29 October 2005

On Graduation

Since I have technically retired, Friday may have been my last graduation ceremony. They appear to follow fashion cycles; I was excited by my Bachelor's ceremony, in the presence of the then Prime Minister. Then it became "uncool" to attend, so I didn't bother to attend the ceremonies for my two Master's degrees, but family pressure required me to go to my Ph.D event.

Sitting on the platform is a different experience (I always end up as part of the platform party, principally because my academic robes [red and gold] are so spectacular). It is still a deeply moving experience to process into the hall, filled by graduands, but more important by proud parents and partners. Each graduand's moment of glory is very transient, but the look of nervous pride on their faces as they present themselves is inspiring; in many respects I am a jaded cynic, but graduation, for all its pomposity, remains uplifting.

There has been an interesting change over the past few years, most apparent in the dress code of the men. From being "uncool" to attend, there was a shift to an ironic stance. Graduands would attend, but made a point of wearing academic dress over sweatshirts, jeans and trainers, as if to undermine the significance of the occasion. Currently, there is a swing back to suits and even ties. Impressionistically, more of the women seem to be wearing skirts. I don't know what this fashion shift "means", though.

Many faculty colleagues disappeared immediately after the ceremony to a free lunch at a local hotel; few of us stuck around to congratulate our former students. That's sad; it is their day, a really big day for many of them: I was greeted and thanked by former students I barely remembered as part of a lecture group of 100+ students. They may have merely been polite, but it gives me a real buzz when it happens; I wouldn't trade it for an infinity of rubber chicken lunches. Those colleagues don't know what they are missing.

Perhaps the greatest incentive to the development of teaching in universities would be to require all faculty to attend graduation. It's formal, ritualistic, and the speeches are platitudinous; but it marks enormous effort and achievement, and if we respect our students it is a wonderful collaborative celebration.

There are two things to balance. One student passed across the stage in front of me who should not have done so, in my opinion; I had failed him (or her) on two courses. I wondered then about the academic integrity of our courses. On the other hand was the pride and burgeoning confidence of the graduands, and the parents and partners who were introduced to me afterwards (and were in some cases so embarrassingly deferential—I don't handle that well).

Best wishes to all of them!

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