Sunday, March 14, 2010

The valedictory speech I'd like to give in five years' time

I have two things to say you today: "You have something special to say. Tell your story."

Five years ago, I stood in the cloisters of the Old Law Quad, waiting for the academic procession to start. I passed the time exchanging the usual, "In twenty-five words or less, what was your thesis about?" with the woman behind me in the procession. Her research had revealed that there was little by way of educational programs and literature for parents of children of "middle childhood" age. Her thesis filled the gap between early childhood and adolescent education, where the milestones and issues were more obvious.

"But I'll probably go back and take an undergraduate degree in Psychology." She said, "Because people tend to assume that I have a Psychology background when they hear about my topic. And I don't. So I don't feel I can credibly talk on this area."

When originally thinking about pursuing her research topic, she had consulted with a number of teaching colleagues and academics about pursuing an undergraduate degree in Psychology. And "nine out of ten experts" recommended that she pursue Doctoral studies instead. Evidently her topic required the depth of consideration and higher level analysis that undergraduate studies would not provide. And there was a real lacuna in the body of human knowledge that only she could fill.

Now, with any cross-disciplinary studies, you can expect a line of experts just itching to bollock your research on the grounds that you don't use their jargon and can't (or won't) join their professional organisations. But what this woman was saying to me was more to do with something insidious and familiar to many of us in graduate research endeavours, namely, The Impostor Syndrome. The notion that you have no right to be sitting where you are today, that someone is going to find you out, that it's still miraculous that your thesis was passed (I mean, didn't they read your "bloated and uncertain" literature review and your "unconvincing and amateurish" analysis?).

Later in the same ceremony, we were treated to an occasional address by politician, writer and public intellectual Barry Jones. He reminded us of our place in Australia's higher education tradition and lamented the funding pressures on institutions of higher learning. Jones also pointed out that there was plenty of room in the Australian media to engage more meaningfully in issues that would improve citizens' lives. He entreated us to use the knowledge we had cultivated, supported by our newly acquired credentials, to engage in strident public debate which would benefit the community.

But I found myself wondering: if everyone sitting next to me on stage wearing a foofie tassled hat felt like they weren't meant to be there, that they were impostors despite the intensity and importance of the academic journey they had just completed, how would this be possible?

At the time that I sat on the stage, with the foofie tassled hat, my daughter had just turned one. In fact, she was born the day my thesis was submitted for examination. You'll no doubt be relieved to know that I didn't submit the thesis personally: I'd emailed it to my sister in PDF format, and she'd thoughtfully had it printed and bound, and delivered it to the Graduate School on my behalf. So I got an excited phone call while I was in labour, hooked up to all these machines and preparing for an emergency caesarian, to tell me that my thesis had been submitted. Which was all a bit surreal.

Anyway. During the first few months of motherhood, I scribbled in my journal while my little girl cat-napped. After a while, I realised that the kinds of things that I'd been writing were things I was hearing from other new mothers. We felt alone, we felt afraid, we felt unqualified. I'd recently completed a 55,000 word tome on the experiences of a particular group of international students: something that my colleagues in universities, English language centres, and Government departments had invited me to speak on on several occasions, and had expressed interest in reading. In reading about the problems I had investigated, they had seen their own struggles and were keen to know my recommendations for improvement. Could it be that I had the skill and experience to revisit my scribbles about motherhood, coax them into shape, and mould them into something that other people would read and, in it, see their own struggles?

Not long after, I started to blog. My blog was fairly intimate and self-induglent, but enjoyed a niche following of smart, engaged kindred spirits. Mainly women, whom I'd never met, who read what I had to say about motherhood, books, films, and other things I'd been thinking about. And with regularity, and with tremendous candour and generosity, shared the ways in which they'd read my words and thought, "Hey! Me too!". Through this group, I was able to receive constructive and robust but fundamentally encouraging feedback on my writing, such that my scribbles took shape and evolved into a little zine that I called Prayer for a new mother. Also through my blog friends, I made contact with a talented and well-known artist who agreed to bring my stories to life with her exquisite and slightly-offbeat illustrations.

We printed out 200 copies and I put a little link on my blog where friends and relatives could purchase the little zine as a gift for new mothers that they knew. A tiny little talisman that reassured them that they were not alone. It sold out in two weeks. So we did a further print run of 1,000. It sold out in tend days. On a whim, I sent a gift copy of the zine to a former editor of a high-circulation women's magazine: a popular blogger and writer on motherhood, fashion, and body image. Within two days she had called me, telling me that she had forwarded my zine to her agent. The next thing I new, an established and prestigious Australian publisher with offices worldwide was calling me to arrange a meeting. And the rest, as they say, is history. And, possibly, the reason I have been invited to speak to you today.

But what has this to do with you, you might be thinking? Or with graduating? Or with Barry Jones? Well, I think it is all about courage and it is all about love.

The courage is what I want to share with you who are graduating today. Barry Jones was absolutely right. You need to get your thoughts, your ideas, your knowledge out there. It doesn't matter if someone else has said it before, or if you think they have said it "better". Do it. Write to the editor of The Age and tell them that the piece they published yesterday ignored a really critical aspect of the debate, something that you as a new expert in the field can help them address. Start a blog. Call Radio National. Call Triple J. Start a lobby group. Start a knitting circle. Who cares if it's not directly related to your studies. You'll find yourself calling on all those skills you have been honing over the past three years: the organisational abilities, confidence in public speaking, critical reading, team work and so on.

And the love is what I want to acknowledge for those of you who are families, friends and supporters of those who are graduating today. The only way these people are going to have the courage to tell their stories is if they believe in themselves. And the only way they will believe in themselves is if they have grown up witnessing you believe in yourself. And for these young graduates to be sitting here today, it seems to me that you have succeeded. So I thank you for believing in yourselves as parents, siblings, partners and friends, despite your doubts, despite your imperfections. The achievements and the potential of these graduates are testimony to your love.

To the woman who stood behind me in the academic procession, I said, "You know, I think if you did that Bachelors degree in Psychology, you'd find yourself sitting in the lecture theatre and realising how much you already knew. But I also think that getting another degree isn't the thing that will make you feel comfortable that you are the expert in that field."

To her and to you I say: what you have achieved is unique and it is amazing. Only you can tell the world about what you know. Tell it in such a way that they read it and say, "Hey! Me too!"

You have something special to say. Tell your story.


  1. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Oh the things we might achieve if only we could believe in ourselves, and not think someone else has said it all before and better. You're right, we all know a lot more than we think we do. I am starting to agree with Auden when he said that authenticity is far more important than being original.

    I hope you will give this speech some day - you've planted the seeds, definitely :)

  2. Oh my Kat! You've made the speech now my friend and what a super smart way you have put it into words. Just the other day someone asked me if I wanted to give a talk on developing a business. Since it was "my authority". I thought, me.. authority on something...really? Your post nailed it, why do we think others always know more? Thank you for putting this out there now.

    In 5 years I wonder how this speech will have evolved? Your wisdom is ridiculous and I anticipate what your insights will be then and what more you will share along the way.

  3. My comment got lost again... (blame Internet Explorer...). But what I'd said was this:


    And now, reading your speech again, two words stand out: unique and amazing. Aye!

  4. What a brilliant writer you are. I am completely captivated by your story.