Stewart Cole teaches courses in modern and contemporary literature, literary criticism, creative writing and the environmental humanities. His academic research examines representations of animals in modern British and Irish literature from an eco-critical perspective. Born, raised and educated in Canada, he is a proud first-generation college student. In 2016, he was one of the recipients of the Edward M. Penson Award, which recognizes faculty members who make significant contributions to their colleges and the University.
The following is the speech Cole delivered as part of University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s 146th spring commencement:
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Hello everyone. The first thing I’ll say to our students (our soon-to-be former students) is congratulations to all of you. Today marks the day that you cross that milestone line separating university student from university graduate. And not only that, but the conditions under which you’re watching this ceremony (the fact that I’m talking to a camera rather than seeing the faces of our graduates and their loved ones in person, as I would ideally like to be doing) attests to your having overcome more than the usual challenges that face seniors on the home stretch of their degree.
You have made it through your last semester of college amid the greatest global health crisis in a century—learning from home, kept away from the campus that no doubt came to feel like a second home in recent years, your work suddenly happening in the virtual spaces of video screens and discussion forums and dropboxes, your classroom communities fragmented and scattered to the winds seemingly at random. This last loss has affected me, as a professor, very deeply—the loss of meeting in the classroom and seeing the ideas that emerge, as if organically, out of the generative dialogue of students and professors who come together in a shared learning community. So much of the knowledge we create seems to depend on our being there, collectively, in that powerful space. I have missed that very much, and I know from speaking with students over the past two months that many of you have too.
It would be easy to be negative about these circumstances, especially given that they extend so far into our lives and around the world, bringing economic hardship, uncertainty, fear, and yes tragedy to so many. I wouldn’t normally bring these things up at such a celebratory occasion, but it would be dishonest and even neglectful not to acknowledge them—because I’m sure that the lives of many of you and your families have been touched in some of these ways.
But I am not here to dwell in negativity. I am here instead to urge you to think about how the adverse circumstance of having a world-historic emergency serve as the backdrop of your final semester here at UW Oshkosh marks you out for special significance. The Class of 2020 has experienced something that future histories will single out as a turning point in the 21st century—a time when whole societies were forced into social isolation, their citizens kept apart from one another, from their workplaces, from their places of learning, from all the places where people gather to produce the material of life (not just goods and services, but knowledge and conversation and something as simple and essential as laughter). Of all the 145 prior classes to graduate at spring commencement in the history of UW Oshkosh, the Class of 2020 came through this. You will be able to point to the pages of those future histories and say, “Not only was I there, but I did the work to graduate from college in the middle of that. That was me.”
This is the end of my seventh academic year teaching at UWO, and during that time, I have had many conversations with students on the verge of graduation, many of whom have expressed the same anxiety: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.” Many of them have known what they wanted to do, but in the world out there, we can’t always get what we want, and that can be scary. Of course I understand this. It wasn’t that long ago that I felt exactly the same way. But there are two things I’ve come to always say to those students, and I’ll say them to you now, because I suspect that many of you need to hear them, too. First, it’s not a matter of “doing something with your life” because you have already been living your life. Indeed, that fact that you’re graduating with a degree today is evidence that not only have you been living your life, you’ve been living a good life—building a store of knowledge and ideas and relationships and creative, critical, problem-solving skills that will help you achieve not just material prosperity for yourselves (otherwise known as jobs and money) but real fulfillment. And I say this as a first-generation college student who worked some post-graduation jobs ranging from not bad to truly awful before landing in what I now consider to be my dream job: I worked at a bookstore (not bad); I worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a very busy restaurant (demoralizing—I fell in the dumpster once at 2 a.m. while cleaning up at the end of my shift); and I worked at a call center for a company that I later learned was defrauding its clients (truly awful—and a long story, too long to get into here!). But even these experiences count as me doing something with my life—not necessarily what I ideally wanted to be doing, but something without which I very well might not be here today. So graduates: this is your life. It is now, not just off in the distance. Live in it. Learn from it! Don’t rush through it on your way to the future.
So that’s the first thing. The second thing I’ll say is this: you are prepared, much more prepared than you may think you are. By my count, I have taught 34 of you, and let me tell you, it has often struck me how much more prepared you are than I was. I have seen UW Oshkosh students on a mountainside in Ireland, with rain lashing in off the Atlantic Ocean, working together as a community and for a community for hours, rebuilding stone walls for a local farmer, drenched and laughing. I have seen students enter into creative writing classes never having written a poem before and become published authors within a matter of years. Semester after semester, I see students who think “I don’t understand this” or say “this just isn’t my strong suit” put in the work and not only understand but produce brilliant, insightful research. A colleague told me when I interviewed for this job that one thing about UW Oshkosh students is that they are so determinedly modest that they often don’t know how smart they are, and one of the best things about teaching them is that you get to watch them realize it, to come to own their abilities. Now modesty is often a virtue (it’s certainly better than the opposite), but today is not a day for modesty. Graduates: you need to own how smart you are, how much you’ve grown, and how prepared you are to cross this milestone line today.
This is not to deny that the University does feel like a kind of haven, or that the world beyond the campus walls can seem much less certain. But one of the things you should have learned—especially you, Class of 2020, with all you’ve overcome these recent months—is that certainty is not something we have a right to expect. Nothing is certain. This can make us anxious, of course—and in such times of anxiety, we should often turn to the poets. In this case, the poet John Keats offers one of the great theories of consciousness, a little idea that we should all carry around like a smooth stone or a seashell in our pockets if we want to live better, less anxious lives. This is Keats’s idea of “negative capability,” a forbidding-sounding term, but it’s really quite simple. Keats elaborated negative capability in a letter to his brothers in December 1817, singling it out as the distinguishing trait of great writers, Shakespeare most of all. He says that negative capability is when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable grasping after fact or reason.” Now much ink has been spilled in interpreting precisely what Keats means here, but we can say that most basically, to possess negative capability is to be able to dwell in uncertainty without grasping after certainty that is impossible to attain. In other words, the “negative” in negative capability designates what we don’t know, what we can’t control, what we will not ever be sure of—and the “capability” is the capacity and willingness to accept that: to not allow the fundamental uncertainties of life to render us anxious, to paralyze us, or to lead us grasping after false truths. The world’s uncertainties demand negative capability of us now more than ever—and luckily, I know you have it in you, even if you’re not sure you do. Think about the most challenging and rewarding problems in your fields of study: medical problems, market problems, artistic problems, problems of experimental design, of historical evidence, of interpretation. There comes a moment in confronting such problems when you reach the limits of what you can be sure of, when you’re faced with a choice whose consequences you can’t fully predict, when you just need to choose a direction and see what happens. At the best of times, presto: the treatment works, the stock rises, the composition locks into a harmonious whole, the results accord with the hypothesis, the narrative flows convincingly. Or, less ideally, the opposite happens, and hopefully you get to try again.
In a way, we are all products of the most basic and yet most momentous act of negative capability—one without which none of us would be here. Think of your parents. They had you without knowing anything about what you would become. No one paid them to have you. They didn’t say, we want a nurse or an English major or a saxophone player or a math teacher or an expert in supply-chain management, or we’re not having a kid. They couldn’t know what you’d become. If they had all “grasped after fact and reason” in the face of this uncertainty (as Keats warns us not to), we wouldn’t have a Class of 2020. But they didn’t. They made the choice in the absence of full knowledge, they faced up to the mystery, and they are being rewarded for it today, as the proud parents of college graduates. (So, graduates, you should all probably take a moment to turn to your parents and say, “Thank you, parents, for exercising negative capability”—and your parents should turn to your grandparents and say the same thing, all the way back through time…). Okay. Did you all do that? What I want to point out to you here is first, that many of the best, most life-changing and rewarding decisions are made in the face of uncertainty; and second, a major part of what your education has prepared you with is the capacity to confront that uncertainty with acceptance, and to make genuinely good, successful lives for yourselves in the face of it.
To close, I would like to take another turn into the world of literature, this time to the visionary African American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler and her novel Parable of the Sower, which I studied online this semester with a group of upper-year English and environmental studies students. Published in 1993, Butler’s novel is set in a California three decades in the future, a world afflicted by global warming, drought and violent social disintegration. It focuses on a young woman, Lauren Olamina, as she travels up the coast after losing her family, gathering friends along her journey. Lauren’s father had been a preacher, and though she is respectful of his Christian teachings, in her extreme circumstances she comes to feel the need to reconceive of God in terms that fit her terrifying world. She does this reconceiving in small poems, and this is the first of these:
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change, Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.
Faced with a world wracked by environmental destruction, racism and rampant patriarchy, the tearing apart of families, and rising poverty and insecurity, Lauren affirms change as the only constant. Lest this sound too hopeless, I should add that later, Lauren adds another poem that attests to humanity’s power in such a situation. She writes: “God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay. God exists to be shaped.” Lauren’s fellow travelers eventually become followers, and the novel ends with the founding of a community called Earthseed—a community rooted in mutual respect and love, a binding promise to help one another, and a shared acceptance both of change as the guiding force of the universe and of our power to shape that change with our choices. No matter our faith, we can learn from Butler’s vision of a young woman facing a terrifying world— a world much more terrifying than our own still much brighter world—and forging out of the chaos and destruction around her a vision of togetherness and empowerment and hope. This touches keenly on the key thing I want to affirm for you today: graduates, you are prepared with the wisdom to accept that change is inevitable and with the skills and capacities to adapt and flourish in the face of change. You are negatively, beautifully capable.
You also have a community here. I know I can speak for my fellow faculty when I say that the fact that you are graduating only means that now, you are alumni. We care about you and your success. Please don’t think of UWO as behind you, but rather at the foundation of your future. Please don’t hesitate to be in touch. We are here to support you and to celebrate you, and we, your professors, want to hear from you. But that is the future. In the here and now, the most important thing is that you enjoy this day. You have earned it.