The following is the prepared text of the address delivered by Assistant Professor of Sociology Austin Johnson during a Senior Celebration of the Class of 2020, presented via video on May 29, 2020. Members of the Class of 2020 voted to select Johnson as their Baccalaureate speaker. Watch video of the speech here at 15:03.
Lords, Ladies and Non-Binary Nobility of the Class of 2020:
Congratulations, and thank you for inviting me here today. I am honored that y’all saw fit to select me to deliver remarks at this celebration of your time at Kenyon. You all have given me a great gift that I will not soon forget.
It has been a privilege to share this Hill with y’all for the last three years. When I started at Kenyon in fall of 2017, you all were in your second year at the College. By the time I had any of you in class, you were seasoned students, confident in class discussion, prepared to take a deep dive into the material and, if I am being honest, a bit terrifying for a first-year faculty member! In many ways, you all have been my teachers as much as I have been yours.
That fall of my first year, I had 17 members of your class in the two seminars I was teaching. I found myself reading more books and articles than I had assigned, preparing extra lecture material for each class to gear up for those curveball questions you’d bring to our group discussions and to office hours. I prepared more for some of those classes than I did for the teaching demonstration at my interview for this job!
You put me through my paces, you trained me, showed me the ropes and you tested me. You all taught me how to teach you. You all taught me what to expect from Kenyon College students and how to cope with the gravity and the responsibility of being a Kenyon College professor. For much of my life, I did not know that places like Kenyon College existed. Until I came to campus for my interview in fall of 2016, I never thought I would experience it first hand and even today, I am blown away that I get to be a part of this community. I have your class to thank for welcoming me and making me feel so at home.
I grew up in Union, South Carolina, at the time a working-class town with several textile mills. When I was born, we lived in a small house on Buffalo Mill Hill. The Mill Hill was once a village owned and operated by the Buffalo Mill Company, which in its early days had its own school, company store, clinic, pharmacy and even its own baseball team. We lived in one of the houses that was originally built by the mill and rented out to its laborers, although by 1987, when I came into the world, the only thing remaining of Buffalo Mill’s business was the textile mill itself. Both of my parents, only a couple of years older than you all are now, worked in the weave room at Buffalo Mill. They started there when they were in high school, or, rather, after they dropped out of high school. Mill work was good work for my family and many other families in the ’80s and ’90s — steady wages, regular hours and even health insurance — but textile production in the United States was declining and my parents still struggled to make ends meet. Our family often had to get creative in those gaps between when the money ran out and when the next paycheck came.
I never really expected that I would attend college. Since my grades and test scores were strong I received a lot of college brochures in the mail when I was in high school, so I daydreamed a lot about going to college, but the combined cost of tuition and room and board on those glossy pages was often more money than my parents’ combined income over an entire year. That reminds me of something one of my students said last spring: that when she is in a funk, she creates Pinterest boards planning dream vacations she will likely never take. College was really nice to think about but neither my parents, nor anyone else in my family, knew the first thing about applications, financial aid or choosing a school. I was ready to call the whole thing off when a guidance counselor encouraged me to consider colleges and universities in South Carolina that offered significant scholarships to in-state students who met the requirements.
Once I got there, it took a few years and five different declarations before I settled on a major. I would go back and forth between majors that seemingly had clearer trajectories after college, like nursing or accounting, and majors that were more in line with my values and interests, like sociology, which helped me understand my place in the world, the institutions and social structures that created it, and ways that I could contribute to making it better. I decided to go with my gut and finally declared a sociology major, the department whose books I couldn’t wait to read and lectures I was most excited to attend. I was also active in campus life, and organized a few different social justice organizations on campus, work I imagined I would continue once I got my sociology degree. I thought I might work for a non-profit or advocacy organization, or that I might work for a few years in social services until I found another position that better suited my interests in social justice. I could not wait to hit the ground running when I graduated!
As major life transitions often go, things were not as smooth sailing as I had anticipated. I graduated in 2008, and the country was in the thick of an economic recession. There were very few jobs available for new college graduates, and even fewer at that time for those of us with a sociology degree. It also turned out there were not that many paid jobs in South Carolina for people doing social justice work at that time. Those hiring for the jobs that were available and in line with my interest were only open to candidates with more education and experience than I had. My fresh-faced enthusiasm was hit hard by an unfriendly job market. When I graduated college, I thought that by not landing a job right away in my preferred field, I had failed at this important life transition. I thought I had to have it all figured out. I struggled financially and emotionally that first year after graduation. I was tempted to throw in the towel, but I decided to keep working for what I wanted, and become the candidate those jobs were looking for. If it was more education that I needed, I would go to graduate school. If it was more experience, then I would volunteer while getting my master’s degree. I had no idea if it would work, but I decided to stay the course anyhow.
If you had told me that seven years later, I would be awarded a Ph.D. in sociology and would accept an offer to join the faculty at Kenyon College where I teach theories related to social inequalities and the research methods necessary to better understand them, I would have laughed in your face. It turned out that what I had perceived as my big failure was the key to my eventual success, even though it certainly did not seem that way at the time.
Those of you who know me, know that I know a thing or two about transitions. Sociologist Glen Elder, who studied the social effects of the Great Depression, describes life transitions as the events that grant our lives meaning and form: your first day of grade school, your high school graduation, when you moved to this Hill and when you will leave it this spring. These pivotal moments serve as markers of individual development and come with what sociologists refer to as social scripts: guidelines for our emotions, blueprints for our behaviors and an unwritten catalog of the social meanings attached to them.
While common and more or less anticipated, these transitions are not easy and seldom straightforward. They are, in fact, quite destabilizing for many of us. We are pushed into new institutions, different patterns of interactions, unfamiliar expectations. We find ourselves second guessing our instincts, questioning our plans of action and comparing ourselves to others going through similar transitions. How should you feel about graduating college? What will you do now? What does it mean if you do not do the expected or anticipated thing? Under ordinary circumstances, transitions are characterized by mixed emotions, uncertainty about what comes next and a healthy fear of failure. Under extraordinary circumstances, like an economic recession, a global pandemic or both, it can feel like these transitions have the potential to throw you completely off track.
So, in Elder’s paradigm of meaning and form, you might think of graduation and the other pivotal moments of your life — these transitions that often mark your accomplishments — as opportunities not only for celebration but for personal reflection and re-evaluation. Those of you who I’ve been lucky enough to teach have likely heard me say more than once that the most important evaluation is the difference between where you start and where you end up, not how you perform at any given time or on any given task, and not in relation to the outcome of your peers. What have you learned, about your subject and about yourself? How have you grown, as a scholar and as a person? What are your personal gains, of course related to your knowledge and skill, but also in terms of the content of your character? What practices have you honed that will help you through this exciting transition, under these extraordinary circumstances, and allow you to stay the course when life has thrown things off track?
My students know that I love a good pep talk. And I love to start them with stories that sometimes betray my point.
Here’s the deal: I know that you all have what it takes to weather this transition of yours, with all of its uncertainty and unexpected twists and turns. I know that you have what it takes to stay the course when life inevitably throws you off track. I know that you are capable of thriving when your plans go up in smoke. My colleagues and I have watched you do it. Over the course of your time at Kenyon, and over the last 10 weeks especially, you have overcome disappointment, collective and individual trauma, and personal and global tragedy to make it to this triumphant moment.
In mid-March, life threw us all a curveball. In response to a disappointing and jarring interruption to your senior year, you all found ways to stay the course. You were adaptive, ready to jump into whatever the new plan turned out to be. You were compassionate and gracious as we figured out new technology and new protocol. You were active, speaking out on behalf of practices and policies that centered members of our community with the fewest resources. You were altruistic, mobilizing students, faculty and staff in fundraising efforts to help our neighbors in Knox County. You skillfully practiced self-advocacy, letting us know when you were struggling and how we could help you adapt to remote learning. You maintained engagement when motivation was hard to come by for all of us, showing up to Google Meet sessions ready to make the most of the abbreviated time we had together. You showed up to virtual office hours with as much passion as you brought to those we shared on campus.
Class of 2020, your college graduation is one of the great transitions of your life; whether you take a job, start graduate school or give yourself a bit more time to figure out what comes next, this transition will change you. And you just so happen to be embarking on it during one of the great transitions of our global community. If Elder is right, and transitions do give our lives meaning and form, take a moment not only to celebrate but to reflect on the meaning that you will take from this one. How will you allow it to form your life?
I thought I would be giving this speech to a sea of faces spread out across the lawn at Sam Mather. Yet, here I am, in a near empty room, talking to a video camera. I cannot see your faces. I also cannot see the faces of the other people in this room. Before 10 weeks ago, this would have felt incredibly strange to me. Over the last 10 weeks, I have gotten more used to the masks, I’ve adjusted to speaking into a camera when communicating with my students, I’ve grown accustomed to the social distance.
We have all learned to face uncertainty daily in ways we did not foresee; we are all in a great transition. I can’t wait to see what you all do in this great transition of yours, and, indeed, this great transition of ours.