Inducting Students into an Honor Society

Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Scholar”


Yesterday, right before the St. Mary’s English Department kicked off a full day of senior project presentations, we inducted students into Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Members of the department alternated reading passages from a script, which I share with you here because it’s got some great literary passages.

STD (what an unfortunate acronym!) was founded in 1924, which accounts for the quaint language in the ceremony. It also reflects the missionary view of literature propounded by such literary critics as F. R. Leavis. It is a view that got lost and that this blog is trying to resurrect, although I can’t pull off the ceremony’s grand tone and see the process as a bit more complicated. My colleagues often delivered their lines with a wry smile, as if to say, “This may sound over the top but, sure, why not?”

After setting forth the mission of the society, which includes promoting interest in literature and serving society by fostering literacy, we launched into the heart of the ceremony. I’m particularly struck by the emphasis on “sincerity” in addition to “truth.” The one speaks to the heart, the other to the head.

There is also mention of “design,” which I read as an emphasis on text and how words are put together on the page. When all is said and done, this is where we in literature departments take our final stand.

Department Chair:  Willa Cather once wrote, “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”  Likewise, the history of Sigma Tau Delta, begins in the hearts of its members—in their willingness to put thought into action.  The foundation of any organization lies in the sincerity of its members.  Without your willingness to stand, to be recognized, and to join with others, there would not be any Sigma Tau Delta.  Inductees, we recognize your commitment and your sincerity.  Together we can strengthen the foundation of our society and look forward in unity and purpose.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity in all things is vital to the creation of Sigma Tau Delta, as is our commitment to the truth that is vital to our shared vision.

 Third Reader:  Henry David Thoreau once said, “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to listen.” As members of Sigma Tau Delta, you understand the importance of communication, the value of listening, and the significance of expression.  You have proven yourselves capable of comprehending the English language and of pursuing the truth in works of literature.  Being a member of Sigma Tau Delta, and the English community as a whole requires that you continue these efforts and prepare yourselves to take the truths you have found here into the world, sharing with others your joy and appreciation of our discipline.  Truth cannot exist in a vacuum.  Like any art form, it must be shared to be understood.

Faculty Advisor:  As you prepare yourselves to discover truth, rest assured that the structure and traditions of Sigma Tau Delta will aid you.  The last element of our motto— design—exemplifies this point.

Fourth Reader:  William Shakespeare wrote, “As many arrows, loosed several ways, / Fly to one mark; as many ways meet in one small town; / As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea . . . So may a thousand actions, once afoot, / End in one purpose, and be all well borne / Without defeat.” We are like these many arrows, each coming from a different source, each with unique talents and varied interest; but as members of Sigma Tau Delta, we all promise to support one another and focus our energies to the Society’s goals.  We follow the design laid out before us, assured that our strength of intent and clarity of purpose will assist us in our aims.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity, Truth, and Design embody the basis, the purpose, and the structure of Sigma Tau Delta.  Without an understanding and an appreciation of these elements, our society would crumble.  Inductees, if you comprehend and accept our society motto as stated—Sincerity, Truth, and Design—please say “I do.”

[I do]

Faculty Advisor:  Then will you please repeat after me the pledge and the motto of our society:

“I shall endeavor to advance the study. . . . of the chief literary masterpieces. . . .[and also the literature of traditionally under-represented groups]. . . . and also to encourage worthwhile reading . . . to promote the mastery of written expression . . . and to foster a spirit of fellowship. . . among those who specialize in the study of the English language and English literature. . . ever keeping in mind our international motto. . . Sincerity, Truth, Design.”

We, as the faculty representatives of Sigma Tau Delta, are honored to recognize you as esteemed members.

Following the awarding of the certificate, the faculty advisor brought the ceremony to a close:

 Faculty Advisor:  Inductees, you have fulfilled your obligations necessary to join Sigma Tau Delta.  You have expressed your commitment to Sincerity, your devotion to Truth, and your dedication to Design.

And now, we will leave you, as newly inducted members of Sigma Tau Delta, with words by Emily Dickinson.  Please carry them with you as you grow with our organization:

We never know how high we are
Til we are called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.

For the record, the Willa Cather passage is from O Pioneers!, the Shakespeare passage from Henry V. There’s a lot of striving imagery (with Agincourt on the horizon), maybe reflective of 1920’s American confidence. I’m only surprised that STD’s founders didn’t include Robert Browning’s “A man’s grasp should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”

Oh, and our chapter added the phrase “the literature of traditionally under-represented groups.” If we’re calling on students to go out and preach the word, we need to make a least that update.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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