Clarkson held its Convocation -- our opening ceremony -- last night and I marched in with the rest of the faculty (to bagpipes blaring!)  wearing full academic regalia, something I never did until I came to Clarkson, where they bought my gown and hood for me when I received tenure. The speaker was James Ransom, a Clarkson grad and the elected Chief  of the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe. He structured his talk around our summer reading book for this year, Sherman Alexie's Flight, a book I didn't like all that much, though I'm an admirer of Alexie's work in general. I thought the novel too didactic, which actually turned out to be appropriate for that most didactic of forms, the address to the entering class. Ransom gave a wonderfully articulate reading of the story that, incidentally, taught the literature professors in the audience a thing or two, in which he invoked the hero's journey and the ghost dance in order to offer advice to the incoming class. Occasionally I thought he tended a little too much toward a Chamber of Commerce / Kiwanis vibe, toward what William James called "healthy-mindedness." But then I would think that, given my own "sophisticated" and post-modern perspective.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

8 thoughts on “Convocation”

  1. Ouch!

    The chief of our regional Akwesasne “tribe” (sic) sounded too much like a Chamber of Commerce or Kiwannis speaker while he gave a convocation speech to Clarkson’s incoming class? It was too “healthy-minded” in comparison to your own “‘sophisticated’ and post-modern perspective?”

    Would you really say such things to Mr. Ransom in person? And if so, how do you think he would respond?

    You thought Sherman Alexie’s book Flight was too didactic?

    And you’re taking a bunch of Clarkson students to Vietnam next May? Will any of them be Vietnamese students or from the Mohawk “tribe?”

    You march in “full academic regalia” while those from the Mohawk tribe wear… shirts and pants. (!) And possibly carry a cell phone. :/

    I’m not “literary” compared to you, Chu Joe, but nonetheless, I’m sorry; I find these few posts offensive.

  2. Joe, my comments yesterday, written in haste, were not communicated well at all. I’m sorry for being sarcastic (rarely helpful!), and I am going to try to do better now.

    Reading your blog entry about the convocation ceremony disturbed me. As I tried to imagine a Native American guest of honor seated on a stage during an important annual ceremony with certain esteemed audience members sitting in full regalia, I couldn’t help but think of what such an encounter might have looked like 250 years ago. I wondered how the power dynamic between Native Americans and Euro-American whites has shifted, and I sensed from reading your blog that you were slightly uncomfortable with that new dynamic.

    To me, despite your overall admiration of Ransom’s remarks, your criticism at the end illustrated an uneasiness with the speaker’s authority. Given an unspoken power dynamic among diverse groups of people at the convocation ceremony, I was disheartened to hear you liken Ransom’s comments to something you might hear at a Kiwanis or Chamber of Commerce event.

    I will write more again later. My comments now are written in haste, too, but I need to get into work pronto.

  3. Cathy, I haven’t responded because I’ve been busy with school starting and haven’t had time to check the blog. Now that I have read what you have written and reread it, and thought about it carefully and dispassionately, all I can say is that what you have written above says much more about you than it says about me.

  4. You’re probably right, Joe. I spend a fair amount of time at my job thinking about the politics of cultural representation in the visual arts, and maybe I read too much into your post. When I first saw it, I was disturbed (justifiably or not) that you described yourself as “sophisticated,” compared to the Kiwanis-like speech from a Mohawk Chief. I’m sorry, however, that I wasn’t very dispassionate in my first response to you, but I hope I have been in these last two.

  5. The politics of cultural representation is an important concern, Cathy, but in this case your preoccupation with it caused you to badly misread my post, which is in fact pretty self-deprecating. Your preconceptions apparently kept you from hearing the irony in my words — those scare quotes around “sophisticated” are there for a reason. I was, in fact, somewhat taken aback by the accusatory tone of both your earlier posts, which, it seemed to me, were not designed to open a conversation, but to stake out a position of moral superiority. As for my actual observations, I’d just note that you did not hear the speech, nor, I think, have you read Alexie’s novel (I could be wrong about this) and so, again, you were reacting to something you imagined to be the case that was not in fact the case.

  6. I’m very sorry, Joe. I had no desire to convey a position of any moral superiority. I’m sorry that I made such a fool of myself.

  7. Thank you for this apology, Cathy. It is fully accepted, in the full knowledge that I have many times made a far worse fool of myself.

Comments are closed.