Abigail Reardon '10 21st Century Leadership Award
I’m honored and delighted to have been invited to share with all of you what being an English major at UMass Amherst has meant to me throughout these past four years. I’m equally delighted to have the opportunity to congratulate all of the students recognized this afternoon for your various exemplary accomplishments. Among the most rewarding aspects of my time as an English major has been sharing the classroom with all of you, my peers and friends. Congratulations on your well-earned and well-deserved recognition.
Two and a half years ago, I took a seminar on the novels of Margaret Atwood. The first major text of this first major course of my undergraduate English career was a collection of Atwood’s essays about what it means to be a writer. In this collection, Atwood characterizes her process of writing and engaging with language as an act of Negotiating with the Dead, which is also the title of this work. I was intrigued by this fascinating and complex metaphor for the writer’s interaction with texts. It struck me, at the time, as most apt. And, given the topic I chose for my senior thesis—Edith Wharton’s exploration of her writing process through the form of the ghost story—it is obviously a theme that still resonates with me. Yet my experience as a student of literature, and specifically as a student of literature within this department, has alerted me to a new metaphoric construct. While the writer’s task involves negotiating with the dead, the imaginative collaboration and conversation that takes place within Bartlett hall renders our task, as writers and readers, a negotiation with the living. The vitality of our engagement with each other, as well as with language, has—for me at least—completely altered the could-be isolation and ponderous intensity of reading and writing, to which we are unstoppably drawn.
There is a unique sense of solidarity that comes from glancing up from a particularly stirring passage of “The Franklin’s Tale,” or Middlemarch, or The Marrow of Tradition and catching the eye of a fellow English major, equally stirred. I am happy to number myself among a community of English majors so excited about language and the worlds these words relate. The friendships I’ve developed with English majors both inside and outside the classroom have made my time at UMass remarkable. In what other department might I pick up a copy of Ulysses—which admittedly, I probably won’t read anytime soon—bestowed with a smile and a cookie from the annual book swap? Or relocate to Oxford for a summer, and share with UMass English majors the delights of reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion less than an hour away from its setting of Bath?
While I have interacted with the department’s graduate students less than I have with its undergrads and faculty, the accessibility, kindness, and intelligence of the grad students with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working has consistently impressed me. Excellent instructors and scholars all, they have been willing and encouraging sounding boards, to me personally, as I’ve contemplated and ultimately settled on the pursuit of an advanced degree in English.
Finally, the skills I’ve learned from this department’s superb faculty will accompany me as a scholar and person long after I’ve left UMass. These are professors who literally leave me speechless with the brilliance of a quickly conceived and sketched vector-filled diagram that perfectly encapsulates the depth of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These are professors who enthusiastically permit my pursuit of a research topic that falls nearly fifty years outside of our course’s established time period, encouraging my own intellectual passion rather than insisting on strict adherence to the syllabus. These are professors whom I run into on a brisk morning on the Norwottuck Rail Trail, where we continue a conversation about a poem begun several days before. These are professors who help hone hundreds of pages of my writing, provide academic and personal guidance, and generally surpass the obligations of any professor to her student. These are professors who instill their teaching with passion and compassion, for texts and people, both.
It has been a pleasure learning and growing in this department. Thank you, and once more, congratulations.
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