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May 16, 2004 7:50 am


Grim Determination of the Soul



I don't usually keep track of these things, but I think today's (yesterday's by Eastern Time) graduation ceremony was the worst one I've ever attended, as a faculty member or otherwise. It was not just the fact that faculty are supposed to show up at 8 for a ceremony that doesn't start until 9, or the fact that the civic auditorium has changing space with less elegance than a stable (A colleague who worked in stables assured me), or the heat (that's traditional!), or the failure of the marshals to count the faculty properly (or line us up properly) so that there were a half-dozen of us on one side of the stage with no chairs, or the fact that the faculty were seated directly in front of the speakers, so every pop and hiss and bump and enthusiastically read name was an assault on our eardrums, or the fact that our Chancellor couldn't pronounce the names or places of origin of our VIPs, or that the Regent awarding our local Teaching Excellence Award mispronounced the (admittedly challenging) name of the recipient repeatedly (to visible grimaces from the honored educator), or the insipid version of Cole Porter's"Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" complete with interpretive dancers, or the"honor guard" of faculty that lined the student recessional and slowed the proceedings down to a crawl with very thorough fare-thee-wells.

No, it was the speaker that set the tone for the whole thing. At my own college graduation, the speaker, a former New Jersey governor, said that the speaker at graduation is like the body at a wake: nobody really wants them there, but the proceedings can't get on without them. Most of the speakers I've seen since then have been political or educational figures, people who really know how to work an audience. Our featured speaker, to whom we also gave an honorary doctorate, is a pioneer in medical technology and founder of a truly massive medical technology empire, is clearly very intelligent, decent and energetic. But he gave what was, without a doubt, the worse graduation speech I've ever seen.

I'll glide over the extended introduction, in which we got an overview of the reach and scope of corporate operations (31000 employees in 120 countries, with 2000 job openings, including, I hope, several speechwriting positions). I'll never forget the Show-and-Tell portion, when he waved his insulin pump at us, and then brought out from behind the dais a first-generation version of his portable pacemaker, a second-generation version (without the knobs that patients tended to fiddle with) and a current implantable pacemaker, just like the one operating in him.

What really bothered me was the advice he gave. Most of it was tolerable"get ahead and be responsible" stuff. But the centerpiece of the talk was a bit of late-80s/early-90s business jargon (being revived by our President in fact, if not in so many words): "Ready. Fire. Aim." Yes, you read that right. Shoot first, figure out what you're doing later. His two prime examples were the first pacemaker he made, which went from concept to pediatric use in four weeks and the short (minutes, he said) decision process involved in various expansions of plant and operation carried out by the company. Go with your gut, make the decision and carry it through if it seems right to you. It always worked for him, after all: his products were better than what had existed before, his plants were always profitable. Luck played no part in it. Only"Hard work and perseverance / grim determination of the soul" [P. Berryman] carried him this far.

Come on! First of all, just once I'd like to hear a graduation speaker say"I'm not that smart, or that good, but boy was I lucky!" Second, I'd particularly like to hear that from someone in business, where luck is often a matter of having lots and lots of money to throw at a problem before the other guy does. In this case, he took advantage of an electronics revolution to solve interesting technical problems, in ways that someone else would almost certainly have also attempted. He was clever, he got trained by the army, and someone asked him a question that he could answer with parts lying around the shop and designs from popular magazines. He was part of an industry riding a wave of insurance, federal research funds and technological advances that hasn't really crested yet. Once the firm got going, it would have had to have been run very, very badly to fail. Moreover, lots of the"gut decisions" he touted were almost certainly carefully researched and developed by underlings before coming to his attention.

I'm all for intuition and"gut checks" on decisions, but only when those have been honed by experience, study, and when they can be convincingly rationalized afterwards. I'm all for luck -- I wouldn't have gotten through graduate school if funding for Japanese studies hadn't been so generous in the 90s, and as someone in a tenure-track position, who participates in hiring committees, there's no denying the role of luck in my successes. But I acknowledge it. I don't claim virtue that I haven't earned, and I don't recommend"get lucky" as a life plan or foreign policy.

Comments section is open for other graduation ceremony horror stories. Or we can thrash out the relationship between individual initiative and historical trends. Up to you.


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Van L. Hayhow - 5/18/2004

You mean you were serious about the interpretive dancers? I thought that was overstatement for the effect (which I thought was pretty funny). Glad I missed it.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/18/2004

It's not at all unusual around here to have a hula dance and mele chant as a form of blessing at ceremonial events: they did one at the beginning of my new faculty orientation!

That's not what they were doing here.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/18/2004

Do Hawaiian graduations ever have interpretive dance?


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/18/2004

If you missed the sight of Charles Schumer at your graduation, I'd say you came out ahead.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/17/2004

Well, it was pretty moderate interpretive dance, sort of a quadrille with lots of ballet-like leaning and waving. Apparently there was some dancing before the students and faculty marched in, too, to inspire the crowd....


Michael C Tinkler - 5/17/2004

Interpretive dancers?

That beats every bad grad story I can imagine.


Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 5/17/2004

I attended only the graduate student commencement, and so appeared to have missed the sight of Charles Schumer pointedly tearing up his graduation speech. (Outside ceremony; 46 degrees; raining.) Quoth a colleague: "Well, that probably got him a lot of votes."


Jonathan Dresner - 5/17/2004

Wow. I want his agent....


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/17/2004

I was at the otherwise well-run graduation ceremony for my middle niece's class, held in the late morning because the afternoon heat in Riverside, California is unbearable. The speaker had been a Spanish diplomat during the Franco regime, who certainly bashed communism, but had nothing bad to say about Francoism. I was appalled.

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