Doctoral class of 2015, it is truly an undreamed-of honor to stand here representing you tonight. I am awed when I think of the collective labor, the collective suffering, and the collective joy represented by this group on this occasion. But although we do have that collective impression of what it means to have reached this point, in a real sense the journey we took to get here was very private, very particular to each one of us. You may be familiar with the lyrics of the gospel folk song which run, “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley / you’ve got to walk it for yourself. There’s nobody else can go there for you / you’ve got to go there for yourself.” There is something lonesome, something deeply solitary about sustained work of the mind. As Milton said, “the mind is its own place,” and when you go to that place for its hardest work, you have to let go for a time of the pleasure and the comfort of the company of others. Even those others who would go there for you, if they could. There were times when each of us was desperate to escape that “lonesome valley.” Some of the escape scenarios I imagined included, but were not limited to, getting kidnapped, contracting scarlet fever—and, my go-to favorite, abandoning the academy and going back to my very first job as a clerk at Dollar General. Instead, I, like you, have gotten to the end of that valley and come up out of it. Suddenly there are people everywhere. Suddenly there is light everywhere.
The end of that valley is the terminal degree in our respective fields. On the one hand, to reach this point was something excruciatingly difficult—something we had to do, something we had to go through. On the other hand, to reach this moment is something wonderful—something we got to do, an unspeakable privilege. We know that there are many people who have the intelligence and the talent to get here, but something held them back—at the beginning, in the middle, or even towards the end of the process. We know too that we—if we had had one more obstacle, one more setback, one less helping hand—could very easily not have been here tonight. So how did you and I get here? How did we get to the end of that valley? When I was browsing through one of the many, many, many obscure books that I browsed, and sometimes read, over the course of the last half-decade, I came across a beautiful dedication. It simply read, “For Joy—without whom, not.” When it comes to you and me gathered here to be hooded tonight for achieving a doctoral degree, there are many people in this building—”without whom, not.” I think especially of those who have walked this lonesome valley for themselves—our teachers, our committee members, our mentors. They didn’t walk the valley for us but they made our walk possible. They had undergraduate teaching, they had graduate teaching, they had meetings, they had families, they had their own scholarly projects and their own career goals. But in the midst of all those things, they set aside hours upon hours to think about our ideas, to critique and strengthen our projects, to reassure us that there was an end to this journey and we could get there. Without them—”not.” Not this moment of celebration, not the awarding of this degree, and not the career that lies ahead of us.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “to make an end is to make a beginning / The end is where we start from.” The journeys we take from here will be as unique as the ones we took to get here. We can’t know now the full significance of this moment of ending because we can’t see ahead to the next ending. But we do know the people who made this possible. So let us begin our new journey with hearts full of humility and gratitude.