Dr. Brenda Powell, professor of English and director of St. Thomas’ Luann Dummer Center for Women, delivered the undergraduate commencement address here Friday, Dec. 17, in Schoenecker Area.
Powell was honored as the university’s Professor of the Year on St. Thomas Day last March, and you’ll understand why when you read her remarks below:
Well, here we are. You are the last class in the 1900’s to have bachelor’s degrees conferred by the University of St. Thomas. Did you think this day would ever come?
This commencement, this ritual of beginning, marks the completion of one significant phase of your learning. And as I look at you I wonder, where are you going? And what are you taking with you? As you prepare to leave, what do you hold in your hands?
Soon you will hold a diploma — well, not a real diploma, that won’t come until after all the grading is done and reported, and the final degree audit approved. But you will hold a kind of certification that attests to a set of skills and knowledge that moves you forward in your development as a human person, and that moves you closer to being prepared to contribute in ways none of us can imagine to the concentric circles of communities you now inhabit and those you will soon enter.
What else are you taking with you? What stories are you taking with you? And what do they reveal about the habits of mind that you have developed while a student here?
Perhaps there’s a story about the business class study group that through discussion arrived at a sense of how a corporation in a case study could both meet its obligations to its stockholders and at the same time respectfully attend to the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Maybe you’ll retell a moment you experienced in liturgical choir when together you created a sound that was pure musical art.
Or was it the science lab in which a surprise observation led you to see to what extent what we expect to find may obscure our ability to discover what else is there?
Perhaps you were revising a theology paper and saw how a different interpretation of a biblical text could open up for you in new and surprising ways the power of its message of love.
Possibly a social science lecture brought home to you how valuable it is to question categories such as "normalcy" or "race" or "gender."
Or maybe the story you tell will reveal a moment of serendipity when the teaching and learning of different classes came together in a reminder of how knowledge does not fit neatly into categories of disciplines, but works together.
I hope that this afternoon at President Dease’s reception, or this evening at your celebratory dinner or party you tell one of these stories, for they reveal something about your intellectual growth as a student at St. Thomas, and something about the habits of mind that you have developed here. They are a way of knowing yourself and of being known. And they will create a permanent connection with this place and the people here, even long after you leave it and us.
In addition, I hope that you will encourage those family members and friends who are sharing this celebration with you to tell their stories, and that you will listen attentively. For, as Martha Nussbaum says in her book, Cultivating Humanity, when we listen to the stories of others, we can begin to see "the other person as spacious and deep, with qualitative differences from oneself and hidden places worthy of respect" (90).
As you tell your stories and reflect on the habits of mind that they reveal, there is one habit of mind in particular that I hope you will find you have begun to develop because of the ways it can nurture your intellect, your heart and your soul. This is the habit of asking questions about how we think about things. Are you conscious of the ways in which we all use thought patterns to organize this enormously wonderful thing we call "life," and of how those patterns are both essential and almost certainly inadequate?
Please note that I am not dismissing the importance of rational thought. Indeed, rational thinking helps us both to challenge oversimplified dualisms and to avoid the kind of solipsistic relativism that dodges difficult questions such as "what does the tolerant individual do in the face of profound hatred and intolerance?"
But I am hoping that you have had the unnerving and rewarding experience of questioning what it means to order things as we do, and what beauty we miss when we refuse to engage the rich complexities of life.
Let me give a very simple example. We tend to think of day and night as mutually exclusive opposites. And, at least here in Minnesota where we devote about a third of our newscasts to the weather, each evening the news informs us of the time when sunrise and sunset will next occur. But perhaps you’ve had the opportunity recently — either because of the relative lateness of our sunrises as we approach the winter solstice, or because of a particularly arduous all-nighter — to see the sunrise. And if you have, you’ve noticed that the sky begins to lighten long before the scientifically defined moment of sunrise. Now, is that "day" or is it "night"? And aren’t you glad when you have the opportunity to relish that phase of the morning or the evening when the sky refuses the labels "day" and "night"?
A more complex example of this habit of mind was explored by your first-year colleagues through this year’s English common text, Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty. The core image of this memoir, as reflected in its title Heaven’s Coast, invites the reader to consider the fluctuating relations between land and sea, and between life and death, or, what Doty calls "life-in-death."
Some of you may have had experiences similar to those Doty describes of watching someone you love move through the process of dying, which is also a process of living. You may have seen that liminal state when the person is still alive, yet not really, fully "here." And though there is undoubtedly a death certificate stating the official time of death, you may have watched the slowing of the labored breathing and wondered, "Was that the last breath? Is she or he "gone
Mark Doty helps readers develop that habit of mind of living in and through paradoxes as he describes his experience of the death of the one he loves:
"I know, as surely as I know anything, that he’s all right now."
(Then there’s a blank space on the page, and then Doty continues)
And yet he’s gone, an absence so forceful it is itself a daily-hourly presence" (64)
An "absence" that is a "presence." Later in his memoir, Doty asks, "Is that my work, to point to the world and say, See how darkly it sparkles?" (69), offering us a paradoxical image that inspires awe at God’s creation.
Do you have some inkling about how the "dark" can "sparkle"? Perhaps you remember a night so cold that the moisture in the atmosphere simply froze, suspended, sparkling, visible in a way it would not be visible during the daylight. Images like these can offer us powerful tools for moving through the limits of our attempts to organize and thereby to control the world.
Gloria Anzaldua, in her book Borderlands. La Frontera, argues that "a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war" (102).
While I’m not sure that I would go as far as Anzaldua goes, I do find cause for great optimism as I watch you prepare to leave. So many of you have begun to engage the complexities of life that challenge us to revise and sometimes reject our constructed categories. And, to further this process, I want to encourage each of you to give yourselves a gift, a commencement present, if you will. It’s a two-part gift. The first part is the time to read a book.
I know that while you have been working toward your degrees many of you have felt the frustration (shared, I might add, by myself and many of my faculty colleagues) that you have just been too busy to do any more than what was required for classes, for work, and to meet commitments to family and friends. And this gift of the time to read a book may seem particularly ludicrous as you’re thinking about moving, looking for or starting a job, and getting ready for the holidays.
But I want you to take a moment right now, and think of a book. Perhaps there’s a book by your bed that you’ve been intending to read, or that has been by your bed for so long that it has gotten kicked under it (hopefully it’s not an overdue library book).
Perhaps you recall a conversation with your mother, brother, or friend who told you about this amazing book they had just finished reading, and maybe you jotted it down on a scrap of paper or a post-it note that is somewhere on your desk or tucked into your planner.
Almost certainly somewhere in your class notes you wrote down a recommendation that a teacher made of a book that piqued your intellectual curiosity.
Maybe it’s a book by an author you’ve never read, or maybe it’s a book you read once and finished with the feeling that there was a lot there, but even more there that you missed that first time through. Get your hands on that book, and read it.
Carve out the time to read it and to see what you learn about who you’ve become as a result of this education you’ve acquired, and see what you learn from this book about who you want to become and what you want our world to become.
And after you’ve read this book, give yourself the second part of this gift: talk with someone else about it. For the past several years you have had the luxury of being part of a structured community of learners. Now, it’s up to each of you to establish for yourself a community of thinkers and learners who will help you to keep thinking deeply and learning well. Because we’re none of us done learning yet.
So, read a book, think well and deeply, and do come back and tell us how your life stories are unfolding. We have all — together — invested a great deal in your education, and we want to know what great –and small — things you do with it.
Congratulations, thank you for the joy you have brought to our work as you have done your work, and Godspeed.