a small education class she discovered a passion for teaching, and in a couple months she will begin working with special education students through the Teach for America program. My friend Scott originally thought he wanted to become a psychologist, but with Denison’s eclectic and unique science classes, Scott was challenged to think outside the box and developed an interest in alternative and holistic therapy methods. My sorority sister Jaclyn came to Denison knowing she wanted to work with sustainability but didn’t know what her approach would be, now she is abroad in Zanzibar, studying the ways in which remote islands can help endangered species problems. My story is a little more personal, more painful, but no less transformative – just like my friends, Denison also provided me with a new sense of direction.
From the time I was six until I was ten, my childhood babysitter, a then teenage girl, sexually abused me. For over ten years, I struggled greatly in trying to deal with the experience. It was something I was afraid to talk about, and afraid to face. And as I grew older, I started to realize how the experience was strongly impacting my romantic life and my sexuality. I became more and more unhappy and unsure of myself, even in to my college years. But to my surprise, it was academia that helped me find a way to cope.
On a cold day in January of my junior year, I sat in a small, 300-level, communication class, and learned that I would be spending the rest of the semester studying myself. Yes, me. The research is described as autoethnographical, and it is a new form of research that is slowly gaining more recognition in the academic community because of its incredible ability to demonstrate true human feeling and experience over a certain area of study. After a few weeks of debating with myself, and a little help from my roommate and professor, I decided that it was my sexual abuse that I should finally confront and study through autoethnography. For the rest of the semester I endured sleepless, emotional nights, trying to find my voice in the midst of an experience that had left me so powerless. But, with the help of Denison’s incredible faculty and staff, including those at the counseling office and the professors in the communication department, as well as many amazing Denison students graduating with me today, I am proud to be able to say that not only did I finish the paper, but I came to terms with the experience and gained agency over the angst that it had caused me for so long. The following semester, I was even given a chance to further my study on the topic, where I completed a senior research project about the importance of telling one’s stigmatized story of sexual abuse. The communication department even helped me present my work at the Ohio Communication Association Conference at Kent State.
Because of Denison, I not only completed many pieces of academic work that I am truly proud of and will consider publishing, I also completed something that allowed me to better understand myself, and finally appreciate the person I am today. I strongly believe that if it weren’t for Denison, I wouldn’t have had many of these opportunities, and I know that I would not have been able to come to terms with my experience in the same way than if I had gone to school anywhere else.
I tell you all this story, because I know there are countless students graduating with me today that have had similar life-changing experiences because of this school. Each and every one of us is leaving Denison with an enhanced character, and a more greatly empowered identity. Because the truth is, Denison isn’t just a place where you come to learn, Denison is a place where you come to evolve.
As we move forward in our lives, I encourage us to always remember the lessons that Denison has given us. I hope that most of you have not had to confront the kind of psychological difficulty that I have described, but all of us are going out into an uncertain world, and we will be facing countless political, social, and personal challenges. But I feel that it is safe to say that we are all stronger people today because of Denison University, so I urge us all to start our next chapter of life contributing to society in a way that reflects on the transformative education that we have been so privileged to receive. We have been given the tools to think critically, ethically, and confidently in any situation we may face, we know how to approach problems with poise and appreciation, we know how to research anything from queer culture to issues in international politics to creating the most sustainable campus possible.
Denison class of 2013 – thank you more than you know for everything that you have done for me. Denison changed our lives, now let us move forward and change the lives of others. We are going to be unstoppable.