U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lots of Questions, But No Shortcuts (Guest post by John McCaa)

[Editor’s note: the guest essay below is adapted from award-winning journalist John McCaa’s commencement address at the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at the University of Texas at Dallas on December 17, 2015.  — LDB.]

Lots of Questions, but No Shortcuts

By John McCaa

Fellow scholars, I know what you have been through.

I stand here reminded of the times I had submitted for my advisor’s review the latest draft of my dissertation — reminded of the hope, the confidence, I felt, as I drove toward campus to hear his thoughts (most assured that I had dazzled him!), only to sit down in the chair in his office opposite him and see that look most of us have received from our advisors at some period or another in the writing stage.

mccaa1And I returned to the house despondent, knowing how much more work was ahead of me before I would be ready to defend.  And yet, dejected as I was, I also recall the comforting words of my wife, reminding me, “This is supposed to be hard; they don’t just give away PhDs.”

So never mind “that look” — I can still remember the smile on my face and the faces of my professors when they called me back into the room after my defense and said to me, “Congratulations, Doctor McCaa.”

See, you have a right to be proud, and to enjoy these moments.

But just know that in the days ahead, you will probably encounter fear about your work again. This may be especially important for some of you younger graduates to know ahead of time.

Some weeks or months from now, for those of you searching — after this long and difficult course of study and work — for that first position in academia or research, you possibly will receive your fourth or fifth notice of rejection, or miss on out that 7th or 8th faculty appointment, and you may wonder if your plan was a good one.

Or in your job search beyond the academy, you may hear, “Yes, you have academic qualifications; but you need more experience.”

Or once you have found that job, you may start to worry that you won’t get the promotion you hoped would come with further study.  You may worry that you spent too much time working on your degree, and that your colleagues are getting more recognition than you.

This is a sense of fear — at some level, personally or professionally, we all sooner or later face it.

However, I tell you now, not even knowing what the source of that fear will be for you:  I tell you know to reject it.

Reject it because you already know fear.  You already know you can defeat fear.  The conferral of your degree today proves the powerlessness of such fear over you.  You’ve seen fear, you’ve felt it, and you’ve kicked fear to the curb.

The fear that you will face going forward from here is not different than any fear you have already experienced.

That job you knew was yours but didn’t get, that research project that could go to someone else — that’s not evidence of a bad plan on your part.  It’s just another obstacle like so many others you have already overcome.  If fear could defeat you, you wouldn’t have entered the PhD program.

Older graduates, you too have already conquered fear.

If fear could defeat you, you wouldn’t have started the PhD program, knowing that you were — like me — very likely to be older than most of your professors. And why spend all those lovely weekends poring over books and charts and projects, writing papers, when you could be out enjoying yourself with friends and family?

If fear could defeat you, you would not have started this work, worrying that you might die before finishing the program.

But the truth is that we are, each of us, no matter what age, every day, and at all times, just a breath away from death.

Each of us, young and old, began this endeavor because we had questions.  And our strong desire to find the answers to those questions overcame any fear — any fear of embarrassment, any fear of failure, or even any fear of dying.

Let me tell you something about my questions…

Even with 39 years in television news in Nebraska and Texas — 23 of it anchoring weekly nighttime broadcasts at WFAA — I don’t make a lot of speeches.

Despite what I do, I am basically a shy person.  This is rather strange in a business that has gone from the likes of Ernie Pyle, Ed Murrow, Margaret Bourke-White, Ida B. Wells, and Carlos Castaneda — women and men who did their best to be invisible in reporting the news — to today’s Bill O’Reilly, Barbara Walters, Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow, who in telling the news must insert themselves, their opinion, their persona into the narrative.

I had questions about that change in journalism, about its impact on a free society, about how and why it started.

Today’s news is full of reaction, as opposed to reflection.  It focuses more on verbal sparring among candidates as opposed to providing context and analysis of policies and ideas.

That is what brought me back to the university, and to the History of Ideas program in Humanities — I had questions about the role of self and celebrity in a media-saturated society.

Indeed, each of us who have gone through a PhD program had questions — questions that went unanswered in our undergraduate degree and, for some of us, questions that remained unanswered in our work or life experience.

And after today, you will still have those questions.  But you have acquired the advanced skills and tools needed to work at obtaining the answers — and you can come up with new approaches, and add new ideas.

Do it the hard way — slowly gathering information and ideas, painstakingly, carefully, checking the findings.  No shortcuts.

A word about shortcuts…

You’ve heard of CliffsNotes — those little pamphlets used by a lot of students as a kind of cheat sheet, rather than reading the assigned material.

Most people don’t know it, but there really was a “Cliff.”  Years ago, as a young reporter, I had a chance to interview him.  His name was Cliff Hillegas.  He was born in Rising City, Nebraska, a town of about 400 people.  His company was in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He was a wonderful, fascinating man who gave ten percent of his profits to charities.  (He later remembered that during our visit I had mentioned that, being an Air Force brat, I had attended high school in Spain.  He recalled the impact of that country and its history on me.  As a gift, Mr. Hillegas sent me a 2-volume book set on traveling through Spain, entitled “Murray’s Handbook of Spain,” written in the mid-19th century.)

Mister Hillegas was never happy that many students relied more on his booklets rather than actually reading classic literature.  He saw his pamphlets as a guide to help them better understand Jane Eyre, and Don Quijote, and Invisible Man.

He sold his company in 1998.  But before 1998, every volume of every Cliffs Notes included the phrase, “A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts.”  Upon Hillegas’s death in 2001, the New York Times reported that the company to whom he had sold CliffsNotes, had replaced that phrase with this one:  “THE FASTEST WAY TO LEARN.”

Fortunately, CliffsNotes has been sold again. And the new publisher reportedly now includes this paragraph:

Opinions expressed in the CliffsNotes aren’t rigid dogma meant to discourage your intellectual exploration. You should use them as starting points to open yourself to new methods of encountering, understanding, and appreciating literature…A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts.

Your successful journey through the doctoral program is an affirmation that you too do not believe in shortcuts — that the answers to the questions you have cannot be acquired in a day, in a week, in a class, or even in a year.

Shortcuts, big and small, lead to mistakes — mistakes in judgment, in research, in facts.  And even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential mistakes, can have a tremendous impact.

Shortcuts get you in trouble.

The same high standards, the same refusal to take short cuts that you applied to work in the PhD program, will serve you will in your coming years as you continue to search for answers.

And once you do come across truth, remember from Maya Angelou these words:

If you get, give; if you learn, teach.

Such is the hope and goal for each of you, for each of us, who belong today to the community of scholars.


John McCaa is an award-winning journalist with a master’s degree in politics from the University of Dallas and a PhD in Humanities-History of Ideas from The University of Texas at Dallas.  His dissertation, “Fame, Celebrity, & Mass Media in the Digital Age: Daniel Boorstin’s Cultural Decline, or Passport to a Parallel Universe?,” examined historian Daniel Boorstin’s worries about the growing influence of mass media on change in American society as outlined in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

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