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Yet another speech to Duke TIP award recipients

Topics/tags: Talks, repeated topics, writing, long

For the past two years, Grinnell College has invited me to give a speech to Duke TIP scholars [1] as part of a ceremony honoring those scholars. I gave one in 2016 and another in 2017. I must be doing something wrong, because I keep getting invited back. After all, we’re hosting these students because we consider them prospective Grinnellians. Am I really what you want to show students about Grinnell? Come to Grinnell, you’ll be taught by overweight disheveled faculty who are moderately articulate.

I spent a lot of time on the first speech. For the second speech, I grabbed the text of the first speech and then edited it a bit. For this speech, I thought I’d try a different approach; I’m going to write a new speech and then try to merge it with the old speech to see if I can come up with a better hybrid [3].

It’s hard to write something completely new; too much of the old speeches resides in the back of my head. So I know that I’ll still brag about my kids and use them about examples and that I’ll challenge the Duke TIP scholars to take on leadership roles and responsibility to others.

But I do want to try some new things. I’ve been reading enough about the growth mindset that I want to focus more on what leads up to the achievement than on the particular scores. I won’t give in to the recommendation of a colleague that I talk about their privilege in being able to participate; after all, not everyone can afford to take an extra exam in seventh grade [4]. Should I talk about the changing world? I’m not sure.

Here goes.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you, Joe, for inviting me to be here. And thank you, students and families, for being willing to listen to me talk for a bit even though I know that you are anxious to receive your awards (or to see someone receive an award).

Let me begin by saying Congratulations. I congratulate you not for receiving an award from Duke TIP nor for your high scores on a standardized test. Rather, I congratulate you for what the award and the score likely represent. Your doing well suggests that you have a strong work ethic, that you enjoy learning, and that you are willing to challenge yourselves. Those characteristics suggest that you have excellent potential. To help you achieve that potential, I have a few comments and words of advice.

That’s about where I ran out of steam. I was starting to write something about responsibility to others, but then decided that I’d already written something that worked well, and I was better off editing that rather than continuing to write from scratch. I think it’s time to start building the hybrid. Now, what did I say last time? Wow, that was much better, except that I focused too much on accomplishments. Let’s see what I can do with the two.

Good afternoon. As Joe said, my name is Sam and I teach computer science (and many other things) at Grinnell. Joe, thank you for inviting me to speak to this distinguished audience. And thank you, students and families, for being willing to listen to me for a bit even though you are anxious to receive your awards (or to see someone you care about receive an award).

Let me begin by saying Congratulations. I congratulate you not for receiving an award from Duke TIP nor for your high scores on a standardized test. Rather, I congratulate you for what the award and the score likely represent. Your doing well suggests that you have a strong work ethic, that you enjoy learning, and that you are willing to challenge yourselves.

I admit that it’s a bit strange to be up here in front of this audience. All three of my sons were Duke TIP scholars, so I’m much more accustomed to being on the other side of the podium. When I’m in Herrick Chapel, I’m usually listening to a speech or a concert. Just this past Saturday, I was privileged to hear not only the Grinnell Singers presenting the moving To the Hands, an extended choral work about immigration in the twenty-first century, but also student a cappella groups singing Dar Williams’ ode to our state. Lecturing is also not my normal mechanism for teaching. I know that students learn better by doing or through the Socratic method. Even when lecturing, I prefer to ad lib. But Joe asked me to read a speech and he’s a friend. I’ll do my best to use your time well. Let’s see …

Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar. [5]

Joe, why are you looking at me so strangely? What? You don’t want me to present a classic speech? You want a speech that is targeted at these students and their families? Someone should have told me that. Fortunately, I seem to have notes for such a speech. But before going on, I should acknowledge that the speech I was about to give is by M. Anthony as transcribed by W. Shakespeare.

TIP award recipients, I noted that you should be proud not for your success on the exams, but rather for the characteristics that led to that success. And I mean it. Those characteristics suggest that you have excellent potential. To help you achieve that potential, I have put together a few comments and words of advice.

As the parent of three Duke TIP award recipients (yeah, I have to brag) and as someone who also did well on academic endeavors, I realize that some of you face a bit of an obstacle: Much of the academic work you do may come easily to you. Why is that an obstacle? Because you will hit some point in your life in which you find that the work you do is no longer so natural or easy. For some of you, it will be in high school or college. For some of you, that may have already happened; if that’s the case, I congratulate you on pushing through difficulty. In my own case, it took until graduate school before I found myself experiencing serious academic challenges. And that was a problem; when I reached that point, I had not developed the study skills I needed to deal with work that really challenged me; I spent a few extra years in graduate school because I needed to spend time learning to how to master difficult or different material.

Hopefully, you’ve already figured out my first recommendation: Continue to challenge yourself and, as you do so, develop study skills that allow you to work through difficult material.

The time I spent developing study skills was clearly worthwhile. I’ve relied on those skills to take classes in disparate fields, including film studies and studio art. (Joe did mention that I took Studio Art while a faculty member at Grinnell, right?). They’ve also allowed me to guest-teach classes on fields far outside my area of expertise. I’m a computer scientist. A few weeks ago, I led an English class through discussions of some complex issues in literary theory. My discipline also changes enough that I regularly need to learn new things, some of which require me to think very differently. The learning skills I developed help me cope with these changes.

The world is changing enough that you can be confident that you, too, will need to develop new knowledge and new skills throughout your life. The job market has hundreds of types of jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago: social media specialist, interaction designer, sustainability manager, data scientist, wind farm engineer, genetic counselor, Web analyst, 3D model designer, and many more. In most cases, the people who fill those jobs didn’t go to school for that particular job; rather, they developed enough basic knowledge and the skills to teach themselves new things.

Building broad knowledge and skills will allow you to adapt as the world changes. Recommendation two is to explore multiple areas and challenge yourself in areas that may not come as easily. Almost every job I mentioned requires that people write clearly and compellingly, that they understand technology, that they can use mathematics and statistics to model situations, that they can draw upon creative skills, that they understand society, that they can collaborate with others who approach the world differently than they do, and much, much more. I don’t know which of these areas is most challenging to each of you, but I’m sure that some will challenge you. Please push yourself to learn more.

Because I teach at a place like Grinnell, I get to make a difference in the lives of my students and I get to watch them go off to do incredible things. I’ve seen my students help develop of the field of data science, write the code behind Star Wars and Pixar movies (and win a technical Oscar), serve their country, write and star in critically acclaimed romantic comedies, develop medical software, investigate large-scale financial fraud, raise wonderful children, teach people to dance, speak to thousands of people, and much, much more.

That list of student occupations motivates my next recommendation for you: Pursue your passions. Each of my students has found something different that is important to him, her, zir, or them. Most of them are privileged enough to make a good living do what they find enjoyable and important. (Others do what they are good at, and use their income to make it possible for them to spend time on what they value.)

But most people don’t immediately figure out what they want to do. Our student who won an Oscar for technical achievement came to Grinnell planning to be a lawyer. Our film star majored in CS and Philosophy. In high school, I thought I’d be an archaeologist. In College, I planned to be a Mathematician, but didn’t really know what that meant. I ended up as a Teacher (or perhaps a Computer Scientist). I can tell you that while all of my three sons were Duke TIP scholars, each is looking in a different direction. My eldest son first pursued Chemistry and then planned to be a Quant, someone who applies mathematics to solving a wide variety of applied problems. These days, he’s particularly interested in transparent AI, an attempt to explain the underlying process in the decision-making heuristics that computers develop.

Then there’s my middle son, who is just finishing his second year of college. In the past few years, I’ve heard Dad, I think I should be a priest. Dad, I’m going to be a human rights lawyer. Dad, I think it would be really fun to make fireworks. Dad, people really like my bread. I should be a baker. Somewhere in the midst of all those possibilities, he said, I want to be a trophy husband, so I need to be good at everything. These days, he talks about getting a Ph.D. in organic chemistry or materials science so that he can develop new substances to use in the construction of musical instruments.

I told you to pursue your passions. Part of young adulthood is figuring out what those passions are. And that’s my next recommendation for you: Take the time to figure out what you are passionate about. You may not know that until midway through college, or even afterward. If you follow my previous recommendation to explore multiple areas, you’ll not only have more opportunities to discover your passions, you’ll have more tools with which to pursue them.

My previous recommendations have been primarily about you and how you might succeed. My next recommendation is somewhat different. Take responsibility for others. Your achievements suggest that you will take on leadership roles. You may develop ideas and products that can change the world. Take your successes and use them to help others - serve as a mentor, a tutor, a guide. Helping others is one of the most rewarding things I do; I hope that you’ll find the same.

I also have other recommendations regarding others. Most importantly, don’t do everything yourself; collaborate. Joe read a long list of things that I do. All of those things I do collaboratively with others. I’m more successful when I work with others because we approach problems from multiple perspectives, we challenge each other, we build upon each other, and we share effort. I often think I have the perfect solution to a problem. Talking to others often reveals even better solutions, or identifies flaws in my solution. or, most frequently, both [6].

Of course, you can’t successfully collaborate unless you accept and acknowledge the strengths of others. You are probably the only one at your school (or just one of a few) to receive this honor. But everyone at your school likely has some special talent or strength. Take the time to appreciate others.

We have almost reached the end of my remarks. It is time for my penultimate recommendation. (I know that all of you know what penultimate means, but let me explain to your families. Penultimate means next to last. We use the more confusing term to make ourselves sound smarter.) I would be remiss in my duties if I did not say something about this institution that I love. So, here goes. In a few years, you will be thinking about college. When you are doing so, consider Grinnell. And I mean it; I sent two of my children here, including one who swore he’d never stay in Iowa. Why Grinnell? Grinnell permits you to explore a wide variety of interests, exposes you to new and challenging ideas, provides you with committed faculty and a wide array of resources, and gives you a cohort of interesting and talented peers with whom you can collaborate.

My final recommendation should be obvious: Take time to thank the people who make a difference to you. You’ve clearly achieved a lot. You probably didn’t do it alone. Thank your parents. Thank your teachers. Thank your siblings and friends.

Speaking of thanks, thank you for taking the time to listen. I hope you took good notes. There will be a quiz, which I see that our ushers are ready to distribute.

More seriously, I look forward to seeing you receive your awards. Congratulations again on what those awards represent.

That’s the speech, at least as I planned it. What I gave is pretty close to what I planned. I flubbed a few lines. I ad libbed in a few places [7]. The substance was the same.

Here’s the scary part: It sounds like they want me back for next year. What’s the reason? I think it’s that I give a moderately good speech and they appreciate the All of my sons were Duke TIP recipients component. They also know I’ll say yes [8].

But I’ll have to write a new speech. I can’t say ’I’m more accustomed to being in the audience" since I’ve now been on stage as much as I’ve been in the audience. And I’ll probably get some repeat parents at some point. I wonder how the people who regularly speak at college graduations do it. I assume that they write new speeches each time, but also that they preserve some key ideas. The you need to learn how to study theme is important. At this point, I need to preserve a growth mindset theme. And you have a responsibility to others is good. I also need to come up with new jokes. But I’m a dad; I have a limited scope of jokes. We’ll see what I can come up with.

[1] For those of you who don’t know, Duke TIP is a program in which parents pay money for their 7th-grade students to take the SAT or ACT. Students who score well get awards, get to brag about it, and probably appear in the local newspaper. Participating in Duke TIP also gets you on lots of mailing lists for expensive camps for Talented and Gifted kids [2].

[2] Isn’t every student talented and gifted in his, her, zir, or their own way?

[3] And, I hope, not a Frankenstein’s monster of a speech.

[4] There may be scholarships; I’m not sure.

[5] M. Anthony, as quoted in W. Shakespeare.

[6] I forgot to mention my joy at collaborating with V. Praitis on two courses. Since she was in the audience, I didn’t want to call her out.

[7] If I had been sensible, I would have recorded it so that I knew where and could have updated the speech.

[8] As I said on the way out, I say yes to requests from Admissions. I meant to say I say yes to reasonable requests from Admissions.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-23.