12 November 2011

On academic ritual

(Post delayed.)

Another two graduation ceremonies, yesterday. I had thought six years ago that one might have been my last, but a year later it was still going strong, and it has done ever since. But circumstances have changed; from three graduands six years ago, the PCE courses now dominate not one but two ceremonies, albeit in a smaller venue. Pity that the non-graduate and the post-graduate students, who have studied in the same rooms and times for two years, were separated arbitrarily by label for the ceremonies, rather than by grouped locations--but it has still been progress. I think.

After all, one of our nominations for the award of an honorary doctorate was accepted! Pity that the ceremony selected had nothing to do with education, and none of the people who nominated him were able to attend, and the audience who heard his address probably had little idea of what he was talking about. To be fair, he did feature as a guest speaker yesterday, for one of the ceremonies, before he jetted off for a conference elsewhere--and his address was as pointed as can be. It's not often that you hear an academic--admittedly claiming Glasgow dialect--using the term "bulls**t" in a formal speech...

And the guest speaker for the evening ceremony may not have had the same credibility for those of us in the PCE community, but he was very accomplished and had his own impressive record.

But... for all the rhetoric about celebrating and valuing achievement, what does it say to our graduating students attending, that in the opening address, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor celebrated at some length the achievements of the Faculty without a single mention of the post-compulsory education sector--from which hailed about 75% of the graduands about to be presented? (To be fair to her, her remarks were scripted by someone else, probably, but that someone should have known better.)

Moreover, every single graduating student present passed across the dais to shake hands with the officiating... officials. Somehow, one would have assumed that after shaking hands and exchanging a few banal phrases with mature students (mean age 35+ and current maximum 68--or was that when you started the course, Maurice?) the platform party would have twigged that these are not callow 21-year-olds taking their first steps into a big scary world? (This stereotype is both unfair and disturbingly accurate.)

However, although our invited guest speaker adopted the ingenious rhetorical device of re-evaluating the advice he had been given at his original graduation in 1964,* and a recognition that the world is changing so fast that any advice for today will he useless tomorrow, the tone inexorably tended towards "wise advice".

Afterwards, my colleagues and I rated the performances (it's what we do!) No, we don't keep a league table... We were pretty scathing that no-one performing on the platform seemed to have given any thought to the context of the event, and that this failure to learn has characterised them for years. They simply dust off last year's remarks (after all very few people other than the academics ever hear them twice) and just possibly update them with reference to the ever-tougher job market (in which your new degree will stand you in good stead) or some other nugget of news which is recognisable of the current year. If I had been one of this cohort of graduates sitting through the ceremony, I should have been pretty insulted to be ignored and treated as a stereotyped 21-year-old...

But it occurs to me that we may have got this entirely wrong.Our speaker did refer to the ritual aspects of academic life--the robes, the processions and the certificates. And both speakers recognised that the status of "graduand", like that of bride, is a very ephemeral one. It is transitional, or indeed liminal. Graduation (like the whole business of going to "uni" for mainstream students) is a rite of passage, the principal object of which is to manage and communicate the change in status, to self and others.

* I didn't believe a word of it. At my graduation the address was given by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I have no idea what he said.

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