I love convocation…
May 28th, 2009

 

 

I love convocation, especially in spring. I think it’s one of the best things we do. The experience is always a fine balance of ritual formality and excited unpredictability. So many people are so nervous that anything can happen.

 

As with so many of us who were formally schooled about, ahem, three decades ago, I never attended any one of the three convocations in which my name appeared on the program. In my time, undergraduates more or less boycotted graduation ceremonies for being dated, stuffy events that had nothing to do with us, but were instead designed strictly for potential donors. As far as I know, the only people who showed up for convocation in the ‘sixties were American-born business students or engineers in favour of the Viet Nam War, or very rich kids whose parents insisted on a photo opportunity. By the time my graduate degrees were conferred, I was living on the opposite side of the country. Travel was costly and prohibitive, but I also remained ambivalent about actually attending the ceremony. In all cases, the grandly sealed parchments were snail-mailed to me, to be framed much later in my career. Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate the symbolic value of certain rituals.

I think I might be making up for lost times. I now look forward to the marathon of convocations we host at Memorial with unabashed enthusiasm. Now that I have the privilege of hooding a growing pool of happy, if nervous, masters and doctoral students I am humbled by the opportunity, and sometimes wonder what in the world I was thinking as an undergraduate. My parents were proud of me, but they would have happily welcomed the opportunity to snap a few Polaroids, to be sure.

 

Why are students nervous at convocation ceremonies? Their palms drip and their throats dry right up. Because, like children of Hogwarts, they are compelled to walk across a brightly lit stage in full traditional regalia and in wide view of well over a thousand people. When I shake their hands or reach for their hoods I can see their sweat and sense their anxiety. The fear of stumbling or looking ridiculous momentarily overwhelms them, and for an intense few minutes they are concentrating only on getting across to the other side of the stage. No doubt, few remember much about the actual hooding, the kneeling before the imposing chancellor in his elaborate gold braid, or the headlights of smiles and camera flashes emanating from the audience. For them, it’s all a blur of ceremony.

 

Memorial University convocations almost always entertain. We might not yet have a Barack Obama showing up to deliver a controversial address, but we can almost always count on remarkable people with gifted oratorical skills to make the event memorable at centre stage. And I don’t know of any other university with a pool of orators as fine, witty, and as occasionally irreverent as the ones we have on hand. I love the looks that wash across the faces of those who are listening to their own introductions. Often you can see a kind of perplexed or baffled discomfort slowly turn into a smiling realization that the orator is actually being kind, gently pulling a leg, or sharing information so secret and private that the revelation is a delightful, shocking surprise. That’s the moment an honourary graduand realizes he or she is not at just any convocation.  I also always wonder what in the world any of them will say to a group of graduating students that is original and fresh. Surely, everything has already been said about following one’s bliss, taking the right pathways, doing good, serving the truth, honouring family and nation, and blah blah blah about the future. And so there is usually a measure of suspense in listening for the unexpected, for that convocation address that distinguishes itself from all the rest, turning platitude into platinum. Amazingly, it happens more often than you’d think.

 

Of course, the unpredictable is now, to put it paradoxically, even more expected under the watch of university chancellor, retired general Rick Hillier. You never quite know what this guy is going to pull out from under his bonnet. When he was inducted into his role at the fall 2008 convocation, Hillier really raised the bar on the ritual event, challenging everyone to lighten up and enjoy the spectacle—with gusto. Never have I seen anyone exhort a graduating class to stand up and wave at all the family and friends in attendance who had helped the degree earners get to that satisfying moment. But Hillier turned this no-brainer gesture into a necessary part of the ritual, generating a few sustained moments of clapping and cheering and mortar-board-waving delirium. It was exhilarating, and marked a welcome break with all other chancellors and their ceremonial irrelevance. Moreover, his induction speech rocked the house, delivered to the assembled graduates and their families as if he needed to rouse them to fight for freedom. Man, that guy can sell tinned fog to a fisherman, if you ask me, and I’m no military-loving uniform-mad Canadian.

 

I love convocation. It’s an extended few days of sheer celebration, during which both men and women dress up in long black gowns and velvet bonnets or mortar boards, reenacting one of the few medieval rituals everyone still appreciates.

 

NG 

Thanks to CarbonNYC for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Noreen Golfman is Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies. Her post secondary education included study at McGill, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario. She has been teaching and writing in the areas of Canadian literature and film studies for most of her career. She is the president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, founding director of the annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival, and director of the MUN Cinema Series. Dr. Golfman's blog 'Postcards From the Edge' will be updated every Thursday.

2 Responses to “I love convocation…”

  1. Adam Fancy says:

    I must say, I really enjoying reading your blog. It’s full of insight, passion and entertainment. This post in particular highlights one of the major events in one’s life – walking across that stage. I’ve done it twice already, and I am looking forward to the third time. There is always an overwhelming sense of accomplishment when you walk across that stage and get your degree, whether it be undergraduate or graduate. Not only are you proud yourself at this feat, your peers most certainly enjoy that feeling as well knowing they helped shaped your future and helped you reach your potential.

    However, my favourite part of the whole ceremony is definitely the keynote speakers who get their honourary degrees. They all come from diverse backgrounds and tell their story in which you can take a little bit from and use it in your own future endeavours.

    Good writing and keep it up!

  2. mercerd says:

    interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go

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