Good afternoon my fellow University of Michigan American Culture graduates, distinguished guests, and faculty. My name is Ellen PutneyMoore and I received my undergraduate degrees here at the University of Michigan from both the American Culture Department and the Vocal Performance department within the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Since my graduation, I received my Masters in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston and spent 15 years singing around the world as a professional opera singer before transitioning to the life as a “mere mortal” within a variety of industries. These have included work within an environmental engineering agency, an interior architecture firm, a stint on Wall Street working within the equities market space, building a Development Department from scratch at the American Kennel Club in New York City, and my current role as the Director of Marketing for both the Michigan and State Theaters here in downtown Ann Arbor.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the abject horror that the parents and loved ones of these graduates may be feeling upon hearing that disjointed career path, and assure you that despite these many roles, I have still managed to consistently keep a roof over my head. And if further reassurance is needed, my mother has joined me at this event today and is available for one-on-one parental counseling and therapy session on the subject of having a child with diverse interests, a great curiosity, and a variety of skill sets, as it often leads to a career path that resembles mine. She has very reasonable rates for U of M parents.
Throughout my many roles, be it on the stage or in an office setting, having the name “University of Michigan” on my resume was significant, no matter the field I was in. In fact, I have had both artistic directors of opera companies and CEOs in board rooms mention that they took great interest in my resume because of my time at Michigan, given its excellent reputation. And when Professor Cheney-Lippold approached me about speaking at this event, I felt it was the least I could do for a department and field of study that has given me such a diversity of skills and has set me on the path of lifelong continuous learning.
I asked Professor Cheney-Lippold for the preferred departmental subject matter for this speech, and he asked me to describe what one could do with an American Culture degree. Quite frankly, that is a speech that will take all day and night, and we don’t have that kind of time, you have celebrations to get to. In fact, it would be easier to list what CAN’T be done with an American Culture degree than what can. So I will now list for you some things that CANNOT be done with an American Culture degree. I do hope you are ready to learn your limitations today:
- With an American Culture degree, one CANNOT have a lack of appreciation for a diversity of voices and lived experiences once you have completed this field of study
- Once you have graduated from this department, you simply CANNOT be disinterested in contemporary issues and their roots in the history of this conflicted and complicated country
- Alas, you will NEVER find yourself unable to hold an intellectual discourse on race, religion, gender, sexuality, history, literature, social status, the visual and performing arts, philosophy, technology, and many, many other subjects
- And your existence will NEVER be marked by a lack of curiosity
As you graduate into a complicated social, political, and labor landscape that is ever changing, I would like to share with you the skills that I have learned within the American Culture Department that have served me well in a career path that has been marked by dramatic industry changes and has been anything but linear. It is my hope that you will keep these crucial skills that you acquired through your degree in mind as you forge your own path in the working world.
Cultural Critical Thinking– Companies, from nonprofits to tech, have been suffering from a dearth of quality candidates who possess this valuable and crucial skill. A skill that just happens to be the foundation of nearly every class within the American Culture Department. Your professors have worked to expose you to the disparate ideas, experiences, languages, and discourse that make up this complicated country of ours. In return, they have asked you to approach their courses with an open mind to recognize and understand these various signifiers and their historical consequences. On a much smaller scale, companies are their own unique countries with distinct cultures that need to be understood and analyzed in order for one to succeed. For a number of years, I was a “professional temp” who was dropped into a variety of industries in between my singing gigs with very little time to get a lay of the land before I had to get to work. I had to immediately analyze the population I was working with – who are my allies? Where would I find answers to my many, many questions? At one point, I was a humanities major who found herself working on Wall Street. I barely spoke the language of “finance” and its inherent formality. I had to figure out what were the power signifiers at this particular company? How is status determined? What are the cultural norms? These questions are true for any organization. You can be brilliant in a given field, but if you can’t navigate an organization’s culture, you are unlikely to be successful. And given that New York City is a giant melting pot, I have had the pleasure of working with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and lived experiences. It is my job to consider how this background influences and informs their work lives. Something as simple as an ad campaign or a pitch deck may be interpreted in a completely different manner than I intended if I didn’t have a background that trained me to take into consideration a variety of cultural interpretations. I’m sure we can all name multiple ad campaigns that crashed and burned because they never applied this kind of cultural critical thinking during the workshop phase. Obviously they did not have a U of M American Culture graduate in the room where decisions were made.
Interdisciplinary Expertise – This is an incredibly fancy way of saying that your ability to pivot between subject matters and analysis is an incredibly valuable skill set. The American Culture Department has never been silo’ d, given how many disciplines this degree path combines. As a student, you were studying everything from the Harlem Renaissance to the history of the family, to musicology, to science, technology and racial capitalism. Which is a class I WISH existed in my day. You are graduating with a unique ability to shift intellectual focus rapidly between topics which may seem disparate to an outsider. An example from my own life where this ability came in quite handy; after I left the financial sector, one of my first roles was within a new nonprofit, building a development department from scratch with only one other employee. My days were spent switching between writing grants for the first time in my life to crafting ask emails that went out to thousands of individuals, to researching possible donors, to having schmoozing lunches WITH those possible donors, to creating brochures for the new museum this nonprofit had established, to presenting in tense board meetings…nothing about my role was easily categorized. And while we should also be discussing how wise it was to ask only TWO people to create an entire department responsible for most of the operating budget of a MUSEUM, I was able to keep my head above water due to my intense, interdisciplinary background. I was also able to then march into the CEO’s office and ask for a raise, which I received, based not only on my accomplishments, but also on a highly-sought after skill set that was originally established within this Department. This ability to pivot on a dime will also serve you well should you decide to become one of those famed “disrupters” and start your own business.
Curiosity – You would not have chosen this particular major if you were not already curious about the world and, more specifically, this conflicted and messy country of ours. In fact, curiosity was a REQUIREMENT to succeed in this department, and you were held to high standards in this area by your professors. At the risk of veering into a tired graduation speech trope, I am begging you not to ever lose this curiosity….this need for answers and further knowledge. The pace of change that we are all experiencing in technology, AI, biology, and other emerging fields will require us to be lifelong learners or be left behind. You must have a continuously curious mindset, constantly seeking input from a variety of reputable sources to stay up to date and make informed decisions.
When I graduated from the American Culture Department in 2005, I was entering a world that was just beginning the period of upheaval we see today. 9/11 had only occurred four years earlier, we were in the early years of what would become protracted conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and that summer, a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane ripped through New Orleans, exposing the government’s fault lines in their response to the crises, amongst other historical moments in the early 2000’s. In contrast, upheaval is all you graduates have ever known, which has created both an opportunity for change, but also chaos and strife. At times, our society is changing both unbearably slowly and, in some cases, regressing. And on the other hand, you have the cultural changes that are happening at the speed of light: Twitter’s rapid descent into chaos, the rise of ChatGPT, biological cloning and gene editing, just to name a few. Your work here at the University of Michigan has put you in the perfect position to place these changes in our world within historical and cultural context and rise to the challenging issues we see emerging across the country. I am asking you to use the historical knowledge you received, and your ability to formulate concise, devastatingly brilliant arguments, to hold the powers that be accountable. I look to YOU to help save us from the tyranny that is “this is how we have always done it,” whether it be within the government or the private sector. Use the skills you have honed within these hallowed walls to find new ways of solving the ongoing issues plaguing our society, whether it be poverty, injustice, access to reproductive rights, hunger, racism, journalistic integrity, or any number of societal concerns. A tall order? Of course. But I would expect nothing less from the graduates in American Culture at the University of Michigan. Congratulations again on this achievement and I can’t wait to see the incredible things you do. Thank you.