This year it was my turn to deliver the commencement address to VCU Sociology’s graduating class. It is one of our largest classes ever. We graduated over 90 sociologists last night at our departmental ceremony.
I have no idea what to tell graduates. It seems like it should be wise and weighty, neither of which is exactly my jam. But I have one deal with my students: I do not lie to them. Ever. Now didn’t seem like the time to change that deal. So, I started with the truth. Ours is a terrible world. But then I did a little sociologying on the word terrible, on how language morphs for our political economy and how language, like societies, is never what it appears at first glance.
Here’s my address.
Congratulations graduates, with special love to some of my advisees: Regine, Shabana, and SOCY 607.
Hello family and friends of Sociologists
Happy Graduation Day!
And so here we are. You made it (the verdict is still out on your professors; I’ll check them for a pulse later).
And where is here exactly? Well, I’m afraid we owe you a bit of an apology for it seems we have bequeathed to you a terribly complex world. If you watch the news, as I’m sure you do as engaged citizens of the world, it is hard to fathom the scope of the challenges facing us. I watch the news on Twitter. Let’s see, just this morning according to my Twitter we had a constitutional crisis, maps of global weather changes that might end things like the annual dogwood festival, a wave of state bills that would gut civil liberties, a reinvigoration of the new Jim Crow system of mass incarceration and a planned reboot of the 1980s TV show Dallas. That’s just this morning.
By most accounts we seem to be graduating you into a pretty terrible world. But it’s a funny thing about language. It can sometimes be more complex than it appears at first glance as many of you well know from your class projects on content analysis and textual analysis and theory, right? In English terrible is pretty cut and dry. It means horrible, fear inducing. It shares a Latin root word with terrific and tremor – something so fear inducing and horrible that it can produce tremors in those who experience it. But the word originated to mean simply something great and in the French it is still mostly only understood in context as either something terribly good or terribly bad. Great, beyond our understanding, exceptional – we have too often come to understand these as things that we should fear. But I wonder if that doesn’t say more about us than it does about the word.
Regardless I think that this is the right word for the world we’re giving you – it is quite terrible. It is scary and vast. The problem are huge and deep and wide. Human progress is fragile and inconsistent. But also the world is terribly amazing. It is vast and exciting. It is deep and wide and huge with opportunity. Human progress sustains and is visible despite its fragility. The world is terrible and that is terribly good news.
I will tell you why I think it is good news. If we have done nothing else in our jobs of learning with you over the past four years or so, I hope that we have prepared you for terrible. That is I hope we have given you the skills and the faith and the imagination and commitment and the perseverance to navigate a complex, huge, wide, deep world that is amazing as it is fearful. Or perhaps more precisely what I hope we’ve given you is when you must decide whether something amazing should be feared or embraced, you don’t always choose fear. I hope we’ve given you the kind of confidence to choose to see terrible as great but not unconquerable, vast but not insurmountable, awe-inducing but not impervious to change.
On your journey I hope you’ll remember social theory. Yeah yeah yeah I know. It sucks. You all start that class with me or one of my colleagues and you’re terrified of it. I know because you tell me! It’s hard. It’s obtuse. It’s old. It’s complicated. But let me tell you in its simplest terms what social theory is: it is a way to understand the world. Just how terrible is it? For whom is it terrible. And, perhaps most useful, is knowing that just like you pick up one theory, one way of seeing the world, you can pick up another. You can see the world as an opportunist or you can see the world as an activist. The facts haven’t changed but when we change our theory, our eyes, our vision, we can see facts in a whole different way. We can see them as tools for building a new way of living and loving. Or, we can accept that the facts are what they are and can never be changed. In theory construction you learned that almost quite literally the world is what you make it. You make it and remake it every time you choose to look facts clearly in the eye and deliberately choose the lens with which you’ll interpret them. What a wonderful skill for a terrible world.
But we’re not delusional. We know some facts are bad no matter our lens. People hurt – and I use hurt as a verb, noun and adjective. Some people hurt for reasons beyond their control. Structure can limit our choices. Our choices can limit someone else’s. You know this because in social problems you learned that we are never an island. Everything we do, buy, consume, share, hoard, or inherit is a relationship with the world. What you learned with Dr. Katz and Jesse and from each other when you organized against sweatshop labor or raised awareness about debt peonage or went out into the community to work against gendered violence, you learned that no problem is self-evident. In small decisions – where we buy, what we buy, what we re-use, what we share – and big decisions – like how we vote, what we give our attention, what we starve of our attention – we can reshape terrible social problems into communities of action that make the world a little better and make our lives matter.
And to help us do that we have an impressive array of skills. In methods you surveyed them. Oh you moaned. You met me in the hallway and claimed methods and senior seminar was going to killlllllll you. But you didn’t die! Not only did you not keel over and die because you had to recode variables in SPSS but you created new knowledge. You left behind new ways of seeing the world for others to come after you to pick up and make better. You learned that the real work of changing the world and building sustainable, just societies can only happen if people look beyond the headlines. That’s what methods are fundamentally about: popping the hood, kicking the tires a little bit, seeing what makes this thing go. I overheard someone in the hallway recently discussing a news story about crime. We are living in the safest era of modern human kind but the headlines don’t always reflect that. Anyway this headline must have been about some explosion of some deviant act or another and a student said to another, “hmmm I want to see the original data before I believe that”. And that’s when I thought yep our job here is done. You know that there is power in knowing and to know something deeply is to see, touch and listen to the data and to the stories ourselves, to judge for ourselves what is happening. In methods you learned there is no problem so big, so complex, so contradictory so terrible that smart methods can’t bring some discipline to them. It is going to be a useful skill in a world where there is an abundance of information but a poverty of understanding and meaning. You know how to make meaning. What a wonderful skill for a terrible world.
You didn’t come to us empty vessels. You had the stuff. Your communities and families and churches and teachers and friends had poured love into you. And it wasn’t easy getting here. That love couldn’t give you the patience to struggle with learning hard new subjects. It couldn’t give you unlimited wealth so you didn’t have to work a job or two jobs. It didn’t give you a pass on life happening around – losing loved ones, caring for others, raising children, raising yourselves. But you did it. And in sitting here today you have demonstrated that you are more than ready to face down terrible. Because you have already done it. Here’s another little complexity. As it turns out, before you can be lifted up you have to be held down. You gotta have roots before you can use your wings. You are forever grounded in a community of love. You have learned how to lead in a community of practice. In class and in hallways and in your dorms and your groups, you’ve learned how to build communities of action. Your roots are sound. Now your wings get to do their thing.
So I feel good today. (I know you’re maybe a little queasy but graduation is about important things, not necessarily easy things, the nausea passes. I promises). But I feel good. You know how to see the world through the eyes of others, how to choose your vision, how to crack the hood of the stories people tell you and how to make sense of a complex world. Paired with your deep roots in families and communities and traditions you’re about to go out and make a world that we will never see. You’ll change it in ways we can not imagine. You will exceed all of us – your parents’ dreams, your ancestors’ sacrifices, the limits of our teaching, the poverty of our modeling. You’ll live beyond us and I love it. The world is vast, and great, and huge, and deep but so are you. I cannot imagine a better antidote for a terrible world.
Congratulations sociologists, the class of 2017. I may not be able to tell the future but I have known you so I know, in the words of contemporary social theorist Kendrick Lamar, that we gonna be alright.