Address to convocation
by Dr. Linda Hutcheon
Friday, Oct. 19, 2007
It is a great honour to be standing here addressing this particular audience today. It’s not every day that a literature professor gets to join the same exclusive “club” (if I may call it that) as Rick Mercer and Joey Smallwood, E. J. Pratt and David Blackwood. They too have had the signal honour to be honorary graduands of Memorial University. Unlike you, however, none of us had to work for this honour to go to class every day, do assignments, take exams; we are simply the beneficiaries of your university’s generosity. You are the real stars of this day, the ones who worked hard and earned your degrees. You’ve come from all over the world, near and far, and you adapted to the intellectual and social culture of Memorial and Newfoundland.
I use the word “adapted” with full knowledge of the many associations it has: I do research on cultural topics like adaptation, on how (and why) novels or plays are transferred from the page to the stage or the movie screen or the videogame computer screen. But I know that it is not just stories that adapt to new media, new times and new places. Biological organisms adapt to new environments. So too do people adapt and change as you have, in your years at Memorial.
Like you, I’ve spent many hours in the halls of universities, reading, writing, thinking, debating in short, learning. You did it as students; I did it at least ostensibly as a teacher, as well as as a student. But, teachers are always still students, still learning. I think I learned most when I started to teach. I learned from the books I taught, of course, but I also learned much from the students. (But more of that later.) From my colleagues at a number of Canadian universities, I learned models of ethical and professional behaviour from their example of intellectual integrity combined with kindness and generosity of spirit, from their willingly shared expertise, both scholarly and pedagogical, and from their human warmth and acceptance.
I deliberately mix together the intellectual and the human here, because I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the experience of your university years (like mine) entails both. It’s your accomplishments in the intellectual, academic realm that we officially celebrate here today, but the fact is that you graduate from the Memorial a different person than you were when you entered. Your peers contributed to this change, but so did your teachers, or so we’d like to think. Education is by definition a process, a process of change. And change is something our 21st century world demands that we get used to. We have to adapt.
Despite all the negative talk out there of economic hard times, about the lack of career choices for university graduates, there are still some voices that can be heard crying in the cacaphony of the pessimistic wilderness offering you neither disheartening, "realistic" discouragement nor unreasonable, Pollyanna-ish delusions. Instead they provide challenges, positive challenges. Those of you who are women, who are from working-class backgrounds, who are not of the dominant race, religion or sexual orientation all of you can be grateful that you do not live in earlier times, when you likely wouldn't be here at all graduating today: your gender, your race, or your class would have determined what you would do with your life and, more importantly, what you would NOT do. As the daughter of working-class Italian immigrants and as the first of my family to go to university, I am personally aware that, in comparison, we have indeed come a long way. Yes, there is further to go, much further; there’s no room for complacency. But we still need to put things in historical perspective: that's part of what your education here will have taught you.
The qualities you need to be happy and successful in our current world things like integrity, initiative, adaptability, flexibility are not qualities that come only from the luck of the draw, or your upbringing, or even your parents' gene pool. Your university education here at Memorial helped develop many of them, teaching you independence of thought and the function of reasoned argument and of researched evidence. It taught you that the wheel need not be invented anew by each generation, but that each can build upon the history of achievement of the one before, just as easily as it can (and should) critically examine truisms that threaten to become truths.
And, whatever you learned in university, you should know that you have also taught. You have taught my generation many things, for which we thank you. If I were to pick out a couple of specific things that is, beyond your general (and constantly rejuvenating) energy, imagination, and enthusiasm I think I would point to how you taught us to examine the promises of pundits and politicians with open eyes not with world-weary cynicism, but with an acute awareness of whose future was at stake, for that future is going to be yours for a much longer time than it will be most of ours. You also taught us what I have come to think of as a "cautious electronic courage" the courage not to retreat into some kind of terrified "techno-peasantry" at the thought of the newest technological advance, but instead … to ask your help in coping with it.
So, thanks for teaching us so much; we hope, as professional teachers and scholars, we’ve done our bit for you too. But now it’s time to get back to the important business of the day: on this platform and in the world that opens up before you today, it’s your turn now to celebrate. I know even though you may not completely realize it yet how well Memorial has prepared you. Best of luck to you all!