Margaret Jacobs

Dr. Margaret Jacobs, Director of Women's and Gender Studies and Professor of History, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on December 18, 2009.

Stravinsky, a Monk, and a Waitress: Diverse Paths to a Scholarly Life


Congratulations to all of you who are graduating today and thank you to all the family and friends who are here to support you. It's a real honor to share in your celebration.

A few years ago, I learned that the composer Igor Stravinsky followed a strict intellectual regimen. Evidently, after a morning of intense music composition, the composer would emerge from his study to have lunch with his wife and children. But, so as not to interfere with his concentration, Stravinsky required complete silence from his lunchtime companions.

For most of my early life, Stravinsky's austere model epitomized my image of a scholar. Alongside this picture I maintained a gentler ideal, too. When I was in high school and an aspiring musician, I used to sing a beautiful composition by Samuel Barber titled "The Monk and His Cat." One of the lines went: "Pangur, sweet Pangur, how happy we are, alone together, scholar and cat. Each has his own work to do daily; for you it is hunting, for me study."

As I grew up, these were my impressions of scholars. I envisioned them to be hermet-like, toiling away at esoteric intellectual concerns and unable to tolerate the distractions of everyday life — doing dishes, shopping for groceries, cleaning toilets.

Of course these were stereotypes. Nevertheless, they were powerful, so powerful that I never could imagine myself as a scholar. Growing up in the 1970s, when many gender barriers were tumbling down, I fantasized about becoming many things — an astronaut, a meteorologist, a concert pianist — but I didn't see myself as a scholar.

I headed off to college when I was 18, fully intending to major in applied earth sciences. I didn't know what this would entail, but I imagined trekking off to remote parts of the globe, basically engaging in glorified hiking. Yet my first semester at college, in the very last registration group, I didn't get into all the math and science classes I had to take for my major; instead I ended up in all those pesky required general education classes.

And there I was in an enormous history class, presided over by three esteemed history professors. Two of them fit my image of the scholar; these men seemed remote and unapproachable, unburdened by the concerns of mere mortals.

But then, there was Carolyn Lougee, a woman, a scholar of French history, who defied my expectations and hinted at other possibilities. After my class with Dr. Lougee, I took another history class from another woman scholar, Estelle Freedman; she taught the history of women in the United States. Here again was something entirely new to my consciousness — not only a woman scholar but a scholar who studied — of all things — women.

Carolyn Lougee and Estelle Freedman were part of a generation that transformed what it means to be a scholar. Both braved history graduate programs in the 1960s and 70s that were often hostile to women. By the time I took history classes from Professors Lougee and Freedman in the 1980s, I could take so much for granted. There was a path for me to follow toward being a scholar.

Inspired by Estelle Freedman, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in women's history. My path to being a scholar was a bit different from hers, but maybe similar to some of yours.

I was no monk. I married and had a baby in the middle of my graduate education.

I was no Stravinsky. Neither my spouse nor my son remained silent at meal times so that I could think.

I wrote my dissertation in stolen moments — early in the morning and at naptime.

My path to being a scholar was littered with soiled diapers, dirty dishes, and heaps of laundry.

Luckily my spouse — though not silent — was a full partner in all things scholarly, and domestic.

Graduate study has opened up to increasing numbers of Americans since the 1960s and 70s; not just to women but to people of color, to poorer people, and to older people. It used to be that to pursue a graduate or professional degree, you had to be fresh out of college, or only a few years beyond that date. The scholarly life used to be primarily the province of those whose families could afford to pay for it. Now more of you are coming back to school later and many of you may be the first in your families to attend college or attain a graduate degree. Now there are many diverse pathways to becoming a scholar.

My history master's student Kim, who is graduating today, began her bachelor's degree at age 24, and it took her ten years to complete it. It has taken her four years to finish her master's.

Many things conspired against Kim in her path to becoming a scholar. She came from a working-class family with little money to spare for higher education. Some members of her family actively discouraged her from getting a college education. Kim contended with undiagnosed learning disabilities. And as she told me, "By the age of thirty, I was married and divorced twice, had two children, . . . had been to five different colleges and universities, . . . and had become a third-generation waitress."

But now, Kim, like all of you, has become a scholar. And, ultimately, Kim's circuitous scholarly path has informed and enriched her scholarship.

When new people from different backgrounds, like Estelle Freedman, Kim, and me, bring our life experiences to our scholarship, we introduce new topics of scholarly inquiry. Given Estelle Freedman's own struggles as a woman in a male-dominated profession, she asked new questions about women and wrote new types of history. Given my own experiences as a mother and a scholar, I, wanted to know more about mothering across cultures in history. And Kim's own personal history has led her to significant new scholarship about poor and working-class women.

This is really why cultivating diversity at a university is so important. Yes, it's important to redress historical injustice and to extend fair opportunities to all. But, as significantly, our diverse pathways to scholarship ultimately expand and enrich our knowledge.

All of you bring something unique and important to your various scholarly endeavors. Where you grew up, your experiences in your families, your travels, your cultural and class backgrounds, your choice of partners and friends, your work, your accrued life experiences all shape the kind of scholar you are and the scholarship you produce.

The university is a better place for that and our scholarship is more comprehensive and encompassing as a result.

So, you are now — officially — scholars.
May you be curious and creative.
May you discover and invent new things.
And may you also do the dishes.

Thank you!