From the Chair  |  In Print  | Panels & Presentations  |  Awards & Appointments  |  Miscellany  |  From the Editor
 
 

2006 Graduation Address
by Leanne Smith




People in the back, please wave if you can hear me.  Great. 

I'd like to start with some general thank-yous. Thanks to Peter Makuck for being such a great director of the Poetry Forum and to Jim Kirkland for being such a great faculty advisor for the English Graduate Student Organization. 

Thanks also to the faculty who supported EGSO by participating in one or more of our four literary readings this year: 

Margaret Bauer
Seodial Deena
Tom Douglass
Gregg Hecimovich
Jim Holte
Jim Kirkland
Randall Martoccia
Sean Memolo
Don Palumbo
Ken Parille
Gary Redding
Chip Sullivan

And thanks to Tom Douglass for the coverage of our events in The Common Reader, to Luke Whisnant for posting the announcements on the Department of English Events page, and to the office staff - Brenda, Brandy, Susan, and especially Ketura - our grad administrative assistant - for sending out announcements and constantly answering a multitude of questions. 

Am I presuming too much to say that all of the grad students love Ketura? 

As for more personal thanks … thanks to the literature and creative writing professors I've had for the great learning experiences in their undergrad and graduate classes, to Peter Makuck and Jim Kirkland for being readers on my thesis committee, and especially to Luke Whisnant for being the best-ever undergrad advisor, awards nominator, and thesis director. 

Speaking of theses … Please raise your hand if you directed a thesis this semester.  Who else served as readers?  And who are the thesis-writers out there? 

Moving on, I'd like to share a bit of thesis trivia.  Mary Jo Bratton notes in East Carolina University: The Formative Years, 1907-1982 that in 1933, Deanie Boone Haskett, from the English department, received the first Masters degree conferred at East Carolina Teachers College.  For her thesis, Haskett collected 300+ pages-worth of poetry by North Carolina writers.  She then taught at Rose High School here in Greenville, which is where I graduated from in 2001, a year behind Ketura. 

I remember being on campus here from the time I was really little.  I remember campus when Wright Fountain worked, when the amphitheatre was still behind Fletcher, where that monstrosity West End Dining is now.  I remember before the current library building was built and before Wright Plaza was bricked over – when it was a street where Greek groups painted their seals.  I remember when girls used to lay out on the corner of 5th and Reade, and I think I remember wanting to be one of those girls.  I must have thought it looked like fun to be a college student. 

But it is partly from dancing a few blocks that way [north], partly from attending a Bob Dylan tribute concert a few blocks that way [west], and partly from my experiences coordinating an induction for the English Honor Society at Rose that I had my first exposure to the Department of English here at ECU.  It was my job to coordinate getting a speaker, so I asked some people I knew from dance and music circles, and they directed me to Dr. Tawake.  The members and initiates all dressed as literary characters, like Jean val Jean, Scarlet O'Hara, and others.  Those of us who were at that induction still have mental images of the cherry trees described in the poem Dr. Tawake read to us during her address. 

Poetry – as does most literature – explores issues and personalities that everyone encounters at some point in their lives whether they want to believe it or not.  Some of my ENGL 1100 students learned, as they were writing their literacy narratives last semester, that verse, in the form of song lyrics, is more significant in their lives than they may have realized before.  Since many of the people here today – like non-literature-types or non-English department-types, as Dr. Sundwall used to say – may be more accustomed to listening to music than reading poetry, and since I can trace some of my first connections to this department to that Dylan tribute concert, some of my quoted insights today are from Dylan's "Positively 4th Street." 

The intended audience of the song's lyrics has been debated many times, but what's important today is that we consider how the lyrics promote – among other themes – changing perspectives for the purpose of considering how our actions affect others and how understanding our motives – and understanding the degree to which we care about others – affects us and them. 

Yes, the lyrics would sound better sung by some our musical faculty and students and whoever else knows the song, but I suspect these robes would cause logistical challenges, so we can save the singing for another time. 

And so, I'll just read the lyrics of Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" – 
 

You got a lotta nerve
to say you are my friend.
When I was down,
you just stood there grinning. 

You got a lotta nerve
to say you got a helping hand to lend.
You just want to be on
the side that's winning. 

You say I let you down.
You know it's not like that.
If you're so hurt,
why then, don't you show it? 

You say you lost your faith,
but that's not where it's at.
You had no faith to lose,
and you know it.

 
I know the reason
that you talk behind my back.
I used to be among the crowd
You're in with.

Do you take me for such a fool
to think I'd make contact
with the one who tries to hide
what he don't know to begin with?

 
You see me on the street.
You always act surprised.
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck,"
but you don't mean it. 
 
When you know as well as me
you'd rather see me paralyzed,
why don't you just come out once
and scream it?

 
No, I do not feel that good
when I see the heartbreaks you embrace.
If I was a master thief,
perhaps I'd rob them.

 
And now, I know you're dissatisfied
with your position and your place.
Don't you understand
it's not my problem?

 
I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes,
and just for that one moment,
I could be you.
 

Yes, I wish that for just one time,
you could stand inside my shoes.
You'd know what a drag it is
to see you. 

 
 

Changing perspectives is something that can help us better fulfill ECU's motto: "To Serve."  Two years ago, I stood here as the Outstanding Senior and talked about how the study of English and writing and literature would prepare us for just about anything we wanted to do in future studies and/or jobs.  I said something like, "A major in English is kinda' like a major in life." 

For some of us, our changed perspective and experiences that have come with our graduate studies have showed us that it’s not only the study of writing and literature that prepares us for existing in the world -- it's also the effort to try to study those subjects when faced with prejudice from people at the University because of our academic discipline and M.A. student rank, and for a lot of us, prejudice against our hometown, county, state-region, state, and region of the country. 

Some of us here have heard faculty around campus refer to students as "stupid."  A common student perspective on that thought is that we're not stupid.  Some of us may not learn as fast as others or may not have the same interests as the professors.  If any of us go on to become professors, we should keep in mind that perhaps our students are just ignorant of what we haven’t taught them yet.  And we should serve them by teaching them at least some of what we know that they should know. 

As I learned just yesterday when starting to deal with a plagiarism issue, we can try our best to teach, and sometimes it takes students longer than the time in our classes to learn what they needed to learn in a semester with us, but the important thing is that we care enough about our students and their progress to try. 

It is because of students' academic needs and wants that professors have jobs, so, in the future, we must not ignore ECU's motto and its positive potential manifestations.  Respect is not unidirectional.  When professors respect students and their interests, students respect professors and their interests.  We all can show respect to students we may have by acclimating ourselves to the local atmosphere and by not automatically discounting a student's intellect, or ability and willingness to learn, just because of where they’re from or where they’re attending school. 

Ignorance and apathy are a dangerous combination, and perhaps, by remedying ignorance, we can begin to remedy apathy.  We deserve better than such a combination, but instead of moping, let’s employ Peter Makuck's rule of writing, which Peter's protégés also teach to their students: "Show, don't tell" – which sometimes gets translated as "Be suggestive, not explicit." 

It's easy to say that we can create healthier environments than others we have seen and experienced, but showing that we can do that requires commitment and discipline.  How we may "show" is perhaps related to something I heard Garrison Keillor say on "Prairie Home Companion." 

Anyone listen to Prairie Home Companion? 

Then you've surely heard the skit that jokingly advertises the Professional Organization of English Majors – the acronym of which spells POEM.  Of course on the show, the lighthearted skit is intended to poke fun at English majors so that the world may laugh with us as we laugh at ourselves.  We may, however, take at least one of the ideas more seriously: "English: it's not just a language, it’s a way of life." 

This idea must be related to how we view the world as a result of our humanities discipline.  In literature and writing studies, we encounter numerous personality types, and when writing our analyses, even if we don’t particularly like certain characters, we still must address them and their role in the context of a work.  Such examinations likely transfer into the way many of us interpret the people and situations we encounter so that we’re able to see how leadership and followership are more intertwined than some might think.  The student leaders here today know this.  Leadership has to be positive at all levels in an organization in order to promote genuine followership. 

How can we do that?  Well, by following what ECU English professor-tuned-NC-politician Janice Faulkner said right here on this stage at the Chancellor’s Forum on Leadership during the Founders Day celebration a few weeks ago.  She said that good leaders must embody three qualities: intelligence, judgment, and character.  We often see – and have seen in the past few years here are ECU – varying combinations of two of those three – not often all three.  But we can still learn from that. 

We can think about a line from another Dylan song -- "Masters of War" -- "All the money you made / will never buy back your soul."  Many of us here have had extensive training in the humanities, so we can use our inclusive tendencies and analytical skills to strive for those three qualities Janice Faulkner promoted in her speech -- intelligence, judgment, and character. 

In getting close to my closing, I'd like to share something that so many graduation-type event speakers close their speeches with -- Garrison Keillor's sign-off wishes from "The Writers Almanac" on NPR: "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." 

A lot of us have heard that, right?  Well, my actual closing is related to that. 

Does anyone ever watch the British comedy "Keeping up Appearances"? 

I saw a television interview with Patricia Routledge -- the actress who plays Hyacinth -- and she said something that I have adopted as one of my goals: "I want to do good work in good places with good people -- that's all."  And so, my closing thought is that -- by being good people, we can create and maintain good places where good people can do good work. 

Thanks.  Good luck, everyone. 

[ Back to TCR ]