Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Commencement Talk at the U. Buffalo English Department Ceremony in May of 2013.

This is only the last part of the talk:

...I’m going to assume that, unlike say accounting students who strive to become accountants, almost all of you were not attracted to the English major in order to become professional critics. Rather, you were interested in how literature and film helped to shape your approach to your personal life, to friends, family and your family history, and perhaps most acutely to problems in contemporary culture. The way they enabled you to intervene in debates, to discover what needs to be changed and how that change might be accomplished, to ask questions about how things work and how they might work differently.

The founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, once spoke fondly about a calligraphy class he took at Reed College. He described himself as a dilettante at the time, he took the class to expand his artistry and to broaden his knowledge. He said that learning about typography was “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Mac computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”

Not everyone is Steve Jobs, obviously, but in many ways his experience with calligraphy can be a lesson. We approach literature in the belief that something important is at stake, a way to express what it feels like to be alive, even if the immediate application isn’t apparent. In this respect, the instruction you’ve received as an English major may have had less to do with the transfer of knowledge—as if knowledge might be poured from one brain into another—than it did with dramatizing or staging ways of reading, listening, and seeing, with seeking out possible entrances into texts and films and art forms, with finding exits when the bell rang, or perhaps never exiting at all. It happened when we discussed things that are perhaps even unteachable (such as the psyche, the soul, the uncanny, narrative voice, objective correlatives, and the death of the author). But I don’t want to present this as something that only happened when a teacher modeled methods for reading, since it also happened when your reading of Chaucer or Shakespeare collided with the conditions of your lives, your present. It happened when your older teachers encountered your youth: maybe we were confounded by it, maybe we tried to understand you better in order to get a sense of your experiences and to incorporate what you knew into discussions. The roles were reversed, you might say—I learned from you when it came to culture. Our shared experience in the classroom has been cumulative, sometimes over multiple semesters, but the entire time we’ve explored literature together by showing our emotions to emphasize what moved us, and by working hard to articulate and share knowledge with friends and peers. This experience—honing our capacity to understand, to communicate, to imagine and to enable change—was always invaluable, for myself, for your other teachers, and I hope for you as well.

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