Comments for the SUB Anniversary, March 20, 2015

The following speech was given on SUB's 43rd anniversary and is published with the author's permission. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. On this International Day of Happiness, it is indeed a pleasure to see everyone so dressed up, embracing the opportunity to spend time with friends, eat good food in good company. Of such evenings is happiness made, and it’s nice to be a part of it.

When thinking about what to say tonight, I found myself reading American commencement addresses, where famous people are invited to impart their wisdom to a flock of eager graduates. Some of the speeches I read were truly moving. Bill Gates offered Stanford graduates this advice:

Be optimistic, and use your optimism to change the world Be flexible of mind Be open to change Embrace the new

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, said this to graduates of Barnard College, an all-female school:

Think big Don’t underestimate yourself What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a part of me which loves slogans like these, and I even have a few tacked to the bulletin board in my office. The question about what I would do if I weren’t afraid resonates powerfully with me, as I’ve had to teach myself, slowly over the years, to do things even though I was afraid.

Speak in public, for example. I still remember my first ever college class as a teacher. I was so nervous I dismissed the class after taking attendance and giving them their first homework assignment. Already the second class was easier and now, thirty years later, I only rarely get nervous before a class, mostly when I feel unprepared. And some public speaking engagements I positively look forward to, like the opportunity to recite poetry.

I see this fear of public speaking in some of you. Someone with an intelligent question gleaming in their eyes, but whose lips are sealed shut. Someone who can share ideas in a smaller group, but who wouldn’t dare to speak to the larger. A few years ago, I taught a course where students did independent study projects, which they presented to the class. The people listening were asked to write down questions on these reports, which were then handed in. During the limited time available for discussing the reports, it was mainly the boys who asked questions, with many of the girls remaining silent. But some of the most interesting and insightful questions which had been handed in were written by two women who never once asked them aloud.

Today there is beginning to be technology to allow “shyer” students to respond anonymously, programs like FLINGA and PRESEMO, which I’ve experimented with in Brit Lit I. And I think these programs are valuable, for they do allow classes to reach a higher level of discussion precisely by including the ideas of people who might not otherwise be able to voice them.

Classes suffer, society suffers, if some people feel freer to speak than others. Last fall I taught for the first time a course called “Drama in Language Teaching,” where we talked at length about ways of including students who feel less comfortable performing in front of others. Some felt that students need to be forced to speak, while others thought that accommodation was humane, and necessary. That was a course where nearly everybody seemed to want to talk, all the time. I once taught a course on British and American Drama where a person I was really looking forward to having in the course dropped out after the first session, because the course included a brief acting exercise and having to perform in public was a deal-breaker for her. That was a course where I saw many students, both male and female, confront and overcome their fears of public speaking. I still remember their performances with pleasure.

While some of us have personal fears to overcome, I worry also that we also live in a world where men’s voices are more valued than women’s. I think this makes it harder for everyone to speak. Even in some of our classes, I’ve seen students—male and female—responding more to what a boy has said, to seem to listen more carefully when a boy is speaking. In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg tells of meetings where men continuously interrupted each other, but when a woman did so she was told to wait until he finished speaking.

As foreign language professionals, one of your jobs one day might be to make other voices heard, not just your own. Some of you will become teachers, wrestling no doubt with some of these same issues, along with more mundane things like pronunciation. Some of you will become translators, worrying about the nuances of meaning, persuasion, rhetoric. All of you will be required to market yourselves in order to get a job, and make a good impression during a job interview.

So I think ultimately it’s not that people are afraid to dream big, or be optimistic, or be flexible and open to change, but that they’re afraid to speak those dreams out loud, to share them with the people who might help them make those dreams come true. As a society, we need everybody’s voice, everybody’s wisdom, everybody’s point of view. You are all special, you all have so much to contribute to the discussion. My wish for all of you is that you would learn to speak as if you were unafraid.

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