Pribilsky: Convocation address should welcome but challenge students

Dear Editor:

The students from Hillel-Shalom, whose letter (Nov. 13) regarded this year’s convocation speech, are to be commended for their courage in making public a debate that has played out largely in the shadows. They were correct to label Professor Semerdjian’s speech divisive. For me, a third generation Walla Wallanwho feels implicated in the deception and violence that relegated local Native Americans a postage stamp of scrubland, it was –– to quote from Professor Shampa Biswas’s 2007 convocation address ––”intellectually unsettling.”

However, I didn’t find it “one-sided,” or merely one person’s “opinion,” as the writers contend. It was a talk with a thesis, a model of the kind of critical, interdisciplinary thinking we value in our community. It’s not my place to show that it’s not one-sided; I’ll leave that task to students themselves. Instead, I’ll proceed to an example that might expand my argument. In 2012, Professor Phil Brick’s convocation speech began with the potentially incendiary statement that “anthropogenic climate change is already here and it may indeed be irreversible.”

To the untutored, an unqualified statement of the reality of climate change could be taken as one-sided insofar as “climate change denier” serves as a surrogate for “conservative Republican.” But surely we don’t think that way. Professor Brick began with a widely accepted statement of fact and then argued from that assumption. While I do not mean to equate climate politics and the identity politics that lurk around the debate over Semerdjian’s speech, I think the analogy is apt to help us consider what we mean by the terms “opinion” or “one-sided.”

Too often in class, I hear that an assigned article or book is “one-sided,” a response which strikes me as intellectually weak. It’s a lazy placeholder for when we don’t want to engage with the internal coherence of an argument with which we disagree. When a professor assigns a book or article that advances a particular argument, those pieces are not “one-sided” any more than your senior thesis is “one-sided.” They are thesis-driven writings in which a particular interpretation is supported by evidence.

Finally, I worry about glossing convocation as a “welcome to Whitman” event, as the writers do in their letter. While I am not advocating we make convocation purposefully uncomfortable, the event strikes me as more than an embrace to the club. So what should it be? Looking at past convocation speeches, we might get a better sense of its purpose. The convocation address is a diverse beast with a few common markings. Many speeches offer some kind of welcome to the community. Most seek to model forms of analysis and argumentation used in the classroom. What they all seem to have in common, though, is a call to challenge –– they all serve to provoke new ways of thinking. As an example I return to Professor Biswas’s 2007 speech, delivered in heady days of the War on Terror, which asked, “[W]hat are the stakes of becoming an intellectual?” Her answer:

“There are risks, make no mistake, in the asking of these questions –– risks to our sense of who we are, sometimes at the most personal levels, and risks to those served by our loyalty to the boundaries that keep us divided. So while others at Whitman will expend considerable efforts to keep you safe and well-tended, the task of this remarkable faculty […] is to make college intellectually unsettling for you.”

Speeches are of course a lot of pomp, but I’d like to think these thoughtful statements are not mere platitudes. I hope we mean it when we say as faculty that our job is to challenge you. I’d also like to think convocation is the appropriate venue to begin the challenging, lest the event become trite and prosaic. A little discomfort is good, even necessary. In my field of cultural anthropology, initiation rites and rituals cross-culturally are often uncomfortable affairs, and purposely so: They are meant to upend us from one phase of life to another, to be “pivotal events” as the student writers describe Whitman’s convocation. Students are pivoting from the rigidly biased to the intellectually unsettling. Welcome to college.


Jason Pribilsky
Professor of Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Studies