Sunday, August 4, 2013

With Ceremony

"Even the most understated ceremony involves a certain respect for ritual and pageantry." - Vera Wang

Sometimes, it's the ceremony that counts.

As an Academic Dean by profession, I'm certainly tied to that reality. The academic world is full of rituals and ceremonies, each having its own meaning, place, and importance.

One specific and extremely vital ceremony comes to mind: commencement.  I've worked in institutions with all sorts of traditions regarding the act of conferring credentials upon those who complete the requirements, and to many students nothing seems to matter more than the ritual of walking across the stage.  One institution, in fact, only held the ceremony once per year, and though graduates had their credentials conferred, along with all rights and privileges (and pretty pieces of paper), immediately upon completion, some still called me every week as we got closer to the commencement ceremony time. 

"Are we there yet?"

"Are we?"

I came to understand that ceremony's importance before I became a Dean, thanks to my service as student support coordinator.  It was a common thing the students would comment upon during my meetings.  Okay, okay, I get it....

One of the realities common with career colleges--and the practice is spreading among traditional institutions as well--is that the chief executive of the campus (typically called the President) doesn't always come from an academic background.  Often they're good strong business leaders who can effectively balance a budget and work within a world of restricted resources, but they haven't always taken the time to examine the rituals associated with academic life as closely as they should.

One institution I worked for, in fact, was like that.  Their ceremony, when I arrived, was kind of strange from an academic point of view.  So I changed it, adding the traditional ritualistic feel in which people say stuff that the graduates won't remember past the flipping of the tassels, and then the new grads all parade across stage to receive the honors they've earned.  Then comes the important legalistic part, where the head of academics (usually a Dean or higher) speaks on behalf of the faculty to the legal head of the institution (usually the President) and says "hey, dude, these students survived our crap, so grant them their degrees."

Okay, so it's not typically delivered in those precise words, but that's the general process.  Then the Prez says "yeah, sure, man," and everybody flips tassels from the right to the left and then head out en masse for drinky-winkies.

So at this institution, I rewrote the script, adding that part of the ceremony in.  Though it's not strictly necessary for a graduation ceremony, it makes the students feel like they accomplished something, and it makes the faculty feel important, and on top of all that it makes the chief executive feel like he/she has an important role, too.  It's the ceremony that counts. 

I did 'er up right.  I wrote the President's portion of the script so that it went something something something "and all rights, responsibilities, and privileges appertaining thereunto."  Go ahead, try saying that out loud.  I dare you.  That last couple of words are a tongue-twister. 

At rehearsal, she asked me if it was right.  Absolutely, ma'am.  You need to say that, ma'am.  It's the ceremony, ma'am. 

At the actual ceremony, she nailed it.  The whole phrase, including the last tongue-twisting couple of words, she enunciated perfectly.  Yay!  In fact, she smiled as we were done, and she shared with me how happy she was that she'd gotten the important words right.

Some day I'll have to go back and come clean to her.  Nah, ma'am, I made that crap up to see if you could and would say it.

There was a similar ceremony at West Point, back when I was there, when dinosaurs roamed the plain, when there was a seriously challenging fourth class system.  *ahem*  It happened at the end of the year, when the fourth class cadets, who had been known for the entire academic year as simply "Plebe" or worse, became upperclassmen.  Peers, ish. 

We would line them up by cadet company, and then the upperclassmen in that company would go through the line one at a time shaking hands and introducing ourselves by first name. Recognition Day, it was called.  It was a big deal.

Wasn't such a big deal to some of us when we went through it, honestly.  By that point we already knew what the upper classmen's names were, and we also had our own little pet names for them (most of which we'd never repeat in their presence even after Recognition Day).  It seemed--redundant.  Irrelevantly so, in fact.

Thus it was that my class, in my company, at the end of our sophomore ("yearling") year, all went through introducing ourselves as "Bob."  Guys, girls, everybody--just "Bob."  Hell, they won't remember the names they don't already know, and they already know almost all of our names.  Why not?

The Importance of Ceremony is why not.  I found out a couple of years later that that class group never, ever forgave us for that little prank.  To them, it was a horrible slight. 

Oops.  And I'd been one of the chief architects of that little pranky-wanky.  Sorry, guys.

It's important to do things the right way sometimes:

With ceremony.


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