TRANSCRIPT OF DEMOTT LECTURE
PRESIDENT MARTIN: Members of the Class of 2025, all of our new transfer students, guests and friends who are gathered here or on livestream. Welcome to the 16th annual DeMott Lecture. What is the DeMott Lecture? The DeMott Lecture for new students is named in honor of Benjamin DeMott, a professor of English for almost 40 years at Amherst. Ben DeMott was the son of a carpenter and a faith healer. He worked as a clerk and journalist before serving in the US infantry in World War 2. And then returned on the GI bill before coming to Amherst to teach. He would be teaching today what is now called ìcultural studies.î He taught Shakespeare, but also Springsteen, sometimes in the same class hour. He wrote books on class, gender, and race in American culture. He wrote 12 books in all. He inspired students to make connections between the classroom and what was going on in the world. Right up until the moment that he retired in 1990. Today our DeMott lecturer is Professor Shayla Lawson. And I'm delighted to introduce her to you. Professor Lawson's collection of essays, ìThis is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope,î was a 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. And it was also your summer reading, as you know. It's been a very popular read on the part of staff and faculty here this summer. Combining music and journalism, memoir, cultural commentary, pop critique, the brilliantly conversational essays in this is major are part of Shayla Lawson's own experience and the embedded experiences of race, gender, sex and class. Professor Lawson arrived at Amherst having had a wide range of experiences. Born in Minnesota, but raised in Lexington, Kentucky, as you know, having read the book. She trained in architecture and was a practicing architect before she pursued an MFA in poetry at Indiana University. And after finishing her MFA, worked as a corporate copyrighter for web and social media. She's lived in Italy, in the Netherlands. She's published three books of poetry. I think I'm ready to see Frank Ocean, a speed education and human being and Pantone. Her work is often collaborative and almost always multimedia. She's a founder with last year's DeMott lecturer, Ross Gay, of the tender project. She toured with a cover band, the Oceanographers to bring to life the music of the singer as part of the experience. She's been a guest on numerous broadcasts and podcasts and writes for a wide number of publications including bustle, "Guernica," Vulture, New York, the cut and others. A fellow at the MacDowell and Yaddo Artist Colonies. Teaching poetry, nonfiction and hybrid literary forms. There will be time for questions at the end of her remarks. But for now, please join me in giving a warm welcome to Professor Shayla Lawson.
[ Applause ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Wow, hi, everybody. Hi. This is so stressful. 'Cause I'm looking at all of you. And what's nice is normally when somebody does this lecture, like they don't have to live with you for like the next four years. Like looking at you. But I'm supersuper excited to be here. I wanted to thank the DeMott family, I would like to thank President Biddy Martin and also Amherst College for inviting me this year to be your lecturer. And I have one favor to ask of you. I know you've got masks on. But I have some call and response things written into this. So, if you feel like you're, you know, you're a good mask yeller, like please feel free to like yell out as soon as and as much as possible so that I don't feel alone up here. One other thing that I wanted to share with you before I get started is this beautiful art piece that was made here at Amherst for the Solidarity Book Project. The Solidarity Book Project was started by Professor Clark in the art department in recognition of Black and Indigenous writing communities. All of the proceeds of this project go to support Black and Indigenous writers. I'm going leave this here. One of the things that you are welcome to do is join the project yourself. And you go to Amherst website and look up solidarity book project or solidarity book, there's more information how you can take your copy of This is Major and turn it into a book like this in solidarity of the project which is pretty cool. There's gonna be a whole exhibit in the library that you can participate in and lots of different stuff. So, I just wanted to share that with you. And if anything that I talk about today speaks to you, then please feel free to turn your book into a statement of solidarity with Amherst College and how we stand on Black and Indigenous issues. All right. Now here's my speech. So, I titled this: Succeeding at failure in your freshman year. I failed! The summer of my freshman year at college, and pretty much every summer after that, I worked in an art camp for high school students. I failed was the rallying cry that we used to hear every day. It was one of those very camp phrases that people use to boost morale. Maybe if you've worked at a 4H camp or Eagle Scouts or Boy Scouts, you've experienced the same thing. At our school, this was ours. It was dropping a full tray of food in a loaded cafeteria, to messing up music notes or a monologue that you were practicing for performance on the final day. As a college freshman, I became a camp counselor and I was supposed to model that phrase as with a day to let students who look up to me know, students who I was often just a whole year wiser than, that it was okay to fail on the road to trying your best. I hated that phrase. I felt like it was absolute horse hooky. Not because I didn't believe I could fail, but inside I was struggling to turn off the voice in†me that said I failed all the time. At 18, I was constantly frustrating myself. My constant question to myself was, did I mess up? I was overly worried they stood out as being strange or different. Did I overshare at that meeting? I would ask myself. Or do you think anybody else noticed that I was the only one who went on the hike wearing sandals when everybody else was wearing sneakers? I would obsess over these things all the time. Even thinking about in conversation, man, like the way that I ended that conversation with Stephanie was weird. Is that why she didn't sit next to me during lunch? All of these constant little failures were causing a huge disruption in my life. I couldn't hear myself over the chatter of how often I perceived myself to be on the wrong side of everything that was cool, acceptable, and comfortable. I didn't want to raise my hand and shoutout that I had failed every time I flubbed up. To be that girl would make me even weirder. I couldn't imagine myself backing out of an awkward pause in a conversation with another camp counselor by saying, throwing my hand up in the air, and moonwalking myself† very smoothly, I might add† out of the room. Working at an arts camp. It never came to this. And growing up, that voice never really left me. Some years ago, right before I became a professor, I took a teaching job at a creative writing for the same camp. We were still sampling the same camp songs I remembered and playing the same ice breaker games with water balloons and paper plates, and I failed, still remained one of those camp mottos. And it didn't hit me any better then† when I was Shayla Lawson the camp counselor than it did when I was Shayla Lawson the professor and grownup. Now that I was in a position to know things and be smarter, I still didn't feel like a confident part of the in crowd. I was really happy writing and making art, and sharing that with the world. But on the inside, I had a nagging voice that told me I was a failure. As I grew older, I worked with a psychologist who told me to think of the failure voice as a protector. A part of me that formed because at some point as a child, I learned that there was safety in what that voice was saying to me. I understood the concept, but I didn't feel very safe. They suggested I talk to it. Okay, I said, talk to my fail voice. I was incredibly skeptical. But over time talking to the voice as I heard it pop up actually made me feel better. How old are you? I asked her one day. 11, she told me. And why are you here, I asked? And in the back of my mind, she would show me. I don't know if this is an exercise that would work for everybody. Sometimes it helps because I spend a lot of time in my head composing stories, it's easy for me to talk to myself. To find things in deep memories like a wellcataloged memory. But when I go back to the moment in which that failure voice was formed, I learned a lot. All of you† each of you here in this class† the Amherst class of 2025 and all of our transfer students, each of you is an incredibly talented and remarkable human being. Don't believe me? Well, remember all those great things you said about yourself about you being remarkable and talented in your college entrance essays? There was this time when I achieved past anybody's expectations of me. I struggled, but it was an amazing success† all of you wrote those to be sitting here right now. Maybe something to that effect is ringing a bell. But personally, I love those essays. It's really nice to see each of you take a moment to appreciate yourselves and how far you have come on the path to discovery. Hopefully during your time here you'll continue to refine the ways that you speak to you. At 11, I was trying to write something like that myself. Well, really, it was a letter. A letter in which I was trying to sound wise beyond my years. Throughout elementary school, I was still a pen pal with my kindergarten teacher. My very first teacher. I moved out of state from Minnesota to Kentucky in first grade. So, keeping in touch with her was my way of keeping in touch with this part of myself that I felt I had lost. Maybe some of you have felt this way moving to a new city. Maybe even this week. Where it feels extraimportant to text the people who have known you the longest, or scroll through the TikTok feeds of those who understand you the best. When I was 11, there was no social media. Writing each other snail mail was the best that we could get. So, anyway, I had written this letter to my kindergarten teacher that was really about the trouble I was having fitting in at school. I didn't know how to talk about it. So, instead I came off much more† let's see... what's a good phrase for it? Like if your umm don't stink? I came off much more arrogant than I remember. I was tired of being called a bright student. A light is bright, I said, but I am a mastermind. These were my grade school metaphors. I thought I kind of killed it with that line. Like an Einstein poster in a dorm hallway, you know, that kind of quoteworthy. I could start my writing career with greeting cards after this, my 11yearold self-thought. But my mom was not so impressed. She found the letter sitting in the living room where I'd left it. It made her incredibly worried about the big head I seemed to have gotten myself. Too big for your britches is what they call it where I'm from in Kentucky. And Kentucky is civil in a way where it's very important that your britches fit correctly. You should never be caught with your ego sticking out of your toosmall pants. One or the other, or both sometimes is bound to rip. What my mom only knew on the surface level was that I was being bullied at school. I didn't tell her how bad it had gotten or how much I was struggling with my selfesteem. It was easy for me to talk about being smart because it was a place I felt comfortable. I was on the smaller side. I was a fast runner, but I was otherwise terrible at sports. I could never figure out what sneakers to wear or how to style my hair. And I hadn't even reached that dreaded middle school yet. The place where I'd heard everything about all of these things would matter even more. I was also a Black girl in an almost exclusivelywhite community. I was called the Nword on the bus. I was kicked and shoved by other students as a way to say I didn't belong there. Not even my teachers really liked me. Most of them saw my trying so hard to be good at being smart, the one thing that felt me be positive about myself that was me being too much. I know as a teacher now, I was not working with the best my teachers had to offer. The prejudices about how I should be were getting in the way of how I was struggling. But there was no way for me to know any of that at the time. My mom was solemn in the face of the hubris she saw in my childhood later. It made her feel that her duty as a parent now was making sure that I remained humble enough so that everyone would like me. Selfdeprecating in a way that seems socially functional. And I didn't mean to come off as an arrogant person. I was trying to feel confident in a world that made me feel both scared and insignificant. I was trying to learn about the world. But I read the constant bullying and my mother's disappointment and the lessons I had learned that I was a failure. That I was new to the world and already no good at it. Maybe you too have a failure voice. Maybe sometimes even you feel arrogance take the place of real soft confidence within you. I'd imagine some of this rings true to some of you since, in order to be sitting in this audience today, you have likely lived your life in a haze of high achievement. High achievers tend to be people pleasers. And often, the burnout from trying to make everyone happy manifests in trying to look and sound like you've got it all together. Like you've got all the answers. Like, as people in my hometown would say, your britches don't fit. And all of this is okay. Because we all make mistakes sometimes. That's what I think the point of the "I failed" exercise we used at summer camp was supposed to be. To let us high achieving people pleasers know it is okay to make mistakes. I think what the camp leaders wanted us to do, which I maybe only just understanding now, is to stop thinking of success as the opposite of failure. And to instead think of failure as a synonym for compassion. So, how does that work? Well, the first way that if we're thinking about failure and compassion as the same cause, is that it strengthens our sense of accountability. Along the road to success, we've all heard phrases that champion success at all costs. By any means necessary. Rise and grind. Beauty hurts. Pain is weakness leaving the body. Shoot first, ask questions later. Show me a gracious loser and I'll show you a failure. In so many ways our culture is obsessed with winners and winning. But we're all familiar with another phrase, that of" Winning isn't everything." Why do you think we say that? Do we have any takers? Any loud answers? Why do we say winning isn't everything? Because it isn't! And how do we know that winning isn't everything?
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: No, that was a beautiful answer. Hang on just a minute. Don't forgot your throughout. For those of you in the back, I'm going to paraphrase. What you fellow student was saying, if winning were really everything, it would solve all of the other concerns that you have in your life. But you have if this moment where you win and everything else stays the same. Especially if you give up everything for the sake of winning in that one point, you're not taking care of all the other things that are important. I think a few rows back, you had a†
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. Failure provides you opportunity to grow. And sometimes when you win, you miss out on that. I think I saw somebody way in the back? That's all right. If not, I see somebody in the front. I could take one more, yeah.
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah.
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. So, here we're talking about the idea† like, if you have a winner, you have a loser as well. And we're looking at ways that we can kind of mitigate the suffering of the idea that there's only one way to achieve. There's only one way to be successful. And that's if you're successful in this very specific way. And I really do feel like that idea of winning isn't everything hits home today. Is it starting to rain? How are we doing? Okay. Okay. I was just checking. Yeah. I'm just gonna give them a little minute to...
Yes, talk to me! Target! Yes! Closed for everybody!
Yes? Oh, I'm sorry, what did you say?
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: I did. Are you from Kentucky?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Hey, GSA! What discipline were you? Oh, man. So, you had my friends. Who did you have?
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Oh, so, you were last year. So, you had Dan and Olivia. You know, I was Olivia's RA? And I taught Dan when he was in high school. Yeah. And Dan and I are actually superclose friends. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. No, I used to† I used to teach there as well. That's amazing. Well, welcome! Fellow Kentuckian. I wonder if there are other Kentuckians? Yes! Hi! Close enough. I spent a lot of time in Cincinnati. Cincinnati was where we would go when we wanted to like do something fancy. Yeah. Like†
>> [ Away from microphone ]SHAYLA LAWSON: How is everybody doing? It looks like you've very successful handled this rain fail. What did you say? Rochester. Oh! Well, hello, neighbor. You know, very early part of my life neighbor. Yeah. No, I went back to Rochester in my adulthood, and I was like, I'm gonna take all these pictures of what my life used to look like. And the thing that fascinated me most is they had a water tower that's shaped like an ear of corn. Yeah, that was really the best† and that's not to tear down the town. It's like, that's pretty phenomenal. Like... I was like, yes. This feels like my people. How is everybody doing? I think we've pretty successfully handled the rain fail. I'm going to† yeah. Thank you so much for handling that so efficiently and so quietly. Y'all are going to be so good at this. All right. Yes?
>> [ Away from microphone ]
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yes! Also a Virgo. It's also really funny because I'm sitting and looking at a group of people who know far too much about my life. And just like, oh, yeah, that's right. You know, a good percentage of some things that have happened in it. Oh, well, that's what happens as a nonfiction writer. Yes, I am a Virgo. I have lived† I was born in Minnesota, lived in Kentucky. All right. I'm gonna hop back into this speech. All right, that idea of winning isn't everything really hits home to me these days. For instance, you're all sitting here in masks because internationally, we are trying to win a war against a virus. And although we see many successes along that road, our being able to share space like this being one of them, it can be conflicting to say we've triumphed when so much of life is still up in the air. We have also learned through this virus that heralding success in the midst of such global struggle can make us look really out of touch. We may brag to our friends about how healthy we have been without knowing they have lost family members or gotten sick themselves. Or stayed away from COVID, but battled other conditions that are hard to treat with the world focused on one category. Recognizing that we live in a wide world where so many of us are trying hard, but won't get everything right. That keeps us compassionate. And recognizing how we effect people by the ways we share. That keeps us compassionate. Buried within that phrase, "I fail," is the hope that we will be able to treat each other kindly or humbly by accepting when we've made a mistake. What else can we learn from failure? Well, a second thought on what failure brings us is that it is also a moment for reflection. When I think of the act of raising my hand and yelling, I failed! At summer camp, I'm reminded of another gesture. Being in school and raising my hand to ask for help. If you're anything like me, much of the hand raising you've already done in school was to show you've got the answer. But as you enter your freshman year at Amherst, I think it's really important to remember that this is also a gesture of assistance. A moment to reiterate an idea or to pause and reflect. Sometimes we can†in such a hurry to prove ourselves that we can forget we've already done it. We have fancy terms for this now like imposter syndrome that I didn't know when I was growing up. But I find this language useful because having spoken to so many Amherst students as a professor here, I know it's quite common for you at one time or another to forget how successful you are because you're trying to pursue this new education. It's going to be challenging. The time management, the reading. The discovery of new ways to see the world. But in those moments, I hope you can reflect on the fact successful isn't something you have been. Successful is what you are. From here on out for the next four years or so and likely for the next four years after that, you'll have many times when you feel like you're failing when you should be soaring. But that's because as you get older, the distances that you have to fly between things gets broader. And you will grow. And what I would advise you to do to protect yourself is understand the differences between the mistakes or choices, those failures that require accountability and those supposed failures that are outside of your control. One of the most difficult things for me as a professor to see is students who consider failure less than perfect grades. It can be common in school to think of your scores on tests and assignments as an indicator of how well you're doing. And I won't deny, there could be consequences like the loss of a scholarship or a loss of a position on a team. But a change in the GPA is often an indicator that something more profound is happening than a simple rupture in your ability to achieve. Just at lunch today, I was telling Professor Sonya Clarke that I still remember the worst grade that I got in a class at undergrad. I was studying architecture, as you know. And it was furniture design. My project was an absolute mess, fell to pieces. It was not coming together. I couldn't get something that was supposed to be furniture to stand up. But I pushed the teacher to make it a C minus so I wouldn't lose my scholarship. I was a sophomore in college and never in my life had never carried lower than a 3.9. I somewhat romantically thought that furniture design was going to be my career. I was terribly wrong. I was going move to Italy and make beautiful things. I still moved to Italy. I still learned to make beautiful things. Just not furniture. But so much of what I learned in that class, a class that I completely bombed, I still find applicable to this day. I actually still teach writing like it's architecture. Like it's a made thing. It's something that you can construct. But I can't tell you how many classes I aced that I can't remember a single thing from. Another thing to consider when it comes to these less than perfect grades is understanding what is in your life that's affecting you so deeply that you can't perform. Before I became a professor, back when I was still learning to be a teacher, I sat in on a class of eighth graders to learn more about teaching at that grade level. Most of the students were bright and enthusiastic and prepared. But there was this one student who stuck out to me as being a troublemaker. At the end of class, I complimented the teacher on how patient he had been with this person. I convinced myself the kid was a terrible student. You mean Jeremy, the teacher said? He just lost his mom a couple months back. I can't be anything but patient with him. He's having a really difficult time. Throughout your time here, you will also have difficult times. I pray with won't be anything as severe as the loss of a loved one, but it could easily be just that. Or the end in a close friendship, a change in your moral ideologies or a serious case of home sickness. When you see yourself not doing okay, I don't want you it say, I failed. Or even, I can do better. Instead, I hope you can say, I can't. Because sometimes we can't succeed past any obstacles. Sometimes there's no longterm benefit to winning no matter the stakes. Sometimes the best thing for your current health and what I hope will be for each of you a very, very long future is to set limits upon what you can ask yourself. I ask you to talk to the part of yourself that tells you that you are worth less as a person if you don't achieve. That not being able to achieve is failure. We're here for you. I love teaching at Amherst College because one thing this faculty and staff of illustrious humans is good at is manifesting compassion. I'm not gonna lie, it is a learning process on our behalf. And it will also be on yours. There will be many times when we will certainly fail you. But that is part of your reason† the reason that you specifically are here. So, we can be to new heights of greatness through your activism, your vulnerability and your courage. I love teaching at Amherst because these are qualities that I have seen so many of you exhibit naturally. You're so good at raising your hand to say, I need help. For extra test time. So good the making us aware of your best names and pronouns. Keeping us on our toes for the most relevant ways of being prohuman and anti†the isms that separate us. I think you should all clap for that. Let's do it.
[ Applause ]
Because this class is going to lead us somewhere special. It's your generation that is teaching me to have hope for the future of this world. But I do want to reiterate, there will be times when we fail to keep up with the speed at which you need us. Because we're still trying to figure out this world. Despite how much longer we have spent in it. We will have our moments where we lead with our prejudices and our preconceived notions of the world instead of hearing you out first. Had it been me teaching Jeremy in the eighth grade class that day and not his diligent teacher, I may have failed him by missing the signs of compassion he needed. It can be hard to advocate for yourself in the midst of hardship. So, please in this early stage of education, seek out new friends, new organizations, staff members, faculty and perhaps even alumni who can be a fortification for you as you forge your new path here. One of the greatest things I have learned out of my time as a freshman counselor at the summer arts camp is how many people cared about me. In fact, actually really liked me even when all of those thoughts of my awkwardness and my inadequacy were swimming around in my head. I don't exactly know who they are yet, but there will be people here for you that are like that. I know I've definitely found them, and I have not had to dance my way backwards out of a single room yet. My third note, and the last one that I would like to mention is that so often when we think we have failed, it's because we have been failed. Understanding our accountability, understanding the world as both teachable moments and moments of intense reflection does not preclude the possibility that many times we fail because we have not been set up for success. As that highachieving people pleaser, this is a difficult concept for me to learn. I pass it on because it's been so important for me to understand this is true. I think often of how my generation and those who have preceded me have failed you. And a world that we are offering up for you to carry on. Our planet is in danger. Human life is in danger. In so many ways it will be harder for your generation to succeed than any other. I say this because I hope this too will be a reminder that you don't succeed in accomplishing† what you don't succeed in accomplishing in your lifetime is not a failure. It is you doing your part to pave the way. You are not gifted a perfect Earth. You're not expected to be perfect people. There is absolutely no reason for us to except you to be perfect in it. But you are perfect for it. You are here because what you contribute to the greater fabric that is Amherst College, and bigger than that, the world, is both singular and necessary. Do with that the best that you will. Be kind to one another. Be respectful, be outspoken, be brand new. Be full of yourself by being your complete, uninhibited self. Don't let selfdoubt or selfaggrandizement rule you. Be brave. Be bigger than what you imagine by being less sometimes than what you aspire to. Be dedicated. Be a dedicated early evening napper. You're gonna need it. You're gonna need a lot of sleep. Be inquisitive. Be the person who doesn't know anything in a room where you want to learn everything. Be boring or strange or normal or as bold as you like. We made it! That's what I want to hear you say over the next few years more than anything else. The road was difficult, but throughout the time we found things that were new and different. We became new and different. I failed at feeling like I wasn't enough. I failed at failure. What if we started with that? Thank you!
[ Applause ]
I am a consummate like end of speaking crier. Like, I don't know when this started in my life. But, no, I really am like moved to be able to share space with all of you. And at this point, we're gonna open it up to questions. And I think the way that we're gonna manage it is there is a person in the middle and they're gonna come up with a microphone. There's a few people in the middle, and they're gonna come up with microphones. So, raise your hand. I will probably use descriptors of what you're wearing and point since I don't know any of you. But we'll start with the green jacket up here.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Hi.
>> How do we work on embracing failure and learning from that as well as being† like you said, unabashedly ourselves and bold or boring or whatever when so often that's tied to how our material wellbeing, especially when we're advocating for ourselves and that can impact our material wellbeing.
SHAYLA LAWSON: No, it's true. It is for me a lifelong pursuit and process. I have just noticed that I would love to encourage people to start that earlier. Because I think what happens for us as adults, we wait until we get out of a highperformance environment. And say, okay, this is the time I'm going to embrace quote, unquote, failure, but it's too late by then. By then we've been already too burnt out. We have been too confined to what we said we can be or can't be. And I think one of the easiest ways to start with managing that is by listening to yourself. And also, I mean, it sounds hokey, but one of the things that I'm learning to do is offer up gratitude for those places where I hear myself say, I can't, you know? When I hear myself say this is too much or I can't do it, it can be really embarrassing to share that with somebody else because I'm worried about how they're going reflect on me. But I've gotten much better at trying to open myself up to the gratitude of listening and saying, okay, I've got to hear the person inside of me like saying this is too much. And finding the people that you can go to when it's too much I think is really what our issue is. Is we feel like we can't be our whole selves because so often we are failed when we present to people that, hey, I need help, or I need more. I need you to take into consideration my set of abilities and what I can handle right now. And so, that's, you know, where it's also a twoway street that we have to meet you at where you say that you need our help. And so, I think being patient with yourself and then being patient with us on the journey of trying to make sure that we understand that. Because you will, you're gonna run into the people who will not† who will not respect that. Because they're not respecting that voice in themselves. But we also are seeing more and more, especially in your generation, you have a much greater awareness of, you know, where that's gotten us, you know? What those people look like who are constantly obsessed with the idea, I have to be a winner. Like, you know, it's not the way that we're going anymore. And I think, also, by like reframing the way that we think about or talk about failure is just the first step. But I'm hoping it will be a journey that we continue on while you're here. Yeah. Other† yes.
>> My name is Revival. My question is what's your number one favorite song right now?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Oh, Good Days. I was so excited when it came out. Did you hear the dude that did a fake Frank Ocean version of Good Days? I really want Frank Ocean and SZA to do a duet. Then I would cry for real. Other questions? I think way in the back. Very† yeah.
>> Hi. I'm Jay den.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Hi.
>> I guess my question is: Do you believe that there's a way for institutions or just schools in general to recognize academic achievement while also not expecting like perfection? Like being an excellent student isn't just getting As all the time. But in a sense, growing. Is there a way to like recognize that in like grades?
SHAYLA LAWSON: I think it's something that we are definitely still struggling with on an institutional level. We can look at† there are schools that have just disused grades all together. That's one way of managing that. That has its own lessons of success and failure. You lose the metric of being able to go to the next step. If you go to graduate school, anything that requires that evidence of a very clear rubric of success. I think... if I just limit it to like Amherst College and what your experience can be here, it's gonna be really difficult because we are still managing this very† we're managing in most academic institutions this intergenerational conversation. And so, what you need at this point in time is going to be very different than the way the world was practiced, for instance, you know, when I was growing up or I was going to college. I'm a Millennial. I'm not that far away. So, a lot of it is, unfortunately, is going to be a matter of us on the individual level reframing the ways that we approach what we're handed over as information. You know, how we start psychologically thinking about grades at information. Like, what is it telling us about our situation? And not thinking about like the longterm consequences of if I don't have this A on paper, then it's not† then it's proof that something is wrong. You know? Or something is wrong with me. I think that's the first thing that we can do. Because institutionally, like we have investigated, you know, possibilities of like removing grades or keeping grades. And based on where we are now, we've decided, you know, it's something that works for us in the interim. But one of the things that I worry about is often Amherst students in particular are really tied to the idea of a grade as being representative of where you are in your mental health. And I want us to† that's something that I want us to try to really reframe on like an individual, but also on like a campus level that we see a lot of high achievers who are hurting themselves. And it may look like they're doing great on paper, but if we can't get you out of here and in a state where you can go and be a happy, successful person because you burnt out all of your energy just trying to get through every book and every assignment for the next four years, we failed you. So, what I'm hoping for you is that it will be an experience of finding the staff, the faculty, the other students, the organizations that can help petition and rally for you when you need support. And, you know, I'll be around. So, you know, any way that I can also help, I'm hoping to be here for all of you as well. Other questions I can answer? Yeah. Up here.
>> Hi, my name is Sydney. And I was wondering, when it comes to grades and being in class, what would you say is the best way to learn without prioritizing the letter grade that you get at the end of said class. Because so many classes have such valuable information. And as students, we're really focused on what's the report card. What's the best way to learn instead of just focusing on that?
SHAYLA LAWSON: One way to learn that I would really encourage you to focus on is getting to know your professors. And getting to understand why they're superpassionate about the things that they teach. Because sometimes you can learn more in the span of just walking with your professor from Johnson Chapel to Frost Library than you might necessarily be able to communicate on paper or in a grade. And that report is, you know, a lot of us who are here come to teach at a college this size so that we can get to know you. And so, that we can have that relationship with you. And so, just finding those moments that you can get to understand the reason why the course is being taught I think can often, you know, what is it that really geeks your professor out about the thing that they're teach something can help you leave with ways of being excited about it, even if it's really hard for you, or even if you don't understand it. And just figuring out ways to then incorporate maybe just a little bit of that into conversations that you have in your life. Because then you'll know, like, internally, it's like, yeah. Like I didn't get the best grade in this class. But I totally know like where I still am using that stuff. Like I still† there's† one of the things I learned about in that furniture making class was the golden section, the golden spiral. And I'm still obsessed with it as a concept. So many things in nature just naturally are built off of the same Fibonacci sequence that we use to structure buildings and all sorts of different things. Again, still got a D. Like an official D that I tried to work up to something else in the class. But it wasn't a D learning experience, you know? It was that I did not execute the final project and that final indicator of like everything they knew. But like the fact that it continues to add value to my life is, you know, that's what we're going for. We're trying to think of just like in the longevity of you being a human is a couple of letters going change who you're gonna be? And the truth is no. I don't know a single person who has gotten a job† and this is just me, but I think it's still† it's true† where somebody was like, well, let me see your transcripts. Nobody wants to look at that. I think the thing too, going out into corporate America is that I realized most of my bosses were all C students, you know? I was like, how did I get here? I could have partied. I could have done anything else other than what I did. Because I think a lot of times they† they† people who end up being less concerned with grades, like, and there's all sorts of other privilege and factors to think about in there. But also like a lot of times people who are less concerned about grades and more concerned about just like their capacity to be a human and still, like, go to school, often fare better in longevity because of the fact that they're not spending that concentrated amount of time really anxious about the next step. So, just allowing it as an opportunity for you to be present. And hopefully, you know, being able to be comfortable with how that manifests itself at the end of the semester. Other thoughts? Yes, please, in the middle.
>> Hi. My name is Bryce. And so, you spoke about reframing how we think about failure. I'm curious about what winning really look like you and what healthy winning is.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Winning for me look like happiness. Just contentment. I think† there hasn't been a single thing that I've achieved that's really made me feel better than like watching my dog run around on the beach. Like, being able to, like, take a walk with one of my friends and like grab a coffee. And like having an old woman compliment us about how well we're dressed. Like, those are the things that stick out to me as making me happy. And what I finally came to understand about why, you know, I was encouraged to work so hard in school, why working so hard was important was so that I can afford those moments. But at the same time, I feel like within the process of life, those moments are free. And they come up all the time. And it's really, you know, they're not things that we think of as a gauge of like winning or losing. But I see them as real wins, you know? Like, it's a real honor to be able to be in a world where you have these moments where you get to connect, or you get to see something really beautiful happen. And so, that for me personally is where I find winning at this point. Is just if I can be happy? Because for so many years as a very, very successful person I was incredibly unhappy. And so many people with a lot of money and access are incredibly unhappy and don't feel like they have anybody to really connect to. Even if it's just knowing the name of their mailman. And so, I think it's really important for us to continue to prioritize what it means to be that kind of person. The privilege in being that kind of person. And know that can extend into you having a bigger world. I think in the back over there? Yeah.
>> Hi. My name is Gabriele. And I wanted to know what your biggest revelation was in writing This is Major, especially in COVID times. What do you think you took out of it in writing?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. I didn't write This is Major in COVID times.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Just writing it in general? Or writing in COVID times? Okay. Great. Yeah. Because I was finished writing the book in 2019. It came out in 2020. But, you know, it's a whole different thing. So, one of the biggest revelations that I got was I looked at all the stories that I knew of like these famous women, like Nina Simone, and SZA and Diana Ross and I thought I† very stupidly† I thought I knew who they were. I thought I knew what it meant to be successful and to have money and to be pretty. Because I knew how those things affected me. I knew what it was like to live in a world where I saw them over here, me over here, and okay, that's a very, very different lifestyle. What I thought was cool when I started doing more reading is how often all of these people that are thought of as extremely successful, as celebrities, how often they felt deeply misunderstood. The people didn't understand what they were trying to make or accomplish. One of the favorite things that I learned in writing the book is that Meg the Stallion is really into anime. It's those things. I'm supposed to be this sexpot, but I'm really into anime. Those stick out to me because I feel like it's what we miss in really championing the success story. So many of the people that I wrote about, they are represented by being the first at something. But we don't really get a lot of good indicators of just how they feel about their daily lives. Another story that I loved is one time Diana Ross had some kids over at her house. It was before she had kids of her own and they wanted to paint. So, she just had them paint all over the walls, you know? She had white everything in her house in Connecticut. White carpet, white sofas. But it was like, it didn't matter. It was like, you want more than paper to write on? We have got all of this white space. Let's do it. And that also, growing up and thinking about her as being superposh and being a diva. I would never think Diana Ross would let you put paint all over her white house. But it really kind of opens us up to the fact that there are a lot of similarities between us and some of the people that we look to as being super up there. And that was something that I really connected with that I think helped me get through the pandemic, you know? Because in the pandemic we were seeing people that we really admired having to do a lot of the same difficult things that we had to do. You know? Like figure out how they were going to get like† get polish off of their nails. Or figuring out how they were going to get their groceries, you know? And that was, I think, something that I definitely connected to early in writing the book that continued through COVID is really how similar our experience is because we share the same bodies. We're humans and we go through a lot of the same things. There's a person way out there in a pinkishpeachish hat that maybe† and then there's also somebody right† so, we'll start up here, Austin, was there† yeah? Does somebody have a microphone on this corner? And then get the person in the peach hat.
>> Hello, I'm Michael.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Hi, Michael.
>> So, just before I ask my question. I just wanted to say that I love everybody here and want to meet you all.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Oh, me too!
[ Applause ]
>> So, my question is: What would you say is a thing that you cherish most in life?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Oh. My time. There was a quote once by Zadie Smith's husband, Nick Laird who says time is where you spend your love. I really feel like that. Of course, there's always stuff we can't get around doing. But if I don't feel like I'm not valuing my time in a way where I'm not loving anything in my life, that's for me a real check-in. Because our time is† it's long, but it's short. And so, that is the thing that I'm† I care about the most is like who I'm spending my time with and how. I think we had†
>> All right. Okay. Hi. My name is† and my question is more towards about like your† your writing and your writing process. Because I've noticed that like in your writing, your voice really does shine through. And I was wondering how do you go about when you come up with an idea to then have it, like, be just narrated in written form while we can't actually hear your voice?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. That's a great question. I think one of the places that I benefit from is like when you† you know, when you get to this stage of writing, people give you a lot more leeway in terms of what they want to see on a page. So, it actually took me a lot to go from being, you know, like an inschool writing and an academic writer to forming a voice as a† as someone who writes more for pop culture because I was so used to pulling my voice back. And trying to sound like everybody else. And what was really nice about the process of shifting through poetry and essays was a recognition of the fact that our voices are what make us unique. And the cultures that we bring, the regions that we bring. All the sounds that we bring is what makes language interesting. And so, if I think about it that way, if I think about, you know, what's innate to me? What's the story that I can tell that somebody else can't tell about this subject or about this thing? I kind of relax a little bit. I hesitate to tell you that as a student. Because that can also land you bad grades. But that said, I think there is, especially because, you know, we consider ourselves a writing college. Since that's part of our ethos. We are really invested in making sure that you feel there's space to include your voice in the ways that you're talking about things. So, this is a good place to be to start experimenting with that. And sometimes you may want to like tell your professor, hey, I'm just trying some things out. So, they know like where you are and how to gauge like what you're doing with your writing. And can help you in terms of where you are. But sometimes it's something you have to fight for. I think especially being a person of color. It's taken a lot. Even in the publication of this. I fought with them† you know, we went back and forth a lot about things that were really for me kind of cultural idioms that they weren't familiar with. We need to get rid of this because it's bad grammar. Well, it's culture. There's a place for the idea of what is supposed to be on the page because it's English. But like English looks like us now. So, also recognizing that English includes other words, English includes ways of pronouncing words or using syntax that might not be the ways that we studied in grade school. That's something that we really have to push for. Yeah. And you† okay. We'll start here. Black jacket and then there's somebody† yep.
>> All right. So, you talked about this a little bit in your essay. There are a lot of problems in the world that are very systemic, and few people talk about them. Like industries based on exploitation or how climate change has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths due to droughts and hurricanes that no one really talks about it and only looks like it's getting worse. What do you think like students like us in college should approach things that seem so much bigger than ourselves, especially if no one talks about them?
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. That's a really important question. I think it's really imperative given the situation that we're† you know, our world is at a crisis. And if you can't talk about that within the frame of your education, if it can't be manifested as a conversation that you can have here so that you can learn how to solve these problems in the world, then it's something that it is your right to advocate to see more of. One of the things that I've really appreciated about the students at Amherst College, it's one of the reasons that I came here, was because traditionally as students you have been so good for advocating to make sure that you're represented. So, there's been a lot of advocating to get rid of, you know, statues of people who have done really terroristic things to Indigenous people, who have done really horrible things to the environment. Campaigning to make sure that as they're bringing in you as a more diverse class that we on the other side also look like reflections of you. Those are things that all happened because of generations of Amherst students. And for your generation, thinking about the impact of climate change upon like what is going to be your future and what you can actually do with the world? This is the place to† this is† one of the things I like about college, and especially small colleges, this is the place that you can start learning, you know, what you can do to advocate in these situations. Because it's kind of a soft landing. It's not that you won't shuffle up against people, but we understand it's part of your education to be expressing yourself and to see what can be done to ensure that you have a future. Because it's that serious now. If we don't raise you as a group of people to understand like the seriousness of climate change, it could destroy all of us. So, those are all things that, like, this is the place to start figuring out, like, who your people are who also care about the same things. And what can you do to start making those changes on campus. As a microcosm of what you might be really passionate about doing in the world. And also, if you see that in that process, you get really burnt out of doing it here, it may mean that you'll have to scale back like what you can do in the world. Because, you know, we're all parts of the puzzle. There are other people that you may be able to pass on the relay torch to and get them to keep going. But this is, I think, the greatest time to figure out what you want to do in terms of what you're passionate about and what you want to advocate for in terms of your future. We have† and I think maybe we'll take two more.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Please.
>> My name is†
SHAYLA LAWSON: Hi.
>> My question is: How do we balance humility and confidence like† I know where it's like being in this really prestigious and exclusive institution, how do we be proud of our achievements, but also stay grounded and connected and stay away from†
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah, that's a great we. It's tough. I have been thinking about that a lot because one of the things that came out of the pandemic that was† that came out of our time on lockdown that was actually a real joy†if I was reconnecting with a lot of people that I didn't get to see because of Zoom. And I just noticed how many people I grew up with, pretty small town in Kentucky, are out here doing really awesome things. And now because they are relatively well known, when I talk about them, it's hard to not feel namedroppy when it's just me being really excited about where my friends are. Or sometimes when I talk about something new that I'm doing or I'm excited about, I worry that I sound like I'm bragging. But I think one of the things that I'm also learning about where we've come in culture is separating† I think, you know, we have a need to kind of get rid of like the humble brag or this need for self-deprecation to commune. And I think a lot of that is really promulgated on social media. The idea that it's, you know, that kind of like #blessed mentality where you're supposed to, like, kind of show off. But at the same time like let everybody know that like, oh, it's just because of X, Y and Z. So, I think one of the things that helps me in like the distinction between like† I would definitely put like humility and confidence in the same category. But like moving away from like humility or confidence and veering into arrogance is whether or not the conversation is provoked out of any kind of internal fear in me that somebody might not notice me. That I notice I veer into arrogance instead of like confidence when I end up in a situation where what I'm afraid of is if I don't tell you how, you know† how great I am or how important I am that you won't pay attention at all. That†you can't hear me, or you can't see me. And I think maintaining humility for me has come from just being really connected to doing work that I care about. It's really easy from my perspective to stay humble if the thing that I'm mostly concentrated on is the work. Because I'm not concentrated on like the accolades or like, you know, what's gonna happen when the work is done. I'm really concentrated on like how happy it makes me to have like written this book. It was funny. When I got this, I had this very out of body moment† experience moment where I was like, oh, I wrote 294 pages. I didn't realize that happened. Like, it naturally like imbues a sense of humility in the process because I just get so caught up in the process that I don't even think about the fact that I'm supposed to, you know† National Book Critics Circle finalist kind of thing. Those are the things that I find that helps. Is like recognizing when my need to self-promote is out of fear of being looked over or not being noticed. That veers in the arrogance category. But if I'm really concentrating on doing work that I love and being really passionate about it and being a really good citizen in that community, then that usually keeps me in the space of humility and confidence. Yes. Yes, please.
>> Hi. My name is Yerko. And my question would be about that little voice that you talked about.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah.
>> Firstly, how would we start to navigate the conversation with that voice? And how would we address it? As well as it has surely been affected by far more than where we come from. It also carries intergenerational, cultural subconscious, and other biases and now I'm sure with the pandemic, the way that people address their own success and failure. So, I was kind of curious how you think those things shape that voice and how can we work with it and through it to live a more happy and fulfilled life?
SHAYLA LAWSON: That's a great question. I appreciate it. So, you know, definitely for the sake of sharing a lecture with you today, I truncated the experience into this particular anecdote about my child and where one of the points that I could locate, and this is where I experienced a rupture. But it is something that is much more deepseated. A lot of it being intergenerational. A lot of it being about inherited trauma. Experience of what it's like to live in an individual body and the prejudices that come with that. And so, it is a† a mission of deep healing and longstanding work that I consider chiefly important. For me, I have found that aligning myself with really great therapists, you know, people who are really good in their field. I've had some terrible therapists as well. You know, I've had to find the people that really work for me and understand the things that are really important for me to work with as tools. Approaching therapy as tools and not just the way the world is going. I've found it superhelpful and I think it's very much a longstanding individual pursuit. For me, I also find like having a practice of quietness, having a practice of really intentional like being in the moment that came out of me learning how to sit and listen and learning how to meditate and do† and I learned those things because† because I was always on the go and because I was always trying to achieve. I noticed that there was just so much clutter in my brain where I couldn't hear to get started on the next thing because I was just coasting off of the anxiety of just making sure they just kept succeeding. And having to turn that around and really reflect on, okay, why does it matter? Like, and does this have to be done right now? And if it's not done right now, what are the consequences of that? If it is done right now, what are the consequences of that? Starting with having really intentional conversations with myself. But I'm a big proponent of finding people that can help. Whether it be mentors or whether it be trained professionals. Building out your community as well with people who can think the same way. Having friends who can sit with you and be mindful I find very helpful. People who talk to you about what you dream. Literally what dreams come up in your head. Or like what your fears are. Those are things that I'm really hoping will manifest out of you being in this group of people. Maybe we'll take one more. Oh, this is so hard. Go here. In the black, about four rows down.
>> Hi, my name is Nicole. I wanted to just start off by saying thank you for being here and speaking with us. I feel like this is a lot of stuff that I'm going to be carrying with me for a long time.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Awesome.
>> I wanted to go back to what you said about time being the thing you cherished most and just how intense the performance of femininity is, especially for Black women. And how we find this balance between focusing on how we project ourselves outwardly and the messages we're sending to ourselves.
SHAYLA LAWSON: Yeah. Whoo... that is a complicated one. I wonder† let's see... I guess I could just kind of start with† maybe I guess give some context and then start with myself. I think it is† it is really challenging. I mean, thinking just on the level of like when I was in college. Figuring out what I could do functionally with my hair where I could make it to class every day on time. Because there is such an expectation. Particularly with Black women that if we're not presentable, you know, that† for instance, why would I worry that much about like how my hair looks? Well, like in London, it's still illegal in certain institutions and certain schools to wear a style for Black women, braids, or to wear a hair wrap. When I was in high school, I used to wrap my hair pretty consistently. Me and some of my friend. It was a superearly time to start school. And we enjoyed having that connection to our culture. And I got sent to the principal's office for having my hair wrapped. Going from that environment to figuring out how to be a human and an adult. I definitely had bosses at times that felt it was appropriate to comment on my hair in a business meeting. The eternal don't touch my hair conversation. I mention all these things because they do tend to be very particular to Black women in certain ways. So, for me like the functional performance of my femininity also has a lot to do with the fact that I read as† as Euro centric in a way that it's useful for someone like me to have a platform like this and be feminine in a world where there's so much that's against Black women and the presentation of whether or not we can be feminine. I've found ways to think of that as advocacy. And that the ways that I decide to present myself. Like, what does it mean for me to be ready to defend how I, you know, me choosing to wear dreadlocks and choosing to work in this kind of environment? Or choosing to defend not wearing makeup and wearing glasses when I teach. That I don't always have to look perfect or feminine. What helps me is thinking about ways that I can continue to advocate for you. Ways that I can continue to be a reflection of things that are important to you. And perhaps it's helpful in making those choices of getting ready to think of it is part as your activism. To think of it as an opportunity for you to lay down the law and say† it was funny because in a recent business meeting I had for a project I was working on, we collectively are all Black women on this project. And we're talking about the idea of like now that we're coming out of the Zoom world, like we're not gonna go to our work† to work with our hair done and a face full of makeup every day. When we see our colleagues coming in with wet heads and being able to wear different clothes that aren't seen as befitting on us. Like if we wear a hoodie, it's all of a sudden this idea of† well, we know what hoodies have done. I appreciated the other day that Trevor Noah mentioned the fact he's going to keep presenting in a hoodie, doing his show in a hoodie because of what it represents, yeah, I can be professional, and I don't have to look this specific way to tell you that that is my intention. So, I think that's part of like what our goal is now in terms of performance and presentation is channeling what we got out of the pandemic in hearing this idea of like, we can be professional. We can be interested. We can be our best. But you can't expect us to look that put together to be that put together every single moment of the day just so that we communicate to you in a very shallow way that we're doing the work. And I think that's something that all of us are going to be pushing institutions toward is the idea that, you know, we are engaged. We are active. We are committed. We just want to do that in ways where we can also feel comfortable in our skins as we do that thing. I think that is it for us today. This has been amazing.
[ Applause ]
So, should I turn the floor over to anyone to close? Or† I just wasn't sure? Thank you so much for having me. This has been amazing!
[ Applause ]