In a Celebration of Scholarship and Service, Whittier College seniors were bestowed with a number of honors from departments and college heads. Sean Morris, associate professor of English and 2007 Harry W. Nerhood Teaching Excellence Award recipient, delivered the keynote address, "WWRHD: What Would Robin Hood Do?"
WWRHD? What Would Robin Hood Do?
English Professor Sean Morris
2007 Harry W. Nerhood Teaching Excellence Award Recipient
Keynote Address Spring Honors Convocation
April 11, 2008
"WWRHD?" What would Robin Hood do? These are the letters I put on the board in my class on Robin Hood as we begin to discuss how we will pull off a Robin-Hood-style ambush of another class: We burst into the room (the teacher is in on it), do things Robin Hood would do, and then explain why to the bewildered students.
What would Robin Hood do?
The answer not quite as easy as, "He steals from the rich and gives to the poor." Surprisingly, that catchphrase is not associated with Robin Hood until the 1930's. Another surprise for those who know Robin as Sir Robin of Locksley is that Robin Hood is never a "sir" before the Renaissance, when the nobility began to take interest in the old stories and to write themselves into the legend.
In fact, the original medieval ballads hold many surprises for modern readers. Over the last seven or eight centuries, Robin Hood has been continually remodeled, adapted to each new age—at one time seeking freedom in the woods, mistrustful of the rise of towns, at another promoting the reverence of the Virgin Mary or else helping out various "good fellows," and in our own times championing alternately the New Deal or family values.
In the class we investigate the core values that have not changed over the years, trying to understand why this tale is time and again dressed up in the new clothes of every era. Friendship is one value, and loyalty—but also disguise, and a sense of fair play. And I want to emphasize the word "play" as being just as important as the word "fair." Disguises in these stories are not just a change of outfit, but a willingness to explore the roles that come with the uniforms. Dressed up in new clothes, Robin Hood is sometimes a pottery salesman (a pretty bad one, as it turns out), a monk, a banker, or the king's retainer. Playing at each of these roles is a way for Robin Hood to evaluate them against his own lifestyle, to "try on" a life. Similarly, it is the uses of play, and of imagination, which form the center of my talk tonight.
Speaking of play, what would Robin Hood do if he were giving a speech at Honors Convocation? If you're looking to the exits for a horde of green-clad students to burst in shouting "Huzzah," believe me: I thought about it. Instead, if you search under the arms of your seats about half of you will find a secret message taped there. It looks like this [a rolled piece of paper]. Please take those out and unfold them and share with your neighbors: I'm going to take a little detour—two, in fact—for the sake of play, then tie them back to this idea of the importance of imaginary works.
The first line of your secret message reads: "Unmodcearig dæg cennande Þe." Believe it or not, this language is English—Old English, English 1,000 years ago, the language of the Old English epic poem, Beowulf—which bears some slight resemblance to the recent film of the same name.
There's a guide to pronunciation on your sheets, and I would like you to try it with me. (Pretend you're Robin Hood.)
Un: with the vowel as in "foot."
Mod: rhymes with "road."
Dæg: with the vowel of "dad."
Þe: The weird letter is an old symbol for "th," unvoiced, as in "thing." The vowel as in "way."
"Unmodcearig dæg cennande Þe."
And l-e-o-f in the third line is "lay - uff."
My Graduate school buddies and I put this together for a special occasion out of words we found in Beowulf. Literally it says, "un-mood-cheery (unmournful) day of birthing to thee." And "leof" means "dear": "Happy birthday to you." I believe you know the tune. Is it anyone's birthday? Put her name in the blank, and please sing with me:
Unmodcearig dæg cennande Þe,
Unmodcearig dæg cennande Þe,
Unmodcearig dæg, leof ____ ["Caroline," as it turned out],
Unmodcearig dæg cennande Þe.
Well, that was fun—or maybe it wasn't. But what was the point? You may remember this talk a little better (as if you needed to), or it might motivate you to learn to read Old English, especially the original Beowulf, just as the Robin Hood ambush aims to engage students in that course. But this simply raises the same question about Beowulf and Robin Hood. And it has been raised, in fact, by government officials in Great Britain over the last few years: Why should we ask students to learn old stories in dead languages? Or, as a friend of my mother's put it about The Lords of the Rings: Why bother reading about all those names and places and events when none of it ever really happened?
The ultimate question here is about the value of imaginative literature, about the value of play. What room is there in the "Real World" for Robin Hood or anyone else like him? Why waste thousands of hours inventing novels and movies and television programsâ€”let alone millions of hours reading and watching them—if it only amounts to escapism?
Except that it does go beyond escapism—in many ways. And the one way I want to emphasize tonight brings me to the second detour I promised.
I pair my linguistics class with a class on social psychology, in which, every year, we view the film, Obedience, presenting Stanley Milgram's famous experiment about how far people will go in obeying orders. Subjects, in pairs, were told it was an experiment about learningâ€”in particular, about the effect of punishment on learning. One subject went to a booth to answer questions while the other was set down in front of a row of electrical switches running from mild shock on the left all the way up to a severe shock on the right: 450 volts, with the word "Danger!" and a row of X's above it. These "teacher"-subjects had to shock the learners at every wrong answer, the shock getting more severe each time. The "learner"-subject was actually in on the experiment and frequently got the answers wrong. Soon he was shouting in pain and talking about his heart condition and how he wanted to leave the booth.
The question was: How far would the teacher-subjects go? Surveys predicted that only 1% would go all the way to end. But actually, 65% went all the way to 450 volts, despite the shouts pleading. Were these subjects monsters? No. It's quite clear from the film that they did not want to continue. Everyone objected. Many offered to repay the money they had been given in order to stop. Yet they still obeyed.
One subject kept coming up with excuses to stop—"I finished all the questions," "I got to 450 volts" (no more switches left)—but the experimenter insisted that he keep going, and he did. This subject was clearly worried about the learner, so why didn't he just stop? The reason is because of a failure of imagination. He could not stop because he could not imagine a way to do so.
What if he had thought of Robin Hood, and his whimsical irreverence toward authority? Or if he could have said, like Melville's Bartleby, "I would prefer not to?" Or, like Beowulf, if he could have stood up to face the consequences of refusal, however much he may have dreaded them? How many disasters of history might have been quitted or quelled if people could have imagined other ways to act? So often in life when we fail to act it is due to surprise: We don't understand the situation and can't sift through possible reactions and their consequences, so we sit stunned. But literature allows us to think things through in advance, allows us to "try on" different ways of reacting, different ways of being, and to test them out in the safe arena of play. Just as an inoculation prepares the body to fight off a virus, play builds models of behavior so that when a real situation arises we are prepared. The characters of our imagination stand beside us in times of crisis, allow us to make the choices we wish to make, allow us to be the people we want to be.
Play is not frivolous; it is experiment, testing and exploring. It is how we grow, how we learn to become greater than ourselves. If you can imagine it, you can change yourself. If you change yourself, you change the world.
That is what Robin Hood would do.
That is why literature matters, why teaching matters, and why I am so very honored to stand here tonight.
2008 Whittier College Academic Achievement Awards
Rhodes Scholarship Competition
Lesley Cole, Nominee
Branden Boyer-White, Nominee
Richard M. Nixon Fellowship
NEWSOM AWARDS IN FICTION AND POETRY
First Place — Martina Miles
"Sharks & Bathtubs"
Second Place — Jeremy Lum
"Is this the End of Zombie Shakespeare?"
Third Place — Anthony Bursi
"The Belle from Bellbuckle"
First Place — Andrew Leggett
"While You Read"
Second Place — Branden Boyer-White
"Looking Like a Piece"
Third Place — Alex Johnson
Honorable Mention — Jeremy Lum
"Plastic and Purple"
Art and Art History
Outstanding Student in Art and Art History
Conner J. McClure
English Language and Literature
Outstanding Graduates in English
Scholarly Writing Prize in English
First Place — Branden Boyer-White
"That Divided and Rebel Mind: Encountering the
American Satan in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick"
Second Place — Lauren Stracner
"Melville and Whitman: 'Wicked' Writers Defying the Imposter God"
Third Place — Chris Kennison
"Trouble in Paradise: The Contradictory Nature of
Individuality and Community in Democracy"
Honorable Mention — Martina Miles
"The Archetype of Judaism: Examining Robert Cohn and
Anti-Semitism in The Sun Also Rises"
First-Year Student Writing Prize
First Place — Devika Ghai
Rwanda and the Limits of "Conventional Thinking"
Second Place — Brittanie Waller
"Fighting Back: Women's New Roles in a Developing Democracy"
Third Place — Rachel Bushman
"Congestion Parking or Parking Space Taxes: Which Would You Choose?"
Outstanding Graduate in History
Modern Languages and Literatures
The Martin Ortiz Award for Academic Excellence in Spanish
The Tara Molloy Service and Leadership Award in Spanish
Outstanding Students in French
Outstanding Student in Chinese
Outstanding Performance in Music
Outstanding Leadership and Service in Music
Outstanding Scholarship in Music
Outstanding Creativity in Music
Distinction in Philosophy Major
C. Milo Connick Award in Recognition of Outstanding Work in the Field of Religion
Distinction in Religious Studies Major
Theatre and Communication Arts
Outstanding Student in Theatre
NATURAL SCIENCES DIVISION
Outstanding Biology Major
Outstanding Contribution to the Biology Department
Outstanding Contribution in Research
The W. Roy Newsom Award in Chemistry
Undergraduate Research Award in Chemistry
Distinction in the Major
Carlos A. Back
Jose H. Ceniceros
Desislava B. Petrova
Physics and Astronomy
Outstanding Leadership Award in Physics and Astronomy
Carlos A. Back
SOCIAL SCIENCES DIVISION
Distinction in the Major
Outstanding Graduates in Business Administration
Outstanding Student in the Finance Concentration
Outstanding Student in Accounting Concentration
Outstanding Student in the International Business Concentration
Outstanding Student in Leadership, Dedication and Service
Outstanding Student in the Management Concentration
Outstanding Student in the Marketing Concentration
Murdy Writing Award
Richard T. Clawson Service and Leadership Award
Outstanding Students in Economics
Education and Child Development
Outstanding Academic Achievement in Elementary Education
Outstanding Academic Achievement in Child Development
Outstanding Service in Child Development
Kinesiology and Leisure Science
Outstanding Students in Kinesiology and Leisure Science
Ben G. Burnett/Pi Sigma Alpha Awards for
Outstanding Academic and Leadership Contributions by Seniors
Distinction in the Major
Outstanding Students in Psychology: Academics
Outstanding Students in Psychology:
Research and Scholarship
Outstanding Students in Psychology: Service
Whittier Psi Chi Review Award for Exemplary
Research and Writing in Psychology
Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
Outstanding Sociologist in Political Praxis
Charles J. Browning Prize for
Outstanding Student in Sociology
Academic Excellence in Anthropology
Lia V. Kozatch
Rachel M. Tassano
Outstanding Contribution to Anthropology
Tara B. O'Dea
Outstanding Student in Field Education in Social Work
Outstanding Contribution to the Social Work Profession
Global and Cultural Studies
Contribution to the Major
Outstanding Student in the Whittier Scholars Program
SERVICE AND LEADERSHIP AWARDS
Robert M. Treser Sophomore Leadership Award
COLLEGE LEADERSHIP AND SERVICE AWARDS
Student Life Leadership Awards
Student Life Community Service Awards
Shezad K. Bruce
Student Life Diversity Awards
Broadoaks Service to Children and Families Award
ALIANZA DE LOS AMIGOS
Academic Achievement Award
Jessica R. Santoyo