2011 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony

Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 10 a.m.
Dean E. Smith Center

The UNC Graduate School held the 2011 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 7 in the Dean E. Smith Center. An estimated 250 students participated in the ceremony to have their academic hoods conferred. Each graduate came to the stage to receive their academic graduation hood conferred by their advisors or dissertation committee chairs and the Provost.

Hooding Ceremony Speaker

Dr. Suzanne Cusick, professor of music at New York University, gave the keynote address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Cusick earned her doctorate in musicology from UNC-Chapel Hill. Following is her full address to the University's doctoral graduates:

Dr. Suzanne Cusick gives the keynote address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Doctoral Hooding Ceremony

Thank you.

It is a great honor for me to have been invited to be with you today. Part of me is, frankly, speechless before the fact; it is the part of me that wonders what my parents would say: my father, an eighth-grade dropout who used his prodigious native intelligence to teach himself his profession, but who was ambivalent about book-learning all his life; my mother who so loved books, and languages and music, who took every class her high school offered to avoid graduating too young, but who could not afford college. When, more than 40 years ago, I announced that I would come here to get a Ph.D., they were both a bit bewildered. When I emerged six years later with a degree, they seemed equally bewildered, but also proud.

My own parents are long gone. They can’t know that their patience, generosity and encouragement toward my bewildering ambition enabled me to get to this day; they can’t be proud; and I can’t thank them anymore for all the moments of shared wisdom that helped make me a scholar and a teacher. Since I can no longer thank my own parents, I use this moment to thank you, the parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, children and friends to today’s new Ph.D.s. I thank you on behalf of the graduates you are here to celebrate, but even more I thank you on behalf of the world to which their intellects and imaginations are great gifts that you — parents, siblings, spouses, lovers and friends — have helped to shape.

I’ve been told my remarks should be inspiring. But I have to say that this is a hard time to be inspiring in the usual upbeat way. The challenges facing you new Ph.D.s are not by any means limited to the well-rehearsed ones of the academic and intellectual job markets in a rapidly changing, embattled economy — those challenges are, by themselves, pretty dire. But as many of you well know, we live in an epoch characterized by extremely rapid technological and economic changes with the potential to provoke genuinely profound reorganizations of the power relations on our planet, genuinely profound challenges to the epistemologies and even cosmologies that my generation thought we could take for granted; genuinely profound reconceptions of what it means to be a human being on the earth.

The question of what it will mean to be a human being on the earth does not loom only over the humanists, artists and cosmologists (or theologians) among us. It looms over all of us, for the perfectly obvious reason that all of us are human beings, regardless of what or how we study.

You, as particularly gifted and well-educated human beings on the earth, will have to invent the new knowledges that enable answers to this question. You, by your research and your teaching, will change the answer a little bit every day, and thus you will, perforce, change the world. You, in an historical moment when human beings are daily reduced to mere laboring social animals, daily deprived of dignity, daily seduced by commercialized pleasures into avoiding contact with each other or with their own capacity for thought, daily denied the breadth and specificity of knowledge that an informed citizenry needs to have if citizenship is to matter — you, with your intellectual labor, will address these trends, whether consciously or not. You who leave here today with advanced degrees will create a world we on this platform can barely imagine. That is way more frightening than wondering if you’ll get an academic job. But because my experience at this university prepared me well for a frightening, unstable world, I think yours will, too. I want to mention two things I learned here that I think I would not have learned anywhere else on earth, two things that had nothing much to do with my discipline but everything to do with the way I have framed my life’s work as a teacher and a scholar. I learned, here, what it meant to be really, genuinely poor; and I learned that learning itself is a public good to which every human being (rich or poor, stupid or smart) has a right as inalienable as the right to breathe.

I turn first to learning to be poor. We all know that Carolina is not a rich university, nor has it ever been by the standards that prevail in the Ivy League, because it is a public university in a state that has not, historically, been rich. And in these very difficult times for the nation’s economy, neither the herculean labors of university officers, trustees, deans and department chairs nor the heroic generosity of its donors are likely to transform Carolina into the fiscal equal of Harvard or Yale. Thus, I suspect many of you, too have learned here to be poor.

I pretty much worked my way through the Ph.D. program here, supplementing my TAships with odd jobs of all sorts, from slinging burgers at Hardee’s (and living on the one free meal a day they gave us there) to working as an academic secretary at, um, another prestigious university nearby. To be literally hungry many days, to drag open the notes from which I was writing my dissertation after I’d come home from not one, but two, ill-paying and exhausting jobs, to have to just deal with it and get my work done anyway, was a tremendously useful experience. The coping skills I learned stood me in good stead when, during the last great recession, during the Reagan years, the college where I had a tenure-track job went bankrupt and fired the faculty summarily. In the 10 years it took me to get back into full-time academic life, I used my Carolina poverty skills to survive — physically and intellectually.

Even more important, by learning to be poor myself I learned to see and to respect the hunger, the fatigue, the bodily traces of want, the fierce determination in the faces and bodies of my students, even when those same students go to great lengths to pretend diffidence or nonchalance. It made me a much better teacher. And the bodily memory of being hungry, transformed into the premise that human bodies and minds are one, has informed all my work as a historian of the complex cultural behavior we call music.

If it was the intersection of my personal circumstances with UNC’s relative institutional poverty that led me to the lessons of poverty, it was one individual here who led me to a lifetime of reflection on the role of learning in a human life. Her name was Marsha; she was an education major, one of the instigators of the varsity women’s basketball team, taking as an elementary ed requirement the music theory class that was the first college class I taught. Although she claimed not to be much interested in music, her work in the course’s composition assignments was outstanding, always striking an extraordinary balance between disciplined adherence to convention and moments of real creativity. One day I ran into Marsha outside of class and stopped to praise her work in just those terms. In the conversation that ensued, it turned out that, of course, she had long musical experience, singing in her church choir back at home. Almost casually, she also mentioned that she had hardly ever worn shoes before she’d come to Chapel Hill.

To this day, I remain dumbstruck. Hearing this gifted, ambitious, determined girl talk about her awkwardness in the realm of “real learning” that was the Chapel Hill of her imagination opened my mind to the full meaning of UNC’s history as this nation’s oldest public university. In stark contrast to the always richer institutions that comprise (or aspire to imitate) the Ivy League, institutions always aimed at educating a national elite, public universities like UNC are committed to people like Marsha — to developing their capacities to learn, to know, to balance convention, creativity, self-discipline and self-awareness in everything they think and do, so that their gifts, too, can be unleashed as forces to shape and reshape the world. Public universities like UNC exist to guarantee all the people access to learning, and through that, access to the myriad forms of power. And public universities like UNC exist to produce knowledge that, however esoteric in its conception, can be used by citizens who are not scholars, to analyze and affect their situations, whether at work or at home, in public or in private.

The notion that learning itself is a public good is the second great lesson I learned at Chapel Hill, and it is that notion that, above all, I want to leave you with today.

When I say that learning is a public good, I mean “learning” as both the noun that signifies accumulated knowledge and wisdom and the verb that signifies the lifelong process of acquiring knowledge that characterizes humans as a species; I mean “good” both as something that, however intangible, has an intrinsic, positive value for all human lives that is not measurable by money, and as something that is most valuable when it is in circulation.

Learning is a good, but it is not a commodity, not something to be bought or sold. Rather, learning is for us human beings intrinsic to the process of life. In a way, it is the process of life, for it is a behavior that characterizes us before we leave our mothers’ wombs, and that characterizes us at the cellular level right up to the moment of our death. Moreover, learning, in the sense of accumulated knowledge that we humans circulate among ourselves is one of our most powerful responses to the certainty of death. For the learning that we create, accumulate and share outlives us, changes worlds in which we will not, ourselves, live.

It follows from learning’s centrality to humans as a life form that learning is, or ought to be, a public good, belonging to all, produced by all, shared by all. Whether it be scientific description of the latest subatomic particle, historical or anthropological description of how people unlike ourselves have lived, the literally vibrating alternative universe made of sounds and bodies in motion that we casually call music, or a mathematical formula of no apparent use other than as evidence of the human capacity for elegance and beauty — whether it be “useful,” in the way that a hammer and a nail are useful, or not — learning is a human right.

We privileged few who have learned in institutions like this one how to learn in highly disciplined ways, we who lead lives self-consciously dedicated to the creation and exchange of learning, we who have been so lucky as to have been formed by an institution that has not succumbed to the contemporary fad to “brand” learning as a commodity available only to the wealthy, we are particularly obliged to uphold the principle that learning is a public good, that learning (as a noun and as a verb) is fundamental to both what and who human beings are, and that, therefore, learning is a good beyond price. It is an honor to welcome you to the community that creates and shares this public good.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

Suzanne Cusick, professor of music at New York University, is a music historian specializing in the music of 17th-century Italy. She has published extensively on gender and sexuality in relation to the musical cultures of early modern Italy and of contemporary North America.

Before joining NYU, Cusick served as a faculty member at the University of Virginia; during her decade at UVA, she led the creation of a doctoral program that combined the areas of musicology and ethnomusicology.

Cusick received her B.F.A. from Newcomb College of Tulane University and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Faculty Award for Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring

Dr. Alan Nelson accepts his award from Dean Matson

The 2011 Faculty Award for Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring was presented to Dr. Alan Nelson. The following are the comments made by Graduate School Dean Steve Matson when presenting the award.

Alan Nelson has an almost preternatural ability to understand his student's needs, strengths and weaknesses, and he tailors his advising style accordingly for each student. He provides the right amount of attention and space, directing his students toward projects that mirror their individual interests. Alan is a relentless networker on behalf of his students and fosters an environment that motivates and encourages them toward completion and pursuit of the job of their dreams.