2008 Graduation - Doctoral Convocation

Zoë Burkholder, Student Speaker

Hello and thank you Dean Carey. I would also like to thank the faculty, family, and friends who have joined us here today to celebrate the culmination of our graduate careers at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. On behalf of my graduating cohort of doctoral students, I can say that the support that we received from all of you over the years was a defining feature of our success and one of the main reasons we stand before you today ready to receive our doctoral degrees.

I am honored to be selected as the student graduation speaker this evening. As Dean Carey said, I am a historian of education here at Steinhardt where I had the honor of studying with Jonathan Zimmerman, Rene Arcilla, and other outstanding faculty in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Given my professional training, I thought I would reflect today on the shared history of our graduate school experience over the past seven years or so. For many of us, our first year in graduate school coincided with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I know that for me, this event forced me to reflect on my priorities in life and to reconsider the best ways to accomplish them. It is no accident, therefore, that my graduate career here was punctuated by the birth of my son, Dexter, in 2002 and my daughter, Hollis, in 2005. And now, as we complete our degrees, all of us will participate in a historic election this fall, featuring either the first African American or the first woman Democratic candidate for President of the United States.

For me at least, these moments of political history and personal history have become intertwined with my graduate studies in the history of education, even influencing my dissertation research and the scholarship I plan to pursue at Harvard next year. As the women of my mother's generation were perceptive enough to observe, the personal is the political, and as academics we will play a special role in bringing our personal experiences to bear on the process of knowledge production in the academy.

To share one example, for the past two years I have had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate course at Steinhardt called "Diversity and Professional Life." In this course, we used the histories of the black civil rights movement and the women's movement to consider contemporary questions of social justice in America. While my students were appreciative of the history and goals of the black civil rights movement, I was surprised to find that most of the students in my class, a majority of whom were women, did not sympathize with feminism to the same degree. Very few were willing to self-identify as feminists, even when we defined feminism in its broadest terms as social and political equality between men and women. This seemed to me to be a curious phenomenon, and at odds with my own experience as an undergraduate just a decade ago.

I forged ahead in the classroom, emphasizing the educational, professional, and social restrictions faced by women who were only a generation or two older than the students in my class. We studied the women who worked to break down these barriers, and evaluated the different strategies of feminist activists in the 1970s, 1990s, and today. Eventually, this historical perspective combined with a critical analysis of the image of "feminism" in contemporary culture helped transform class discussion, providing students with a new vocabulary and revised perspective on women's equality in 2008. Even after we had moved on to other topics, students this past fall raised questions about the media coverage of Hillary Clinton's campaign, noting that articles in the New York Times opened with a detailed description of her hair, her clothes, her posture, and even her facial expressions, while male candidates did not seem to merit the same physical scrutiny. I recognized hints of an emerging feminist consciousness among some of my students. Over the course of the semester, I came to realize that I was informing this consciousness not only through the material we covered in class, but even more importantly through my presence in the classroom. I was serving as a living example of what it looked like to be a woman committed to an equitable marriage and dedicated to her young children, who also happened to excel in a professional career.

Of course, not all of my colleagues graduating here tonight will teach courses on social justice activism. My point is simply that all of us have just received what is perhaps the most rigorous academic training in the world, and given our shared commitment to education, healthcare, and communication I believe we are all suited to engage in a kind of political activism that draws on our personal experiences. The academy we were just trained in is being transformed as we move forward into the twenty-first century, embracing a more technologically sophisticated, transnational approach to education and knowledge production. It is our duty, and I hope our great pleasure, to serve as leaders in this transformation through our commitment to human rights and social justice, and to make these commitments not only political, but intimately personal.

My best wishes to my colleagues as they pursue their careers in academia and beyond, and my heartfelt thanks to the faculty, family, and friends who made this all possible. Thank you.

Zoë Burkholder is an historian of education whose recently completed dissertation investigates how public schools influence the way Americans understand the concept of "race." Her Research explains how activist anthropologists in the 1940s urged public school teachers to adopt the concept of "culture" to understand racial minorities as part of an ambitious effort to dismantle racism in the United States. Dr. Burkholder holds a Master's Degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor's Degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. She is moving with her husband and two children to Cambridge, Massachusetts this summer to begin a fellowship at the Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, where she will participate in a year-long colloquium entitled "race making and law making in the long civil rights movement."