Faculty remarks from the John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government Dean Hammer
I want to thank Pres. Porterfield and Provost Martin for inviting me to speak. It is really a great honor to be here and to welcome the class of 2018, faculty, and other guests. And thank you Emilie and Gabbie. They capture so beautifully the excitement and energy of this occasion.
Voice has become a subject that looms as increasingly important in my own thinking about its value not just in the classroom, but also in life. I say this having seen how voice plays out both as a professor in the classroom and now as Don of New College House. You are entering 4 years in which there is the greatest possibility of cultivating your voice and also the greatest risk of losing it.
What is voice? You may have heard your high school teachers talk about introducing voice in your writing. Actors have voice. Musicians have voice. Authors have voice. You heard Emilie and Gabby’s voices. And each of you has a voice: a tone, a cadence, an attitude, a vocabulary, and a way of phrasing. One writing manual defines voice as “the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique.” But this equation of voice with style misses something fundamental, which is obvious when listening to Emilie and Gabby: voice comes from somewhere. Voice, as Gabby says, “becomes your participation, your individuality, your passions, actions, beliefs, and initiative you take… what you stand for. Voice is the communication of the commitments of what informs, and is informed by, your experiences.
In defining voice this way, I want to distinguish it from simple opinion. Although voice may start with opinions, voice is not the same as an opinion. An opinion in its infancy is simply an unchecked belief: we all have opinions about our favorite foods, for example, or books or songs, or even reactions to events around us. These are the first inklings of voice. But voice is more than that. Voice is a critical awareness of what matters to you, of what expresses who you are, of what you value. It is not something you are born with. It is cultivated in your interactions with the world around you: as you listen to others, as you encounter new experiences, and as you respond to other voices, hearing your own voice take shape.
There are two places in which your voice will be tested and it will be up to you about how you will respond. The first place is the classroom where you develop your intellectual voice. You will be exposed to new ideas, introduced to new perspectives, acquire new knowledge, and work on critically thinking and communicating these ideas. Here is the challenge: it won’t always be clear where your voice fits in or what your voice even is. You will at times encounter complicated texts and ideas, feel overwhelmed by assignments, or run into material that doesn’t immediately connect to you. It turns out none of this is different from anything you will face in your profession when you graduate: But it can feel like you are always operating on someone else’s turf, with someone else’s thoughts, governed by someone else’s rules, and judged by someone else’s criteria. And it becomes easy, too easy, to simply give in: to follow a form, to think the answer is “what the professor wants,” to get your grade though feeling no connection to what you have encountered.
But that’s not where the meaning of the intellectual journey of college lies. The journey lies in an increasing awareness of what is worth communicating, of what you stand for in the presence of others. But it doesn’t just happen. It takes work; it takes discipline; and it takes practice.
When you read something, when you view something, when you hear something, start with your reaction. Don’t limit yourself to whether you agree or disagree, which in this ideological age has unfortunately limited our own sense of the range of voice. There are all different types of responses: Were you surprised? angry? did you pause? was it beautiful? poignant? remarkable? did it remind you of something? did it connect to something? These responses are not the end; they are the beginning of a relationship to the material you are encountering.
Don’t stop there; rather, think about your reaction in relationship to the material. Be tangible: what is it you found interesting, or beautiful, or puzzling? And — and here is the important next step — why is that reaction worth communicating to others? Try it out: with a roommate, with a friend, with a classmate, in class, during office hours, through a House event, even during bagel breakfast (which all of you will soon discover). An expression of voice doesn’t hide in the vagueness of one’s own impressions or abstractions that ultimately convey nothing. And an expression of voice doesn’t require that you say “I think” or “In my opinion” or even to explicitly relate the material to something autobiographical. Voice is communicated in the tangible words you use, in the themes you take up, and in the passages you select, in the choices you make.
In the act of communication your voice begins to acquire shape and sophistication. In hearing others, in imagining other responses, in accounting for other views, your voice enters a conversation. In part, that is what we are trying to do here. Your professors are providing you with the perspective, the vocabulary, the rigor, the critical skills of thinking and writing, and a space in which you can speak and appear before others. Ultimately what underlies voice is a commitment to something worth communicating, whether it is your interpretation of a reading, a movie, a dance, or a work of art, in a discussion of a public policy, or in a moment of scientific discovery: these are moments of realization. But always try to start with what matters. Then you have something to communicate.
Voice appears in a second way that is just as challenging and important: that is your social voice. This is your voice among friends, in clubs and organizations, on teams, at work, at parties, as a mentor, and in the community. Social voice, your day-to-day interactions with others, is more related to your intellectual voice than you may realize. It is part of the same person and part of the same process. Social voice, like intellectual voice, is a communication of what you value in yourself and in others. It is the practice of living a life in the awareness of what matters.
The challenge of social voice lies in all the forces working against it: the uncertainty of where you fit in and the din of noise that masquerades as enticements, expectations and norms, drowning out what your actual goals are, what you actually want to achieve. It’s easy to lose track of one’s voice; there are so many other voices demanding your attention. And it’s easy to forget to even search for one’s voice; there are so many other voices willing to fill in, telling you, however subtly, what it means to be cool, to be accepted, or to have fun.
What is your voice in a crowd when you can barely hear yourself? Most of the time your voice will be untested; it will emerge seemingly effortlessly in your casual encounters with each other. But the test of voice is in those more difficult moments when to say something is to go against the grain, when it would be easier just to go along with the crowd? What does it take to speak out when a friend or teammate or hallmate is threatening the safety or integrity of themselves or someone else? What does it take to say, “No I don’t want a drink,” or “Let’s get out of here,” or “I’m not comfortable with that,” or to reach out to someone who is in trouble?
These voices don’t suddenly appear. Nor will your voice suddenly appear. It requires cultivation. It requires practice. And as a communication of your commitments it requires three attributes:
First, it requires consciousness, an awareness of who you are, what your choices are, and what those choices mean. In some sense, awareness requires stillness, finding calm amidst the surrounding noise. My suggestion, which I began to practice several years ago (though I still am not that great at it): Take 5 minutes each day to practice stillness: remove distractions, remove deadlines, remove your to-do list and your what-if scenarios. Meditate, go for a walk or run, do yoga, or simply pause and observe the details of life around you: it is an exercise that will allow you to calm your mind, to possess some clarity, when you enter back into the busy-ness.
Second, voice requires purposefulness, an ongoing sense of your own goals. This actually turns out to be incredibly difficult, easy to lose sight of what you want to accomplish. Think about your goals, not just that you want good grades, but what is fulfilling, what you are passionate about, what you want to communicate to others. Find friends, find mentors, find us to begin this conversation. With goals it actually turns out to be much easier to filter out the noise that doesn’t matter, that distracts, and that harms.
Finally, voice requires courage. In many ways it is easier to blend in. The courage of voice is the willingness to appear before others as a distinctive you, not necessarily sure what that will mean for others, not necessarily sure how it will be evaluated. The recent events in Ferguson reveal the urgency of voice: the cumulative frustration of a suppressed voice, whether in politics, policing, vocational aspirations, or the everyday indignity of having to answer suspicion with silence. Ferguson also heralds the appearance of heroes who were doing nothing more or less than standing for something. There was footage of an officer pointing a semi-automatic weapon at a peaceful crowd, shouting that he would kill them if they didn’t get on the sidewalk until another officer came over, got him to lower his weapon, and diffused the situation. That’s the courage of everyday voice. How much easier — and terrible — it would have been not to notice. Or the youths who stood up against looters, risking their physical safety to preserve the integrity of their voice. Or Capt. Johnson, as he changed the tenor of the moment, speaking voice to violence, his own voice shaped by his life-experiences and training, its expression loudest in his ability to listen. I have also witnessed with considerable pride as our students, Emilie and Gabby among them, have expressed through their actions what they want to contribute, what they want to influence, and how they want to lead. It is the courage of everyday life.
Your voice matters.
Voice matters because it embodies the judgment about worth that a liberal arts education imparts. It matters because with voice you appear as someone who is authentic. And it matters because it is empowering. In an audio clip at the end of “I Stand Alone,” by Robert Glasper with Common and Patrick Stump, Michael Eric Dyson talks about how easily we can be “seduced by simply repeating what we hear, what somebody else said or thought and not digging deep to learn what we think or what we feel, or what we believe.” With voice you become a participant in a conversation in which you communicate your commitments, your inspirations, your aspirations, and your perspectives. With voice you take ownership of your beliefs, your actions, and your interactions…. Thirst for it…. Make it your own…. Never let anyone take it away.
Thank you --- and welcome to the most exciting years of your life.