The Loh Life

The Commencement Speech: Part Two, Partial Credit

The second part of Sandra Tsing Loh's series on delivering a commencement speech.

So I was ASKED to give a commencement speech at UC Irvine. The school was having something like 12 commencement CEREMONIES. So I figured MY graduation sub-division, the School of Physical SCIENCES, would be a couple hundred people on a small LAWN.

But no. Google Maps led to a GIANT sports dome, whose bleachers were being filled, antlike, by THOUSANDS of people.

“That’s a LOT of SCIENCE grads,” I thought. “Thank GOD I worked hard on my speech.” I had a great ARGUMENT about how the advancement of technology has, paradoxically, made us more stupid. We now use as much computational POWER as once was used to launch ROCKETS to locate the nearest CHEESECAKE Factory. Hence science’s new mission is not just to do great science but to COMMUNICATE it better, thus SPREADING the gospel of deductive reasoning, because today’s problems will require not just technological but human solutions--

But in the ROBING room, as I don cap and gown, a nice man says, “Thank you for speaking at our graduation”-- And in slow motion I hear him say, “I’m the dean of the arts school!”

It turns out it’s a well-known-to-everyone-except-ME Irvine tradition that the science and art undergrads CELEBRATE commencement together! So worried was I about confusing Riverside for Irvine or spending 10 hours on the five and being LATE-- I never thought to ask why they kept mentioning the CLARE TREVOR SCHOOL OF THE ARTS in the e-mails!

Recalling the Far Side cartoon—do you remember? The elephant at the grand piano?—I am cocooned in mortar board and robe, entering an arena filled with 4000 screaming people, totally wrong speech in hand.

I OPEN with: “Congratulations, science graduates, and congratulations, school of the arts, whom I did not know I was addressing until 30 minutes ago.” I wobble on. “Sure I prepared a speech for scientists, but in the ARTS, we improv!”

To their credit, UC Irvine kids are the best-- They did science versus art cheers, they did alternating “waves”-- At one point the performing arts grads ACTED as though they were SCIENCE grads--?

So I plowed forward with my physics joke. It referenced QUANTUM mechanics and Clebsch Gordon coefficients and partial credit and how you’ll be right 60% of the time if you just guess atomic spin equals one-half. Oh did they howl! This one small section. Everyone around them was—to use an art metaphor—an oil painting.

And so to all you grads, belated congratulations! And if you ever get called to do a commencement speech, my advice? STUDY HARD.


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