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Alum Candis Callison delivers this year’s MIT Ph.D. hooding ceremony address

Candis Callison addressing Ph.D. recipients on June 7 at the 2018 hooding ceremony
Candis Callison addressing Ph.D. recipients on June 7 at the 2018 hooding ceremony
Photo by Dominick Reuter

Read her call to make the world “more just, more fair”.

On June 7, Comparative Media Studies alumna Candis Callison, S.M. ’02, addressed the assembled 2018 recipients of MIT doctoral degrees and was kind enough to let us reprint the text, below.

Callison, an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, is known for her recent work on journalistic practices in the Canadian arctic as they — the journalists, their practices, and the arctic — deal with a changing climate, and her work inevitably led to her call at the hooding ceremony for new graduates to create “better systems and processes that make the world a more just, more fair place for all of us to live in.”

Callison wrote her CMS thesis about British Columbia’s Stikine River watershed, specifically a cultural and technological account of “how to represent the complexity of social realities through the limitations and capacities of various forms of media and digital space.” She went on to earn her Ph.D. at MIT in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society; in her dissertation, she conducted an ethnographic study of how different groups, from native councils to evangelical Christians, discuss climate change. The work grew into her book How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (2014).

We were thrilled to welcome her back to campus and are just as happy to hear she won’t be a full continent away in 2018-19, as she spends the year at Princeton University as the Pathy Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies.

Candis Callison addressing Ph.D. recipients at the 2018 hooding ceremony
Candis Callison addressing Ph.D. recipients on June 7 at the 2018 hooding ceremony
Photo by Dominick Reuter

Thank you, Chancellor Barnhardt.

Congratulations! And let me add some praise for your families and all those who have supported you through the ups and downs of getting a Ph.D. from this amazing institution!

I also want to thank Eric Grimson, the faculty in Science, Technology, and Society, especially Michael Fischer and Chris Cappozzola for nominating me, and the student committee whose chose me (of all people) to speak here today.

How good do you feel today, wearing these fancy gowns for life?!

I want to greet you in the language of my Tahltan ancestors: Chachōlone hoti’e Tałsitān didene de’ots’i. Tsesk’iye esda tsehi. Good morning. I am Tahltan from the Crow Clan. We are one of many Indigenous peoples with thriving communities throughout the Americas.

I asked an elder from my community how to offer you all ‘congratulations’ in our language. She told me to say to you: “Soga nada’dich” which roughly translates to “I’m happy for what you have all done.”

One last thing to learn before you leave MIT – say it with me: Soga nada’dich! Now, turn to the person beside you, and say – Soga nada’dich! Congratulations! (You now know how to say something in a Dene language from the northwestern part of the continent, near the Arctic Divide.)

It’s also part of Indigenous traditions to honor the lands we speak on – today, I want to acknowledge we are on the ancestral lands of the Massachusett, Nipmuc and Wampanoag people, Algonquin speaking peoples that have been in relations with the lands and waters in this region since time immemorial.

Seven years ago I sat where you are, and I can’t say I ever thought I’d be up here at any point in the near or distant future.

I still vividly remember donning this robe for the first time. I had flown back here for graduation ceremonies after finishing my first academic year in a faculty position.

I got up early to get my family ready – my youngest daughter was not yet 2 years old and in a stroller, and my 7 year-old daughter was asking me a million questions, gown billowing in the wind, as we walked as fast as we could across campus to get here in time.

For me, like I imagine it is for many of you, this day is both a dream come true and the culmination of so many choices, hard work, small and big transformations — and many moments of: oh phew, got that requirement done, what’s next?

So here you are at another precipice of ‘what’s next?’ And I’d encourage you to take some time to reflect on your story – on how it is that you got here.

Mine, as you’ve probably guessed, is not a typical story in any way.

I came to MIT in my late 20s, leaving a great career in journalism and media. By the time I was 25, I had a national television show in Canada – the first of its kind on Indigenous issues.

This was back in the day when TV and being on TV mattered much more than it does now.

I took a huge risk and left my show in Canada to join a media tech startup in San Francisco, and next moved to a search engine here in Boston. Then, I found this amazing MIT program called Comparative Media Studies that had just been launched by Henry Jenkins. My huge thanks to Henry. CMS was an incredible experience for me.

I was one of those early Internet nerds who was so totally excited about a future in which everyone had a voice and could fully participate in media and democracy. If you’ve paid attention to some recent hearings about fake news – yeah, that’s really not worked out the way anybody thought it would.

When I started at MIT, media was a profoundly different landscape. There was no Facebook or Reddit or Youtube – Google was in its infancy and not the verb it is now. (You realize of course that most of the population under 20 finds this all unimaginable).

I often think back to those supposedly good ‘ol days of the early Internet years not with nostalgia, but with a sense of purpose and hindsight recognition of the leaps and risks I was willing to take to pursue what mattered to me even as everything around me was changing and evolving very fast.

MIT is not anywhere close to where I dreamed that I would end up. In fact, neither me nor my family were oriented in this direction.

One spring when I was well into my Ph.D., I went back to Tahltan country – which is near the Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia border so, pretty far from here. We were in the middle of one of the most remote areas on the continent having ridden horses for a day to get in there from the nearest rural gravel road. We were clearing out one of my dad’s old hunting camps, and my dad, who’s very worldly knowledgeable and well travelled – but decidedly not an academic, says to me: you know I had some Americans out here and they said you go to a really good school.

Yep, I said: it’s pretty good.

It wasn’t until I had been here for a while that I realized why and how I had landed here.

MIT is a place that values not only experimental methods and outcomes in research, but an experimental life: working hard, taking detours and risks, becoming resilient when things don’t go as planned, taking the scenic route through failures and innovative efforts to define and solve problems.

There are very few – if any other places- that I think would have had faculty who supported me to do my coursework and research the way I did. My committee – Mike Fischer, Joe Dumit, Sheila Jasanoff, and Chris Walley were excellent.

For my dissertation, I actually thought I would choose a backburner issue which not very many people were talking about in 2002 – climate change.

My inspiration came from a first year class taught by Professors Evelyn Fox Keller and David Marks on Global Environmental Politics – this is one of those made-at- MIT classes where a leading feminist science scholar joined up with the head of what was then called the Lab for Energy and the Environment and the class was full of science, engineering, STS and Sloan students. In one class, everyone started complaining about media coverage of climate change – and why couldn’t we just tell people to care and solve this problem already??

Being the only person in the room with media experience, I took them all on. I countered that if we wanted people to have a complex view of scientific facts, we also all needed a more complex framework for considering how society worked and what role media could and should play in making science meaningful for the public.

A week later, I was still fuming about this discussion so I decided I would have to come back to this argument with some better data. It was then that I began developing a research project that took me up to the Arctic, down to the tip of Florida, and to buildings I had never ventured into on this campus to talk to scientists, journalists, religious leaders, Indigenous leaders, and corporate responsibility activists about how climate change comes to matter.

I also had my children while I was doing my Ph.D. … just in case you thought I was joking about leading an experimental life.

My oldest daughter was born in the middle of my second year, and my youngest daughter? I found out I was pregnant a few months before my dissertation was due and a few days after I signed on to a new tenure track academic job.

Professor Dave Kaiser was head of STS at the time, and he had the awful task of calling me to see if I was going to finish before or after the baby arrived… it turned out I finished after she arrived, but thanks to my mom and husband’s help, I did manage to defend 4 days before I started a full time faculty job.

STS was incredibly supportive, and I think things have changed a bit since then. For example, there was no maternity leave for grad students at MIT when my oldest daughter was born, but there is now.

And there was a time, I’m not sure if it’s still true, when I used to say it was actually harder to get into MIT daycare than it was to get into MIT.

There is no template for being a working parent. It takes constant adaptation to find ongoing life and work balance. And that’s true whether you have kids or not.

Having a community of others who are doing what you’re doing really helps – it isn’t all about leaning in, regardless of what all the famous tech parents say, it’s more often about slowing down and making careful choices about where you want to devote your time and energy.

You can’t do everything well all the time, but you do have to get the big stuff right — and stay close to what matters to you.

Determining what the big stuff is to ‘get right’ can be a challenge when you leave MIT.

Here, I’m willing to bet that your entire life force has been directed towards getting this degree.

An MIT Ph.D. is a big get, and everything orients around it, sometimes to the point, where it’s hard to see much else.

People in your life may have pointed that out to you a time or two.

But those of us in these gowns today know that it takes a lot of mettle to succeed here – to measure up to the standards and expectations of your advisors, your fellow grad students, your committee, your department and all the alums you look up to and whose work you’ve read.

And it’s worth it, right? An MIT Ph.D. is so much more than just pretty good.

If you choose to be faculty like I have, you’re likely meet some alums who will give you some advice. At one of my very first faculty luncheons, I got seated beside an extremely successful senior colleague. We had a nice round the table chit-chat and then broke off into small group conversations. At one point, he leaned over to me and said:

I went to MIT too and listen, it’s all downhill from there. Ok, so, don’t panic. That’s not exactly true.

This place is very special and you will miss it here. Hopefully not to the point where in your 50s or 60s, you’ll be saying to your younger colleagues – hey kid, it’s all downhill.

Instead of thinking of MIT as the highest point in my life, I’ve come to think of my time here as one of the best and most vital, formative parts of my journey.

And I’d encourage you to consider it that way too – that it’s neither a beginning nor an end. Thinking about where you’ve come from to get here, and imagining how your story continues after life here are equally important parts of the same process.

As you consider your future, how are you going to decide what the rubric is for pursuing an idea, for sitting down and writing that grant, for saying yes to a speaking engagement, for sitting on a board or moving into a leadership role?

I had a student come into my office at UBC a few months ago, and he had just come from reporting in a Syrian refugee camp half a world away. Mentally, he was still there; he couldn’t leave. His core question was about how much he could ever do as a journalist to help so many people who were truly suffering.

Maybe some of you can relate to this in various ways. Maybe you come from other countries or communities in this country where you know what suffering, structural biases, and systemic racism looks like, up close – and maybe, MIT has kind of been an escape from all that.

With this degree in hand, however, you will be asked to intervene, to speak out and speak up, and to help solve problems with the expectations that the crucible you were formed in here gives you an edge – ways of coming at issues and problems that are rigorous, creative, hopefully compassionate, and definitely kick ass.

So I’ll pass on the advice to you that I gave to my student – You have a tool with your MIT degree, and you likely also have a sense of the contribution you want to make that stems from the concerns that are part of your life story.

You now need to think about how those things fit together.

Science and technology haven’t and don’t emerge in vacuums. Nor, frankly, do they always make the world a better place. They map on to pre-existing problems, stories we’ve told ourselves about how our societies operate, and our  experiences with persistent inequalities and injustices.

I’ve told you a few stories today, and here’s why: Knowing your own story supports you to make ethical decisions as you experiment and adapt to the constantly evolving world we share. It gives you a window into the limits of your knowledge and experience, and potential unintended consequences of whatever kinds of projects you participate in developing. And over time, you’ll likely come to understand how profoundly your own life has been structured by your relations with land and water, your gender, race, privilege (or lack of it), and historical, geographical, and colonial contexts.

The contributions you can make with your Ph.D. can amplify some kinds of data, collaborations, problems and solutions over others. Should you choose, your work and your research can shift society towards better systems and processes that make the world a more just, more fair place for all of us to live in.

In closing, let me congratulate you again. Despite what I was told, trust me, it’s really not all downhill from here. The next leg of your experimental life is waiting for you, and you get to take this Ph.D., your MIT experience – and this gown! — with you, however you choose to continue your story.

Soga nada’dich and Mēduh. Thank you – and good luck out there!

Andrew Whitacre
Written by
Andrew Whitacre

Andrew directs the communications efforts for CMS/W and Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education. A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University, with a minor in humanities, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.

This work includes drawing up and executing strategic communications plans, with projects including website design, social media management and training, press outreach, product launches, fundraising campaign support, and event promotions.

Andrew Whitacre Written by Andrew Whitacre