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It's convocation. Pass me a pillow.

Prof. Pettigrew on those boring graduation speeches

Photo by m00by on Flickr

This weekend is convocation weekend at my august institution. Loving ceremony as I do, I tend to look forward to it. We wear our robes, there’s a bag-piper, people are happy. It’s a good day.

But I always dread the speeches. Not because I don’t enjoy a good speech. I do. It’s just that the speeches are almost never good. In fact, they often suck. And usually for the same reason. Strange as it sounds, the reason is this: people don’t try to say something interesting.

Instead of something insightful and original, convocation speeches, in my experience, tend to be about the same tired old things. You are the leaders of tomorrow. Never give up. It’s important to have a positive attitude.

I can understand why people are drawn to such topics. They’re easy. They’re safe. You can’t go too far wrong. But you can’t go too far right, either. Such things are inoffensive, but, sadly uninspiring.

My advice to anyone giving a convocation address would be the same thing I tell my students. Think of what you think you should say and then try saying the opposite. Using my list from above, my technique would generate the following topics:

1. The followers of tomorrow. This address would recognize that even among educated people not everyone can be a leader. And even if they can, they cannot lead in every aspect of their lives. The question then becomes, how does an educated person follow in a way that helps the larger cause but is still critical and skeptical? How does one contribute when not in charge?

2. When to give up. It’s nice to say “never give up,” but the cold arithmetic of reality means that not everyone can achieve every dream they have. Most singers are not going to be stars. Most athletes are not going pro. Most executives are not going to end up in the CEO’s chair. It follows then that part of living a wise and healthy life means knowing when to throw in the towel. But how do you distinguish between a smart choice to face reality and a failure to persevere? I’d like to hear a speech about that.

3. The value of a negative attitude. Everyone likes positivity but the desire to stay positive can be a hindrance when there are real problems or objections to be made. In fact, sometimes the most valuable contribution can come from the person who is brave enough to say “are you out of your mind?”. Sometimes somebody has to be the bad guy.

Any one of these topics would be the most original convocation speech I’ve ever heard, which, as I’ve suggested, is not bragging. So feel free to borrow my suggestions. Or, if you’re organizing a convocation next year, offer me an honourary degree and I’ll come and give the speech myself.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Follow @toddpettigrew and @maconcampus on Twitter. Click here to like us on Facebook.