Dr. Sally Said of UIW's Modern Languages Departments delivered the commencement address at the December 16, 2012 ceremonies. Her remarks may be found below, and may also be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.
by Dr. Sally Said
Thank you, President Agnese, members of the Board, and faculty and staff colleagues for the honor of addressing the December graduating class of 2012 and their families.
Graduates, once you have that diploma in hand – the real one, that is—you will probably frame it. The frame you choose will be simple, elegant, and the right color to fit into the décor of the room where it will hang. The frame adds to the way you and others see and appreciate that diploma. The kind of framing I want to talk to you about today is the kind that we do with language. Language frames affect the way we understand and act in certain situations and how we interpret the speech of others.
But what, exactly, is a language frame? According to linguist George Lakoff, a frame is a structure used in thinking. It names a situation and comes with images, values, expected behaviors. You are now facing life-changing decisions involving identity, jobs, family, and location that can be helped by framing your degree, your graduation, and your future, with language. Since our habitual frames, our "canned" responses to certain topics, come from our past, you may need to update the way you view your options or the way you present them to others. This process is called reframing. I will offer you five situations in which you may find reframing useful.
First, old stories. Reframing can help to deal with harmful stories of the past, often holdovers from childhood, that limit how you see yourself or how others perceive you. Reframing helps to discover your underlying, underemphasized strengths. For instance, when I was in the second grade, I was the narrator for a play we were to present to the whole school about "the importance of vegetables." While my classmates were dressed as lettuces and carrots, squash and potatoes, and danced around the stage, I got to wear regular clothes and read from my script into a microphone. I was lucky, or so I thought until the day of the dress rehearsal. That's when the teacher asked me for my script so she could check to see that I had memorized it correctly. I had no idea I was supposed to learn those lines. The teacher said, "It's a good thing you're not planning to be an actor because they have to memorize their lines." I was humiliated. Even through high school, I refused to try out for school plays, because I was convinced I couldn't memorize my lines. It was several years before anyone pointed out that I was probably the only kid in second grade who could read aloud from a script. That is, my perceived weakness "can't memorize her lines" was hiding a real strength "can read aloud in front of an audience."
Second, transitions, from the no-longer to the not-yet. In this category there's that first post-degree job. If your first job offer is not in your field, or is less than your dream job, the economic situation may encourage you to take it. You have heard that leaving your chosen career path can be damaging to your future. You feel like you are settling for less. Reframing can help you discover the benefits of a job like that. Examine the ways the job could be turned into a bridge from the old to the new -- a learning opportunity: experience at the ground level of a business or training in a related field. Consider the first two years beyond your degree as a time of experimenting. Be prepared to describe it as such on your résumé.
In my case, I managed a translation office for an educational development laboratory in Austin before returning to graduate school. My goal was to teach Spanish at the university level. This job had to do with the development of bilingual materials for elementary school. Not a match? I used this time to learn about the challenges of teaching second languages. Eventually I changed the area of my Masters to linguistics applied to teaching largely because of what I had learned on this job.
Third, a learning quest. A third opportunity for reframing is the don't-leave-home-without-us-and-we're-not-going-anywhere issue. Your loved ones may want you to stay close to home after graduation, but your better job opportunities may be elsewhere. A different way to see the time spent at a remote location, whether Dallas, Houston, Boston, Seattle or Singapore, is as a learning period. After that, when opportunities develop closer to home, you can bring back valuable experience and will have expanded your way of seeing the world.
In my case, I accepted a two-year teaching position at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, just after completing my doctorate. My mother was terrified that I was going into a "war zone" as she put it – actually the civil war had ended several years earlier—and worse, that I was taking my kids. We would be eight thousand miles away for two years. Looking back, those were two of the most productive years of my life. I loved my students. I published a book. Plus, I gained a new perspective on what it meant to go to university in a developing country. My children now tell my grandkids about their adventures in Africa, and I correspond with a dear friend from the Sudan.
Fourth, conflict resolution. To reframe a contentious discussion, learning where others are "coming from" helps. You'll need to step outside your own mental structures to see how the other person thinks. This skill is useful with family, friends, and on the job, and is a first step in identifying common interests and agreeing on action to resolve a problem. As a trained mediator at UIW, I often had the experience of watching two individuals really listen to each other for the first time in an effort to see the problem in terms of interests – not the immediately visible misunderstanding. Megan, the socialite, and Elsa, the bookworm – not their real names -- were roommates and had different visions of dorm life. They argued over what should happen in the room in the evenings, when Megan wanted to have visitors and Elsa wanted to study. Was this an irreconcilable difference? No, because reframing the problem in terms of interests led to seeing what they each really needed. Elsa needed a quiet place to study and Megan needed a place to meet with her friends. The room – the center of the original controversy – was only one of the possible places where these things could happen. They came to an arrangement by which Elsa studied at the library until 8:00 pm, while Megan's friends visited, then Megan and her friends would go to the Student Center so that Elsa could have the quiet she needed to work in her room.
To summarize these four points before we go to the fifth, it is helpful to highlight the positive: the strengths revealed when perceived weaknesses are viewed in a new light, your chances of learning something new instead of straying from a career path, the value of experience in a new location vs. the perceived abandonment of friends and family in leaving home, a possible solution that exists once real interests in a conflict are discovered. Such reframing may seem like a way of putting on rose-colored glasses, discounting the negative to emphasize the positive. If so, maybe that's not all bad, since research has shown that optimists are more psychologically resilient, have stronger immune systems, and live longer on average than their more "reality-based," or negative, counterparts. Modifying an outmoded frame can also remove perceived limitations and show opportunity for learning and creativity. Modifying a frame to enhance the positive can help to overcome the tendency to fear loss more than we value gains, to avoid the unfamiliar.
A fifth use of reframing, detecting framing "bias," is more difficult than reframing your own message. You are on the receiving end and you're not being given the whole story. It requires listening carefully and asking yourself what other possibilities could explain the situation. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economic science in 2002, has written a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow. In it he describes two modes of thinking, System One and System Two. Kahneman describes System One as our automatic, intuitive, and largely unconscious mode. System Two is our slow, deliberate, analytical, and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. System One chooses to believe and act on a story we hear depending on how well it fits our uncritical expectations rather than how likely it is to be true. We tend to process with System One when we are around people and ideas we trust and are comfortable with. Sales people love for us to operate in System One. To activate System Two, now, to challenge what you are hearing, and to see if it makes sense, frown. That's all. Just frown. Apparently a frown activates the switch to vigilance, causing us to question stories we would otherwise accept as true because they seem to agree with our preconceptions or our hopes. The problem, Kahneman suggests, is that we can become too comfortable, drifting along in System One most of the time, and fail to activate System Two when we should be more skeptical.
Switching to System Two in framing terms is a search for alternative versions of the story to the one being told. Is the witness lying? Is the investment offer too good to be true? Is there a reason the apartment lease agent has not mentioned the neighbors? In my own experience, a university teaching job – not at UIW—involved considerably more course development than I was led to believe. I had something like ten advanced and graduate courses that I alone was responsible for updating and teaching. With two "new" upper-level courses every semester on top of the regular lower division ones, the preparation required left little time for research. Had I known what was involved, I might have taken another offer, but I didn't know the right questions to ask. I was too happy to hear about a job that included teaching at the graduate level in my field. The frame presented played to a human tendency to overestimate benefits and to underestimate costs.
So, reframing can be a way of presenting perspectives not seen before, while determining framing "bias" involves discovering what has not been said, but should have been, to complete the picture. What I ask of you today is that as you frame your diploma and place it proudly on the wall, you keep your eyes open to the other type of framing, and remain aware of how language frames can influence the way you see the world and the decisions you make in order to shape that world.
Congratulations to all of you.