Christine Senavsky (BA English, BMus Music Performance 2016) was valedictorian for the English Department’s class of 2016. This is the text of her commencement speech delivered to her English peers at the 2016 English Department Commencement on the 13th of June 2016.
“Studying English is no mere jaunt through the classics’ corridors.”
Good afternoon!! I want to first thank the department for the tremendous honor of speaking today. I would like to thank two of my professors for their commitment to my education: Dr. Peppis for his honesty and support, Dr. Pyle for his magic. Also, a big thank you to Dr. Upton for having my back with four years of advising and the preparation for this speech. I am eternally grateful to my family for making the long trek here. Lastly, I want to thank all of you for your hard work, inspiration, and compassion.
A commencement is a new beginning. With that comes terror as well as excitement. Where will we go, what will we do?? And what will we take with us? We are here today to celebrate our accomplishment as English majors at the University of Oregon.
I am a Violin Performance major too, so I wanted to somehow represent my musical journey here—I’ve structured the rest of my speech in traditional symphonic form. This piece of music is about my experience studying English here, and it is composed of words.
Our first movement is Allegro. It is sweeping, bold, arresting.
So, what have we been doing here?? What transformation have we undergone? We study words—their overall structure, how they are strung together, what they mean. But these are people’s words, attached to a time and a place, and contained in every narrative is a history, a politics, a culture. Literature gives us perspective. We escape to other worlds, and in doing so we see reality more clearly. We step inside a story and sometimes leave ourselves behind, becoming the protagonists. I’ve had days where I fell so deeply into the inner life of my reading that I walked through campus in a haze, thinking in the style of the author, unable to free myself from the grip of that thing that comes from beyond ourselves, the elsewhere. Studying English is no mere jaunt through the classics’ corridors. We have the ability to inhabit others’ lives and see how they understood the world, a humbling lesson in humanity. But again, what have we been doing here?
We have come to our second movement, characterized by sustained chords and minimal motion. It is so fragile that we hold our breaths, suspended in time.
In my first years here I was a Romantic, Romantic with a capital R. All experience was transcendence, as is this Keats-ian movement: I am no longer listening to the song, I am the song.
I would like to share an image from Walter Benjamin [from Professor Pyle’s] Contemporary Lit Theory. The angel of history looks back with spread wings and surprise on his face. Benjamin tells us, “Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe.” A wind blows in from Paradise and the angel is suspended there watching this colossal memory of humanity, driven infinitely into the future as the mass grows. It can be useful seeing history in this way. We have somehow been implicated by studying English, becoming different people to transcend our own limited perspectives, slowly coming to sense patterns, looking back at that piece of something that is humanity.
Third movement, scherzo—this dance is frantic, distorted, it has an edge. It feels like Prokofiev to me . . . demented, but comically so, funny because it’s not, the perfect narrator of our strange existences…
This term I found myself in a Native American Film class studying representations of Indianness with the brilliant Professor Brown. My last class for the English major, and I am millions of miles away from any place of comfort or ease, lost in the multiplicities of the politics, cultures, laws, assured by the fact that there will always be more to learn. And then we read Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s “A Glossary of Haunting.” This piece of writing, structured in the form of a glossary, conveys the long-lasting effects of settler-colonialism. Tuck and Ree demand for us to fully acknowledge our messy past and our difficult future. In essence, we must see how we are haunted by it; they tell us, “Haunting doesn’t hope to change people’s perceptions, nor does it hope for reconciliation. Haunting lies precisely in its refusal to stop.” At some point along the way I realized that my rose-colored glasses were a little fogged; I had lost many of my Romantic tendencies. We have acquired an awareness here that should both excite and disturb us—and this knowledge should haunt us. It tells us we have the responsibility to act on what we know and to make a difference, whatever creative form that may take. What will we use this knowledge for in the future? How do we come to terms with our past?
Finally, the finale— Stately, confident, the grand culmination of all the themes we have previously encountered, so loud the music reverberates through us, pounding out our thoughts, leaving only exhilaration. . . . The future is ours, we have great potential, and the world is filled with so much suffering—let’s give it some love.
Congratulations, class of 2016!! We made it . . . I wish you only the best.