Graduation address – Professor Will Fowler

Thursday 21 June 2012

Chancellor, Principal, ladies and gentlemen:

Today marks an incredibly important day for all of us present here, and in particular for the graduands and their families; for them, for you: one cycle ends and another begins. There is something definitive about the ceremony we have just witne

ssed. Like most rituals it contains a performative quality that serves to act out a transcendent moment in our lives. In having the names of the graduating students publicly pronounced, seeing you actually appear before us, walk across the stage, kneel, and be capped by the Chancellor, we become witnesses to the triumphant end of years of arduous study (and occasional partying). We are offered the opportunity to physically celebrate your extraordinary achievement by applauding you in your presence, and we are forced to acknowledge that, indeed, your student years, whether these be as undergraduates or postgraduates are now finally over. And so you turn the page and close this particular chapter in your lives and move onto the next. And yet, I do wonder whether this end, this beginning, staged so dramatically before us, is as clear-cut as the ceremony would suggest.

One of the problems that haunts my research into early nineteenth-century Mexico revolves precisely around the question of change and continuity. Did the 27th of September of 1821, when Liberator Agustín de Iturbide rode into Mexico City at the head of the Army of the Three Guarantees, ensuring they processed along the Calle de la Profesa so that he could wave to his lover, la Güera Rodríguez, truly mark the end of the colonial period in Mexico? Can a date in itself result in the absolute end of a period of history and the beginning of another? Did New Spaniards change overnight, renouncing and forgetting the way they had been to become Mexicans the morning of the 28th of September?

Evidently, today does reflect a definitive end of a period of your lives, that of your studies. Evidently, there are things you will never do again. No more will you find yourselves sitting in 9 o’clock lectures nursing abominable hangovers. No longer will you need to stay awake until four in the morning to finish writing an essay or a PhD chapter on time. The days in which you might have sat in this very hall, nervously waiting for the invigilator obsessed with mobile phones, permissible drinks, and suspicious items of clothing to allow you to turn over the exam paper and start writing are gone. Yes, in that sense, there is no going back.

And yet, I would like to think that in other ways, St Andrews, your time here, will remain part of you, grow with you as you move on to face the world and change it for the better. I am thinking of the people you met here. The ideas you grappled with in seminar rooms and library carrels. Those memories that will stay with you forever. Not to forget all those transferable skills we taught you. The lifelong friendships made in halls of residence corridors, the life-changing revelations you discovered in the early hours of the morning in cluttered kitchens as you discussed the meaning of life over a bottle or three of wine, memories of beach walks, books, kisses, and songs, are all now an intrinsic part of your lives. You leave endowed with an enviable knowledge of your subjects and disciplines as well as a whole set of breath-taking interpretative and analytical strategies you will be able to apply in the most unexpected of circumstances. You have even developed the extremely useful skill of eluding people you would rather avoid in a three street town.

So yes today marks an end, and a beginning. But rather than say: “Don’t look back! Off you go!” my charge to you is: “Go forth! And take with you the life skills and knowledge that have become part of who you are here in St Andrews”.

Professor Will Fowler
School of Modern Languages

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