Having the Last Word on Words

Debbi Mack
4 min readJun 4, 2021
Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

This is a reprint of a column I wrote and published online in July 2008. I may have even shared it with the speaker I wrote about, and he seemed to like it, as I recall. Kind of cool, really! 🙂

Franz Boas and the Birth of American Anthropology in the Pacific Northwest is not the kind of title you’d associate with a funny, informative or even inspiring speech. But it was, in fact, one of the speeches we got to hear at my niece’s graduation from the University of Oregon (go Ducks!) with a degree in anthropology. And it was, in fact, all those things — funny, informative and even inspiring.

Part of what made it funny was how the speaker, Dr. Philip W. Scher (Associate Professor, Anthropology), started off by noting that people generally asked him three questions when he told them what he did. First question: “So, do you do what Indiana Jones does?” He would politely inform them that, while nobody does what Indiana Jones does, Indiana Jones is an archeologist, not an anthropologist. With equal politeness, he would inform askers of the second question, “Are you like that woman on Bones?” that she was a forensic anthropologist, whereas he was a cultural anthropologist.

I mention all this because during his speech, Dr. Scher took a playful swipe at English majors when he said they couldn’t possibly inspire the kind of cinematic hero that anthropology was thought (mistakenly, by his own admission) to have. “Indiana Jones and the Dangling Participle?” He shook his head. “Straight to DVD.” The crowd tittered, as did I. Yet, the sentiment got me thinking.

Because even though I wasn’t an English major, but chose instead to attend that liberal arts/sciences-cum-trade school known then as the College of Journalism (but since dubbed the Philip Merrill College of Journalism) at the University of Maryland (go Terps!), I have a great appreciation for English majors — both their expertise and their work. And, while my knowledge of grammar tends to come from the gut rather than any formal text on the subject and I’d have to Google the term “dangling participle” to be absolutely sure just what it is, I have a great respect for the power of words and the importance of good, clear communications skills. That’s part of why I write for a living.

So I thought about that as Dr. Scher was delivering Franz Boas and the Birth of American Anthropology in the Pacific Northwest (much more fun and interesting than it sounds — really), as well as the speech before it, Some Thoughts on Commencing, delivered by Corey M. Johnson, who was receiving his Ph.D. that day in geography. The Soon-to-be-Dr. Johnson’s speech was equally funny, informative and even inspiring. And why was that? Because of the words the speakers chose in making their speeches.

Each of them discussed the significance of their field of study, and did so in a way that made me not only know rationally, but feel the importance of these subjects. And, like all really good graduation speeches, they included a call to all listeners (“no matter how old you are,” as one of the introductory speakers so depressingly put it) to go out in the world and explore its endless possibilities. To think about the concepts that have been the focus of their critical, scholarly attention. To question one’s assumptions. To continue to learn about the world. To go forth and achieve one’s dreams.

And how did they do this? With well-chosen words. For what would all their critical, scholarly study be worth, if it couldn’t be shared in some way with others? What would the university’s faculty be worth unless they had the words with which to teach their students? (The introductory speaker said as much when she admitted the faculty would be rendered pointless without students for them to teach.) And how do professors in these fields get tenure? By being published.

So, in the end, it comes down to words — the English major’s objects of study. Those studies may not inspire cinematic heroes, but they do allow them to be created. Language allows all our stories to be told — from Beowulf to Battlestar Gallactica. It allows us to inform, educate, persuade, entertain and enlighten each other. Words allow us not only to share knowledge, but to acquire it in the first place. How could Franz Boas have done his work and how could we have known about it, if the man couldn’t read, write or speak? How could any field of study be possible without the ability to comprehend a topic in words, then effectively communicate it? And how could we, the lay audience at a graduation ceremony, gain that small measure of understanding and enthusiasm for the topics of geography and anthropology except through speeches using words that were funny, informative and — yes — even inspiring?

Which leads me to the third and final question Dr. Scher was asked when he told people he was an anthropology professor: “What can you do with an anthropology degree?” His response (which he used to close his speech) was, “What could I do without one?”

My answer to both questions is, “Nothing, without the words to understand and share your knowledge.”

PS: Anyone remember Battlestar Gallactica? 🙂 Bones? Is that still on anywhere?

PPS: My niece has gone on to have amazing career! 🙂

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Debbi Mack

New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.