Monday, May 12, 2008


I love graduation. Yes, it's boring, and long, and this year I was annoyed by a number of things related to the ceremony (some changes made, a speaker that was in no way inspiring, the length of it...) but all in all, I really am so happy that I attend graduation and I see how excited my students are that the faculty are so excited for them.

My institution is really unique given its size. With around 15K students, you'd expect that we wouldn't really know a lot of our students, and that we'd really just be window-dressing for an event like graduation. But while we are window-dressing, adding a sense of occasion to the event with our fancy robes, I feel a sense of connection with the students that I never felt with my professors at any of the three institutions at which I walked through graduation. How is it possible that such a large school fosters such connections?

Well, I think part of it is that the campus was designed to make us know our students. The rooms in which I teach can't hold more than 25 or so students comfortably. This means that in most semesters, I see only around 80 students total (assuming I don't get any course releases - fewer if I do). I know all of their names. I have a lot of individual contact with them. The longer I've been here, the more I realize that this is probably the perfect teaching situation. I actually was talking to FB about his situation (at a research university), and I found myself thinking that my job was better than his, for he can see the same number of students that I see, with no TA support except for in intro classes, and yet teaching isn't really valued and he only rarely gets to teach what he wants. Where I work, teaching is really central to what I do, and I have a number of students that isn't extreme. And I get to teach whatever I want, for the most part. That's pretty awesome.

But anyway, so going to graduation isn't merely something that I do because it's part of the job but rather it's really gratifying for me to attend. Why do I love graduation?

Well, let me tell the story of this year's graduation - or at least give some highlights.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The sky was a pure blue, and it was sunny and mild, although not hot. All of the robing happened in our student center - with the faculty located on the bottom floor. In the time when we were initially congregating, departments got together and took pictures in all their finery, asking for colleagues in other departments to take the pictures. We congregated outside vying to get the best position in the line-up so that we would get "good seats" for the graduation. (Typically it's a battle between my rowdy department and another department on campus to be first in line so that we can be in the front row. My chair is especially competitive about this so that he will be in good position to accost our graduating majors with hugs after they walk across the stage. This seating also means that one can have a grand time assessing the horrendous shoe choices of those graduating. Note to novices of graduations: wearing 5-inch spike heel sandals will not serve you well at a graduation ceremony. There's a lot of walking and a ramp, for god's sake. You may think that you should choose the most awesome looking shoe in creation, for it is all that will be seen, but really, comfort should trump style, just a little. Except flip flops and/or running shoes are also not terribly good options, for you'll look like a shlump. It's really a fine line you have to walk.)

But so after establishing our position at the head of the procession, we waited. I chatted with colleagues from across the campus and from within my department, and basked in the glow of the compliments I received about my truly beautiful robe. I have to say, my robe is awesome. It is a blue that matched the sky that day, and really blows less awesome robes out of the water with its fabulousness. At any rate, so there we stood, waiting to follow the students who were a floor above us, and who would lead the procession to the venue where graduation was held. They had to walk past us, and as their procession began, the faculty applauded them. (A colleague of mine and I were ring-leaders in getting the applause going. This lasted for about 15 minutes, and yes, clapping for that long did get a bit old, but as my colleague noted, in previous centuries people would do 3-hour-long ovations, so really, this was nothing.) You should have seen the looks on the students' faces - so proud, so pleased, so excited - when we began clapping, and when those further back in the line realized that we were clapping. Professors called out to students that they knew, and some who had cameras took pictures.

We fell into line behind the students, and then made our way to the graduation location. As the platform party concluded the procession, the president, provost, and deans said hello to faculty, thanked us for coming, smiled and shook people's hands. And then the ceremony began. I love the opening of the ceremony for two things especially. First, I love that the families of my students are always acknowledged and applauded. Most of my students are first-generation college students, and their families will make signs and really it is their graduation, too. It never fails that there are children in the audience who have made signs for graduating parents, and every year I find myself choking up at a sign that says something like, "Happy graduation, Mommy!" It's just so awesome. Second, I love that the faculty are recognized at graduation, that we are thanked by the administration for the work that we do. Sure, it's just a gesture, but it's the kind of gesture that shows that we're valued at my institution. And it's nice.

Speakers, blah blah blah, and then it comes time for students to have their names called and to walk across the stage. This is where vying for the first position in line pays off, for it means that all of our majors who graduate see us and we can call out our congratulations to them. I always feel a bit bad for the students of departments that are less vocal than we are. They must feel a bit slighted. But this I can do nothing about. My students get lots of faculty love, and they always look so touched and overwhelmed.

It's easy to forget what a big deal graduation can be when one has been through 3 of one's own (not including high school). By the time I got the PhD, the only reason I walked was because my mom insisted. It was an empty ritual for me at that point. But for my students, graduation is really meaningful, and I love that I can be there as window-dressing to make that day more ceremonious for them.

I got an email from a student today, telling me how touched she was that I was there and cheering for her as she walked across the stage, and thanking me for being her professor. It wasn't necessary for her to send that email, but it was so freaking nice that she did.

And this is why I love graduation. After all of the freak-outs and complaints and poor work and irritation of the semester, after all of the things that we complain about with the job, with graduation all of that falls away. My work is done; their work is done. And that's something to celebrate.


Bardiac said...

You hit so on the mark! I don't think we're quite as well set at NWU to get to know students, but graduation is still special.

MommyProf said...

I don't mind graduation, either, although I sometimes wish they could just skip the awards and speeches and just do the good parts!

Fifi Bluestocking said...

This sounds awesome. And you are bang on about the shoes.

Tiggerfly said...

My undergrad profs sound a lot like this. Truely a blessing they were, and so (I suspect) are you to your students.

undine said...

It *is* special. And I'm with you on the shoes; I just wrote about that today.

ce4460 said...

I always thought graduation was a bunch of speakers and gowns you had to put up with in order for your family to see you get a folder that didn't even contain. I thought it wasn't for me but for family, the media, the school, everyone but the student.

Then when I was finishing up graduate school one of my professors told us that graduation was not for any one but the student. He said it was an important milestone necessary to mark the transition through to another, new and important part of life. He felt the significance of the accomplishment needed to marked in time and remembered. I think he was right.