• September 2, 2014

Welcoming Remarks

It's not often that one gets to identify and describe a new genre. Not new in the sense of never having been practiced before -- that is the accomplishment of giants like Theocritus -- but new in the sense of never having been accorded formal recognition.

The genre in question is well known to every senior administrator, and it joins death and taxes as something no administrator can avoid. It is the genre of welcoming remarks.

A genre is of course a kind (genus), and the first thing to know about it is what distinguishes it from other kinds in the repertoire of discourse performances. A welcoming remark is short; it should not cut into the program it introduces. A welcoming remark is general; it conveys the good wishes of an institution, not of the individual who on this occasion represents it. (You say "On behalf of" before you allow yourself the use of the first-person pronoun.)

A welcoming remark is honorific in all directions: The gathering is great; the conferees are distinguished; the questions they will ask and answer are vital to the health of the republic; the university has long been committed to the issue and is, well, welcoming; and you are happy to be here. (A likely story!)

A welcoming remark has no ax to grind; those you are welcoming have been sharpening their axes for use on one another, and they don't want to have to worry about you.

A welcoming remark should be funny, and the humor must be at the expense of the welcomer. At the same time, a welcoming remark should be serious, lest you suggest that the occasion is not a solemn one. But a welcoming remark cannot be too serious -- cannot, that is, offer a substantive position on the issues soon to be debated; you can't provide (although you may want to) the perspective that will structure the discussion long after you have left.

And leave you must. The convention is that as you do you express regret that you will be unable to stay for the wonderful conversations you are sure will follow.

The reality is that you want to get it over with as soon as possible (you had to be reminded this morning that you had agreed to do this), and the further reality is that they want to be rid of you as soon as possible, which is not to say they are not glad to see you. Your presence (mercifully short) confers recognition and legitimacy. It's just that they are gladder still to see you go so that, basking in the glow of your benediction, they can get down to business.

Now a performance so conventional and so hedged round with limits and so short runs the danger of being formulaic, even though being formulaic is its job. Doing a welcoming remark is in a way the most difficult of tasks, worthy of inclusion in Seneca's exercises: You can't be too innovative, because then you would risk taking the center stage you are supposed to cede to others. But you can't be too "boilerplate," because then you risk being heard as insincere in your welcome.

You will especially incur that risk if it is obvious (and it always will be) that your welcoming remarks were written by someone other than you, that you handed the task over to some subordinate who then went to a pre-packaged template and just plugged in the name of this organization and this occasion.

Boilerplate, however, is always a temptation, especially in those instances when the meeting or conference you are addressing is concerned with matters you know absolutely nothing about. In my tenure as dean, I welcomed more than my share of conferees: a group that was described as "an impressive cast of planetary scientists and geochronologists" (don't ask), 250 participants in a mathematics competition, the symposiasts gathered to discuss the Teaching and Learning Perspectives of Science and Mathematics, a conference called to discuss the problems of high-school students who are disabled, and another conference called to discuss the linguistics of Romance languages. (That is only a partial list.)

In deference to my assumed (and real) limitations, some organizers of those events sent along a list of "talking points," a guide for the perplexed administrator who cannot be trusted to discharge his obligations without help. That is the boilerplate temptation in another guise -- someone else's boilerplate -- and you cannot surrender to it without sounding like even more of a hollow man (or woman) than you are.

What to do? Well, first do some work. That is, learn something (at a very general level; you have neither the time nor the capacity for more) about the obsessions that have led a bunch of fellow academics to gather for two or three days at your university. And then take that little something and weave it into a frank acknowledgment of your ignorance; the effect is a little like what politicians aim at when they speak a few halting words of Spanish or Polish in a neighborhood they have never lived in and barely visited. The effort is appreciated, and the natives are confirmed in their feelings of internal solidarity. Everyone wins.

To tell the truth, I found the challenge presented by an audience of whose interests I understood little easier to negotiate than the challenge of an audience about whose interests I knew (or thought I knew) a great deal.

In the former instance you are protected against your own worst instincts by a keen sense of your own ignorance; in the latter instance nothing operates as a check on those instincts and, consequently, you are in danger of indulging them.

I did this, I'm afraid, many times. Two stand out.

Just last year I welcomed students and teachers involved in a nascent Native American studies program. They had accomplished much in a short time, and I said so along with due acknowledgment of key figures. But then I lectured (and hectored) those present, telling them that although it was through political activism grounded in a strong sense of group identity that they had come this far, having won a place in the academy it was now time to leave activism and identity politics behind and produce academic, not community-centered, work.

I believed in that message, and still do, but that was not the time or place to deliver it. I told myself that I was doing them a service ("thanks, you needed that"), but what I was really serving was a desire to parade a theoretical and professional sophistication before those who would acquire it in time and didn't deserve to have it undercut the earned pleasure of their meeting.

The second occasion was even more opportunistic. I had been asked to welcome incoming students at a summer orientation program. I told them about all the wonderful things the university had to offer and how good they should feel to be coming here at a time of growth and excitement.

Then I stopped and popped a few rapid-fire grammatical questions, no one of which anyone in a crowd of hundreds could answer. Getting up on my increasingly high horse, I warned them that unless they buckled down to a crash course in grammar between now and late August (a matter of seven or eight weeks) they would find themselves facing insurmountable difficulties in every course they took.

Again the message, I remain convinced, was the right one, but the time and manner of its delivery were all wrong and all about me. I got a kick out of it. They must have felt that they had just been kicked when they had no reason to expect it.

The next year someone else was asked to welcome them, and I trust that he or she was able, as I was not, to honor the constraints of a genre that may seem simple -- what could be easier than attempting a welcoming remark or two -- but is in fact a test of both one's skill and one's character.

Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column on campus politics and academic careers.

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