Eugene Lang College Commencement Faculty Keynote Address
Julie Beth Napolin
May 21, 2015 – Parish of Calvary St. George’s, New York City
What an incredible honor to be here on this day with you. You look ready for something – for what you don’t yet know. And you don’t have to. You probably didn’t believe that you would get here to this moment. But you did.
Twenty years ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I showed up to my high school graduation in an enormous white ball gown. I had a shaved head and facial piercings; and I got to face my graduating class with a speech. I decided I would be very succinct and simply quote my favorite novel at the time, Slaughterhouse Five. I can recite that speech to you by heart, I simply said, “‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.’” I then added: “Those of you who supported me, you know who you are, and I thank you. Those of you who didn’t, I look forward to proving you wrong.”
Last time I was on this kind of stage speaking for a graduating class was my own PhD ceremony at Berkeley. I was wearing this same gown with the hood in the Berkeley blue and gold. I didn’t know where I was headed yet either – it was a year later that I would see a job call for a small liberal arts college in New York City. What could I say except that it was my dream job? It was the teaching position I didn’t really think existed. Three years later, I pinch myself that I get to be here, in this city amongst you and my colleagues, amongst the most creative, genuine, and paradigm-shifting people I have ever encountered.
I see myself in many of you: you’ve taught me to be a better person and teacher; you’ve taught me things about texts I thought I understood completely; you been there to support me when I didn’t know the way through a problem or question; we’ve gone to museums together, heard live music, puzzled over three sentences for an hour, and been on marches through the street when we were supposed to be in class.
If I say I see myself in you, it’s because I know that many of you arrived here under similar circumstances. Maybe you didn’t think there was a place for you; you were the most outspoken person in your class; you wanted to push harder when others wanted to say the right thing or worse, keep silent; you wanted to be somewhere where inquiry rather than requirements was the driving force in your study, where affinity rather than authority structured your encounters. I’ve always wanted the same thing.
Writing this speech for you today has meant reflecting on how I came to be here with you. In my course this semester, on the first day we swapped stories. My colleague Robert Sember taught me that you should always begin the first day by telling stories. You told me about art objects that had moved you, an experience that had impacted you, a time that you most felt like you knew who you were. Then it came around to me. In that instant I felt called by the collective act of storytelling. I decided to tell a story I thought I would never tell my own students. If I say I see myself in you, it’s because many of you said this story resonated with your own circuitous route to Eugene Lang.
So I’ll tell it here again in this very public forum. Let’s just say that in high school, like many of you, I was outspoken. When it came time to apply to college, I had to get a letter of recommendation from a college counselor. The last line of this letter issued what he called a strong “caveat” to any prospective educators considering my acceptance, and I quote, “Julie Napolin cannot participate respectively in any institution.” Let the YouTube record show that according to my teacher and counselor, I, a 17-year old, could not participate respectfully in any institution. Without any other choice, I sent this letter to colleges around the country. I hoped it would be swaddled by my award-winning artwork and by my writing sample on the fiction of William Faulkner that would later become my dissertation. I still teach his novels today.
Lets just say that I did get into college, two to be exact. And at one of them I got to study with a young professor, Christoph Cox, who, we didn’t know then, was in the midst of helping to create a new field of study – and it was that burgeoning field of study that led me to Berkeley exactly four years later for my PhD – I know it was the kind of open study at Berkeley that led me here to you. My dad and sister are here, and they were at that speech almost twenty years ago in New Mexico.
I don’t want to waste your time with platitudes and say that everything happens for a reason. That is fundamentally untrue. Many terrible and wonderful things happen for no reason at all; they forever leave us puzzled, conflicted, stunned, and wondering with no one to ask why. But I will say that some experiences issue a call — they don’t contain within themselves their own meaning — they call to you and your own capacity for cognition — they call to your capacity for storytelling, and they will be reanimated in many different ways across your own lives depending on how you need to tell your story in that moment and to whom.
I’ve told the story of the letter in many ways. When I told my students this story, I realized that my greatest fear had been that a piece of paper had determined me, that I would always be a reaction-formation. What I’ve carried most from that experience is that you can never allow anyone to tell you who you are.
There will be many times in the future when someone in a position of power will try to tell you who you are. You must resist that and write your own story, even if it’s to be a work of fiction. There will be times when you can’t say what’s most in your heart. Your position will be compromised, or you’ll be afraid. You won’t know what you believe in.
I’ll repeat for you what a mentor at Berkeley once told me in a moment when I was totally confused by my direction. She said that once you have a voice, you can never lose it.
In certain moments your voice will be obscured and dormant, but it has not gone anywhere. As students, you are by definition iconoclasts. Many of the movements around the world have been and are being led by students, including you, and this is because you are the closest point of contact between theory and praxis, that is, when an idea has taken such deep root in a mind that it has no choice but to become action. Many of you have been on the streets this year to protest the unjust murder of black men and women at the hands of the police; you’ve put aside your studies and work obligations to speak truth to power. There will be other moments when you feel called upon. What I want most for you after you leave Lang is to remember to speak truth to power.
My English teacher from middle and high school recently passed away. Not the one who wrote the letter, but the one who always liked my papers and saw in me a precocious intellect. I never saw him again after graduation. My best friend at the time, who is now a tenured professor at University of Virginia, she and I used to torment him. We’d leave funny prank messages on his answering machine and find new ways to lampoon him in class; he always smirked at our pranks. I wish that I could have told him that I am forever in his debt.
It is the kind of debt that I don’t have to pay back, one that might be called a gift. It’s a gift you’ve given to each other and a gift you’ve given to me. As a teacher, properly speaking, I haven’t given you anything except my time.
I want to turn to a second but related set of questions about indebtedness. I want to acknowledge the enormous debt many of you and your families incurred to be here. 40% of Lang students have received Pell grants, making it the highest recipient in New York State. We have an incredibly robust financial-aid program. But nonetheless, here we are in the financial center of the world where some of you have struggled to find an affordable place to live. I’ve talked to more than one of you who have slept on friends’ couches, moved from sublet to sublet, and finished your last credits under the enormous burden of several part time jobs. I support debt strike and resistance, and many students around the country are joining the resistance against predatory lending practices. It’s imperative to vote for leaders who make student debt forgiveness a central issue; debt is the most important issue of our time. It is not individual but a collective struggle, just as education is a public good, one that makes us for others and not simply for ourselves.
If I say I see myself in you it’s because we are a part of the same generation. You will not get one job out of college and keep it for forty years; you couldn’t guarantee the company would even exist that long. At times you will be mobile – sometimes you’ll feel like your moving up, other times you’ll feel like you’re on the run. Some of you will never own a home; you might not save for retirement; you might not own certain things once deemed essential. Some of you will live off of credit cards when you are in between jobs. The world our parents taught us to want doesn’t exist anymore.
In many ways, that positions us uniquely to see both ways, to see the past for what it is, and want a new way forward. You must carve out your own story using the voice you found amongst peers. There will be moments when you are speaking to and working alongside of those you feel at odds with. Reach them. Tell them where you come from. Share this collective good.
To become an adult in this culture is tied up with ownership and credit. A colleague of mine, Mateusz Halawa, recently argued that mortgages and credit produce hope and optimism,[i] the hope that you can and will repay. You will enter into “life-long relationships with banks;”[ii] you will have several monthly “rhythms of repayment.”[iii] You will hear people speak of good debt and bad debt. Good debt gives you credit and with it, a sense of power; bad debt diminishes it and stains your identity. Our horizon, under this structure, becomes “the time of repayment.”[iv] Our intimate lives and very feelings are underwritten by currency.
Nietzsche was probably to first to understand that we see punishment in our society as paying your debt; he teaches that to be indebted is socially constructed as punishment; if you are in debt, it’s because you’re a bad person.
I want to tell you that you must resist these notions, politically and ethically. You must find new objects to have faith in and determine their meanings together. This achievement of your undergraduate degree, the enormous effort you put forth alongside of your peers cannot be commodified, nor can the voice you’ve marshaled. This degree has been a horizon too, but one that, above all, has been shared with others, speaking alongside of you.
Rather than with advice, I will go seminar style and ask you a set of questions. How will you restructure your own desire? How will you learn how to want differently? How will you produce your own value as citizens? You’ll come to see college as one of the most sustained times in your life of peer-to-peer engagement, relating with equals as equals. How you will replicate this way of being together in the time of ideas? This time, though no doubt supported by currency, is not contained or underwritten by it.
I don’t want to commodify your time by telling what you’ve learned here. You haven’t learned anything and we haven’t taught you anything. Together we’ve participated in an event of thinking. An event of thinking is necessarily chaotic because it throws what is under question. An event of thinking reveals that things are not as they seem; things that seem to us to be so solid are filled with holes, gaps, and incompletes. And those incompletes are the places where you burrow your capacity for thinking. You might have met your best friends here; you might have fallen in love; you may never speak to anyone here ever again. It doesn’t really matter: you’ve been partner to an event of thinking. The event of thinking doesn’t stop because you are leaving Lang. It’s an infinite conversation in which every voice leaves its mark. It’s the debt that you do not have to pay back.
This place will return in your thoughts many times to come; it will necessarily feel incomplete, like you could have said and thought more. But don’t worry; you will.
Thank you for the gift of your time.
[i] Halawa, Mateusz. “In New Warsaw: Mortgage Credit and the Unfolding of Space and Time.” The Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought. The New School, New York City. 8 May 2015. Lecture.