The Friday Fermentable Commencement Address

I was having a lovely conversation this week with scribbler50, our beloved blogging bartender at Behind The Stick. Describing him as "just" a blogger does not do him justice; scribbler50 is a writer. If you haven't been over to Brother Scribb's crib, do yourself a favor and read a few of his essays. In fact, read the whole archives.

Scribb and I got into a discussion of wine connoisseurs sometimes being as pretentious and annoying as the single malt scotch drinkers about which he has written with piercing accuracy and humor. Thinking that perhaps he had offended me, he qualified the remark to mean pseudo-connoisseurs: people who spout out wine information with the intent to impress others when, in fact, the result is to alienate and cause the inquisitive to become anxiety-prone instead of delving into the enjoyment that wine can provide.

As I wrote in the July, 2006 Mission Statement for The Friday Fermentable, I am a wine enthusiast. I claim no special degrees or professional experiences that make me an expert. I did make wine a fair bit in the 1990s and met with a handful of winemakers around North America, but no more than many out there. But I can drink wine, and often do so with reckless abandon.

For me, wine should be a beverage that brings people together. Having even extensive, technical knowledge of wine should not interfere with that simple fact. From the Mission Statement:

3. To use this forum as a bully pulpit to offset the snobbery and exclusionary behavior of some alcoholic beverage experts that serve the counterproductive aim of alienating the public from gaining a rewarding, enriching, and stress-reducing experience.

In chatting with Brother Scribb, I was reminded of a theme I introduced in a commencement speech when I was an assistant professor. As university graduations are occurring all around the States this week and next, and since the commencement address is one of the most tedious forms of oratory, I wanted to share this recollection with readers of The Friday Fermentable:

A little while back, I was lucky enough to win a teaching award at a college of pharmacy in the Rocky Mountain region that made me eligible to address the graduating students and families at our commencement exercises. After thinking long and hard about my message, I decided to focus on the need for pharmacists to be able to communicate complex information to patients to help them at their level of understanding, rather than be the pharmacist who wows (and confuses) the patient with their immense knowledge of drug details, organic structures, cytochrome P450-mediated drug interactions, etc.

I believe that this message would be applicable to all in the health professions, or in any other technical area that requires communication with the general public.

I decided to approach this in a somewhat convoluted manner.

When my time came in the program, I brought to the podium a small cooler containing a carefully iced bottle of champagne while my dean and fellow faculty members gave me looks that said, "What the [hell] is [Pharmboy] doing now?"

I said to the graduates that now they were embarking on a relatively well-paying field, they needed one final lesson from me for which there would be no exam or grade: how to properly open a bottle of champagne. After all, being a health care professional would also bring them into social events and activities where knowing a thing or two about champagne might benefit one's career development.

As regular readers know, one removes the capsule and cage from the bottle (the foil and the wire around the cork) and then place a thumb on top of the cork while holding the neck of the bottle (I like to then put a towel over my thumb and the bottle just in case).

While holding the cork firmly, I twisted the bottle, not the cork, while letting the pressure of the carbonation slowly allow extrusion of the cork. In this manner, there would be no visits to the emergency room for traumatic eye injuries or the blasphemous waste of ounces of this ambrosia shooting out from the bottle.

I poured myself a glass of champagne and set it up in front of me (as I wish I did in every lecture), then held forth on how knowledge can be used to include or exclude.

One can learn everything in the world about wine but then alienate or minimize their friends and family by being a self-righteous snob, proving how smart they are about something that has been meant to be enjoyed socially for thousands of years without the science and pretentious wine publications we have today.

Or, one can use one's knowledge about wine for inclusion: to help people understand and appreciate wine on their level, drawing them in to share one's excitement, enriching the lives of friends and family by enhancing their understanding, telling stories, celebrating romance, watching sunsets, remembering fond times over wine, etc.

I then used the same analogy to being a health care professional. Consider two pharmacists with the same level of training and a similar graduating GPA. One uses their knowledge to thump their chest, spouting off pharmacokinetics information and big words that require a Steadman's Medical Dictionary, thereby confusing and bewildering patients. The other recognizes that the words they learned in pharmacy school are not the same words that the average person understands. While equally knowledgeable, this pharmacist instead translates their knowledge into easily-understandable terms and directions.

Which one do you think is more effective in improving medication compliance, self-reliance, and minimizing drug interactions and adverse events?

So important is this point that entire journals are devoted to the problems and solutions in pharmacist- and physician-patient communication.

Some may say this approach was simply an excuse to drink champagne during lengthy and painful proceedings. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

I then closed with a toast to all the students and their families in as many languages as I could.

More like this

Hear, Hear!

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

Best commencement address EVER. (I can think of only one way to top it: repeat verbatim, but bring enough champagne for everyone.)

First of all, Abel, thank you so much for the too kind words but obviously more important... what an absolutely beautiful post, Sir. "The bubbly" has never been put to better use. You gave them a moment I'm sure they'll never forget.

Damn, if I'd had people like you at the podium back when I was a student, I coulda' been a contendah!