Graduation speech: University is a spacious house

Below is the speech I gave during my graduation ceremony – I was asked to thank the university on behalf of my fellow graduates.

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Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, university staff, distinguished guests, friends, family, and of course, fellow graduates, good afternoon.

I’m here, as our ceremony nears its end, to affirm all that has been said, and to say it again: congratulations, well done, we’ve made it to the end of our degrees.

To speak on behalf of so many, diverse human beings, is a daunting task; university is spacious house, home to many different people engaged in many different projects. I simply can’t cover all that goes on within Victoria’s walls, so what I’m going to do is talk about two key projects taking place within the university, and express my deep gratitude for both.

Firstly, thank you for being a House of Preparation. Or as it is sometimes said, ‘preparing us for the real world’. You know, thank you for all those transferable skills, for that industry-relevant training, for all that now sits proudly on my CV… Thank you for the opportunity to gain the sorts of achievements rattled off in my introduction, which allow me to enter into certain parts of society that I’d otherwise find difficult.

Early in my first year, I accidentally attended a meeting for Melanesian students – as the only Palangi in the room, I felt deeply out of place, yet I stayed and listened to everyone share why they had come to Victoria, and what they were hoping to get out of their time here: Many were international students, who would return to their home countries, to be greeted by expectations of leadership. They were to become lawyers, politicians, and teachers – they knew the importance of receiving practical outcomes from their study here.

My impression was, that for these students, university was to be a house of preparation. A place to come and get ready for what’s next. Perhaps some of you here today feel the same way. Perhaps these past however many years of working towards your degree were simply preparing you for your next step. You know, the nursing degree so you can nurse, the music degree so you can make music, the theater degree so you can perform theater.

The second project, is, in all honesty a lot closer to my own heart. Thank you for being a House of Critique. University is not only interested in preparing us for ‘the real world’, it’s also a space set apart to critique this ‘real world’.

I wasn’t immediately aware of this critical function, but it’s certainly there. By law, all of New Zealand’s universities are tasked with being the ‘critic and conscience of society’. These might sound like lofty words, but there they are, sturdy in the university’s legal bones.

I’ve spent much of the past three years getting all caught up in this second project of critique. Personally, that’s often meant going down to level zero of the library building; where I can find dense books of philosophical wisdom hidden amongst the piping. I’m thankful that Said, Butler, Marx, and Hegel are now all tangled up with my own thoughts, forever changing the way I think and act.

For me, a world without critical thought is a dark place. Unless we are content with all that surrounds us, we are in need of critical questioning and reflection. Quite simply, society needs some voices of discontent.

Finally, neither of these projects would be possible without support from those outside of the university. All of our thinking and learning takes place within a wider community of support: our parents, our loved-ones, our favourite study spaces, our friends, the places and people we spend our down-time with, and share our thoughts with. Thank you to you all.

So: we celebrate the gift the university has been to each of us, whatever shape this taken. If you’re well prepared and moving on to what’s next, I want to wish you all the best. And if you’re all set up and ready to critique – I want to encourage you to persevere. Thank you.

You can view my speech here

Love’s third

When it’s you and I, sitting across from each other, is there another in the room? When it’s you and I, does ‘you’ and ‘I’ provide an exhaustive account of ‘us’? Or is there a third term also?

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In the film Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, María Elena, reappears in his life after a suicide attempt. Juan Antonio is seeing another woman. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena still feel strongly for one another, yet they both acknowledge that the love between them simply doesn’t work. Merely trying again seems futile and yet alone Maria Elena is deathly depressed. In addition to all this, there is the complication of Juan Antonio’s new woman. Maria Elena suggests an alternative set up: the introduction of a third person, to fix the dynamic between the two.

While Juan Antonio and Maria Elena were hopeless together, perhaps with this other woman involved they will be able to find some balance in their love… In the film this set-up works and harmony is indeed found, until the other woman decides to leave. And Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are returned again to their origin impasse. It’s a Woody Allen film, so, of course, the moment of impasse is precisely where it ends.

But I want to push a little further, through Vicky, Christina, Barcelona’s impasse.

M and A

While not advocating for the introduction of a third human, I think there is something worth lingering on in this desire for a third element in love. I have a couple of different ways that I find helpful to think about this third element.

Through Albert Wendt’s writing I was introduced to the Samoan concept of va. ‘Va’ designates the space in-between; the space in-between concepts, things, people, cultures ect. This in-betweeness is not empty space, not a painful void, not a problem to be overcome. Rather, it is space that relates – one to another.  And because this in-between space is not empty, but instead has positive content, it gets a name: va.

So in any relationship of two, there is always already three: me, you, and our va. And just like the other two terms this can be in good shape or out of whack. Our va will have a character of its own, but it will also require some work from us. Sometimes we can mess it up, and sometimes we can make better. Wendt, of course, does a much better job of explaining this concept here.

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Albert Wendt

Wendt describes va as space which ‘relates and separates’. I began thinking about this concept of va again this week when I heard someone use the very same phrase – ‘relates and separates’ – to describe political theorist Hannah Arendt’s concept of power. Arendt understands power as something that lies between people. For her power is a sort of bond of in-betweenness that holds people together and gives direction to their action.

Hannah Arendt

I’m sure there’s important differences between the concept of va and Arendt’s power. But I think perhaps they both point towards a similar idea: that when there is two, maybe there is really already three.

 

Coming out fluent

This isn’t my own story, but the owner – who you might recognise – has kindly let me tell it. Besides the particular details, I think the general problem is one we all share. So in a sense this is a very particular story, and in another sense a very general one.

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From one to five, he dwelt in the English language. Beginning at zero, and with zero, he had learnt enough of English to be fluent in his five-year-old world. When it was necessary to, he would leave his beloved world of books – where much of his English words were learnt – and happily communicate. When addressed, he could reply. Sure, there were more words to learn, more books to read, but in English he was pretty comfortable.

Then he and his family took a trip to France, for six months. In this new language, he found himself back at zero again. But this time with the sharp recognition of being at zero. And with the even sharper recognition that others were ahead; others already knew this language as well as he knew his friendly English.

So after a few futile attempts, which only served to publicly reveal his being zero in French, he took up silence.

For those six months, the big people around him looked on hoping he would give French another try, hoping he would find himself a francophone voice, just like his English one. But nope, not a French word passed his lips. French just wasn’t for him, his teacher thought, and any how they would be home soon, the boy would be back in his comfortable English, it wasn’t too long really.

Yet to their surprise, just as their stay was coming to its end, this boy who had been mute all along, started speaking French… In fact, he was almost fluent! While others thought he had given up, in his silent retreat he had really been secretly teaching himself French. A most private pursuit; he had hidden the steps one, two, three, four, and arrived publicly at five: he had wanted to come out fluent.

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And are we not all the same? Hiding our learning away and presenting ourselves with an impossible spontaneous fluency? Regardless of our attempts to hide it, we all must start with our own incompetence. Private or shared – we all begin at zero.

 

Those who do recognise the story, will also recognise that much artistic licence has been taken!