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good-bye pomp and circumstance

Last night was the commencement ceremony for the 2010 class of graduates of the college where I work. I have to say it was a difficult experience. As a faculty member, I am obligated (by contract) to attend the graduation ceremony each year in May, so I’ve seen several and will likely see many more in the years to come. For a student, this particular graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. It’s a big deal, and it should be. Many have worked very hard to accomplish this feat. They invite their friends and families to proudly watch on as they take their Portrait of a Young Woman A photograph by Thomas Barwick.turn to walk across the stage. I think this is a pretty important event–a proud moment, one that should be honored and respected. Some, however, don’t seem to think the same way, or at least they don’t act as if they do.

Each semester I’m a little bit irked by the cavalier attitude with which many faculty approach this graduation exercise. Now, I do understand that for many faculty this is an annual exercise to be experienced an average of 30 or so times during the course of one’s career. The exercise is always the same, so we (and I do include myself here) try to find ways to have fun with it, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s a celebration, after all, not a funeral. We should be having fun, celebrating the end of another academic year and the success of so many students. But on the other hand, I see that we faculty sometimes forget ourselves as we engage in a bit too much side chatter, laughing, and even–yes–texting (this is something I don’t do) during the actual ceremony. These kinds of things bug me. It shows a lack of interest and I find it disrespectful to the students. But in the end, I guess I can live with it, and honestly I don’t think the behavior is that noticeable. I really don’t mean to sound like a big ol’ fuddy-duddy here. I can appreciate a game of shoe bingo during graduation as much as the next prof. I really can, but last night’s graduation was different. The irksome behavior was taken to a new level, and it’s not the faculty that really got to me; it was the students and members of the “platform party”–the bigwigs sitting on the stage.

The commencement speaker was Dr. Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of the US Department of Education. Her speech was fine in my estimation–perhaps not the strongest, most focused, most relevant commencement address I’ve ever heard–but it was fine, and she traveled across the country to address the graduating class. But the class was outright rude to here. Granted the crowd may have been growing impatient (as she arrived nearly an hour late due to her flight being delayed), but still, give a person some respect. All through her address the class chattered audibly almost to the point where she was competing to be heard. Then, when she uttered the phrase “in closing” the entire class began to clap and cheer before she even finished her sentence, let alone the 3 minutes or so of her speech that followed the “in closing” transition. I was embarrassed. Who were these graduates and what was this “honor” being bestowed upon them?

But, honestly, that was not the end of it. In the aftermath of this embarrassing spectacle, members of the platform party responded with their own flavor of disrespect. As students each took a turn walking across the stage to receive his or her much awaited degree, I observed a vice president nodding off in his chair and a board member attempting to not-so-discretely send text messages via his BlackBerry. I found this disheartening. Certainly students will learn from those placed before them as role models–placed front and center–as students take their turns walking past. Good-bye pomp and circumstance. It’s a brave new world, I suppose. Or maybe I’m becoming an old fart who just doesn’t get kids, administrators, and trustee members these days.

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