Friday, December 16, 2005

Graduation /happy dance

I'm probably one of few professors who actually finds graduation stuff pretty fun and fascinating.

First, there's the dress up aspect. What could be better than a dressy outfit that you can wear with shorts and Birkenstocks/Tevas? (Well, not at this time of the year, but for spring, certainly!) Everyone looks good in regalia, especially with the soft, octagonal tam worn at a rakish angle. Then there's the fun of old college collors. I'm still sort of jealous of Johns Hopkins grads in their bumble bee outfits! Who isn't?

My regalia, a graduation present from my parents, who'd pretty much given up hoping for me producing usual big occasions in a parent's life, looks like it should belong on a Gilbert and Sullivan set; I'm the very picture of a modern professor, complete with velvet and gold piping. Renquist's self-designed robes for the Clinton impeachment, obscenely silly as they were, come nowhere close to the absurdity of my regalia.

Adding to the absurdity, and thus the fun, is that old medieval clerical clothing was never intended for people like me to march around in, much less in with shorts and Tevas underneath. I like to think that every graduation, whatever's left of a bunch of medieval monastics (going for the alliteration there) is spinning in their graves.

Second, graduation is one of the few rites of passage we still hold onto in meaningful ways. Every graduation is basically the same, and has been for lo these many years. Think about it, Edgar Elgar's first "Pomp and Circumstance" march (c. 1907 or so?) is practically a brand spanking new addition to the whole thing.

(Ever notice there are just names that seem so perfect for someone. Could Edgar Elgar have been a basketball player? I don't think so. Could Lancelot Andrews have been anything but a preacher? Not a chance. Do you ever wonder how my parents KNEW I was going to like that Shakespeare guy enough to name me Bardiac? Me, too!)

Graduations all over the western world go through the same basic rituals, and have for ages, and yet, each one is singular, especially for the students graduating. For them, graduation is a momentous occasion, perhaps a bit anti-climactic, but still a one time event.

Well, I'm assuming most don't get a second same degree; my experience of each degree was quite distinct. When I got my bachelor's, I was part of a sea of students, all in black, in a huge arena, and yet I was also sitting next to my best friend. Afterwards, I invited my college friends and we (together with my family members who came) sat around and drank the champagne my parents so generously and supportively provided. It was really the first time my college world and family world came together, and I was pleased that everyone was happy to meet each other and hang out, and happy with each other, if that makes sense.

My PhD hooding was more alienating, if that makes sense. It was probably about as big a sea of graduate students as I'd swum with in my bachelor's graduation, but I didn't really know any of them; most people I knew either didn't bother with the ceremony or weren't graduating. To be honest, I did the ceremony more for my parents than for myself, and I'm glad I did. I owed them that.

So family was the focus, and friends really didn't enter into the picture, and that fit, too. My undergrad friendships are stronger and more lasting, and my graduate friendships more dependent on chance meetings at conferences rather than late night calls to share conversation.

At my bachelor's graduation, my plans were defined, at least for a short time, and I knew where I was going, or at least the first steps on the path. At my PhD hooding, I was uncomfortably set to stay in the same area, with a contract to adjunct for a year; the future didn't look nearly as promising as it later turned out.

I'll be attending graduation tomorrow, not because it's required, but because three of my favorite advisees are graduating, and I want to honor them. Each of these three is remarkable in his/her own way, each a good student, and yet each has created a very different path through our major, and into the future. I'll guess that for each, graduation will involve a meeting of two worlds that rarely meet, college career and family. It's joyful to be part of that meeting, an all too rare opportunity to thank the parents for sharing their child with me, and an honor to congratulate my advisees one last time on their accomplishment.

Ok, that and it's darned fun to make them blush with pride and embarrassment.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry I missed my PhD graduation. I had already accepted a post-doc and had to fly back to my university to defend my dissertation, so I had not the cash to go back for the ceremonial stuff.

    Most of my chemistry comrades ignored theirs, too. I thought it would be cool, us trying to be so dreadfully sciencriffic and medieval at the same time. Alas.