It is that time of year, when universities, colleges and secondary schools hold commencement exercises. Graduation, the completion of an educational endeavor, and commencement, the beginning of a new life role, are demarked with the pomp and circumstance of celebration ceremonies and solemn pronouncements of responsibility and opportunity.
I recently received an honorary degree from my alma mater, Missouri University of Science and Technology (MST), which made me reflect on the less formal aspects of commencement ceremonies, the practical and whimsical elements. It also brought to mind my years as Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and my experience as a commencement ceremony participant in the platform party. Herewith are a few personal and whimsical reflections and a few insights.
Dress for Success
First, let's clear up a few things about the history and functions of those strange hats and robes, the archaic academic regalia one wears at these ceremonies. A mortarboard, despite the name, should not be confused with bricklaying or a brick hod. The mortarboard is a hat, albeit a funny looking one. Its origins date to most likely to those of the biretta.
Similarly, the history of university robes and gowns can be traced to medieval times, and they have just about the same utility as parchment does for a modern laser printer. Wearing your robe and mortarboard, you are now dressed for success, at least for a commencement ceremony.
As a parent or student, sitting in an auditorium, an arena or a stadium, you may have wondered about the platform party, that group of middle aged academics sitting on stage. They are wearing even more colorful academic regalia, denoting doctoral degrees from a variety of institutions. What are they thinking? What are they wearing beneath those robes? The answers are not necessarily what one might think.
Odds are that the platform party members, like the students and parents, are hot and uncomfortable, either because they are sitting in the outdoor sun or under bright lights in an auditorium that lacks air-conditioning. (It was for this reason that I chose to forego participation and hooding for my doctoral degree at Purdue. We literally stood in the sun. )
If any students or administrators have participated in commencement ceremonies before, they are probably wearing as few clothes as possible under their academic robes. Lest this conjure images of aging, flabby academic flashers, let me illuminate this with a personal anecdote.
At Illinois, the university and the College of Engineering commencement ceremonies are held in the Assembly Hall, which is normally used for basketball games and concerts. In preparation to meet happy parents and students as a department head, I dressed in suit and tie and drove to the arena, where I donned my robe, doctoral hood and mortarboard. After a two hour ceremony, the platform party – the college dean, associate deans and department heads – exited in the recessional.
As we removed our regalia in an anteroom, I was drenched in sweat and remarked to one of my colleagues that it was very warm. He glanced at me, laughed and said, "It's clear you are a newbie." In response to my quizzical look, he waved his hands across his attire – slacks, shirt and loosely knotted tie, but no jacket – and said, "Next time, dress for comfort!" I never quite mustered the courage to come in shorts and a tee-shirt, but I did heed his sartorial advice.
What's My Name
The logistics of commencement ceremonies vary with location and the size of the student body, though university-wide ceremonies rarely deviate from a hoary norm. After a processional, which seats the graduates and the platform party, there are one or more speeches and introductions, then the awarding of degrees – earned and honorary. The wise commencement speaker recognizes that nobody, neither the academics nor the students and families, are in the mood to hear learned observations or words of wisdom for the life ahead. Brevity and humor are prized above all else. (See my earlier essay on Presentations, Humor and Memes.)
At large universities, the awarding of degrees is a mass event. The provost or chancellor asks the graduates to stand, announces they are now graduates of the great institution with all the rights and privileges attached thereunto, asks them to be seated, and informs them that their first donations to the alumni association are now due. I jest only a little. If the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had the forensic skills and tenacity of university alumni associations in tracking the movements of alumni, the U.S. might now be debating how to spend its federal budget surplus.
At smaller universities, colleges (small institutions and colleges within universities) and secondary schools, the awarding of degrees includes the march of students across the podium to receive their diplomas. Each of these institutions designates an individual whose role is reading the name of each graduate as they step onstage. This is a thankless, though dangerous task, for names range from the mundane (.e.g., "Dan Reed") to the phonetically challenging that cross cultures.
One of my former colleagues, who read names for many years, shared a few of his secrets. The first is to roam the halls of the preparation area, asking students for pronunciation tips. By far the most important, though, is to show no fear, speaking forcefully and without hesitation. Hesitation exposes uncertainty to the entire audience. In contrast, an erroneous pronunciation, if forceful and confident, will be evident only to the student, their friends and family.
Grip and Grin
As students troop across the platform, they shake hands with selected members of the platform party, receive a diploma cover (redeemable for an actual diploma if all fees have been paid, final grades are satisfactory, and a valid address is on file), and pose for a "grip and grin" photograph. The diploma cover handoff and photograph are very carefully choreographed, as names must be matched with photographs for subsequent mailing.
Graduating students express their individuality in different ways. Some write messages atop their mortarboards, visible to those sitting above. Others add the accoutrements of their disciplines. I recently watched with wry amusement at MS&T as the mining engineering graduates crossed the platform wearing mining helmets under their mortarboards. In a reflection of computing's limited number of physical symbols, the MS&T computer science students had simply placed DVDs atop their mortarboards.
At Illinois, I participated in the platform commencement handshaking as a department head during the height of the dot.com boom. Because undergraduate computer science enrollments numbered then nearly 1500, I shook lots of hands. I was amazed at the diversity of grips, from bone crushing to passive, and the wide dynamic range of perspiration viscosity and volume.
On a more serious note, I also had the very satisfying opportunity to express personal congratulations to undergraduate and graduate students from my classes. I was also thrilled to hood my Ph.D. students.
So there you have it. Wear comfortable clothes, wipe your hands and enjoy the moment.