Author Bio

The Graduation Speech

posted: 5.16.11 by archived

For many of us, the spring semester has come to an end. We may be grading the last few papers, planning a summer of leisure or a summer of research, or (if you are like me) preparing to teach the summer session. One common event happening across campuses is graduation. So in today’s post, I want to share some links and ideas about the graduation, or commencement, address.

The graduation speech is an interesting but often underexplored (and poorly delivered) genre. As Al Gore said in his commencement address at Johns Hopkins University in 2005: “in preparing my remarks, in all seriousness I tried very hard to remember who spoke at my commencement in 1969. I have no idea. Unless I’ve just tricked you into remembering, my bet is that thirty years from now you won’t have any idea what was said here.” I can’t remember who spoke at my own graduation ceremony. I just remember having to kneel while someone touched a sword to my shoulder. (No, I wasn’t being knighted—Canadian graduation ceremonies are just strange.)

Scholars like Lois Agnew have written about the complex rhetorical situation of these speeches. The speaker is not necessarily expected to speak freely. (Agnew examines the audience’s negative reaction to New York Times reporter Chris Hedges’ antiwar speech at Rockford College in 2003.) Unlike other forms of public rhetoric, the speaker is expected to congratulate, offer advice, make jokes, tell an inspirational story. But not necessarily to put forward a challenging idea or opinion. The result of this rhetorical difficulty is that many of these speeches are forgettable—because many of them are bland and similar, full of inspirational clichés and safe and simple life lessons. But as we know as teachers, the strict conventions of some genre often produce interesting communicative results.

If you have the opportunity to work with students in the days before or after the commencement at your own school, as I do, you might consider looking at a few example speeches (and the video of the speech at your school). You can then discuss some of the conventions of the genre—as well as the popular subgenres. How have speakers worked well within constraints, or pushed the envelope, or subverted the rules? How do celebrity speakers exploit or utilize their own fame? How do speakers address the specific needs of their audience? I tried to collect some good examples for you, below:


Will Ferrell at Harvard in 2003

Stephen Colbert at Knox College in 2006


Toni Morrison at Wellesley College, 2004

Winston Churchill, Harrow School in 1941

Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon in 2008

Oprah Winfrey at Stanford, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut at Rice University, 1998


Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005

Ursula K. Le Guin at Mills College, 1983

David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

John F. Kennedy at American University in 1963

Kermit the Frog at Southampton College, 1996

Margaret Atwood at the University of Toronto, 1983


Categories: Campus Issues, Jay Dolmage
You might also like: Violence, Schools, Teaching
Read All archived

Comments are closed.