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Karen Brennan's Convocation Remarks

By Karen Brennan on June 1, 2015 1:15 PM


Several weeks ago, at the end of term, I was looking for a gift for the five teaching fellows of my spring course. It's a somewhat reading-intensive course, and all five TFs are very passionate readers, so I decided to get them a book. Perhaps not the most creative gift, but it was heartfelt.

I selected one of my favorites — Paulo Freire's Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. I thought I should re-read it, to make sure that it was a good selection. I did. It was. It's a beautiful text.

As I was reading, there was a passage that lingered with me and came to me again as I was preparing for today. So as a way of framing my remarks, I wanted to share the passage with you.

He wrote:

Throughout my life I have never lost anything by exposing myself and my feelings, obviously within certain limits. . . . I believe the best course of action is to face up to one's feelings. . . . The best is to tell, in a demonstration of being human and limited, how one feels at the time.

Inspired by these words, when I thought of all the things that I might say to you today, I thought it best, dear graduates, to tell you how I feel about you. I will do this in 10 minutes, and in three parts. First, I will begin with a confession. Next, I will share a realization. And, finally, I will end with a construction.

First, the confession.

It was not so long ago that I made the transition from graduate student to faculty member. As Bridget mentioned, I completed my PhD at MIT, and my very last day as a graduate student was October 31, 2012.

On this final day, I had to do three things. First, I had to go find my advisor, Mitch. He had to sign something. Next, I had to bring a physical copy of my dissertation to the head administrator of our academic unit. Finally, I had to bring something to the library. I don't remember what. It clearly was not important.

I march into my adviser's office, dissertation in hand. I am so proud of myself. I'm feeling very pleased with myself. I sit down in this chair that I've sat in for what feels like thousands of times over the past five years. He signs what he needs to sign. And then there's this moment. This pause.

And out of nowhere, seemingly, I am struck by intense feeling.

I don't cry much, but I start crying. I've been working with my advisor for five years, and I don't think he's ever seen me cry. These aren't lovely, dainty tears. I am bawling. It is full-on ugly crying. I'm yelling at myself in my head to stop crying. There's no crying at MIT! MIT can be a bit macho — I say that with all the love in my heart.

But I was so overwhelmed. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. I was grateful to my adviser. I was grateful to the members of my research group. I was grateful to everyone at the Media Lab. I was grateful for all of the amazing opportunities I'd had over the years. And, very fundamentally, for how changed I felt by the place, by MIT.

And so, I dare to look at my adviser — and he looks a bit sheepish. And, in this moment, I don't understand the expression on his face.

But silently, calmly, he passes me a box of tissues. I take a few tissues. I compose myself. And with what very little remains of my dignity, I thank him and I continue along with the rest of my day.  

This leads us to part two: the realization.

Let's fast-forward just a little bit. It's now May 2013. I've been here as a faculty member at HGSE for several months. I have an amazing group of advisees. Everyone here, as you well know, is absolutely wonderful. I'm incredibly happy.

It is the week before graduation, two years ago, and I find myself in my office with one my advisees.

She comes in. She sits down. And she starts sobbing.

She's thanking me. She's thanking her friends. She's thanking the program. She's thanking HGSE. She's talking about how changed she feels by this place.

I reach for the box of tissues on my side table. I hold them out and I feel this sheepish expression forming on my face.

In this moment, I have an intense feeling of déjà vu, followed by a realization. It is this realization that I wanted to share with you today.

Full disclosure: this is probably something you already know. In fact, I hope you already know. But I think it's so important that it's worth repeating, stating explicitly.

Yes, maybe you're feeling this gratitude. But I needed you to know that whatever gratitude you might be feeling is reciprocated.

You might feel changed by this place. But you changed this place.

You are the heart and soul of this place. You inspire us. You energize us. You help us be better.

You change us.

Finally, part three: the construction.

After this student left my office, I felt an urgency to capture this idea, this understanding — this notion of being changed and changing others, changing the world around you. I didn't want to lose it.

So I rummaged around on my desk and I found an index card and a pen. I wrote myself a note and I tucked the note into my desk drawer.

As I was preparing for today, I was looking at this note and I wondered: What do you want to hold on to? Could we use some of this time here today to help you hold on to that? What is that idea, what is that feeling that you want to take away with you, whether you've been here for hours, as a family member or friend, or for months, or for years?

This is somewhat unorthodox for convocation, but I figure I only get to do this once. Go big or go home! So we're going to try to do this — we're going to inject an activity into convocation. (You didn't think you were going to get me up here and just talk at you for ten minutes, did you?)

Everyone here will create something to hold on to.

Now you're probably wondering how this is going to work, and that's a very reasonable question.

Like I had, I'm going to give you an index card and a pen. You'll have two minutes to create this note to yourself.  Maybe it's a word. Maybe it's a drawing or a sketch. Maybe it's a phrase or a quote.

You don't have to do this on your own. You can work with your neighbor, that's totally fine. And if you can't think of anything right now, that's also fine. Just treat it as a space for reflection.

When you're done, this note is yours to hold on to, to tuck away, to later rediscover. If you'd like to share it with others, take a photo of it. Post it on Twitter or Facebook. Use the hashtag #HGSE15.

When the two minutes are over, I'll make an announcement.

If you're wondering, we've taped an envelope under your chair.

I wanted to end by sharing with you what I wrote on my index card two years ago. It is as apt today as when I wrote it then. At the time, I was obsessed with the French author Albert Camus. I was reading his personal notebooks.

On the index card, I wrote a single line from that text.

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them
. . . they could perceive what they have made of us.

Graduates — thank you so much for everything. It has been an honor learning with you and from you. I wish you every happiness and success.

Congratulations.