The 4 Adventures in Academia entries below appear with the most recent entries first. To see them displayed in the order they were written, please click here.

 December 10, 2009
Thoughts on "Why Cornell?"

Well, I foolishly posted a comment all-too-quickly on another blogger's site today, and now I'm going to have to babble for a bit to try to clarify what my muddled mind tried to squeeze into a few short sentences.

("Alliteration now is it? Same as my last visit!")

The blogger in question had made a recent post about how his daughter is considering schools in the Northeast, including, among them, my alma mater. Here is the gibberish I posted as a comment:

I’ve been lurking on your site for a bit, but when I saw the picture of my alma mater, I did a double-take. And to hear that your daughter is looking at Cornell… well!

I think I’m going to have to write an entry for my blog about “Why Cornell… (or, any Ivy, for that matter)?” The fact is, wherever your daughter goes, she’s apt to do well because of all that *you* have given her. Even so, by jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential.

It doesn’t hurt that each fresh snowfall on the Cornell campus lends a silent beauty (a blanket of snow is so *quiet* on the gorges and hills) that is unrivaled by any comparable snowfall in Cambridge, New York City, or Philadelphia — Ivy League towns where I’ve also lived. And when the leaves change color? When the summer thunderstorms rage? Awesome.

Now, obviously, weather should not be a primary factor in considering where to attend college -- that was all a reference to the blogger's (and his commenters') remarks about the snow there. That said, all things being equal regarding the colleges that make your short list, it's fair to make it *a* consideration.

Truth be told, yes, the snow and the cold can get a little old by the time you hit February in Ithaca. But the first snowfalls? The fantastic thunder storms? The autumnal foliage? It's every bit as fantastic as one could hope for. The natural beauty of the entire region is wonderful to experience.

And, after graduation, Ithaca is a fantastic town to FLEE! FLEE I SAY!

When I a high school senior, one of my teachers asked where I planned to apply. "Oh, UB," I said (referring to SUNY Buffalo, the local university).

"Where else?"

"Just UB."

"Why just UB?"

"Well..." And here's where I had to admit that, like many at my school, my family just didn't have the cash to pony up for an Ivy League education.

"Allan," she said, in that firm I Know What I'm Talking About voice that all good Social Studies teachers are required to have. "If you're smart enough to get into an Ivy League school, you're smart enough to qualify for scholarships."


She was right, you know. This applies to anyone. The Ivy League schools all enjoy a substantial endowment. The schools themselves will find a way to make absolutely certain that anyone they admit will not be prevented from attending because of financial constraints. Their financial aid offices are expert at extracting every penny the parents can afford... and then STOP. They don't take more than they can afford. If your family can't pay cash for the whole deal, the student can qualify for grants, student loans, and "work study" campus jobs. And Cornell has a program (called the Cornell Tradition) that, for working students, will pay off your loans as you accrue them.

What bothered me about my comment to the blogger's site was that I sent it off hastily, and it reads a bit, er, presumptuous. The line about, " jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential."

That sounds wrong. So, let me explain:

Over the years, I've taken many, many college courses at many different schools. SUNY Buffalo, University of Washington, Cornell, and University of Pennsylvania. Two state schools, and two Ivies. The classes were, on the whole, equally excellent at each school. The faculty? Equally good. Sure, there are a few more "star" academics at the Ivies, but the professors at those state schools are no slouches. And they do have academic stars of their own.

The difference that I noticed was in my classmates. And, again, don't get me wrong: I was surrounded, in each case, by people who were smarter than I. And, who better to learn with and from than people who know more than I do? But, each student body had its own dynamic (for lack of a better word), and the dynamic at Cornell was a little more... more.

They were a little more excited to see how far we could go. The late-night bull sessions were a little more animated; a little more thought provoking. Sure, we talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll, the same as any other college kids. But we also talked about the Bigger Picture more at Cornell than at the state schools. While there wasn't necessarily more intellect, there was more intellectual curiosity. More drive.

I saw what my friends were doing, and being a social creature (as are we all), I tried harder to keep up. And I know that by doing so, my classmates did the same. They worked harder to keep up with me.

Was Cornell a pressure cooker? Only if you made it one. I was a bit of a perfectionist my first year (a hold-over from my high school days), but got over that with time. In the Ferris Bueller's Day Off world, I started off as a Cameron, but ended as a Ferris. Except... the more I relaxed, the better my grades got. Go figure.

And, like most college kids, the good friends I made there did become friends for life. We may only speak to each other a couple times a year, but the bonds are strong. And my friends are successful. They continue to inspire me to better myself and my circumstances.

Of course we all have our problems. Of course my crew and I have had our shares of business failures, career flops, romantic woes and the like. But, by having each other as resources as well as inspiration, it's also been easier to recover from those setbacks. The friends I made during my days at Generation Magazine at UB? A couple went on to become reporters for city newspapers. My friends from the WVBR news department at Cornell? One became a VP at Disney (in charge of, while another is co-hosting Good Morning America on the weekends.

I love them all dearly. But who am I going to go to for career advice if I want to get back into news as a profession? (I'm looking for work, by the way, in case you know of any good job openings in software, project management, or, well, media. I'll post my resume shortly....)

Getting a degree from an Ivy does not guarantee you a job. It does not guarantee you a superior education. It doesn't guarantee you much more than what you bring to the table, yourself. But even after all these years, I still encourage my friends with children to consider that there *is* an advantage to an Ivy League experience. It's subtle, but it's there.

It's slightly better because you make it so. And that makes all the difference in the world.

[Coming up in a future post: Why I hated Cornell, and nobody should ever inflict it upon their kids!]

Posted by at 05:14 PM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia | Comments (3)
 June 12, 2008
Valedictory Advice

Around this time last year (and again this year), traffic to my site increased partially because there are a lot of folks out there searching Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines for ideas regarding "Valedictorian speeches." An essay that I posted here a couple of years ago ("Worst Valedictorian Speech Ever") ranks high among the search results. I guess there aren't a lot of us former Valedictorians who have posted our speeches, even though I *know* that there are many, many, many better examples out there of the species than my own feeble creation.

That said, I've received a couple of different kinds of reactions, neither of which I expected. One was a series of responses (both in public comments on the site and private e-mails) from people who were there, giving their [favorable] reactions (over two decades later, granted). The other kind of response I've received has been from kindred spirits currently facing the same kind of dilemmas I faced back then: given an opportunity to deliver a speech to the entire graduating class, its teachers and their administrators... now what?

"Kevin" posted the following just a few days ago:

Hi Allan, i am in a similar situation and seek some advice. i am valdictorian at my school and i've written about 3 first drafts of my speech by now, but every time it gets shut down [by] the principal because it is too negative and will make the school look bad. all i want to do is speak the truth about the injustices taking place and i am still debating whether or not so speak about the injustice. well, i would like to know if you feel it was worth it?

Well, now you've done it, Kevin. You've asked an old fart to give you adivce. Here goes.

First, congratulations on earning the top spot in your class. You certainly must have done an awful lot of busy-work homework assignments well in order to have filled that slot. My heart goes out to you. You will never be able to get those hours of your life back. But, then again, you wouldn't have been able to get them back if you had spent that time playing Nintendo, either.

Second, when you send out your college apps and resumes, be sure to capitalize your 'I's. [Sorry, Kevin, I couldn't resist.]

You ask if I feel it was worth it, delivering the speech that I did. Your question brings up dozens of thoughts, often conflicting, so here are a few in no particular order:

* As I mentioned in my essay, I'm embarrassed by that speech now, and by how bitter it makes the younger me out to have been. Never mind that I'm even more bitter now. Possibly. But bitterness isn't attractive. It doesn't get you the girls. Trust me, I know. From cruel, bitter experience.

* I gave that speech in 1986. I'm now forty years old. The events that led up to my writing and delivering that speech, and the fallout afterward, have had no lasting impact on my life that I'm aware of.

* I am not aware of my little speech having had any lasting impact on anyone else, for that matter. I got on stage and said my piece. As one teacher had remarked, I rained on some people's parade. Did the teachers and administrators kiss and make up as a result? No. The administrators continued the path that they were on, of favoring discipline over academics, and my alma mater's educational scores plummeted. Some very good teachers left the school, while other very good teachers stayed and did the best they could. Did any of the teachers change their approach to teaching or their relationship with the administration or how they handled their students? I don't imagine so, and I've never heard anything to imply otherwise.

* As The Man said so much better than I ever could (granted, he was speaking about other things, but the words are just as true now): "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here...."

* I'm proud that the speech mostly holds up after all these years, a few awkward phrases notwithstanding. If you agree it holds up, then I suspect it's because the speech was not specific about incidents, but about particular issues. Those issues apparently still resonate, even though the incidents that brought them to light are long since moot. [I told you my feelings are conflicting. Embarrassment and pride at the same time?]

* As a result of my speech, all of the valedictorians who came after me had to have their speeches vetted by the principal. So, I guess there was that one legacy. Since I'm opposed to censorship, I'm not proud of that legacy. Then again, what's the point of free speech if you aren't free to say something that makes the Establishment uncomfortable? Kevin, it's individuals like you who have individuals like me to thank for the fact that your speech has to be vetted. I'm sure the same would be true if our chronology were reversed.

There's more, but it's late, and I have [paying] work to do before I call it a day. More to the point is your own situation: unlike my situation, you have to have your speech vetted by the Establishment. Your principal is either hoping to make sure the event goes smoothly for all concerned, or he's covering his behind, or both.

You speak of injustice at your school, but of what nature? Racism? Favoritism? Socio-economic classism? Religionism? Were people expelled because they wore black trench coats [as has happened at some schools] or wrote violent essays? Was someone offended because they saw a Christmas tree and they don't believe in trees?

What was the severity of the injustice? Were the victims made to feel bad about themselves? Were they given lower grades or fewer privileges? Were they drummed out of school? Were they physically harmed?

Who is your speech aimed at? Your fellow students? The administration? Parents? The janitorial staff?

These are important questions that will shape your approach. The thing is, your message can be expressed in either positive or negative terms, and you have the choice of being humorous or serious.

Comedy is much, much, much more subversive. It is also harder to pull off. I've spent most of my "adult" life (including my time at high school) absorbing and practicing comedy. But as I learned recently, I can still miss the mark badly. I wrote a self-deprecating piece about my Irish heritage a couple of weeks ago, and managed to offend family members in the process. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted to do (and I'm still working on the apology -- a well-crafted apology is even harder to employ successfully than comedy, which is hard enough). I knew when I wrote my valedictorian speech that I was neither in the mood nor did I have the chops necessary to write humor for that particular audience at that particular time. Your mileage may vary.

If your target audience is your principal, you've already delivered your message, and it has been rejected. So, move on. If your goal is to upstage your principal, you can always have him vet one speech and then deliver another. Note: I am *not* recommending this. Unless you see your principal as a villain, it's reasonable to assume he has good reasons for steering you in the direction he is. Allow me to suggest you work with him to address his concerns but still address yours, as well.

If your goal is to give a memorable speech, allow me to recommend stand-up comedy rather than the aforementioned pointed humor or deadly-serious approach. There are several examples of this approach available on the web.

[Then again, they come up higher in the search engines than my speech, so since you found me, I'll assume you've already decided to consider other-than-stand-up-comedy options.]

BTW, nobody will remember your speech. Sorry. But you can post it online later to remind them. When you do, send me a link.

I knew my speech would never have been approved if it had to go through serious vetting. As was pointed out in the comments section of my post on the subject, I wrote the speech at the last minute with the collaboration of my writing partner of that time (and with whom I later went on to edit a college humor magazine). Had I written my speech in collaboration with the school principal instead, I couldn't begin to guess what form it would have arrived at. It might have been a fine speech. But it certainly would have been different.

But my goal wasn't to upstage the principal; nor was it to rain on my fellow graduates' parade. I knew that was going to be the result, but that wasn't the point. I truly wanted to say something worth saying. In retrospect, I'm still not sure that I did.

You ask my advice, but here I am yammering "It depends! It depends!" Here's the deal, Kevin:

  1. eighty percent of communication is non-verbal. Tone of voice and body language convey more meaning than the words being said.
  2. sometimes, some well-placed silence, employed strategically, can speak volumes more than words ever can. [Along those lines: if I had had more time, this essay would have been much, much shorter.]
  3. if at all possible, work with your principal in good faith on the message, especially if the principal is working with you in good faith.
  4. practice, practice, practice the delivery.
Here's a little secret about my valedictorian speech that I didn't share when I first wrote about it publicly: I'm not terribly proud of the speech, but I *am* proud of the delivery.

Posted by at 04:00 AM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia , Essays , Writing | Comments (1)
 June 20, 2006
Worst Valedictorian Speech Ever

Subtitle: Do People Change? Part I

It's that time of year again. The time of year often referred to as "Dads and Grads" -- when Father's Day and Graduation Day collide. What better time of year for me to trot out the Worst Valedictorian Speech Ever?

There are a number of reasons that this should come up right now; several different conversations between and among colleagues of mine, past and present, converged upon my recent discovery of a copy of the Bennett High School (Buffalo, NY) valedictorian speech for 1986. It is a crude document, and I don't even know if this copy is a first draft or the piece as it was delivered. I do know that starting the following year, Bennett's valedictorians had to run their speeches by the principal before they were to be delivered.

By way of background, I'll tell you how my thinking led up to this particular speech. [I'd considered posting this speech anonymously, but I'll cop to it. I wrote it. I'm embarrassed by it now, but I wrote it.]

Valedictorian addresses tend to be 1) long, 2) boring, 3) filled with homilies about how "we are the future" and all that nonsense, and 4) otherwise devoid of a point. I therefore set out to write a speech that was: 1) short, 2) not boring, and 3) offered no pat epigraphs nor advice for the future and 4) made a point.

That said, I could have gone the comedy/humor route and accomplished those goals, but I since the point I wanted to make was not funny, I ended up going down the crabby route instead.

Also by way of background: the teachers and the administration were actively and openly fighting each other during my last two years at the school, which had some very direct and very personal consequences for a few of my classmates.

I am not proud at all of this speech or my choices in making it. But it is what it is, and I was who I was at the time. I can be every bit as crabby these days as I was back then (although, to be fair, I'm not *always* crabby), but I'd like to think that I have a more delicate touch these days, when I choose to use it.

Allow me to set the scene: it's 1986. Summer in Buffalo. Hot. Sticky. The graduating class of 300 or so adolescents is rowdy. Each grad having been allowed up to four guests (and many finding a way to sneak in more than that), the auditorium is packed. I took the stage. I waited for everyone to quiet down. After I stood there for a few moments, they did quiet down. Silence. Then I read a short note that went something like this:

So ends four years of high school.

What can I say? There are many things I'd like to say, but I don't know where to begin. Some people have said they think my speech should be positive while others think I should talk about the negative side of Bennett. The fact is that there are both positive and negative aspects that we should consider . . . about Bennett, and about leaving Bennett.

When I decided to come to Bennett, I though that high school would be a place where administrators and teachers worked together to raise the level of education of the students . . . an institution where creative thought was fostered and intellectual and athletic pursuits were encouraged. Well, I didn't find quite that here at Bennett, but I did find several experiences which will serve me well in my future endeavors. None of us are leaving Bennett without an education, although much of that education was received outside the classroom. In fact, most of the knowledge we have gained here is based upon our experiences with the politics of a high school culture. It has become clear to me that the students who pursued knowledge were able to find it. Keep in mind that even though we are graduating, we should still pursue an education.

To my fellow graduating students, I wish you farewell. There is no warning I can give you that you haven't already heard; no advice that hasn't already been offered; no profound thought that would make a difference at this time. I have come to know some of you and found friendship with a few of you.

And so, here I am, with a great opportunity to say all of the things I've been wanting to say, but I'm leaving most of it unsaid. I am concerned about too many things. If I told you everything that bothered me, nothing positive would be accomplished and it would give you an inaccurate view of my opinions of Bennett. If I talked about Peace, Love, and Kindness, it would no doubt make you throw up in those silly little hats they make us wear at these ceremonies. Yes, I'm leaving a lot of things unsaid.

So ends four years of high school.

When I finished, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. I don't recall there being any applause. A teacher later mentioned to me that after I left the stage, she leaned over to a colleague and said, "If I ever hold a parade, remind me to invite Allan over to rain on it." Or words to that effect.

Did I really say "throw up in those silly little hats they make us wear?" I shudder to think that I may have.

But if I was bitter at the time, I will note that history vindicated my displeasure. At the time I entered BHS, it had only recently been the spawning grounds of the City Honors school. After a few years under the reign of Principal W., it became one of the worst rated schools academically in the state of New York -- a dubious distinction that it continues to maintain, despite the departure of the aforementioned principal a couple of years ago.

BTW, I like Ms. W. as a person. She was kind and supportive of me, and certainly presented a laudable attitude toward the school. I just thought at the time (and still think) that her priorities for running the school were contrary to providing a sound education.

As another side-note, I will also mention that my dearest friend and academic rival from my high school class has offered a credible claim that a math error in calculating our class standings falsely reversed her (salutatorian) and my positions within the ranks. In other words, she has a compelling case that she deserved the valedictorian position and I the salutatorian. [Our respective GPAs, adjusted for giving honors classes a stronger weight, were a statistical tie, with naught but a sliver of a sliver of a percentage point separating us. It could easily have gone either way. The official results gave me the edge. My friend's contention is that the official results are based upon an ever-so-slight math error in the calculation of her adjusted GPA.]

If her argument is true (and I suspect that it is), it throws my acceptance into Cornell (and later, UPenn for grad school) into doubt, not to mention any subsequent edge I may have enjoyed in employment opportunities because of my degree(s), cascading into a domino effect that could mean that I *should* be a very different person today than I am. [How do you like that lead-in to my "Do people change?" subtitle?]

I am certain that my high school rival's speech, had she the opportunity to have written one, would have been far more eloquent than mine. BUT... would she have had the guts to rain quite so hard on our graduation parade?

Look for more thoughts on these and other questions in an upcoming post...

Posted by at 12:46 AM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia , Essays , Writing | Comments (8)
 December 06, 2005
Advice for a Plagiarist

I just read a fascinating story in the New York Press online about the strange case of Brad Vice. The author of the article, Robert Clark Young, highlights a few choice details about how at least two significant short stories attributed to Mr. Vice contain passages that were stolen ('borrowed') from other works. These two stories won Mr. Vice awards and accolades, and were published in markets I continue to try to break into.

Perhaps I should reword that -- ending a sentence with a preposition is one thing, but should I say I want to "break into" a market when theft (of intellectual property, granted) is the issue being discussed?

Never mind. The point is, Brad Vice has been caught red-handed stealing other people's work and calling it his own. He is a professor and, the evidence suggests, a plagiarist. His transgressions have embarrassed several institutions now that the story has come to light. His literary theft is so significant that his university employer has even (gasp) "formed a committee to investigate him on plagiarism charges." (Those are Robert Clark Young's words, not mine. I'm quoting that phrase and attributing it, accordingly, under the rules of fair use.)

I have a suggestion for Mr. Vice. Should your position at Mississippi State University become at risk, you may wish to consider applying to join the faculty at University of Pennsylvania. As I learned during my time there in grad school, plagiarism not only won't get you fired from UPenn, but you may not even have to face a cut in pay. And if you think I've paid particular attention to Penn's plagiarism problems because the victim of one of Penn's more interesting cases while I was a student there was named Allen Roussel (such a wonderful accident of homonym!), you'd be right.

Posted by at 01:41 AM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia | Comments (0)

Copyright (c)1998 - 2010 by Allan Rousselle. All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed, all reservations righted, all right, already.
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The author. January, 2010.
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