Faculty remarks - Professor Brent Talbot

Welcome parents, administrators and staff, my faculty colleagues, and especially the Gettysburg class of 2017! Thank you, Provost Zappe, for the invitation to speak this afternoon.  Dean Sweezy’s description of your class is impressive – you represent the liberal arts well, as a strong collection of scholars, artists, seekers of social justice, and athletes. So here we find ourselves together, on this beautiful campus, on this meaningful day, starting OUR STORY together as the class of 2017!  Welcome to Gettysburg College! 

You have probably heard multiple times over the past year and throughout important markers in your life that: "YOU are part of a unique group," that "YOU are special," and that "YOU are the FUTURE!"  These types of narratives are common ones among high school commencement and college convocation speeches.  They are designed to build you up, show that you have accomplished feats that others could only dream of, and to motivate you to continue to DO GREAT WORK! These types of narratives--like all narratives--are powerful tools. They can inspire us, have the power to change us, make us consider differing perspectives, and open us to new values and beliefs, but they can also inhibit us, marginalize us, and fill us with fear and doubt.

Narratives are stories of who we are and who we want to be. At the core they are the discourse surrounding our lives, surrounding our identities, and they are powerfully shaped by the contexts, relationships, and activities in which we are most deeply invested.  Connelly and Clandinin (2006) are two researchers of narrative who have developed a methodology called narrative inquiry that I use regularly as a professor of education to analyze the meanings students create out of their learning.  They indicate that:

humans, individually and socially, lead storied lives. People shape their daily lives by stories of who they and others are and [we] interpret our past in terms of these stories.  Story...is a portal through which a person enters the world and by which [our] experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful.

So I invite everyone here to engage with inquiry into your own narratives.  To join me in an activity of identity exploration that I do with my first-year music education students.  Let's reflect on how YOU (parents, administrators, and faculty too) came to be here in THIS time, in THIS place, in THIS circumstance. What's YOUR story? Close your eyes.  Ask yourself, Why Gettysburg?  Ask yourself, "How did I get here, to this particular place, in this particular time?" "What were the circumstances that led me here today?" "Were the decisions that led me here entirely my own?" "Who helped me come to these decisions, who made these decisions for me? Everyone has a story to share. You and your family have probably developed a story you've shared countless times already with family friends, teachers, and members of the Gettysburg College community.  One that almost feels like a script now.  I will share a story of a former student of mine as an example and I encourage you to explore yours in journals, with your advisors, roommates, and new found friends over the upcoming weeks.

Jeff--not his real name--was the son of a preacher and a school teacher.  He was the oldest of five and had a beautiful voice.  He played piano, organ, and guitar, and performed music during most of the Sunday services.  As the oldest child, Jeff had lots of experience helping herd young people and organize activities, so naturally when he became old enough he was selected to be a Sunday school teacher and a counselor at summer camp. When it was time to consider where to go to college and what to major in, Jeff told me that his family and church community encouraged him to become a music teacher. "You are so good with children and you love music, you'd be great at it," they told him.

After going through this exercise of identity exploration in our class, Jeff emailed me four hours later, telling me he had been unable to think about anything else since class and was stressed out about it all.  I happened to be working late, like most of us do here, and told him to come to my office.  Jeff told me he realized that becoming a music teacher was not HIS story, that it was everyone else's for him. He told me that he certainly loved performing and did love working with children, but that this part of his identity had been partially created by the needs and desires of others. See, that's the interesting thing about identity.  It is both shaped by how you see yourself as well as how others see you. You begin to make decisions because others expect you to do something, to behave a certain way, to enter a certain profession. Others project identities and futures on you. So let's return to the reflection part and ask yourself, "Who am I?" "Are the activities I engage in, the things that define me or is there more than that?"  Without others influencing your decisions and behaviors, who would you ACTUALLY be, who would you want to become?  How would you actually behave? In what activities would you actually engage? What are the things you love most?

See, one of the things that makes us human is our ability to draw upon our pasts to imagine a future for ourself and for others.  Michael Cole (2003) is a cultural psychologist who has posited a theory of cultural development around this idea of projecting futures and identities. He uses the event of childbirth to illustrate this cultural phenomenon. For example, when a child enters the world, their parents in a particular cultural context may hold their baby and imagine what life will be like when the child learns to talk, crawl, go through puberty, have children of their own. They may have projected where they'll attend college by saying, "We are a football loving family, your grandfather went to State, your mom and I met there, you'll love watching the games every Saturday, someday you'll be a Wildcat." Parents often project careers as well, "My father was a businessman, your daddy and I are in the business, it's in your blood."  They may even project masculinity or gender identification onto a child by putting a baseball glove in a crib or dressing the child in blue if its a boy. They may also project a sexuality on the child by describing the child as a “lady killer,” even though the child may come to desire men instead.  Michael Cole uses parents to show this, but we can't blame our parents for everything, WE are participating members of OUR OWN lives, and so are our FRIENDS, and so are our TEACHERS, and so are many others.

Many times along our journey we are faced with moments where we realize that the future we have been following may not be the one that matches our desires of who we want to be.  Like Jeff, we may realize the decisions we made to get to this place, this time, this circumstance were not entirely our own and are leading us in a direction we would like to change. This requires a disruption to the stories that we are telling ourselves and the ones that are being told about us.  A disruption to our future projected narrative. 

So let's not tell our young people, YOU are the FUTURE. This is dismissive of your participation NOW.  It indicates that your time, place, and circumstance is not now, but somewhere in the future and that you are here now to get ready for that future.  I think that is hogwash, we desperately need the participation of young people NOW.  This is YOUR time, YOUR place, YOUR circumstance.  We need YOUR ideas, YOUR action, and YOUR participation.  We need you to become agents of change, to shape OUR world.  Now the cool thing is, that if you want it, you have the power to make changes, here and now, at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, you have the space and freedom to explore all that you are and all that you aim to be. 

You have AGENCY and CHOICE to engage, and I know that my colleagues will join me in saying, you need to make choices that challenge you, that take you out of your comfort zone, that embrace DIVERSITY, EQUITY, & INCLUSION.  If you truly want to free yourself, to forge an identity that is strong in character, one that balances mind, body, and spirit, one that embraces multiple perspectives, that is responsive to our time, to our place, and to our circumstances as a campus, as a community in South-Central Pennsylvania, as citizens of the United States, as members of the human race, as beings who impact our planet, then you need to put yourself in other people's shoes, in places where you are an other, where your cultural beliefs and your identities may be challenged.

There are plenty of opportunities through the Center for Public Service on campus, do an immersion project or service with our community partners, get involved with eRace, Allies, and a number of other organizations. I encourage you to sign up for a semester abroad or to take a class overseas like the one I taught in Bali, Indonesia this summer on language, culture, immigration, and music.  It is in those moments that we learn who we really are, and are reminded of the importance of how we choose to share our time together and how we create our community, our family, our school.  In Bali, we experienced how time is not a single entity, but rather part of a relationship between place and circumstance.  This perspective--shaped by our many immersive experiences --provided us new insight into our own social and cultural expectations of how we construct time, what we call home, where we place value, and how we create meaning. It ultimately led to a gift of transformation of self and group.  And I think it is best captured in a journal entry by Rachel Grande of the class of 2016 who joined me in Bali this summer.  So in closing, here is her narrative, listen for markers of how she was faced with understanding her culture, her identity, and how she was transformed by experience. How she learned the value of surrounding yourself with positivity, of having a supportive community to which you contribute, and about giving yourself the gift of time.

Rachel Grande Class of 2016
Tuesday, July 16th

"I feel so grateful that we were able to work with people in the village of Banjar Wani. Hanging around eternally optimistic people makes me feel like anything is possible. 

There have been many transformative aspects of our time in Bali, but one of the most eye-opening things that I have noticed is the lack of selfishness--there is no sense of "I", as everything revolves around community and how you fit into the larger puzzle.  It is certainly going to be hard to maintain this group mentality when we head home to the land of individuality, but it was nice to experience a more communal way of life for a little while. It felt comforting to know that I was never alone in what I was doing, or how I was feeling. 

I am also going to miss the lack of timekeeping.  I notice when we stop worrying about scheduling how many things we can fit into a day, we get the opportunity to live each blissful moment as it comes--life is so much more pleasant this way.

I have learned so much during my time in Bali, I couldn't possibly recount all of it here.  However, I think that the one thing I will always retain from this adventure is that the world is a better place when we all explore how and strive to be the best versions of ourselves."