Faculty Commencement Speech

Congratulations, graduates! My name is Hillary Miller, and I stand here with Prof. Briallen Hopper and Prof. Cliff Mak. We are so thrilled to celebrate you and all of your accomplishments today– as well as the communities of support you found and created during your journey at QC.

This is our first in-person graduation ceremony since Spring 2019. For this year’s commencement speech, we opted for a cohort model, one that emphasizes connection.

“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.” You’ve walked by this quote from cultural critic bell hooks many times; it’s memorialized on the façade of a building on our campus. In an essay hooks wrote about love and community, she borrowed a term from psychology, “enlightened witness,” to describe a person whose kindness, tenderness, and concern restores your sense of hope. You might have an enlightened witness at Queens College, or maybe somewhere else in your life. hooks believed it is in these relationships that we learn to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected.

The three of us presenting this address likely arrived at QC around the time many of you did. Like you, a good chunk of our interactions with QC faculty, students, and classes, have been conducted online. Like you, we aspired to create the paradise that hooks describes, during a time of enormous upheaval and constant adaptation—within and with QC community.

We decided to present a speech built from the “enlightened witnesses” of the English Department faculty; its ideas were crowd-sourced from our colleagues, to whom we posed three questions. And, since we always like a good citation of sources: you can find this text on the English department website.

We are grateful to the following faculty for contributing: Lindsey Albracht, Susan Bernstein, Kevin Ferguson, Erika Figel, Fred Gardaphe, Miles Grier, Kimiko Hahn, Carrie Hintz, Caroline K. Hong, Briallen Hopper, Scott Kapuscinski, Steven Kruger, Katie Machen, Cliff Mak, Richard Marotta, Hillary Miller, Bill Orchard, Megan Paslawski, Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, Siân Silyn Roberts, Talia Schaffer, Arthur Shippee, Jason Tougaw, Karen Weingarten, Christopher John Williams.

Question #1: Advice

Graduations are traditionally a time for reflection. In the collaborative spirit of the English major: we asked our first question, What is the best advice you’ve ever received?:

Don’t write to show how smart you are; write so that other people can feel smart.

Go out in the world and gather soil; writing requires living. Live / create / live / create.

Don’t be afraid of hearing “no”; always ask for what you want.

Do what makes you happy.

Slow down.

Be transformative, not transfixed.

Show up for yourself!

Keep your teeth healthy. Worry less about what others think. Have the wisdom to recognize that which you have no control over.

Sometimes trying your hardest, is too much.

You can learn from anyone– and anyone can learn.

What you carry in your head you don’t have to carry on your back.

See [your] whole life as a series of doors that [you’re] going to keep walking through indefinitely. Some of them are one-way doors: [you] can’t get back into the room [you] just left. […] Sometimes [a door] will lead you to a dark room, and the new doors will be hard to see, and you’ll have to feel along the wall for a while until you get to one.[…] The important thing to remember is that there’s never really a “right” door. You don’t get to see what’s behind the one you’re choosing or what’s behind the ones you didn’t choose. They’re all just different doors…and all of them lead to new rooms.

And, finally– and perhaps most importantly:

Be wary of advice.

Question #2: QC favs

Graduation is also an occasion to remember and celebrate all the things we’ve enjoyed about our time together in this place. For our second question, we asked your professors to list some of their favorite things about QC.

It turns out that a lot of us love how sometimes the Queens College campus can feel like a kind of botanical garden. We love the cherry blossoms, especially the magnificent flowering cherry tree in front of the Student Union. We love the two Dawn Redwoods behind Powdermaker Hall. And to continue the Queens-College-is-paradise theme, one of us discovered that you can actually eat apples off the apple trees! They’re apparently quite tasty.

Queens College is also a great place for birdwatchers. You can see red-tail hawks, red-bellied woodpeckers, peregrine falcons, and great blue herons. And there are other forms of wildlife here too. Did you know that there are lizards on campus? Did you know that sometimes you can see llamas in front of Queens Hall?

But Queens College isn’t just a natural oasis– it’s also part of a beautiful city. The view of the cityscape from the quad is definitely one of our favorite things. Whether you’re savoring the present or daydreaming about the future, nothing beats the spectacular skyscraper skyline. If you ever miss seeing the view in the years ahead and you’re too busy to come back for a visit, you can check out the 24/7 webcam that broadcasts from the roof of Jefferson Hall looking over the quad towards Manhattan.

Of course, being English professors, we love the library. We love the books, obviously. But we also love the chimes coming from the bell tower (usually one or two minutes out of sync with the time on our phones). And we love the circulation desk. As one professor says, “It’s open, anticipatory, tranquil!”

Above all, we appreciate all the people who make this place come alive, whether they’re working at the front gate or a cafe or in the offices or classrooms. We appreciate all the kinds of skill and care that make this place run. We appreciate that everyone here holds the door for those behind them … and everyone says thank you.

Of course our favorite thing about Queens College is you, the students.

We’ve loved laughing and nerding out with you. We’ve loved running into former students whose writing we still remember vividly many semesters later. We were happy to see the Honors Studies students play soccer on the lawn this spring, and all of the moments where you had a chance to blow off steam and have a little fun.

We’ve learned so much from you. You have persisted during one of the hardest times in history to be a student. You’ve dealt with illness and uncertainty. You’ve balanced demanding work schedules and significant family responsibilities. You’ve spent way too much time on Zoom and commuting. Yet you’ve maintained your curiosity and commitment through it all. You’ve shared your excitement about K-drama, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, open mic poetry, Latinx comics, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison. In class after class, you have reminded us over and over of the power of words and languages, and the way literature can travel across centuries and continents, finding new meanings with each new reader.

Question #3: Texts

Graduations are also, finally, a time to remember why we read, write, and enjoy literature in the first place. For our last question, we asked your professors to think of a line or a few–from a favorite text that continues to have meaning for them throughout the years.

One quote provides us with a useful framework for the rest of this section, framing the matter of literature as a question:

“What vision of the future can a literary work offer us that can’t be found elsewhere? […] How can it move us to be different, to want to alter our way of life, especially when doing so is incredibly hard and inconvenient, and to engage unsettling visions of what we are always, ceaselessly, becoming?”
Min Hyoung Song, The Children of 1965

Maybe one answer to that question is the sense of humor in so much literature, reminding us that it’s OK, even good, to laugh at how funny, or hard to grasp, our lives can be.

Starting with the words of Siddhartha, as represented by the German poet Hermann Hesse:

“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else… Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.”

Or this exchange from playwright John Guare:

Ouisa: There’s so much you don’t know. You are so smart and so stupid
Paul: Never say I’m stupid!
Ouisa: Have some flexibility!
Six Degrees of Separation

Sometime’s there humor in the sense of cosmic justice, like when we’re told to

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

(Whitman once taught at the Jamaica Academy in 1839, right here on the ground that would become Queens College a century later)

Sometimes there’s even humor in the act of thinking of a quote. As one of your professors sent in:

“I’m going to skip this one because, OMG, this is so stressful in an English department!!!!”

Speaking of stress, a number of quotations remind us of the risk, danger, and uncertainty we all have to face in life whenever we seek out anything of real value, whenever we open ourselves up to growth or a new connection.

“Love is never any better than the lover”, writes Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye. “Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe.“

While Pat Barker and Rebecca Solnit remind us that

“[When you] cut a chrysalis open, […] you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, [that symbol of the human soul]. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay,” “the violence of metamorphosis,” “this era of ending that must precede beginning.”
Regeneration and A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Like the rotting caterpillar, moreover, there is an abiding sense in literature of the mystery & wonder of life, especially in its most ordinary and seemingly unextraordinary forms:

The poet Louise Glück writes that

We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

And Samuel Beckett observes how,

“Grain upon grain, one by one, […] one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

And the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick takes it even further in one of her famous axioms:

“People are different from each other.”
The Epistemology of the Closet

Because it’s sometimes in these obvious beats that,

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch

We are also reminded of literature’s power to provide consolation and inspire care:

“Insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less,”

writes James Baldwin (“The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity”), and

“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow,” writes Joy Harjo, our nation’s current poet laureate. “We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks. Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” (“Perhaps the World End Here”)

And finally, literature pushes us forward with justice and clarity into the urgency of life:

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado writes:

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

And Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert ends this speech today, when he writes,

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”

June 2, 2022