By Greg Cohan
Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
On an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night, 175 seniors (and some sneaky underclassmen) came together in Johnson Chapel to watch the Senior Speakoff. As the name may or may not suggest, the Speakoff is the event in which seniors compete for the right, nay, the privilege, of speaking at Commencement and Senior Assembly.
I’m not sure how other people felt about the Speakoff, but I thought it was awesome. The speeches were thoughtful, hilarious, diverse, and honest. There were only five or ten moments where I felt the urge to crawl into a deep, dark hole until the awkwardness passed. Maybe it was just the whiskey I’d drunk beforehand, but it was the first time in a while that I felt a little like a part of The Class of 2014.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous. I wanted to be up there, too: addressing my classmates from a podium, standing in a building steeped in history, sharing all the niblets of wisdom I’ve tried (and failed) to accumulate over these four years. So I did what any other soccer-playing, mohawk-having, ice-cream-loving kid would do in my situation—I started to imagine what I would say in my own commencement speech.
This was, needless to say, a disaster. My first thought was to talk about the community at Amherst and how special it is, warts and all. That didn’t feel quite right, though—if this community really is so special, why do I regularly feel like it’s anything but? Maybe, I thought, I should go the other way and talk about my experience at Amherst being somewhat confusing and lonely. But that didn’t sit well, either. This is a commencement—a day for starting the next phase of our lives, not complaining about the one we just finished.
After a few more bad ideas (a dramatic retelling of Home Alone, a found poem of the Amherst Crime Log, etc.), I started to wonder what a commencement speech should even try to do. I didn’t seem to be alone in this confusion: many of the Speakoff speeches included some variation of “I wasn’t sure what to say,” or “I was searching for something to talk about.” So what is it about commencement speeches that brings out this uncertainty in us? I would never start a paper or an article like that—not just because it might be considered bad writing, but also because it doesn’t seem relevant. Somehow with commencement speeches, though, it makes sense. Of course you didn’t know what to say: no speech could do justice to the occasion.
One other part of the night also stuck with me. I overheard a bunch of people in the crowd say, “I wish I could vote for all of them.” Which strikes me as a totally reasonable desire. Every single speaker had meaningful experiences and ideas to share.
These repeated occurrences—the uncertainty of the speakers, and the desire of the audience to vote for everyone—left me with two questions about the whole Speakoff-Commencement-industrial complex. First, why just one speech? Of course, we also have two Senior Assembly speakers, which is cool. But should we stop there? As one contestant said, “I am the Class of 2014.” Indeed she is! But so are you (perhaps) and I, and so are the people who might try to understand their experience through humor, sadness, indignation, profundity, or anything in between. The Speakoff actually provides a great example of what’s possible when you let these different experiences speak: each mini-speech barely scratches the surface, but together they paint a relatively full and complex picture of Amherst. Why not have this at Commencement, too?
Second, why have a speech at all? We heard it from the speakers themselves—they struggled mightily to write their speeches. Why? I think in part because a speech may not be the right tool for the job. Speeches are clear, direct, accessible, and polished, and they usually have a message. My time at Amherst, on the other hand, has had exactly none of these qualities. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why then, in our last moment together as a community—the precise moment when we should be celebrating the truth of our experience—do we insist on trying to force it into a box that it has no business being put into? Why not use a medium that is more consonant with the message?
Instead of having a commencement speech, then, I think we should have a senior showcase. A handful of students could share anything that they feel captures a part of their experience—perhaps a poem, a film, a stand-up routine, a song, or even a speech. Students could be selected through a process similar to the Speakoff, or by an entirely different one. It doesn’t really matter—my point here is only that such a showcase is feasible. And not just feasible, but a much better way of spending a final Sunday afternoon at Amherst.
Why should we care to consider such an alternative? The speaker portion of Commencement lasts for maybe 30 or 40 minutes—and will probably have a negligible impact on your life (especially considering how mind-numbingly hungover you’ll probably be for its duration). That is, of course, unless you happened to be in Kenyon College’s class of 2005.
And yet, celebrating the truth of experience matters. Commencement is, to borrow a phrase from the same eminent philosopher who graced Kenyon’s 2005 graduation, kind of a big deal. Commencement sends a message about the world we’re leaving, the world we’re walking into, and the people we’re doing both with. The current message sent by the format of our commencement, which is that complex experiences can be neatly boxed and captured by a single voice, is misleading at best and harmful at worst. Amherst just spent four years teaching its seniors to explore the profundity that emerges when clarity breaks down and things are left open to interpretation. Why deprive us of that opportunity at exactly the moment when we may just need it the most?