MCC Chair Delivers Steinhardt Doctoral Convocation

MCC Professor and Chair Marita Sturken was this year's speaker at the Steinhardt convocation. Below is a transcript of her speech.

"On behalf of the Steinhardt School faculty, I honor you today as the recipients of the highest degree awarded by the university. As you all know, this is a degree earned through hard work, requiring insight, originality, perseverance, ambition, and sacrifice. Every one of you knows that this is a degree which you’ve had to give things up in order to achieve – hobbies, gardening, cooking, novels, distracting boyfriends... ok, well that was just my personal list from 20 years ago!

Please don’t ever forget that your accomplishments here are significant. The doctorate degree is hugely important in the valuing scales of life, degrees matter – just how much is something that may take a while for you to grasp.

Your accomplishments are a reminder to reflect seriously about the importance of scholarship in our world today. It is easy, in the essentially anti-intellectual culture of the United States, for the work and goals of scholarship to be diminished as elite, or myopic, to be seen as separate from the actual living of life. Yet , every day, scholarship matters in times such as ours.

These are urgent political times. Our world is quite effectively in a state of emergency. This is a time when the suppression of ideas is subtle and significant, when the mainstream media has become extraordinarily ineffectual, when our country continues to be at war overtly and covertly in ways that will produce terrorism and counterterrorism for generations to come, when the political process in the United States is bankrupt, when the economic crisis continues to devastate lives throughout the world, when higher education is in crisis, a time of extraordinary threats to the environment with the looming crisis of climate change.

Yet this is also a time of the rise of global social movements, of new political constituencies and coalitions, of dramatic shifts opening up new ways of being and new forms of hope. The world we move toward in our collective futures is not a predictable place.

This is the world into which you enter as new scholars, and into which your scholarship must matter. And as you continue to research and to teach, I hope this question hovers over you every day – why does this matter? – how can I make my work matter in the world today?  

I would like to say a few things about the role of mentorship in producing things that matter, because I believe in the very simple proposition that one of the most important things we can do to effect change in the world is to mentor others. To look at mentorship is to foreground what is often an invisible form of labor.

I believe that in turning to look at these practices, sometimes dismissed in the world of scholarly research as being hokey, less valuable, or invisible in work and the academy, represent some of the most important values of our society and of social change. This is not an activity for which you will win grants and awards, but it is a crucial practice of our world.

Mentorship is the practice of guiding others, of teaching beyond the classroom, of modeling a way of being, of shaping meaningful experience, of providing the avenues for self-belief to emerge. You will all have opportunities to mentor, within the academy with all levels of students, and in other social arenas. And, you have all been mentored. The challenge I offer you today is to consider what it means for you to mentor others going forward.

My dissertation adviser was a truly wonderful scholar and person – esteemed in his field, generous with his time, irreverent and funny, economical in his advice and reliable in his support. He opened many doors for me while asking nothing in return except that I excel and fulfill my potential. He effectively established for me that such guidance, such attentiveness, was and should be the norm. For this, my gratitude is enormous.

You all know, in the midst of writing a dissertation or a thesis or a crucial project that it is easy to forget why it matters. A mentor should be someone who believes in one in those moments of self-doubt when it’s hard to believe in oneself. Many of you know that one of the primary roles that a faculty adviser can play is to simply reiterate, in various ways, strategically using different vocabularies, that one can finish, that one will finish. But it is also the role of a mentor to guide with candor, if not the occasional dose of brutal honesty, and with high standards – to see the ultimate potential of a project and to demand that one aim toward it.

Mentorship demands a cycle forward, a paying forward. It demands of us that we take the gift that was given to us and that we give it to others. This is an intangible gift. It cannot be simply be quantified or packaged.

I ask of you today that you pass on that gift."