“Chancellor Jones, Provost Stocks, Deans, my husband, fellow faculty, parents, and most of all students—I am honored to speak to you tonight as the 2014 recipient of the Elsie M. Hood Award at the University of Mississippi. All year, the knowledge that I’d received this award has made me happy, even though the fact that I had to make a speech totally freaked me out. I have taught at the University of Mississippi for more than 26 years, and during that time I have had so many interesting students—students who are asking the deep, perennial questions about literature, the world, and life. It has been a tremendous privilege to work with them and teach them.
I believe that each of us has a vocation, a calling—some gift that we are meant to offer to existence. Finding that is always the challenge—and will be the challenge for each of you young people who are in this audience tonight.
Teaching is an important part of my vocation. It is a pleasure to introduce students to classics of American literature, to discuss literature with them, to help them explore the infinitely rich and complex world of poetry, and work with them on their own creative writing. It is a pleasure to travel with them on trips for study abroad, which I’ve done several times to Paris and once to Costa Rica. It is a pleasure to watch them grow and graduate—and sometimes, to keep in touch with them for many years. I’ve been fortunate to teach at a university where the humanities are valued, and I’m proud to be a part of this amazing literary community.
I’m also especially proud of the university’s Environmental Studies minor, which I helped to develop and which I direct. Now seven years old, the minor has around fifty declared students and offers a wide array of courses in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences, as well as opportunities to get course credit for internships, study abroad, and/or independent studies. The classes unite students from many different disciplines and usually unrelated fields of study, facilitating—as one senior said—“some of the best discussions and classroom experiences that I have had here at Ole Miss.” Still, many on campus are not aware of the minor, and that’s why I wanted to focus on it tonight.
I could talk to you forever about why I value this minor—and why I believe that, at this point in history, environmental studies should be absolutely at the forefront of any university education. But instead, I decided to enlist a little help from the ENVS students by asking them what the minor means to them. Here are excerpts from what they wrote:
“At a university in a state where environmental issues often seem to be last on the ballot, the Environmental Studies minor offers an outlet for students who want to see a change.”
It “drastically impacted my future plans. . . . The environmental concepts I picked up along the way made me realize that I could pursue a career in environmental toxicology which impacts both the environment and human health.”
One young man, who had already graduated with a degree in accounting, but decided to stay an extra semester in order to enroll in the minor, said: [T]he ENVS program has changed my future career path and life goals. I’ve learned about the disproportionally huge impact that the human species has on the earth, and I want my relationship with the earth to be different. I realize how much I take from the earth, and I want, in some way, to give back.
Another spoke of his own life:
Growing up poor to a cotton farming family in the Mississippi Delta, I saw firsthand how destructive this lifestyle was. I knew in my heart there was something wrong with the way we were living, some giant disconnect. . . . The Environmental Studies program rekindled hope and meaning in my life [because it helped me] understand that our health and happiness are in direct communion with the health of the planet that supports us. [It] has not only driven home how dire our condition is, but highlighted ways in which we can stay positive and work towards a better future.
And finally, a young woman who has been a campus leader related the minor to the charge of the university:
The Creed is held at the center of all we do as a University. In the Creed, we are told that the University is a “learning community” that values individual dignity, fairness, and integrity, as well as “good stewardship of our natural resources”. . . . [W]hen I think about the coursework that has truly fostered in me the sense of awareness valued in the Creed, my environmental studies classes come immediately to mind. . . . By caring for our environment and future generations, we are learning . . . to put the wellbeing of others ahead of ourselves. By pursuing environmental justice and protecting that which does not have a voice, we demonstrate the values of the Creed.
There’s a saying, purported to come from ancient China: “May you live in interesting times.” When I first heard this saying, I thought it was a blessing. But in fact, it is a curse, meaning, approximately, may you live in times of disruption and turmoil.
Well, we live in interesting times. Our young people go forth into a world where, for all of its beauty and pleasures, there’s also great hardship, uncertainty, and violence, as well as an intensifying anthropogenic environmental crisis. No matter what our beliefs or political persuasions, I think that most of us want pretty much the same things: peace; kindness; the sustaining presence of community; an environmentally viable world where it is possible to raise and eat good food, drink clean water, breathe clean air; a sense that life is purposeful and meaningful. Billions of people alive right now do not enjoy these things. And sometimes, as responsible, mindful citizens, it’s easy to despair.
Once, in college, when I suffered a great loss, I received a letter from a woman I barely knew, who had had a similar grief. She said that work had pulled her through and given her a reason to keep living. Her letter sank deep, and that’s the point at which I became a serious student. During the months that followed, I learned that, indeed, work is one of the best antidotes for despair. But not just any work. Here we come back to the idea of vocation—of finding a calling that commands our love. And, students, that’s the exciting project that faces each of you.
“What thou lovest well remains,” wrote Ezra Pound, in the midst of World War II, in his beautiful Pisan Cantos:
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
. . .
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
Each of us is thrown into this world, but each of us also creates this world—and so it matters what we do and what we love. You students in this audience step forward into the world that we parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and grandparents have made. It is not an unmixed blessing. But may you do so courageously, wholeheartedly, with dedication and imagination. May you live lives that fulfill you and benefit the world that so much needs you.
I teach yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, and every yoga class ends with a Sanskrit salutation, Namaste, which means, simply, “The light in me greets and honors the light in you.” To everyone in this audience, Namaste. Thank you for hearing me and, once again, for honoring me. To the students who are being celebrated tonight: blessings and all wishes for your happiness.”