I chose to be the graduate student speaker at the UC Berkeley 2013 commencement ceremony. It was a difficult audience to write for–I probably should have just copied Neil Gaiman’s keynote from last year and called it a day. I’m a little ambivalent about how the speech turned out, but people seemed to enjoy it. Anyway, here it is:
In the years before I had the opportunity to stand in front of you in these fancy robes, I was one of the graduate student volunteers that helped out during commencement. After grading exams, teaching, securing funding, conducting research and finding time to write, graduate students are called on to help our fantastic staff today. When I volunteered during commencement, I selfishly went for the best job…the person who stands just behind and to the side of the esteemed chair of the department. This person hands the scrolls to the chair, but as I discovered, they have an extraordinary insight into the commencement ceremony.
What this person sees is your face as you achieve an epic win.
Jane McGonigal, famous game theorist, humanitarian and UC Berkeley PhD, class of 2006), describes an “epic win” as an “outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea that it was even possible and that when you achieve it you are shocked to discover that you are actually capable of such a thing.” The facial expression is singular: joy, fulfillment, attainment of a goal, perhaps a little bit of disbelief and shock.
After several years of basking in the glow of the achievements of both my fellow graduate students and the amazing anthropology undergrads I taught…now I get to join you.
But I have to admit that I am greedy. I want that job again. I am excited by the potential to enact change in the world, but moreso by the potential of seeing other people achieve their own aspirations.
Accordingly, my dissertation research was shaped by three principles: Participate. Make. Share.
In anthropology we learn about the breadth and diversity of human experience and in my sub-specialty in archaeology, we acquire knowledge about this human experience through material culture. Our education is one of discerning patterns and difference, specifically, we learn how to see. My advisor Ruth Tringham would surely protest–we learn about the past through all of our senses, she would say. We touch the edges of still-sharp obsidian, we smell the dank interiors of caves, we hear the rasp of dirt beneath our trowels and the dull and hollow rattle that marks a grave. Still, this experience, this way of seeing requires your attention and participation.
And that is the first principle that I learned during my studies at UC Berkeley–your full participation is required. No half-measures. Learn and live with both hands.
The second principle is to make things. This may seem like a strange imperative coming from an archaeologist–great, now we have even more material culture to study–but making mudbricks at the San Francisco Presidio on a particularly chilly morning, trying to get the straw-to water-to horsehair-to mud ratio correct, hefting them, slapping the bricks together into a wall, and watching the mudbricks melt in the ubiquitous Bay Area fog gave me particular, if unflattering insights into the early architecture of the colonizers in the area. Making ethnographic movies taught me how to watch regular movies…and commercials and Youtube clips. Always always try it yourself. As part of the outreach program mandatory for Berkeley archaeology graduate students, I developed this mudbrick-making into an exercise for 10-year-olds visiting the Presidio and saw them Get It–that elusive link to the past that we archaeologists take for granted.
This dovetails nicely into the final principle, which is to share. It is not enough to participate, it is not enough to make things, these things (and the insights gleaned from them) must be shared whenever possible. The default should be to share. The production of knowledge about humans is for everyone, and should be made available to everyone. Enter your ideas into the commons, publish your own book, and push to make academic journals open access. Though the process is terrifying as a junior academic, it is not only vital for the survival of our field, but imperative that we communicate our knowledge of the diversity of human experience in the face of suffering and violence enacted against alternate ways of life.
What I saw as I stood behind the chair of anthropology and what I am seeing today is the realization of years of effort that resulted in a fantastic, transcendent moment. What I ask of you today is to now work toward the next epic win. Participate, make things, and share.