Yet another graduation yesterday. A very nice one, actually: beautiful weather and some unusually good speeches. Jonathan Franzen was brief but both funny and slyly profound. Our president gave (for him) an unusually pointed speech as well about the dangers of “moral absolutism”.
I can’t be the only faculty person who finds graduation both moving and depressing all at once. I actually like going every year, and hate to miss it. It’s often very enjoyable to meet the parents of students you’ve taught. But it’s also a strange sensation, as you hear about what the new graduates are planning on doing, and often also hear about what older graduates are doing now (as many of them tend to show up at this time of year). It’s a bit like the vertigo you get when you’re sitting still but watching visual images of rapid movement, like at an IMAX theater. In the end, at a place this size, you don’t really teach that many people from the beginning of your career to the end. I’d estimate that in each graduating class here, there are about fifty students that I know moderately well, and perhaps ten of those I’d hear from in the future about what they’re doing and have some sense of engagement with their future. That’s really not too many people. If teaching well requires some sense of “outcomes”, then it’s a pretty small basis for evaluating that.
On the other side of things, though, I’m still very clear about the positive outcome of a number of my undergraduate courses and the teaching that went into them. I still think back often to a course on the methodological problems involved in studying the history of “subject peoples”, taught by Ann Wightman. (The particularly curious thing about that course is that there were a number of other future Africanist historians in it that year, and I think we all remember it as a particularly formative experience.) There are courses that had a huge impact on me that don’t feed as directly into my professional life, even a few from high school, especially a summer session I did on the East Coast.
But that sense that lives are flowing around you and past you, that you’re a rock in the middle of a stream, slowly getting worn down by the passing of years, is both pleasing and melancholic. Graduation somehow crystallizes that sense for me every year.