Spring Honors Convocation

Friday, April 11, 2008

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."
Cearig: "chay-uh-rig."
Dæg: with the vowel of "dad."
Cennande: "chen-ahn-deh."
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 programs—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 learning—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

Marshall Scholarship
Branden Boyer-White, Nominee

Richard M. Nixon Fellowship
Stephen Addezio
Teresa Baranowski
Caitlin Finley
Daniel Strauss
Neslie Tumulac



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
"In Dreams"

Honorable Mention — Jeremy Lum
"the depressionist"

Martina Miles
"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

Branden Boyer-White
Whitney Gorton
Lauren Stracner

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

Nicole Greer

Modern Languages and Literatures

The Martin Ortiz Award for Academic Excellence in Spanish
Karla Cortez

The Tara Molloy Service and Leadership Award in Spanish
Maritza Cobian
Kathryn Maiorano

Outstanding Students in French
Josefina Campos
Lesley Cole
Heidi Rohling

Outstanding Student in Chinese
Gladys Mac

Outstanding Performance in Music

Eydie Aguilar
Lesley Cole
Quila Doyle

Outstanding Leadership and Service in Music
Samuel Bremen
Karen Chan
Michael Limber
Ronald Price

Outstanding Scholarship in Music
Eric Rivera

Outstanding Creativity in Music
Abram Siegel-Rivers

Distinction in Philosophy Major

Andrew Royal

Religious Studies
C. Milo Connick Award in Recognition of Outstanding Work in the Field of Religion

Heidi Rohling

Distinction in Religious Studies Major
Matthew Baker

Theatre and Communication Arts
Outstanding Student in Theatre

Cody Goulder


Outstanding Biology Major

Diana Mateos
Lauren Shellard

Outstanding Contribution to the Biology Department
Diana Mateos
Jessica Schlegel

Outstanding Contribution in Research
Esther Chan
Jessica Schlegel

The W. Roy Newsom Award in Chemistry
Christa Rainville

Undergraduate Research Award in Chemistry
Tenzing Doleck
Christa Rainville

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


Business Administration
Distinction in the Major

Elliott Burr
Christian Coffey
Dicky Doleck
Hansen Hunt
Edward Kitaoka
Blake Luitwieler
Nadia Medina
Chelsea Simcox

Outstanding Graduates in Business Administration
Blake Luitwieler
Nadia Medina

Outstanding Student in the Finance Concentration
Samuel Livits

Outstanding Student in Accounting Concentration
Dicky Doleck

Outstanding Student in the International Business Concentration
Ashwin Chandra

Outstanding Student in Leadership, Dedication and Service
Chase Dujenski
Keith Hernandez
Nadia Medina
Chelsea Simcox

Outstanding Student in the Management Concentration
Blake Luitwieler

Outstanding Student in the Marketing Concentration
Nadia Medina

Murdy Writing Award
Christian Coffey

Richard T. Clawson Service and Leadership Award
Charles Acker
Brian Cymbolin

Outstanding Students in Economics

Dan Aas
Jordan Nishida

Education and Child Development
Outstanding Academic Achievement in Elementary Education

Terisa Do

Outstanding Academic Achievement in Child Development
John Deurmeier
Jessica Santoyo

Outstanding Service in Child Development
Amanda Gardiner
John Deurmeier

Kinesiology and Leisure Science
Outstanding Students in Kinesiology and Leisure Science

Cassidy Lake
Shannon Parker
Robbie Smith

Political Science
Ben G. Burnett/Pi Sigma Alpha Awards for
Outstanding Academic and Leadership Contributions by Seniors

Lesley Cole
Whitney Gorton
Adam Steinbaugh

Distinction in the Major

Laurel Brown
Maritza Cobian
Niles Cook
Brittany Kernagis
Gladys Mac
Michael Nguyen
Kacie Oviedo
Jessica Santoyo
Christopher Villanueva

Outstanding Students in Psychology: Academics
Laurel Brown
Jessica Santoyo

Outstanding Students in Psychology:
Research and Scholarship

Christine Arrington
Laurel Brown
Maritza Cobian
Niles Cook
Brittany Kernagis

Outstanding Students in Psychology: Service
Christine Arrington
Niles Cook

Whittier Psi Chi Review Award for Exemplary
Research and Writing in Psychology

Christine Arrington
Laurel Brown
Maritza Cobian
Niles Cook
Angela Pietrantoni
Sharlene Silva

Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
Outstanding Sociologist in Political Praxis

Nicole Schmidt
Frank Fuentes

Charles J. Browning Prize for
Outstanding Student in Sociology

Crystal Cedillo

Academic Excellence in Anthropology
Lia V. Kozatch
Rachel M. Tassano
Yesenia Alaniz
Janina Maniaol

Outstanding Contribution to Anthropology
Tara B. O'Dea

Outstanding Student in Field Education in Social Work
Ashley Wagstaff

Outstanding Contribution to the Social Work Profession
Robert Graham
Enrique Saldana


Global and Cultural Studies
Contribution to the Major
Janina Maniaol

Whittier Scholars
Outstanding Student in the Whittier Scholars Program

Stefano Fierro


Robert M. Treser Sophomore Leadership Award
Melanie Abe
Caroline Cox


Student Life Leadership Awards
Cassey Ho
Adam Steinbaugh

Student Life Community Service Awards
Shezad K. Bruce
Daniel Strauss

Student Life Diversity Awards
Erasmo Fuentes
Arturo Rubio

Broadoaks Service to Children and Families Award
Isabel Burrows


Leadership Award
Carlos Salazar

Academic Achievement Award
Jessica R. Santoyo