Undergraduate News

Bruce Jackson’s 1964-67 recordings of African American work songs in a Texas prison are now the basis for a play called “The B-Side,” by NYC’s Wooster Group.
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Mazzolini's Spring 2016 Commencement Speech
I want to extend a warm welcome to our graduates and their families here today and greet my colleagues who I know share with all of you the sense of meaningful accomplishment that is palpable in this room.
I’ll begin by looking at a contemporary poem, a poem that to some might seem like a Zen koan, and to others a kind of spiteful antipoem. I see this poem as an irritant. It is not meant to give pleasure but to provoke using traditional poetic techniques rather perversely.
These are the first few lines from Rob Fitterman’s “Directory”:
Macy’s                       Hickory Farms
Circuit City                 GNC
Payless ShoeSource    The Body Shop
Sears                        Eddie Bauer
Kay Jewelers              Payless ShoeSource
GNC                          Circuit City
LensCrafters               Kay Jewelers
Coach                         Gymboree
H&M                         RadioShack
Gymboree                  Coach
Hickory Farms           

What does this poem seek to do?
With its attention to rhyme and rhythm, does it wish to aestheticize or to point to the beauty of the language of commerce that surrounds us?  Is it recycling or colonizing this junk language for the purposes of poetry?  
Or is it just the reverse?
Does it want to tell us that brand names and market language – and the materialism and consumerism they index -- have become so omnipresent they take up the space where poetry should be?  
Or does this poem, in appropriating language from a mall directory, as its title indicates, challenge us to think about the space it refers to; its repetitions forcing us to reflect on the generic no-place of the chain store in the grid of the mall.
This site-specific text that has been removed from its proper location, and its use as the guide to a map by being framed as a poem, asks us to step back from our culture and look at it critically; to pay attention to how we pay attention to different kinds of cultural objects in different contexts; to read how we read.
This poem also has us attend to the specificity of a written medium - a mall map - precisely by making that text circulate where it shouldn’t, even though this poem appears online, in the digital version of the highly respected journal Poetry. It would also seem to prompt us to question whether we can address every important dimension of a text by accessing it virtually or do adequate work of comparison and discovery when we search a collection online rather than encountering it physically.
Through digital culture, we have entered a new age of interaction through reading and writing. We can use digital technologies to assess and understand literary and other texts in ways unthinkable without computing; and of course we can read books digitally.  And yet, as head librarian of Special Collections, Mike Basinski, recently stated in a class visit to the Poetry Archive: “the more media the better,” which is to say that for artists and writers, and for those who study them, the virtual realm has not made other physical media obsolete, but rather has increased interest in those media and the specific qualities they possess that cannot be “translated” to the digital. The many different kinds of experience, interaction, reading, interpretation, and thought they encourage through their use, as well as the way they work synergistically together – not replacing each other but rather creating a larger media ecology through which they complement each other.
I’m thinking right now of UB’s map room, in Silverman Library, with 450,000 maps from many different periods and countries, readily available in their flat drawers for students to peruse . Of Special Collections, with its world-renowned James Joyce archive and its singular collection of rare North American small press poetry magazines from across a century. Of my colleague Joseph Conte’s course this semester on contemporary fiction in special formats, whose books had to be read in specific physical editions because interpretation of the text depended on physical interaction with the material book.
I’m going to take a little swerve here. I know you graduates all have learned to make well-argued connection and I’m counting on you to fill it in for me.
I will simply assert that the kinds of reading and attention you have cultivated in earning your English degree – up close and at a distance – with full concentration and through distraction or diffusion – along linear and non-linear itineraries --  of literary texts and texts from other domains and disciplines – as well as of many other kinds of media and performance. The capacity for subtle, sharp critical thought you have developed through these reading practices as you have reflected on how meaning and experience are made -- these are skills of resistance to “market thinking” that I hope you will continue to value and foster throughout your lives.
To speak for a moment to the concerns of some parents out there – and these concerns are reasonable and caring: What the abilities nurtured in English, and in the humanities in general, add to the economy tends to be undercounted; and these abilities, while marketable in themselves, are also foundational to many different kinds of jobs and professions
But I also want to suggest that what you have built here, everything you have accomplished and that you have cultivated in yourself as a person, can go towards building another kind of culture than the one dominant here and now. A culture that is not so consumer-oriented or profit-minded or entrepreneurial. One that recognizes and makes central forms of value beyond or against a narrow dollar value -- attuned to the demands of civilization as opposed to those of economy.
The demanding course of study through which you have earned your English degree. In our “liberal arts corner” of this large university, has, of course, helped to make you outstanding critical thinkers, insightful readers, articulate speakers, as well as cogent, exciting writers – of literary and cultural criticism and of journalism and poetry and fiction. It has also honed your intellectual curiosity, trained your historical empathy and your sense of differing histories from “above” and “below”. It has made you aware there is no one monolithic English, but Englishes in flux across time and space, changing in response to different dynamics and pressures , while you have also learned how all of these Englishes have provided rich resources to makers of literature and culture. Through earning your degree, you have fostered a capacity to sense absences and lacunae, an aptitude absolutely essential to understanding how power can work in society to silence and repress and exclude. You have gained cross-cultural knowledge, sensitivity, and respect. You have become generous listeners and interlocutors.
And I want to assert it as a strength. That all of these amazing resources you carry with you now are not easily quantifiable. They are not easily or comfortably harnessed to profit or accelerated production. They are not easily instrumentalized.
Likewise, it’s not a stretch to say that the strengths you’ve built here through the study of language, literature, and culture can help shape a society based on care, collaboration, collective-mindedness. An inclusive society that works against indifference, competitiveness, distrust, fear, hard and soft hatreds and their various forms of violence, which we sometimes forget are learned ways of being in the world that we can refuse, that we need to unmake every day
I’m not one to speak in imperatives, but the commencement speech is a genre that encourages the imperative mood. So, as I close, I will take it up on its conventions.
Don’t be excellent.
Don’t be part of a myopic celebration culture that adulates “innovation,” that only looks towards a streamlined, high-tech future. Take a critical stance towards problem-solving, sit with a problem.   
Engage in speculative, holistic thought about the short- and long-term consequences of losing what is being engineered away.
Read and research deeply, so that underlying structural issues become visible.
Respect differences.
Create solutions that don’t put efficiency, expedience, standardization, or the “majority” first.
Don’t let your imagination and your desire for what literature and culture and society can be, be molded by austerity thinking.
Always remember the capaciousness and largesse of your imagination, against stingy austerity.
Be the positivity.
But more importantly, also be the interesting, thoughtful negativity.
Everything in this culture wants to speed things up, to force obsolescence, to force disposability.
Think it through for yourself; do it the long way.
Be slow if you need to be.
Be the slowdown.
Be the holdout.
Be the wrench in the works, if there needs to be one.
And one last:
Do with your life what is truly fulfilling to you, as part of a larger community.
Huge congratulations to English graduates and your families on your wonderful accomplishment. I know my colleagues join me in wishing you the very best as you move on from UB
Stay in touch!
For more information on Carla Mazzio's scholarship, see:
We are happy to announce the following winners of departmental prizes: