Select Page

Provost John Koker served as faculty speaker Saturday, sharing his comments with graduating seniors at the morning and afternoon ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s 149th spring commencement. He retires this summer after being “in college” for 86 semesters.

Here are his prepared remarks from Saturday morning’s commencement ceremony: 

🟨 ⬛️ 🟨

Chancellor Leavitt, Representative Palmeri, Regent Weatherly, faculty and staff, honored guests and, most importantly, graduates: It is an honor to speak to you today. Graduates, congratulations!.

This is my 86th consecutive semester. I started college 43 years ago and never left. As a first-generation college student, my family was at times confused. I remember somewhere around semester 13 or 14 (when I started my Ph.D.) my dad, wondering why I was still in school, asked me, “how much math is there?”

Recently, I have been reflecting on my 86 semesters and thinking about experiences I had that could translate into some inspiring words. I certainly can’t talk about something from each semester, so as a mathematician I looked for a pattern. I noticed that I stayed around long enough that I exhausted all 14 possible calendars.

Two years have the same calendar if all of its dates fall on the same days of the week. For example, if Nov. 7 is on a Monday in one year it is on a Monday in the other year, April 18 is on a Thursday in both years, June 2 is on a Sunday in both years and so on. There are exactly 14 different calendars, and non-leap year calendars repeat every six or 11 years (you can think about that if you get bored). I experienced all 14 calendars over my 43 years. I thought I could tell you one inspiring event from each “calendar group.” However, 14 is still too many.

Then, I found, and decided to use, a different pattern, which will allow me to tell you about something from only one semester–semester number 20, which was the spring semester of 1990.

Oh, and by the way, 1990, 2001, 2007 and 2018 all had the same calendar.

Semester 20 was my last semester of graduate school. I was finishing my Ph.D. (and my parents were happy). My dissertation adviser hosted a party to celebrate the completion of my degree.

At the party, an old math professor came up to me and said, “You’re all set!” I said, “what?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. He said, “Math never changes. You’ll have a good career teaching for 30 to 40 years and you don’t have to worry about learning anything new. You’re all set.”

Wow, I just spent 20 semesters learning, and I kind of liked learning. While his comment bothered me, it also motivated me. The pattern I found is that I learned something in everyone of my 86 semesters. And if I did have a good career it was because I kept learning rather than being free of worry that there was no need to learn anymore.

Graduates, you all have spent the last several semesters “learning” to earn the degree that you will be presented today. I am sure you learned for other reasons as well.

When I think of learning, I think of a couple of types of learning. One type is that you learn something new and you “own” that. You learn how to tie your shoes, ride a bike or to solve a quadratic equation.

Then there is continuous learning around a certain area. Like learning how to be a better parent or learning more about effective communication strategies so we as human beings can better understand, appreciate and respect differences of thought and we can get better at engaging in civil discussions on controversial, difficult topics. This includes learning how to be better listeners.

In his recent book, The Power of Keeping your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World, New York Times bestselling author Dan Lyons calls for us to talk less and listen more. He notes that there are thousands of books and classes that teach us how to be a better speaker, but what we really need to learn is how and when to shut up. He points to a number of successful people that talk less and listen more. We need to learn to speak with intention. We need to understand the power of silence. Lyons writes, “Learning to talk less and listen more won’t just improve your own life; you’ll improve the lives of others.”

I ask that you always be willing to learn, to be willing to step into the unknow, to be willing to put your own thoughts on pause as you consider and listen to those of others. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own beliefs. It’s OK to respectfully and civilly disagree. In the end you need to be willing to become more than you thought you could ever be; to grow, to explore, to challenge, to be stuck, to work through confusion and contradiction and to learn. We need to challenge ourselves to do hard things. And as we learn, we need to enjoy and pause to celebrate success – both large and small.

I’ve always enjoyed the children’s book Martha Speaks written and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, which was published in 1992.

Oh, and by the way, 1992 has the same calendar as 2020 (they’re both leap years).

Martha Speaks tells the story of a dog named Martha who gains the ability to speak after eating alphabet soup. The book is about the adventures Martha has as she learns to communicate with humans and how her newfound ability changes her life. Martha’s ability to speak not only enables her to express herself but also allows her to understand and connect with humans in a deeper way. Through her communication, she is able to build relationships, learn new things, and solve problems. However, sometimes her “talking” does get her into trouble.

I have read Martha Speaks to my grandchildren, and when I have asked them, “Can you really learn to talk just by eating alphabet soup?” I always get a confident “NO!”

Of course, we cannot learn like Martha learned. Learning is not magic. It’s sometimes hard. But continuous learning is essential to both personal and professional growth and development. The willingness to learn is needed as we encounter new experiences.

Over my career as a professor and administrator many had expectations that I had “the answers.”

Oh, and by the way, I began and ended my administrative appointments in 2006, 2017 and 2023 all which have the same calendar!

While I had some answers, I always had plenty of questions. And that’s OK because no one should expect anyone to have all the answers. What we should expect is that people are willing to explore, to wonder, to question, to try, to make decisions, to fail, to listen and to learn.

Class of 2023, celebrate, and reap from, what you have learned.

Oh, and by the way, the 2023 calendar will be the same as the 2034 calendar, 11 years.

So, on Saturday, May 13, 2034, I ask that you pause to reflect and celebrate on how you’ve grown and what you have learned over the past 11 years. And then, recommit to keep on learning.

Thank you!

More from spring commencement: