Joel Ekdahl (BA 2015) was valedictorian for the English Department’s class of 2015. This is the text of his commencement speech delivered to his English peers at the 2015 English Department Commencement on the 15th of June 2015.
I would like to start by doing something that we as English majors so often do and that is to challenge an assumption.
Many people in this fast-paced society see literature as a form of escapism, a vehicle by which we flee from the political sphere and the stresses of the daily routine. Here at the University of Oregon, however, I have been taught to understand literature and other media as sites where multiple systems of power and oppression intersect. Here, I have explored the ways in which literature remediates, reinforces, revises, or otherwise subverts the politics of race, gender, sexuality, nationhood, colonization, and economics. And through these investigations, I have developed various forms of resistance through research and rhetoric.
Yet the most profound form of resistance is possibly the most simple, and that is the cultivation of empathy. I have always studied literature as a means to develop compassion for others, to learn vicariously, and to expand my knowledge of human psychology. Yet my engagement with literature would not be the same without the critical interventions of my fellow classmates. I would like to thank my fellow English majors, as well as my peers in the Carnegie Global Oregon cohort, for engaging me in conversation, forcing me to clarify my arguments, exposing my ingrained assumptions and biases, and most of all, sharing their unique experiences with me. Furthermore, I would like to commend the English department as a whole for their undying commitment to expanding the canon of historical, literary, and cultural texts. Whether it be classes centered on underrepresented groups (African American, Native American, Women, LGBT literature) or the application of exciting critical theory (postcolonial, Feminist, Queer), our research has succeeded in including voices from the margins of our society.
I want to give particular thanks to three professors who have had great influence on my academic development at the University of Oregon. I would like to thank Professor Thorsson not only for sharing her knowledge of the African-American intellectual tradition but also for opening up a space for our English 316: African-American Women’s Novels class to discuss systematic racism and police brutality in the twenty-first century. Next, I would like to thank Shaul Cohen for his knowledge in cultural geography, his explorations in international ethics, and his continuing refinement of my rhetorical style over the past four years. Lastly, I would like to thank Kirby Brown, my greatest supporter, not only for turning me onto Native American literature and postcolonial studies, but for recruiting me in the larger Indigenous struggle for cultural recovery and national sovereignty.
While writing this speech, I thought a lot about what makes us different from the other students graduating today. What makes us stand out, I believe, is our holistic education and the plurality of discourses we have explored in our pursuit of understanding the human experience. We have used literature to discuss and engage such disparate topics as police brutality and systematic racism, sexual assault and gender discrimination, cultural erasure and colonial appropriation, poverty and crime, trauma and mental illness.
In a world that does not place high value on the humanities, I pray that we as English majors do not sell ourselves short. Wherever we go—law, education, creative writing, or business—the University of Oregon has prepared us well to be leaders in knowledge and advocates of the voiceless and oppressed. Instead of distancing us from the world, the English major has thrust us into the crucible of socio-political dialogue. We will travel far and wide to the four corners of the Earth, but wherever we end up, we will take with us the revolutionary spirit of Eugene. Tonight is our night—enjoy yourself and celebrate what you have accomplished—but our work begins again tomorrow.