Making the grade

About ten years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, a colleague there put a proposal to the university’s Academic Council (Senate) to drop academic dress for graduations. At any rate, he wanted gowns and hoods to become optional, both for students and for staff. There was a lively debate, at the end of which the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. DCU is a thoroughly up to date university without much respect for tradition, but this proposal found very little support. So what is about graduations – these ceremonies with anachronistic clothes, formal choreography, lots of amateur dramatics – that makes them such significant events, even today?

I ask this at the beginning of a week that will see me attend seven graduation ceremonies in Robert Gordon University (and speak at all of them). I shall see the usual mix of apparently reluctant (but in truth very proud) graduands, out to please their parents but actually really pleased themselves, those sporting really improbable footwear and jewellery,  waistcoats worn with jeans, everything you can imagine. And like many ceremonies, the graduations will have a deeper significance than the external formalities might suggest. People ask about the meaning of it all, but in the end large numbers do come.

Perhaps the most significant point one can make about graduations is that they foster a sense of belonging in the academy, that includes those who have completed their formal learning but still remain part of the institution’s wider community. And, who knows, maybe the dressing up is a good way of illustrating the value of shared scholarship, even in a modern academy.

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11 Comments on “Making the grade”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    People love a party, especially ones with tradition. Graduation is a coming of age as summed up by Tom Hanks at Yale last year, and bishops far and wide at Confirmation ceremonies (your religious institution mileage may vary). In Aberdeen Uni the anachronism of it being done all in Latin adds to the mystique (not mystery), other academies have other USPs – free coffee at Edinburgh for instants.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    The dress code for graduations should be according to the university’s house rules, no exceptions permitted. Formal dress codes are required by those institutions that value the importance of education. One dresses out of respect to the VALUE of education, as Ferdinand quite rightly puts it. One puts something esle before one’s own self-centered desires (a virtue which in places seesm to be diminishing rapidly). For instance, if a good friend requires you to be best man at his wedding and to wear a morning suit and you arrive in denims you may be expressing and satisfying your own individuality but you are doing your friend a grave disservice. Dress codes are important. They are there out of respect to the value of the event and to those persons who are guardians of it (in this case, in universities). Anyway, it all adds a bit of colur and not a few laughs:)

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    This ‘History of Graduation’ web site really made me laugh, so cheesy & what a lovely song🙂 http://www.brownielocks.com/graduation.html


  4. Not forgetting the kilts, of course, which are increasingly popular at Stirling with some of our overseas students. I have happy memories of one young Bangladeshi striding forward in Inverness cathedral to receive his doctorate, dressed in tartan and smiling with pride. His parents were thousands of miles away, and I can only imagine how they received the photographs.

    The anthropology of ritual is full of ideas about the symbolism of clothing and the body on occasions that mark transitions. I’ve been drawing on Victor Turner’s work on liminality as a way of understanding ‘studenthood’ as a transitional identity. It is helpful to a point, as of course studenthood is a very protracted form of transition, and its outcomes are often uncertain. But this way of looking at things does make sense of our academic fancy dress for the final ritual ceremony.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I would argue that the ‘transitional identity’ experience is not unique to students (learners) but to lecturers as well, being involved in any learning process cannot but challenge notions of fixed identity almost by definition. Also, liminality, as defined by Turner among others, is an existential condition most academics can easily identify with!

  5. Vince Says:

    What’s remarkable is the numbers of confirmed atheists and agnostic that adore the trappings of the 2nd millennium Catholic Church rituals.
    Still I suppose it could be viewed as a form of birth as distinct from a ‘recognition’ .

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Ah, yes, I was wondering when the Catholic Church (Roman, I presume) was going to be brought into this one…Vince, what ARE those numbers that you refer to? And are they worryingly high, or surprisingly low (or vice versa?)…

      • Vince Says:

        Oh don’t be tedious on the wettest summer we’ve had in years.

        And I was actually thinking about the militaristic aspect of the post The Great Schism western church, be that RCC or Lutheran in aspect.

        • MunchkinMan Says:

          It’s sunny here, nearly all day today, that’s why my thinking is so clear on this issue and why I crave such detail…the post The Great Wha? Excuse while I put on my robe/gown/whatever to show that I’m in charge of the barbecue and for which function I deserve respect…;)

        • Don Says:

          Hey Wince, why don’t you answer Munchkinman’s questions? You make a sweeping comment about the numbers of atheists and agnostics that adore the trappings of Catholic church rituals only, it now seems, to take a swipe at either or both of them. Don’ t hide behind the exasperated ‘Oh don’t be so tedious’ argument and them come up with some pretentious guff about the militaristic aspect of The Great Schism. Answer his questions

          • Vince Says:

            No. The mood doesn’t take me.

            And that’s more pretentious guff. Bet you thopugh, you can guess or decode this one.


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