There are days when I thank God that I’m part of the academy. Yesterday was one of those as I had the honor of hearing Sandra Day O’Connor speak on campus.
I was especially interested, as a media law professor, in hearing the retired Supreme Court justice speak.
When she retired after 24 years with the Court, O’Connor began championing efforts to improve government education at the elementary level through gamification. The results of this effort can be found on iCivics.
But her witty remarks at the beginning and end of her speech most caught my attention.
Valerie Couch, the dean of our law school, introduced O’Connor. Ironically, Couch used a quote from writer Wallace Stegner in the introduction. O’Connor, it turns out, took a creative writing class from Stegner. This caused her to reveal in her opening remarks that she wishes she had taken more writing classes.
“If you get a chance, take writing classes. You’ll need it,” O’Connor said.
As a journalism professor, I actually swooned.
O’Connor also encouraged the crowd to participate in productive discussion and debate, using their critical thinking skills to inform their views, which she called “thoughtful debate, not debate based on yelling slogans at one another.”
O’Connor, who grew up on a ranch, said she did everything but learn how to milk the cow. She said her practical, level-headed upbringing helped her through her service in the three branches of government.
“I grew up in an atmosphere where, if there’s a problem, you have to solve it,” she said. “You have to be willing to tackle tough questions and deal with them.”
Tackling tough questions by “doing some brain work” is something O’Connor encouraged.
“Find the best way to answer questions, not the easiest,” she said.
When it came time for Q&A, O’Connor prepped the audience in a way you would expect from a justice, saying “I don’t promise to answer, but I promise you can ask.”
She said her greatest hurdle was “just doing the job” of a Supreme Court justice.
“That’s a pretty big hurdle, in case you didn’t know,” she said.
O’Connor said she was surprised to be nominated to the Court and always was concerned she wouldn’t do her job well enough. She said she was afraid that, as the first female justice, if she took the job and didn’t do it well, it would “be another 191 years before they would do it again.”
O’Connor’s last words of advice to the audience were perhaps her most profound. She encouraged them to “work hard at some kind of work that’s worth doing.”
Certainly O’Connor did this during her career and now in her retirement. I hope those who listened to her speech find a way to do the same. It’s certainly something worth considering.