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Provost Lecture Series brings innovative voices to campus

This year’s Provost Lecture Series events bring three women with powerful voices to the Emory campus: musical artist Meshell Ndegeocello, Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tannen and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

Editor's note: The Oct. 3 event is sold out, but can be viewed live online at

Launched last year, the Provost Lecture Series established a high bar by offering students, faculty, staff and the public the opportunity to interact with groundbreaking scholars who deliver graduate lectures, public lectures and attend intimate receptions with Emory’s academic community.

This year’s speakers include musical artist Meshell Ndegeocello, whose Oct. 3 lecture is already filled to capacity, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

“I was fortunate to attend all three 2018–2019 Provost Lecture Series events,” says Dean Lisa Tedesco of Emory’s Laney Graduate School. “Our visiting scholars framed ways for us all to think differently, with insights for action, about the most challenging problems of our day.”

Here is the lineup for this year’s series, which will be held in Emerson Concert Hall of Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Events are free but advance registration is required.

Meshell Ndegeocello
Singer, Songwriter and Bassist
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, 4 p.m.
This event is sold out, but can be viewed live online at

Meshell Ndegeocello has made music since the early 1990s, achieving respect for going where the music takes her and not being guided by her industry’s profit motives.

When she visits Emory, she wants to engage students about some of the issues she is wrestling with creatively. The music industry, says Ndegeocello, is “selling authenticity,” almost unaware of the irony of pairing those words. She asks, “How much of your real self do you share and how does that affect your creative process?” 

Raised in Washington, D.C., Ndegeocello emerged on the city’s go-go circuit in the late 1980s with a series of bands. When she went solo, she was one of the first artists to sign with the label Madonna founded — Maverick Records — for the album “Plantation Lullabies.”

Describing herself as an autodidact, Ndegeocello did not graduate from high school and credits the range of libraries and museums in the nation’s capital for her self-education. She remembers her hometown as “opening my mind. There were so many things to participate in, and I just tried to do them all.” 

“Ventriloquism,” Ndegeocello’s current album, finds her wanting to move away from being seen as an individual artist. “Meshell Ndegeocello,” by her lights, should be thought of as a band. As she sums it up, “I am taken aback by people who think they do anything alone.” Her current ensemble has been together for eight years, and she insists that their contributions be as front and center as her own.

With her Emory audience, she wants to share music from “Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin,” which had its 2016 world premiere in Harlem for a four-night run off Broadway and also was performed at the Kennedy Center. In addition to performing, she also will engage in a Q&A.

As someone who missed the literary classics, it wasn’t until Ndegeocello heard Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about James Baldwin that she got intrigued. Now she takes a copy of “The Fire Next Time” with her everywhere, saying, “It is like I heard someone telling me my truth. It is like food or medicine.”

Ndegeocello also sees “Can I Get a Witness?” — which she describes as theater, a musical, a church service — as a platform for involving people more in the electoral process. She admits, “Thirty years ago, I didn’t vote. My voting had no connection to believing that I could change my individual circumstances. I have a unique voice as someone who grew up, not illiterate, but I didn’t function at a certain level of society. More information has allowed me to grow.”

Always open to the next project that will inspire her, Ndegeocello is thinking about doing something with country music. She decries the label, though, saying, “All music is the same. There are 12 notes. Whether it is country music, Irish music or music from the African diaspora.”

Emory students have a chance to catch this acclaimed artist at an inflection point. Ndegeocello reflects, “I have been able to make a career. But I am also at a place where I have to decide whether I can produce music that flows naturally from my interests or rest on my laurels. I am in a business where resting on your laurels is considered great success. Is that for me?” 

Summing up a diverse career spanning nearly 30 years, she says, “I will never write a song for the masses, but I have some songs that have gotten people through sad times, and I am okay with that.”

Deborah Tannen
Professor of Linguistics and University Professor, Georgetown University
Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, 4 p.m.


Deborah Tannen, at one time, was certain she would never go to graduate school. After earning her BA in English at Harpur College (now part of Binghamton University), she went to Europe with a one-way ticket, planning to travel overland to India, then take a boat to Japan, where she would teach English. She got only as far as Greece, where she lived for nearly two years teaching English.

When she returned to the United States, she earned an MA in English literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, then taught remedial writing and freshman composition at Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY). After a few years, she got bored and wanted to be a student again.

At the age of 29, she enrolled in a summer institute run by the Linguistic Society of America. That summer the institute focused on what Tannen describes as “language in context, not the more formal linguistics,” and it captured her imagination. She notes, “Linguistics gave me a way to indulge my love of language, as I had with English literature, but in a way that felt more relevant to everyday life.”

Particularly inspired by a course she took with the legendary Robin Lakoff, who at that time was founding the field of gender and language, Tannen quit her secure job at CUNY and began work on a PhD in linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, where Lakoff was on the faculty. On receiving her doctorate, she joined the faculty of the linguistics department at Georgetown University, where she is now one of only six members of the College of Arts and Sciences faculty who hold the rank of university professor.

Even as she has produced more than 100 articles and 17 books for scholarly audiences (four authored and 13 edited or coedited), from the very beginning of her career, Tannen had the notion to cross over to more general audiences, for whom she has now written eight books.

For her dissertation, Tannen compared what she called the “conversational styles” of those who, like her, grew up in New York City, with the styles of those who grew up in California.

She showed that impressions of personality and intentions could sometimes be traced to differences in conversational style, as when speakers have a slightly different sense of how long a pause is normal between turns. The one waiting for a longer pause feels interrupted, while the one expecting a shorter pause thinks the other has nothing to say.

She quickly realized that insights like these were of interest outside academia. In her words, “I wanted to write a book that my mother could read.” Both Tannen’s parents were immigrants — her mother from Russia, her father from Poland — who had to leave high school to work, though her father became a lawyer by attending law school at night.

Immediately after publishing her dissertation as a book titled “Conversational Style” (1984, with a second edition published by Oxford University Press in 2005), she wrote a book for general audiences titled “That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships” (1986). 

The book included a chapter on gender, and Tannen was surprised that it was the one everyone wanted to discuss. She initially resisted her agent’s suggestion that she make gender the topic of her next book but was eventually convinced “that I could do it in a way that I would not be pandering to anyone.”

What resulted was “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation(1990), which spent nearly four years on the New York Times best-seller list, including eight months as No. 1. Asked about the downside of that much celebrity, Tannen has a ready answer: “It turns your life upside down. Everything you know about your life no longer applies. It is a huge adjustment.” 

Tannen’s career has brought her many honors, including five honorary doctorates; a term as McGraw distinguished lecturer at Princeton University; and numerous fellowships and grants, including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities — even as she has appeared on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” the “Colbert Report” and “Oprah.” 

Tannen’s talk at Emory is titled She Said/He Said/They Said: Women and Men Talking.” Building on her classic work on gender differences, Tannen will trace the effects of these patterns on conversations and relationships in a range of contexts — from home to classroom, from family to friends, and from spoken to on-screen conversations.

Reflecting on her legacy, Tannen says, “As an academic, my goal was explaining, understanding, figuring out how language works. Initially, I was horrified that my general-audience books were sometimes labeled ‘self-help.’ But now I would say that it is one of the most gratifying things, when people tell me that my books helped them. I feel grateful that I hear it a lot.”

Joycelyn Elders
Former U.S. Surgeon General
Thursday, April 2, 2020, 4 p.m.

Joycelyn Elders wasn’t afraid to dream big. Born in 1933 to poor sharecropping parents with seven other children who lived in a three-room shack with no running water, Elders set her sights on being a lab technician. For a woman of color from that era and those circumstances, that desire demonstrated considerable ambition. She well recognized the truth of her mother’s words: “If you want to get out of the cotton patch, you have to get something in your head.” 

She attended the University of Arkansas Medical School on the GI Bill, earning her MD in 1960. After interning at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Elders became chief pediatrics resident at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, supervising what she describes as “a wonderful group of young, upper-middle-class white men.”

Asked if they challenged her authority, she responds, “I suspect that I had a lot of underground help I didn’t know about. This was the South in the early ’60s, during the Central High turmoil. And, yes, some of these young men had snotty ways.” For the most part, though, the center held, largely because, as Elders indicates, “I worked very hard. I was there from 7 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night.”

It was still an era of segregated dining rooms even after the Supreme Court had declared separate but equal education unconstitutional. At one point, Elders sat down at a table of white doctors, some of whom got up and left. It didn’t faze her because, as she tells it, “I came to school to get a medical education; I didn’t come to learn to eat with white people.” “60 Minutes” filmed a segment, being curious about the young, female, African American doctor turning heads. 

Elders became an expert in pediatric endocrinology, treating scores of young people with Type 1 diabetes. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Elders head of the state’s Department of Health in 1987. She would clash with conservatives as she lobbied to expand sex education. Nonetheless, she achieved significant breakthroughs: in 1989, the Arkansas Legislature mandated a K–12 curriculum that included sex education, substance-abuse prevention and programs to promote self-esteem.

Clinton’s support continued: he nominated her as U.S. Surgeon General in 1993. Elders opted for candor and courage during her tenure, suggesting legalization of marijuana and other drugs as a way to reduce crime — an idea still being credibly debated today. At a United Nations AIDS conference in 1994, Elders was asked whether it was appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from electing riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, “I think it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” The president asked her to step down in the media storm that followed.

Her excitement about meeting Emory students is clear. In her view, “Our students are the new leaders for the next century. They must have a vision and the competence to carry it out. They have to be committed to something they want to do, something that will make a real difference.”

When students come out to meet Elders, they will be face to face with a legend: the first person in Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, the 15th Surgeon General of the U.S., the first African American and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service.

With each rung of the ladder, she says, “I think of the shoulders that I have stood on and feel strongly that I have to send the ladder back down for young people trying to get there.”

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