Sunday, May 15, 2016



It’s graduation season, which means that college graduations, program graduations, pinning ceremonies, and the like are upon us.  I’ve been through enough of them at this point -- from the varying perspectives of participant, spectator, and platform party -- to have some comparative, if opinionated, perspective.

I’ve already written about graduation speakers, so here I’ll just focus on the ceremony.

First, the regalia.  I’m very pro-regalia.  Yes, it’s sort of silly, but it conveys the message that the day is special.  Also, gowns are quite forgiving; not to brag, but I still fit in the gown I wore in 1997.  I’m a fan of the faculty and administration wearing gowns in the colors of their doctoral institutions, since it makes for a more interesting visual palette than a sea of uniform black (though black can be slimming).  And the moment when the students move their tassels from right to left is lovely.

Name reading.  I’ve seen ceremonies with multiple readers, and ceremonies with single readers.  The best ones, I think, are male/female pairs, which the readers switching off.  Varying voices keeps the audience from getting bored.  My favorites have been when the name readers come from the faculty.  Given the point of the enterprise, it makes sense that faculty should have a speaking role at graduation.  And when you have pairs of faculty doing it, they can plan so when one person’s student comes up, the other can read the name, so the one whose student it is can give a hug or a high-five.  

Selfie sticks.  No.  Just, no.

Strutting up the walkway.  I say, go for it.  By the time we get to the students walking, they’ve already been listening to various speakers for a while, and everyone is a little antsy.  The point of the day is celebration, and some exuberance straining against the boundaries of the ceremony is to the good.  Live a little.  The same goes for enthusiastic cheering sections for individual students.  No air horns -- that’s just gauche -- but some coordinated cheers are morale boosting for the student and comic relief for everyone else.  

Pledge of allegiance/national anthem.  I’ve seen ceremonies in which everyone removed their caps and held them on their hearts, like baseball caps.  I’ve also seen ceremonies in which the caps stay on.  I don’t know the “rule,” but each place seems to have its own variation.  At the Culinary graduation last week, I noticed the chefs kept their chef hats on during the pledge.  I’m not sure what the “rule” is there, either.  I’ll admit that I have to fight the urge to yell “Play Ball!” at the end of the anthem.  I don’t remember ceremonies featuring either the pledge or the anthem before 9/11, so the issue didn’t come up.  

Cap decoration.  For faculty and administration, no.  For students, yes.  My favorites are either the purely celebratory or the clever.  At this point, you’re a college graduate; show some wit.  At Brookdale’s celebration, one student had the chemical structure for caffeine on her cap.  That’s how it’s done.

Outdoors/Indoors.  Outdoors offers potentially infinite seating, and allows for little kids to run around when they’re bored.  That said, outdoors also means you’re at the mercy of the weather.  Heat and humidity don’t go well with multiple layers.  At Holyoke we used a huge wedding tent for a few years after the fire marshall said the gym was too small.  The tent had its virtues, but the acoustics were terrible and we had to keep our fingers crossed that there wouldn’t be lightning, since it wasn’t grounded.  One year a small swarm of bees made its way onto the platform, which added some suspense to the proceedings.  If you’re holding the event on a soccer field or something similar, there’s a very real danger of mud.  That’s a nuisance for high heels, but a disaster for wheelchairs.  Also, port-a-potties are gross.  I’m a fan of indoors, where you have air conditioning, real bathrooms, flat/dry floors, and a decent sound system.  If it’s a nice day, you can always have the post-ceremony reception outside.

Saturday or Sunday ceremonies.  Not a fan.  By the end of the semester, the faculty and staff are fried.  Have the decency to hold the ceremony on a weekday.

Tight controls on tickets.  If you can avoid it, avoid it.  Community college students are sometimes the first in the extended family to graduate from college, and the extended family wants to see it.  This should be encouraged.  (As a frustrated student once put it, “YOU tell Grandma she can’t come!”)  If that means springing for a larger venue, as Holyoke did, or having two separate ceremonies, as Brookdale did, then do it.  Yes, there’s an upfront cost, but the goodwill generated in the community is powerful.  And when little kids cheer their parents as they walk across the stage, well, if you don’t like that, there’s just something wrong with you.  

The shoes!  Watching the variety of footwear as students walk across the stage is always fun.  
That said, I’ve advise students against flip-flops.  Show at least a little effort.  If the ceremony is outdoors and it looks like rain, you might want to go with flats.  (See “mud,” above.)

Finally, length.  As with the advice for graduation speakers, brevity is your friend.  If a ceremony drones on for too long, people start to leave, and the students towards the end get shortchanged.  Besides, the chairs are uncomfortable and the gowns are hot.  Shoot for no more than two hours total.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

When I got by BA, I went to commencement, mostly for my parents (my mm had also graduated from my school, and my dad had attended for a year before a war intruded). Did not like the cap-and-gown. The best part was hugging my classmates, saying good-bye, feeling happy and sad simultaneously. As a faculty member, I still hated the regalia, and, while I was usually at commencement, it was to mingle with the students before and after the ceremony. (My school was large enough that they didn't get their actual diplomas at the ceremony; I liked being around afterward to help had out the real things, and to talk with the students.)

[A word about why I dislike the regalia: I have always understood it to be derived from the vestments of a religious organization that shall go nameless, and I have a personal problem with any organized religion (and any accoutrements thereof) at the best of times...]
So, I'm a faculty member at a Scottish university. I always make time to be a seat filler on stage because if I can't spare a few hours to celebrate the kids who graduated, what's the point.

My first year doing it, I wanted to take a panoramic shot from the stage. However, I ran into a big problem. A lot of non-Scotsmen will rent a kilt for the day to celebrate in traditional way. Obviously, they don't wear underwear because they want the full experience. However, as it turns out, they don't know how to properly sit in a kilt. Let's just say there's a reason we don't take pictures of the audience from the stage.
I've been part of a couple of very large state universities where the sheer size of the graduating class makes name-reading an exercise in stamina. It also makes the ceremony feel impersonal (sadly, often very much in line with the undergraduate experience for those students). One solution that I liked was to have one short ceremony for all the graduates where there were speeches and Ph.D.'s received their degrees, then the undergrads went back to their departments where the would hold individual ceremonies for each major. It made for a much more intimate and enjoyable experience for the graduates and their families since the majority of the faculty would be there. I thought it was a very good system.
My college graduation managed to combine much of the worst of indoor and outdoor ceremonies.

The ceremony proper took place in the basketball arena, which created a hard seating limit. "You tell grandma she can't come" was a regular complaint. Each springtime saw the rebirth of a black market in graduation tickets and a premium on friendships with people from small families.

Prior to the ceremony we had to reenact a tradition: the whole of the graduating class crossing campus in our robes, from the Wren Building to the New Campus. Charming, yes, I'm sure. But during my graduation, the weather made another of its frequent efforts to return the land to its natural state as a swamp. Heavy rain, wind, and heat pushed hard to displace the humans in favor of mosquitoes and possum. Did this torrent, heat, and humidity prevent the walk? Oh my, no. Tradition!

The bulk of the ceremony proper consisted of a thousand-plus folks in dripping polyester robes squishing in their folding chairs and wishing the speakers would hurry up.

The funny thing is, I actually remember part of the commencement speaker's speech because he played to this. George H.W. Bush, several years out of office, gave a short, pleasant speech with the usual platitudes instantly forgotten, but supplemented with an anecdote. Back at Yale in the olden days, a clergyman officiating at graduation orated about the virtues of a gentleman by taking one letter from the name "Yale" and expounding on it at great length: "Y represents...", "A represents...", and so on. As the man droned, one of the graduating students whispered to his friends, "Thank God I didn't go to The College of William and Mary."

Brought the house down, that did.
Yes! to everything here. Especially for the generous number of tickets. Graduations are sort of like funerals; they're not only for the people they are nominally about. And if it means you have to have multiple ceremonies, that's not a terrible thing either. My not-huge undergrad school had everything in one ceremony in a large multipurpose area with many many hundreds of graduates. While it was great walking into an arena to cheers and camera flashes - presumably the only time I'll get that welcome - it was gruelling sitting through several hours of graduates receiving their degrees.
And please, administrator(s) in charge of the ceremony, if you have a band or orchestra at the event, do NOT schedule a solo (unaccompanied) singer or the local a-cappella do-wop group to stand at a microphone to "perform" the national anthem for the silent audience. The anthem should be a collaborative, collective, experience.

I can't tell you how many school events I've been to where the band, orchestra or even the school choir have been present, but silent, as the invited soloist(s) have crooned their own "stylized" version of the anthem to a fidgety crowd. If you're going to use the anthem in your ceremony, let everyone sing (and skip the vocal gymnastics).

For some reason, non-musician administrators are convinced that the anthem needs a "song leader." Just have the MC of the event announce "please rise and join us in our national anthem," have the drummer start that first drumroll, and watch how everyone that wants to sing, sings. Most everyone will. It's easy.

And for what it's worth, choose a lower key for the anthem. B-flat is too damn high. A-flat is always an option and works well. G major is even better, but the musicians may need to prepare a special arrangement; it's not standard.

Outdoor ceremonies? Last Saturday at my alma mater (Upper Midwest): snowing. My employer institution (Southwest): 100 F in the shade.

I'm firmly in favor of indoor ceremonies.
My graduation was in the football stadium. It was a nice day, and we had a famous speaker, but no names were called. It was a mass impersonal parade as we picked up our "this is not a diploma". Now they schedule it by colleges or, for the larger colleges, by groups of departments. Some ticket limitations, unfortunately, but they do call every name with enough time for families to celebrate.

In contrast, my CC gets to borrow a really large facility so there is no shortage of seats for families. No tickets needed, partly because the more "traditional" transfer students skip the ceremony. But all of the "first in family" are there, and some of those families can make more noise than an air horn! It is a blast.

And, as you note, the shoes can be AMAZING.
I was just led to understand that, at a certain liberal-performing arts college in the downtown of a major New England city, the spring semester academic calendar is in large part determined by what date they can schedule a large-enough indoor arena for graduation. I believe this year classes started around January 2.
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