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Earl Lewis's Speech at the 2013 ASE Commencement

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"Getting It Wrong"
University of Minnesota 2013 Graduate School Commencement Address

Good afternoon. Regents, deans, faculty, staff, alumni, family members and friends of the graduates, and graduates, it is a pleasure to be standing before you as this year's commencement speaker. Nearly thirty years ago I finished my dissertation at the University of Minnesota; it was December 1984 and I had a job and a new wife and it was winter, so I didn't stick around for the ceremony. I was determined to get to California and Berkeley as fast as possible. At that time I had no way of knowing the twists and turns ahead; nor did I know what I was missing by forgoing this ceremony. Few of my peers participated, no one in my immediate family had earned more than a bachelors degree, and my mentors gave me much sage advice but not about graduation. They, like me, delighted in the fact I had a job. So instead of marching, I and Jayne London, my wife at the time, loaded up our recently purchased Honda Accord, picked up our friend John Campbell, whom we were transporting to his family home in Ames, and commenced a multiday travel course west. A van had picked up our meager household possessions and we had a date to rendezvous in Emeryville.

Years later as I served as dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan, and as such hooded hundreds of students over seven and a half years, and then hooded nearly as many as provost at Emory for eight and a half years, I came to fully comprehend and appreciate the significance of these ceremonial pauses in the rhythm of academic life. The pomp and circumstance harkens back to the medieval roots of our efforts, and they mark a moment of symbolic transition--those of you who have completed your doctorates entered as apprentices, and not only have you now earned the highest degree bestowed by the academy, but you are now members of the guild. So before I do anything else, I would ask all in attendance to join me in saluting the graduates before you. They have earned our highest admiration because it was neither easy nor always certain but they have not only endured, they have achieved. Few others can make that claim.

I also know no one earns a doctorate or masters degree alone. So graduates, will you please stand. Now please applaud, and, by doing so, acknowledge and thank those parents, spouses, partners, friends, children, mentors, colleagues and supporters that assisted you in reaching this point.

In preparation for this talk I spent a little time going over the range of topics you have studied and the contributions you have made. This is what I discovered after sampling a few dissertations drawn from a list of those among you who earned fellowships. You are skilled in the humanities and arts, social, physical and biomedical sciences, engineering, agriculture, and a wide range of interdisciplinary fields. You are inclined to tackle large questions, be they about the use of big data, the modernizing of transportation systems in large metropolitan areas, or the different expressions of sexuality in what many would consider conservative societies. You want to know how the brain works, how children develop, and the ways in which the rule of law enhances civil society, allows for markets to work, and ensures a level of political stability. Of course there are themes that emerge that require a specialist's retranslation. So forgive me in advance for my somewhat clumsy shorthand, but I also discovered that some of you wanted to know the effects of war, how cells reproduce and how we may regulate them; you sought to understand the imponderables, such as avarice, greed and lust, or beauty, peace and love. Whether concerned with nanotechnology, circuitry, information systems or learning outcomes, you were all interested in some aspect of the human condition and the human experience.

As I reviewed this year's collection of dissertation topics, I found myself wondering: how many of you got it wrong before you got it right? How many of you had a hypothesis that the first set of experiments failed to validate or support? How many of you drafted a dissertation prospectus that your committee said was overly ambitious, and as a result produced a dissertation that looked quite different from what you imagined at the outset? How many of you went to the archives and found that you couldn't fully answer some of the questions you had hoped to? How many of you drafted chapters only to have your committee members send them back with more questions and suggestions than you desired? How many of you wrote a different dissertation than the one you first intended? How many of you sensed some degree of failure before you sensed success?

I ask these questions because if there is one thing I have learned over the last three decades is the importance of mastering failure as well as success. Now I am standing before you because if someone were to construct a balance sheet, on the whole, I had more success than failure. But I would be lying if I said I have never known failure. As a graduate student, I had my share of setbacks. Back then I knew exactly how many Minnesota winters, I, a kid from coastal Virginia, could tolerate. I had gone to undergraduate school in the state, so once I enrolled in the grad program, completed my masters and decided to earn a doctorate, I gave myself six years in total to finish. Twice the history department nominated me for the top dissertation fellowship, and twice I was denied. The last time it came with the memorable line: "others made more compelling claims." And, with time, I became more convinced that was undoubtedly true. But back then I had to figure out how to move forward minus the support I so wanted and needed. I had worked two jobs throughout much of graduate school, so I knew there were other paths. After a moment of rejection and dejection, I regrouped, took out a loan, borrowed some money from friends, earned a smaller fellowship and stayed on schedule. The next year, as I was writing, and teaching a couple of courses because of a faculty leave, I received a call from the CLA dean asking me to expand my teaching load. After consultation with my mentors, I agreed to do so. My final year, I wrote a dissertation, went on the job market, and taught five courses. Getting it wrong or failing in one domain by not earning the most coveted fellowship made me an attractive candidate in another domain, because by then I could more expertly explain my work and I had significant teaching experience. UC Berkeley offered me a tenure track job, which I deferred until December, after I had completed the entire dissertation. (I should note parenthetically the history department and the university found money for me that last term and it didn't require me to teach. It made a real difference.)

I relate this personal story not to celebrate me but rather to remind you as you prepare to continue your studies, enter postdoctoral appointments, assume faculty or teaching assignments or enter business of one kind or another, along the way you will get it wrong at some point, you may fail or you will deal with someone who has gotten it wrong. How will you deal?

Now there are obviously different ways of getting it wrong. For example, neither the academy nor private sector welcomes ethical lapses. The falsifying of data, intentional misrepresentation, theft, and other egregious acts can bring rebuke, termination and ostracism. What follows is a kind of social death, one that is impossible to recover from in many instances. Make sure you never get it wrong in that way.

But it is possible to get it wrong in other ways, and in doing so make a real contribution. After all research and teaching are advanced through new breakthroughs and discoveries; by showing earlier efforts were incomplete or incorrect. Let's take a look at two areas briefly. The first is leadership and the second is pedagogy.

One of the most remarkable developments I've seen in academia in the last few months is the number of faculty who took or threatened to take no-confidence votes in their campus leaders. A partial list of schools since the fall includes UND, Rutgers, NYU, St. Louis University, University of San Diego, Rollins College, Pasadena City College, and Emory University. I don't pretend to know the details in most cases or whether the actions warranted the response. I am more interested in what such expressions reveal at this moment. With scholars, journalists and pundits all predicting a transformation of American higher education in the near term, everyone is anxious.

Coming out of World War II a broad compact emerged between universities and colleges and the broader society, a compact that has changed in the last decade or two. From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, states pledged to use tax dollars to support public institutions; in return tuitions were kept reasonably low and an ever-expanding cross section of Americans received a college education--with college attainment rates going from 6.2 percent in 1950 to 16.2 percent by 1980 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau--A Half-Century of Learning, Table 2). Starting in the late '70s, beginning in California with Prop 13 and spreading across the country, states backed away from covering increasing costs, and over time more and more of the responsibility for financing education shifted from taxpayers to students and families, with tuition becoming an ever larger proportion of the revenue pie for most institutions.

Fast forward to today, and hardly a week goes by without someone asking "Can American higher education endure?" Mind you there are more than 7000 postsecondary institutions in the U.S. and the ecosystem is highly stratified. Nonetheless the questions persist. Most notably we are asked: Will some low-cost alternative upset the current business of higher education and drive current frontrunners out of existence? Not likely. Harvard, Princeton and Yale have a market niche that will allow them to survive well into the future; the same can be said for Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Carleton.

But if we return to the list of schools previously mentioned, I think there is every reason to believe that some among them could be adversely affected by the advent of online education and a new system of credentialing. In your spare time peruse the site for the Minerva Project, backed by venture capital, it proposes to offer an Ivy League quality education, online, for half of today's costs. If realized that's a game changer. Perhaps this is why my former colleagues at Emory seem so unforgiving of President James Wagner's admitted mistake in an article he penned for the institution's alumni magazine--they are feeling anxious and insecure about the present and the future. Jim sought to make a point about the importance of compromise in a democratic society. He used the example of the 3/5th compromise without discussing its instantiation of slavery. A failure to be sure; one he has apologized for repeatedly. Jim's a material sciences engineer, and not an historian. He got the facts correct and the context wrong. In a community of scholars who understand that failure is a part of the scholarly enterprise, one wonders why this issue and this example inflamed sensibilities so greatly and why so many have been unwilling or unable to let it go.

Of course the danger is that leaders will shy away from taking public positions on any issues of substance, impoverishing civic discourse in the process. A recent article in The Nation, for example, lamented the few contemporary examples of higher educational leaders, such as a past generation's James Conant of Harvard and Clark Kerr of the University of California. They entered the public fray and tackled matters of substance during their day and in hindsight the nation benefited from their involvement.

As you embark on the next chapters of your lives and careers, I ask that you think about what it means to get it wrong. Society depends on your intellect, expertise, and drive. Although seldom acknowledged, we also don't expect you to get it correct all the time. Advances will come because sometimes you'll get it wrong before someone gets it right.


It is hard to imagine that when I set out to write my dissertation in 1982-83, I did so long hand. PC had not entered the daily lexicon; Google was not yet ubiquitous; and Apple still brought to mind a fruit rather than an assortment of devices. We thought in analog rather than digital terms and a generation was 25 years and not 18 months.

When I started teaching, way back then, film still came in 16mm formats, chalkboards used the flaky white stuff, and being wired had a different connotation. No one had a personal computer; and those of us who used computers did so with keypunch cards in hand. If a student recorded you in class they did it with a bulky tape recording machine and no one, absolutely no one, expected you to be available 24/7. And while humanities faculty have long required students to read materials in advance, and to be prepared to discuss sections of a book, article or novel in class, we didn't call it a flipped classroom, nor could we combine it with crowd sourcing techniques or instruct students to surf the net.

Much has changed in three decades and much remains to change. Take, for example, the enterprises we now call a MOOC or Massively Online Open Course. As President of a major foundation that has supported digital improvements, I am among the first to say I have no certainty idea where this change is taking us, but I do have some guesses. First, you should know that nationally only about 10 percent of the individuals who enroll in each MOOC actually complete the course. Second, as a former provost I know that no matter how poor the production values, it costs money to mount an online course. So while opening access to intellectual content is a good thing for colleges and universities, I acknowledge that it cannot be done for free forever. So as I look into my own crystal ball I foresee a day when many MOOCs will become a form of the digital textbook. As such, they will force more graduate programs to begin to think anew about the science of learning. At a recent conference a well known MIT professor offered that he had been a professor for a quarter of a century before he ever looked at the learning literature. As a result of helping to launch EdX, the joint Harvard-MIT online enterprise, he is now requiring his students to move beyond the apprenticeship model of graduate teaching to an approach that combines in-class practicum with theory. So it may very well be that the MOOCs that have been so ballyhooed in recent months are transitional--and, in that sense, a failure. But by getting it wrong in one domain, we could end up improving the educational experience tremendously by redesigning how graduate students are taught to teach and how undergraduates learn. Getting it wrong could then turn out to be quite beneficial.

As you leave this campus and leave a community that has become home, brace yourself for a course of events not yet anticipated. There will, of course, be grants to write, papers to grade, books and articles to complete, quarterly profit targets to hit and meetings to attend. There will be setbacks--personal and professional--and there will be moments of success. Don't dwell too long on the highs or lows. If anything, figure out a way to lead, when possible; to educate, where appropriate; to listen, when required; to laugh, often; and to look ahead. When looking ahead remember this moment of accomplishment and think: I expect to get it right but I don't fear getting it wrong. Who knows, one of you may stand here in a decade or two sharing a message with a class of graduates at the University of Minnesota. In the interim, I wish you the very best. Again, a hearty congratulations to you all.

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