As my literary interests expanded, I learned that Scott Momaday, the first Native American novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, is an English Department graduate; that Leslie Marmon Silko, considered by many the most influential contemporary Native American fiction writer, holds a BA from this department; that Paula Gunn Allen, whose book THE SACRED HOOP, with its confluence of Feminist theory and Native American aesthetics, educated a generation of us, earned a PHD from UNM.
The tradition of creativity and accomplishment from graduates of this department continues in the present. Recently I served on Cynthia Segura’s dissertation committee. She wrote a cutting-edge study of poetry in computer languages. Cynthia went on to earn a second PHD in Computer Science, joined the State Department, and, this coming week, will be posted to Sidney, Australia.
You who are graduating today are borne along by a great tradition. Your predecessor-alumni have established a tremendous tide of success.
Theirs is not the only great tradition from which you benefit. Some years ago, at an MLA convention in New York, I listened to a panel on “Transformations of the Bildungsroman in Contemporary Literature.” (doesn’t that sound like a title English professors would create?) The first paper, by Carlota Cardenas de Dwyer of the University of Texas, began by asserting, “For millions of young Americans, Bless Me Ultima is a more significant reading experience than Oliver Twist.”
Imagine my response as a confident young specialist in British Victorian literature!
That tradition of faculty scholarship and productivity in this department continues in the present. Were I to begin to list the accomplishments of your English professors, I would far exceed the time I am allotted (Not to mention that I would almost certainly forget someone, who might be sitting behind me at this moment) .
You graduates have been prepared for today by the latest in a tide of important scholars, critics, theorists, and writers. I can speak this boast because I am IN the English Department, but not OF it. Your professors are barred by modesty and academic tradition from such boasting. No modesty need restrain my expression of their remarkable work.
During these days you are no doubt hearing many declarations about your brilliant futures and your potential to transform our society, to rejuvenate its institutions, and to solve its problems. But I am a professor of Victorian literature, and so you won’t be surprised to hear very different messages from me!
First, I want to convey to you a burden of guilt. You have so much to live up to, both to justify your place in the flow of your predecessors and to pass on the UNM tradition to those who follow.
Second, I wish to generate in you a sense of obligation. You owe so much to those who have trained you in your field and to those, sitting behind you, who have supported you, encouraged you, and paid the bills.
As a Victorianist, I am thinking now of another quotation. In “Ulysses,” Tennyson writes, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravelled world….”
Your “tide” has brought you to that arch, at the entrance to that untravelled world (the first benefit of my retirement is the freedom to mix my metaphors, as I just did, with no fear of reproach from my colleagues). Since I am retiring, I stand with you in that arch. While I bequeath to you those Victorian gifts of guilt and obligation, I do have three other gifts for you:
1. My respect—it has been wonderful to spend these ten years with UNM students. You have taught me the justice of this state’s claim to diversity. You have delighted me with your intelligence, your curiosity, and your politeness, after years of more hard-edged, cynical students from the Northeastern cities.
2. My gratitude. I have learned so much from you—in discussions, conferences, papers, MA and PHD committees (Imagine how much I had to learn to work with a study of poetry in computer languages!)
3. And one other gift. I look out today at many familiar faces. I recall the many students I have admired here in the UNM English Department. And now I approach the most dangerous moment of this talk. It is always dangerous for an aging Victorian to become emotional, but the moment cannot be avoided. In addition to my respect and my thanks, you will carry through that arch, wherever your tide takes you, MY LOVE