Brown Doctoral Ceremony Speech: Jen Thum ’19 Ph.D.

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Brown Doctoral Ceremony Speech: Jen Thum ’19 Ph.D.

I’ve really been looking forward to saying
these two words: Hello, doctors! [APPLAUSE] Let’s do it one more time, like bigger and better, ready? Hello, doctors! Congratulations on your hard-earned achievements and on getting to wear these very funny clothes. Now I know many of you have worn academic
dress before, because as degree-earning goes, you are a pro—but some of this is probably
new to you, as it was to me. So according to the Intercollegiate Registry
of Academic Costume, this is a tam. It is not simply a hat. Tams are based on the 16th-century Tudor bonnet. At Brown the tam is only worn for the highest
of degrees. And although you may have worn a tassel before,
the gold tassel is reserved only for those entitled to wear the doctoral gown. All of our hoods are blue, because blue is
the color traditionally assigned to philosophy—and you are, after all, becoming a doctor of philosophy. So I just did what grad students do best:
learn something new and then explain it to someone else. And this is a theme I’ll return to shortly. For some of you, this is the first of many
times that you’ll wear the quirky costume of a doctor. For others, it will be the only time. Both of these are momentous occasions. Class of 2019, you’ve done a lot to earn
the right to wear these clothes. So give yourselves a round of applause. You documented the emerging queer subculture
in India; investigated the effects of climate change in tropical forests; explored the role
of performance in learning foreign languages; and evaluated the hydrology of a young planet
Mars. That is amazing. And I know there are so many more incredible
projects that I don’t yet know about. But let me ask you this: on the road to this
moment, how many of your friends and family outside of the Brown bubble have asked you
what it is that you’ve been doing these last 5 or 6 or 7 years? Today many of them are sharing Brown with
you for the very first time, on the very last day of your time here. As you celebrate this achievement today with
friends and family, have you considered just how you are going to communicate to them not
only the value of what you have accomplished but also literally, what you did all this
time in Rhode Island? My PhD is in archaeology and I can tell you
right now that I have a whole lot of relatives who think I’ve spent the last 6 years learning
how to dig the perfect hole. If you can’t articulate your PhD project
to your grandma, how will you explain its value to your neighbor? To your local community? To persistent strangers on the Internet? Because you should want to do this—we all
should. In our current moment, the ecosystem of higher
education is in crisis. And I don’t use that word lightly: an increase
in skepticism of scholarly expertise; the spread of misinformation when the science
clearly says otherwise; doubts about the value of academic work in the “real world”;
and cutbacks in research funding. Whether you’ve decided to enter academia
or have chosen another path, transparency and dialogue about what we do as PhD holders
is essential to making our work, and the institutions in which we do it, accessible. Will all that work you did here at Brown stay
in your academic world or the career you’ve chosen to pursue? Or will it have legs? We got all dressed up this morning and processed
through a monumental gate, in a group led by a man in a top hat and a woman in a giant
gold chain. To the outside world, this looks like a place
of privilege. And it is. We’ve had that privilege. We know what universities often feel like
for the local communities that surround them: like places apart from their own experience,
places where the knowledge comes from. But not necessarily welcoming places—or
places that engage with anyone outside the system. How do we change this? It starts with us not as scholars, but as
publicly visible members of our communities. It’s up to us to demystify higher ed, to
redeem it from its crisis and to make it truly impactful. In my second year here, I participated in
a program called Think Like an Archaeologist. Students in my department spend part of the
semester teaching 6th graders in Providence public schools. We’re not trying to turn them all into little
archaeologists; we’re just there to teach them why it’s important to study the past,
and also to teach them how to make maps. I hadn’t been in a middle school since I
was in middle school. But doing this was like my initiation into
this city. That semester I became a citizen of Providence. It made me realize that these kids are also
part of my community. Just because they aren’t on campus, doesn’t
mean that I don’t have a duty to them, in the same way that we all have a duty to each
other. Many of our fellow PhDs have understood that
we have a responsibility to folks outside of Brown and our disciplines, and they’ve
found lots of creative ways to counteract the crisis. Do you know about Skype a Scientist? 500 Women Scientists? Or our very own home-grown career-mentoring
network, founded by a team of Brown PhDs, called Inventing Heron? One of our fellow PhDs goes on Reddit and
serves as a resident expert in his field. Maybe that doesn’t seem like the right venue
for your energy. Or maybe you don’t know what Reddit is,
in which case, consider yourself lucky! But what about one of our anthropologist colleagues
who has lent his expertise in radio interviews for NPR? The dozens of graduate students who’ve done
public talks for Research Matters!, which anyone can access on YouTube? The students who have taught in the prison
system. Or the neuroscientist who leads Nerd Nite
Rhode Island and creates cartoons to explain complex topics in her field? These efforts are one in the same. They reach different audiences, but they’re
a form of public practice and a means of both demystifying the PhD and making a tangible
impact on those outside of the higher ed system. I recently faced my toughest audience yet: fourth graders. Far scarier than my committee, they were video
chatting with me from their classroom in Pierce City, Missouri, and they had lots of questions
that made me think. It was a chance for me to respond to their
interests, and to learn how my field is viewed and understood by others. Engaged scholarship is a dialogue, not a one-way
street. Talk to people about what you did here. It was hard! You earned it! Academia produces progress but also struggle
and self-doubt. I challenge you not just to own your topic,
but how you got here. Because we can’t expect others to follow
in our footsteps, or to follow our logic, if we don’t humanize and demystify the PhD. Let’s start here. Right now you’re probably sitting next to
someone you don’t know. And you’re going to be sitting next to them
for the next hour. But by the time you leave this tent today
I hope you’ll have taken the opportunity to tell them a bit about your work in a way
that someone outside of your field can understand. Consider this your first round of practice. As you walk around this afternoon in your
tam and your hood and your gown, people are going to congratulate you. Random people on the street. Because you look the part. So I encourage you not just to say thank you
and keep walking, but to stop for a minute and tell them what you did and how you got
here, and why it matters to you, to your field, and to the rest of us. Do what grad students do best. You learned something new. Now, explain it to someone else. Congratulations again, class of 2019!

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