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Try Outs for Graduation Speakers?

Zachary Thomas ’08, Valedictorian, “The Liberal Arts After Williams

But, throughout the whole process, Williams’ defining characteristic was the perhaps mysterious appellation of “Liberal Arts College,” with its separate ranking in the U.S. News & World Report. The label of “liberal arts” includes a deep commitment to educating its students across many different fields of study, one that I found quite appealing — and one that is by no means necessarily present at other colleges. During my search, I knew I was quite interested in science and math, and I looked at several top engineering schools during my tours — but I felt out of place there. I wanted to attend a college where I could study both physics and history — a school with more than one lone English major on campus — and Williams more than fit the description.

Your thought process for choosing Williams (unless it is very funny and/or self-deprecating) will not make for the best material in a graduation speech.

One of the few things that Harvard does better than Williams is to require try-outs from the students who want to talk at graduation and then choose the best ones. Being valedictorian does not (and should not) guarantee you a spot on the podium. Williams should do the same.

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#1 Comment By JeffZ On June 11, 2008 @ 7:04 am

Regardless of the merits of your underlying point, I really hate your continued habit of bashing current or prospective students in order to illustrate a point. This dude did not elect to speak or run for speaker, he was selected by virtue of the fact that he was FRIGGING VALEDICTORIAN OF WILLIAMS, meaning he is probably in the top few dozen college students in the country, at worst. Congrats to Zachary on an amazing accomplishment, and next time, David, I suggest splitting your proposal (which is a fine one) into a different post.

#2 Comment By frank uible On June 11, 2008 @ 7:31 am

How about eliminating commencement speeches altogether – for a host of obvious reasons?

#3 Comment By lgeorge On June 11, 2008 @ 9:18 am

Thank you, Jeff.

The real shame of it is that Zachary and others may be left thinking that Dave thought the speech was terrible. He probably didn’t, and was just trying to float an idea without thinking about the implication of his juxtaposition.

Congratulations, Zachary. You’ve achieved QUITE an accomplishment.

#4 Comment By Michael On June 11, 2008 @ 11:09 am

I agree, Zachary’s achievement is extraordinary. Colby has a great student graduation speaker model where seniors nominate and then elect a classmate to speak. It’s often someone who is funny, engaging, well-spoken, etc. In fact the featured graduation speaker often has a hard time matching the senior speaker’s performance.

#5 Comment By ’10 On June 11, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

Williams does the same thing – that’s the “class speaker”. This year it was Gordon Phillips. I wasn’t at commencement this year, but last year’s class speaker (Auyon Mukharji) gave by far the most entertaining speech of the day.

As a former valedictorian, I support eliminating valedictory speeches. It’s a great honor to be valedictorian; no point in reducing that by forcing someone to embarrass themselves with a mediocre speech (unless they’re actually a great speaker, in which case they can go through the “class speaker” process).

#6 Comment By Will Slack ’11 On June 11, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

I’m not sure. A valedictorian’s address is a matter of tradition for me – allowing the best of the class to speak for themselves.

The college might want to work to insure that the speech is as good as possible, but I like the idea of giving a valedictorian a moment for that. One possible choice could be to impose a word limit on the remarks.

#7 Comment By reader On June 11, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

Get over yourself David Kane.

#8 Comment By FROSH mom On June 11, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

Inspiration for future speakers can be found in this article :

“Changing World of Commencement Speakers”

At least scroll down to the excerpts from “Memorable Graduation Send-offs” , ranging from inspiring (J.F.K) to the absurd (Will Ferrell).

#9 Comment By David Kane On June 11, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

20 years ago, the “Class Speaker” was chosen by voting among the senior class out of a pool of self-nominations. This is not a great process since, even if you know someone is a good person, it will be hard to know if he is a good speaker or speech-writer. Is the process different now? The best process would involve actual try-outs in front of a committee. That is how Harvard does it.

And, for the record, I have no idea if Thomas’s speech was a success or failure. A big part of any speech is delivery so, regardless of content, it is hard to know how a speech was received if you are not there to hear it. Do any readers have comments? There were 5 speeches that week-end. Which were the best and worst?

I also realize that there is a dispute among the EphBlog community over how critical our comments should be. But, really! I made no comment about the quality of the speech as a whole. I just pointed out that material (boring personal reminesces) like that I quoted is not generally a good idea. Would any reader seriously disagree?

And, although I agree that I should tone down (constructive) criticism of pre-frosh, Thomas is now a 22 year old adult and college graduate. I pay him the compliment of reading what he wrote and giving him honest criticism. I’ll leave it to other readers to pat his head, hand him a chocolate chip cookie and tell him that he is the very, very bestest speaker in the whole wide world.

If it were me, I would keep the tradition of having three student speakers and would be fine if one or more of these were chosen partly on the basis of superior academic (or other) performance at Williams. Nothing wrong with having a PBK speaker chosen from the ranks of PBK. I just think that the selection process should involve a student/faculty/staff committee and actual try-outs. Such a process would greatly improve the average quality of the student speeches. What is wrong with having the best speakers speak?

#10 Comment By rory On June 11, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

what’s wrong with not caring that much about the best possible speech and recognizing the valedictorian at graduation by giving them the platform to speak?

I’ll tell a story from my days in high school that may or may not add anything. Our three speakers were elected by the senior class to focus on three different topics: spirit, accomplishment, and the future (I think–I forget the official topics). I made sure my best friend nominated me for a slot and went about my business.

The high school, however, treated the nomination process as a primary and, because other students had more than one nomination, were on the ballet. I was not (along with many others). Confused, I went to the principal and complained (it didn’t help that the three people on the ballot for my slot were all unpopular academically over-focused students). He, seeing the light at the end of the year, declined to do anything. Still irritated, I asked if I could hold a more legitimate election. Likely to just shut me up, he agreed.

I created a ballot, xeroxed it, and passed it out to every damn senior in the school over the next two days. Not surprisingly (I like to think because I was a popular leader in the class–but I’m sure the fact that I was passing out the ballot didn’t hurt), I won the re-election. One of the students on the first ballot was pissed. At a rehearsal, the vice principal had to tell us all to not screw up our graduation over something petty like who was speaking. It pissed me off.

but the VP was right. the event FAR outshone the details of any moment. Just like the williams commencement likely FAR outshone the details of each speech, at least for the graduates.

For the life of me, I remember absolutely nothing from my, or any other, speech. I doubt anyone else does. Nor do I remember the other speeches. were they bad? probably not–but while commencement speeches seem really important at the time, I’d bet that 9 times out of 10, they fade relatively quickly from memory.

#11 Comment By FROSH mom On June 11, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

The valedictorian of my frosh’s graduating class was not the most ‘wowie zowie’ speaker. In fact, if one were to see her speech on paper, it might look downright staid.

However, I cannot imagine not having had that moment …for her, and for all of us. Her journey, and her accomplishments (against great odds) were an inspiration to the entire community.

#12 Comment By Ronit On June 11, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

Mean spirited and unnecessary, but I guess that goes without saying for something written by David Kane?

#13 Comment By anonny On June 12, 2008 @ 12:39 am

He’s actually only 19, which is yet another testament to his brilliance.

#14 Comment By M. Esa Seegulam ’06 On June 12, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

David Kane is a bad person.

#15 Comment By batman On June 12, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

Esa, how is that comment helpful?

What did David do that was so wrong?
Is it that he lightly criticized part of a public speech? I am sure that after every speech, most people in the audience turned to the their neighbor and provided a one sentence review of what they just heard. Is it that he did it in such a public forum? That might be it, if they were scathing criticisms that could not be countered by those who disagreed. But that is not the case: his criticism was mild and on a forum open to disagreement.

As much as it pains me to say this, I agree with David’s course of action here. He said something generally unoffensive and interesting about an Eph-related topic. That sounds like what we should be doing here.

Some here have disagreed with David’s choice to criticize. That seems wrong mostly for the reasons that David laid out: they were not particularly harsh and Zachary is obviously a smart, mature, grown-up.

Some have disagreed with David’s opinion that we should have a committee to vet potential speakers. I don’t have strong feelings on this one way or another.

No one, however, has disagreed with David’s actual criticism of Zachary’s choice to include ‘boring personal reminiscences.’

#16 Comment By rory On June 12, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

No one wants to engage David on that level.

This gets back, as most critiques do, to whether ephblog is a williams blog with david as an active participant, or david’s blog in which williams is the hook to get us pulled in.

As with many (most?) of David’s posts quoting ephs that he criticizes, there’s a key context that makes the quote much less problematic. In this case, there are two contexts:
1. The paragraph before this one used his decision making process to make some light jokes about himself via his decision making process, a classic method of endearing oneself to your audience.
2. The whole speech was geared towards exploring what is liberal arts and why will they continue to matter. As such, discussing one’s original interest in them makes sense as a place-setting tool.

Zachary’s speech became a foil upon which david could place his manner of “fixing” something at williams. It strikes many of us as unseemly when an individual eph who has done no wrong–and, in this case, has done a lot of right–is used in such a way. Why must we knock one eph in order to propose how we might improve williams? Was that necessary? Especially after so many other positive posts on the other speeches, this post seemed more harsh than it might have otherwise.

Time and time again we’ve posed that basic question–must we knock an eph in order to make a point?–to David. With pre-frosh, he’s taken some steps to avoid doing that as much. Good! Now, it seems, the next target is valedictorians.

(also, a google search of “zachary thomas” williams college found this ephblog link as number 3. Not exactly what I’d want if I were Zachary Thomas.)

#17 Comment By Larry George On June 12, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

Thank you, Rory. With you and others of your ilk aboard, it becomes an EphBlog.

I found Zach’s speech highly appropriate to the occasion. I appreciated his sprinkling humor throughout the speech, and the lightness of tone that he wisely sought. It wasn’t what I was expecting from the valedictorian, and I was pleased.

And if someone’s reading this because they Googled Zach Thomas: hire him! accept him! appoint him! go out with him! finance his venture! make him that grant! He’s wicked smart and has a good sense of humor.

#18 Comment By FROSH mom On June 12, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

Ironically, out of all the speeches, Zachary’s probably accomplished the most towards convincing incoming students of the merits of Williams…and a liberal arts education.

And, his closing message? “Keep learning”.
That certainly speaks to me!

#19 Comment By eph ’07 On June 13, 2008 @ 11:23 am

He’s a great guy, and congratulations to him on being valedictorian. Compared to that, David’s criticism is pretty irrelevant, huh?

And if someone’s reading this because they Googled Zach Thomas: hire him! accept him! appoint him! go out with him! finance his venture! make him that grant! He’s wicked smart and has a good sense of humor.

I second this!

#20 Comment By AC ’98 On June 13, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

Amherst, at least when I was there, required a tryout which the entire class was invited to. Each participant got 5 minutes, so as to keep the evening from dragging on and to keep some suspense for the day the actual speech was delivered on the quad. Ballots were cast at the end of the evening (i can’t remember if there were runoffs for a non majority.)

Our year demonstrated that the process was not foolproof. One student won the tryout vote by a large margin (next three runners up got to speak at the informal ceremony the day before). His actual speech was forgettable, The five minutes presented during the tryout was followed by 10 minutes of rambling(and a poor spoof of a professor’s speech on senior day three weeks earlier) that even folded in an f-bomb (to an audible groan). “Your classmates didn’t seem to appreciate the graduation speaker,” my mother dryly remarked. It was the understatement of my four year Amherst career; bad feelings still lingered about that guy at our recent 10-year.

Although Dave’s post hit a nerve–probably because most people dread public speaking– I’m with Batman: what’s wrong with offering direct criticism of a graduation speech, as a general matter (and then opening the floor for contrary reflections)? Criticism of my poor speeches made my public speaking better, although it is admittedly tough to take (whether it is actually good these days, I’ll let others decide).

The “google” concern in this case comes across as ridiculous. Rory appears appalled that Dave’s suggestion that the inspiration for a paragraph of Zach’s speech did not “make for the best material in a graduation speech” has made the internet. The horror! Most people who read the post will find nothing objectionable about what was said here, nor will they come away with a negative opinion of Zach.

Due congratulations should of course be given to Zach. Those of us who graduated in the bottom half of that college to the east surely appreciate the level of talent and dedication it takes to be the ranking student at Williams. Zach’s is a remarkable accomplishment.

#21 Comment By rory On June 15, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

AC ’98,

what I find most fascinating is that the google concern was in a parenthetical comment, yet is the focus of your critique of my critique of david’s critique. Why? Why not the more important focus about not using specific ephs as foils for more general negative comments.

The criticism of your public speaking probably helped you because it was directed to you, not to the general public. It was probably provided by someone you know, not some random alumni, etc.

I’ve been and continue to be a public speaker who really enjoys it. It isn’t about my fear of it, it’s about a pattern of criticism of fellow ephs i find unpleasant. Don’t misinterpret that focus, please.

#22 Comment By FROSH mom On June 15, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

“The google concern in this case comes across as ridiculous.”

Not so ridiculous once you have personally experienced the effects of a google search that produces unwanted, and ill-timed results.

The problem, as I see it, with ‘auditioning’ speakers, is that you end up getting ‘entertainment’, rather than the heartfelt, straightforward, words of someone who has truly accomplished something…words that take on more meaning considering the individual, and their accomplishment.

And this need for ‘entertainment’ falls right into line with the whole ’15 minutes of fame’ business, that our current culture encourages, and adores. (gag)

#23 Comment By Larry George On June 15, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

“it’s about a pattern of criticism of fellow ephs i find unpleasant” and usually only weakly connected with a position or proposition that is being put forth and totally unnecessary (even quite counterproductive) in advocating that position or proposition, in my mind.

#24 Comment By FROSH mom On June 15, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

Besides, direct and helpful criticism, especially within a more private, not to mention, ‘educational’ context, (meaning with people who…ahem…have the credentials to offer this criticism) is one thing…

…friggin Google is forever! Regardless of it’s value or authenticity!

#25 Comment By AC ’98 On June 16, 2008 @ 12:08 pm


My concern in this case was that you felt it wrong that Dave wrote that he thought the graduation speech was boring. To me, that seems just silly. I didn’t see Zach being used as a “foil” in this case at all. Dave may have his own Don Imus moments here, but this is not one.

I haven’t followed every instance of Dave’s alleged bashing of students or pre-frosh, so your larger point may have examples that I would agree with you on, but this is a bad example to reopen the discussion. Or is it your point that it simply impolite to offer any criticism of a graduation speech at all? is one of the Ten Commandments of Mark Hopkins “Never Speak Ill of a Fellow Eph?” Some public criticisms are hard to brush off, but having one paragraph of a graduation speech criticized as essentially boring doesn’t seem too hard to overcome. People are more likely to conclude a) that the quote was lifted from context and b) something about David for taking the time to write about it.

I’ll admit that I read this post in a vacuum, but my initial reaction to the criticism of Dave is that people should have enough backbone to deal with being called boring.

Frosh mom,

I agree that there have been instances where people have been hurt over the internet, but these instances involve libel, slander or other falsehoods. Here, Mr. Thomas spoke words in public and someone reacted to them in a public forum and said essentially they were boring (or to be precise, they didn’t make for the best graduation speech material).

I see no problem with this. I read all of Zach’s speech. I think someone could quite reasonably offer harsher criticism, although I award Mr. Thomas major points for crispness, clarity and brevity, important categories for commencement speeches. But I think most reasonable people who read this post would not conclude something negative about Zach as a person. They might be more likely to wonder why Dave posted about it. As I wrote to Rory, if you are concerned with other more egregious instances, this instance alone does not persuade me that Dave needs to change.

Finally, I’ve read worse on this blog. Let’s contrast what Dave said about Zach’s speech with something that was written about a speech during last year’s commencement at Williams:

“[Redacted’s] speech was pretty embarassing. Can it really be that hard to find someone who will say something at least interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining, if not profound?”

Now, which Ephblogger wrote that? Hint: not David Kane. And for the record I read that speech, too, and I agree with the commenter!

#26 Comment By Rory On June 16, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

AC 98,

Fair enough. googling people has also been a common theme of ephblog at times, which might explain why you took that as more serious than i intended. I think it is impolite in ephblog to use one eph’s honest effort to make a generalized comment about a large concept (in this case, what makes a good speech)–especially when the criticism doesn’t exactly apply (like I noted in the comment, the story of his application served a specific role in the speech, and the excerpt was somewhat weaker when taken out of context).

This is one of the more trivial moments, as you note, but in light of the history of the debate here on ephblog about limits, it warranted comment. While I doubt the speaker would really mind this thread too much, it is that larger trend that caused my complaint.

I do find it unseemly to call a speech boring when one didn’t go to the actual event or watch it on youtube, etc. Intonation, ad hoc additions, etc. can either improve or ruin a speech. David knows not whether or not it was well-received by the audience, which is certainly more important than whether or not it reads well in written form.

Also, a valedictorian is not the public figure katie couric is. Nor is Katie Couric an eph! OFF WITH HER HEAD!

#27 Comment By Jeff Z. On June 16, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

That sounds like one of my comments (and that is far from the worst comment I have made about a graduation speaker — just as Conan’s 2000 speech is the gold standard, my graduation speaker from 97, who I have commented on at length, set a standard for putridity that will never be eclipsed) — I think there is definitely a different standard for a professional public speaker like Couric, who is specifically invited in part (one would think) for her speaking prowess, and an undergraduate who is selected wholly by virtue of academic achievement.

Moreover, AC, don’t pick on Rory, as I started the critique of David on this point. I probably would not have said anything but for the context of many, many other discussions on this blog in which David is harshly critical of high school or college students’ speaking and writing abilities. Yes, this comment was pretty mild compared to some, but I was definitely not looking at it in an vacuum but as part of a pattern that I and others have continuously sought to discourage.

#28 Comment By AC ’98 On June 16, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

Fair enough all (Yes, Jeff,it was you!)

Although I’ll make a final comment on a peripheral issue you both raise: I attach less relevance to the distinction between Couric and a Valedictorian in our particular debate (since slander of these individuals is not an issue) since they both offered public statements, and Thomas was not compelled to speak in the sense that (I assume) it was possible for him to decline the opportunity. Although we might have a higher standard for style issues to measure Couric against (let’s not sell Williams grads too short, now!) and you are both right to suggest that criticism should incorporate an appropriate amount of decorum, I think that we might all agree that graduation speeches are fair game for thoughtful criticism whether they are delivered by a public figure or not.

#29 Comment By FROSH mom On June 16, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

Hey! Watch those criticisms of ‘non-ephs’. You need a few of us in the mix here.

As far as my google comment…

You are right AC 98, that there isn’t anything here that is truly slanderous, and/or likely to cause Zachary any real damage. But it is criticism based on an annoyingly questionable premise, and alas, (thanks to the less advantageous aspects of the internet) it is forever.

No real harm done…in this particular thread. But as a couple of other long-timers ( ahem, Ephs, :-P) have pointed out, the reaction is based on lots of other threads, and is somewhat of a ‘damage control’ in process.