Graduation address: Professor Gill Plain

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Congratulations! You have done it! You have a degree… and now it falls to me to find something appropriate to say to cap your four years of hard labour and – I hope – good times. No pressure, then.

Being a Professor of English, I thought I should look to literature for inspiration. Unfortunately, I specialise in the literature of war…all too topical, but none too cheerful. I also work on crime fiction, but graduation hardly seems the time to invoke The Body in the Library. So with literature letting me down, I turned instead to memory. It is 30 years exactly since I graduated from a university in a neighbouring country. Ouch. But just imagine that: June 1987. It was a different world, indeed a world before many of you were born! And reflecting on this made me realise the scale of the achievement accomplished by you, your families, supporters and friends.

In 1987 I graduated without paying, or promising, a penny in fees. The local authority had them covered. Fewer people went to university, fewer women went to university, and certainly fewer women ran universities. And universities themselves looked rather different: less structured, less supervised, with far fewer safeguards and everything decided in ‘finals’, a last minute orgy of examinations. We enjoyed – if that’s the word – far greater freedom to fail. The class of 2017, by contrast, has had to work consistently, has had to be disciplined, and has had to keep on reaching the necessary bar. You have been continually assessed for the past four years, and that takes stamina and determination, respect.

So, much has changed in 30 years. But equally, it is hard, at times, not to have a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Indeed, sometimes, I wonder whether, like Sam Tyler, the detective in the TV series Life on Mars, I have been knocked unconscious and woken up in the past. In 1987 there was a cold war in progress, a celebrity in the White House, a female prime minister, a wall in Berlin and widespread fears of nuclear proliferation. Also proliferating – in law and public life – were sexism, racism and homophobia. Much has changed, but these uncanny echoes – this déjà vu – should warn us to be vigilant. Cultural attitudes quickly regress in times of instability and hardship. Tolerance turns to suspicion, and the usual suspects, be they outsiders or non conformists, are scapegoated. Over the last two years, we have heard a lot about boundaries and borders. But whatever today’s politicians ultimately decide, you will be the generation that determines whether 30 years from now, we are living in a bunker, or celebrating the possibilities of an open, outward-facing and tolerant society. Whatever your politics and preferences, in coming here, in being part of this university, you have chosen to be part of a community that respects the opinions of others. You have learnt to listen to ideas and to articulate your responses. You have learned to read the world around you. All those hideous close reading exercises you were put through… there was a purpose. Look back fondly on them as perfect training for the detection of fake news, fantasy and bluster. 

I woke up the day after my graduation with two strong sensations. One was a hangover, the other was a sense of panic: ‘Oh… what now? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ Some of you might now be sharing that latter sensation. Others of you might already have a clear sense of purpose. If you have a plan, or even an actual job, well done. But if you do not, that is fine too. You have just survived four years of intensive, life-altering encounters, and you need a pause for thought – after which the answers will come. Look at me: it only took me two weeks behind the bar of a country pub to realise that I wanted to be a feminist literary critic.

So, this is it. This is the end of undergraduate you – the day you say goodbye to all that. When I started speaking, I suggested that crime fiction was not an ideal source of celebratory messages, but the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler nonetheless has a way with words. ‘To say goodbye’ he writes, ‘is to die a little.’ That sounds a tad sombre, but it invites an obvious riposte. Move on to new things, but do not say goodbye. Stay in touch. Let us know who you become and where you go, and what becomes of the new graduate you.

Good luck, and once again, congratulations!

Professor Gill Plain
School of English