A boxing aficionado, Oates was presented with a gilded trophy showing her as a boxer: the Featherweight Champion of the Literary World.
“Unlike writing, an obsessively solitary activity which can be fraught with dissatisfaction, anxiety, frustration and dread, teaching — at Princeton, certainly — has been an unqualified joy,” Oates told the assembled guests. “Because all of my teaching life has been expended upon young writers, it has been a considerable shock to my sensibility that, through this astonishing day, I have had to acknowledge my own personal presence in the teaching experience. I have had to bear up under the scrutiny and consideration of sharp-eyed others, well attuned to tale-telling and the artful creation of anecdotes, some of them wickedly funny. It is the particular fate of an instructor in ‘creative writing’ that her students should be wildly inventive, particularly in regard to her presence in their lives. Indeed, it has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to throw off invisibility, something like H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, who wraps cloths around himself to give himself a visible shape, a spurious sort of visible shape, to make an impression in the eyes of others, even if it is a deceptive sort of impression, with an air of the improvised and the comically desperate.”
Dedicating the trophy to her students, she said, “It is not always easy to be proud of oneself, but it is quite easy, indeed a great, radiant, abiding pleasure, to be proud of you.”
Oates will be teaching at Stanford this spring and will continue to teach a fall seminar at Princeton. Retirement as the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities is a technicality, but retirement from teaching and writing is an impossibility.