Last week was another blur of business: convocation, budget discussions, unscheduled meetings, and so on. I had a blog almost set to go, but time just ran away with me and it was all I could do to get a cup of tea between Monday and Friday. I’ll store what I wrote last week for some other time.
I have been asked by more than a few if I would post my installation address. I was ceremoniously disrobed and rerobed last week at the opening session of convocation, and so that part of the medieval ritual you will just have to imagine or watch online. Apparently, the live streaming of my address kept freezing and so I am not sure anyone outside the Arts and Culture Centre had a chance to hear it. Due to popular demand, as they say, I am posting the text here on this blogspot. You had to be there, but if you can imagine my speaking voice, full of pregnant pauses and appropriately timed punch lines, then perhaps you will get some flavour of the event. I really enjoyed delivering it, and the audience response was warm and enthusiastic, setting me up nicely for this daunting job. And so here it is, at least in black and white.
May 26, 2015, 10 a.m.
Dr. Noreen Golfman, Provost and Vice-President (Academic)
Degrees conferred: B.A. (Hons), B.A (surname A-M), Ph.D., Psy.D.
Good morning everyone, graduands, families, friends. I am deeply honoured to be here on this stage today among esteemed colleagues and friends. It is particularly satisfying to be standing here as the first woman provost and vice-president academic of Memorial University. (About time, yes?). The great Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepah Mehta, who, in fact, brought her film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children to this very Arts and Culture stage three years ago, repeatedly says she loathes the word “humble,” and has no time for anyone who says they are humbled to be where they are. Be real and honest, Mehta says, forget humble. Okay, I greatly admire Deepah Mehta and so I won’t say I am humbled.
But I will say that I am really, honestly happy to occupy such an important role at Memorial after more than three decades of working here in this wonderful, cultural laboratory known as the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I feel strongly committed to this university and its future, and can think of no better place to be than right here, right now, celebrating the achievements and triumphs of an extraordinarily talented, bright, and hard-working group of students. Thank you for the honour and, indeed, the privilege of occupying the office.
It is not without a great deal of irony that I stand here reflecting on the one and only job I have been fired from – so far. I was an undergraduate at McGill in Montreal, many years ago, looking for a summer job. I landed one selling newspapers –the Montreal Gazette to be exact– by cold-calling unsuspecting potential customers. It was a humiliating experience in every conceivable way. We sat in grey Styrofoam cubicles in a large open room. Every time we scored a subscription we had to push a bell on our desk, signalling our accomplishment. As my first day on the job rolled out I could hear the steady ping ping ping of bells going off all over the room. My bell never rang. Instead of persuading customers of the value of subscribing to the paper I was subjected to a long list of invective and profanity by those victims whose lives I had disturbed, and I was called every curse term under the sun, some of which I had never heard of or ever imagined to be physically possible. At the end of the day the boss—who, upon reflection, looked like that guy who plays Call Saul, you know, Walter White‘s sleazy lawyer—brought me into his office and fired me. Clearly I didn’t have what it took to sell anything.
Frankly, I can’t remember what I did the rest of that summer, but I licked my wounded pride and resolved not only never to be fired again from any job but, more importantly, never to work at a job I hated or wasn’t able to succeed at. Perhaps it’s easier said than done, but there’s nothing like disappointment and humiliation to put starch in your backbone, and that was a turning point for me. Certainly, as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, I experienced a fair share of disappointment and a certain measure of humiliation—that’s what graduate school is often really good at—but I never once wavered from my commitment to finishing my programs and getting my degrees. I was hungry for knowledge and could not imagine I could be happier anywhere than at a university—in my case first McGill, then the University of Alberta, and then finally, University of Western Ontario–surrounded by really smart, and even some dumb people who made me feel smarter, all of us committed to the life of the mind. That’s what you have all done—you have endured disappointment and in some cases even humiliation, and have brought yourselves to this special moment. Don’t kid yourself—it’s a big deal just getting through, and you should feel really, honestly good about that.
More particularly, I am speaking to Bachelors of Arts graduates who have not only achieved their degrees but who have had to endure the tired endlessly recurring refrain of the value of an arts degree. Is there a more boring question in circulation right now? Look, I am a proud BA graduate—in English, no less—a discipline that still teaches texts written long before the invention of the cell phone–or the toilet. But through literature, and then by extension through film and expressions of culture itself, I came to appreciate the value and meaning of story, and the way our lives are shaped by narratives of identity and meaning. The discipline of English also opened me up to the relation between individual identity and the social forces that inform it, and in turn again to the significance of language, of performance, of communication upon which so much meaning rests. The more I studied the more cross and interdisciplinary my interests became. I started to see the connections between disciplines, and the ways they could complement and enrich each other. Today I remain committed to encouraging that kind of inter and trans disciplinary awareness, and I would love to see the university encourage more cross fertilization of ideas across all areas of our campuses.
In effect, what I learned from my BA, besides how Shakespeare rocked or Margaret Atwood ruled, was a set of public skills that have taken me on up and through to this very moment and this very stage. Your professors might not have told you directly that you were acquiring those skills but you have. Whether a sociologist, anthropologist, geographer, a linguist or so on, you understand and appreciate the complexity of language; you know that finding the right question is the first step to knowledge; that you have to be open to multiple points of view to see your way through a problem; that there is far more to learn than any of us can ever hope to know. Class of 2015: a BA is a precious, privileged thing. None of your time has been wasted. I say realistically, honestly, that it will serve you well as you move into the next “chapter of your life,” drawing on the metaphor of the book and of story, as I do, to make sense of your journey.
To the freshly minted PhDs from all disciplines, I hope you are feeling as good about your achievement as I did when I got mine. I still thrill at the memory of that accomplishment, especially, again, as a woman entering the then largely male-dominated field of doctoral success. That memory is right up there with my first kiss, and other rare and best left unmentioned moments of discovery.
We know that today almost 2/3rd of PhDs in Canada will find work outside the university academy—in industry, business, the not-for-profit sector, in law, health services, trade, management, government…you will be all over the rich map, marshalling your skills to do your best at whatever you do. Remember, too, that while you have gone deep, becoming an expert on a problem or question and a particular area of study, you have also gone broad, learning ever more about how to question and challenge received ideas, how to think critically, thoughtfully, and creatively about how to make things better. You have rich disciplinary skills, but, as with the BA graduates, you have acquired all the right and necessary interdisciplinary, public skills. Use them wisely. The 21st century, in which we will all be living longer and in more complicated ways, needs you.
Finally, I would say there are probably thousands of convocation addresses that say the same thing, and harness the same clichés, such as: remember, anything is possible, take risks, follow your passion, dream big, go forth and prosper, resist dogma, love what you do, set goals, stay the course, share your knowledge, yada yada yada. Sure, I would happily urge all of the clichés on you, but I won’t. You have to get lucky, too.
I will conclude, however with one piece of advice gleaned from personal experience. Several years ago, when I was first considering a leadership role as president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, I asked my husband, Stephen Bornstein, also an academic—my best friend, my true love, continual inspiration, my favourite partner and cherished soul mate—I asked him if I should go for the presidency of the Federation, and he said, “nah, I don’t think so.” And so I didn’t listen to him, and I went for it.
And then a few years later I was asked to consider becoming associate dean of graduate studies, and so I turned to wise Dr. Bornstein again, and said, should I go for it? And he said, once again, “nah, I don’t think so.” And so I didn’t listen to him, and I went for it. That led to my becoming the dean of graduate studies and eventually to the possibility of becoming Provost and Vice-President Academic. By then, I knew better than to ask him and he knew better than to advise. Thank you, Stephen, for being so wrong in your otherwise perfect record of advice and generous wisdom. I love you more than ever and everything, but it’s also fun when you get it wrong. And so the best advice I have for the graduating class of 2015 is—don’t always listen to your partner.
Thank you and good luck!