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The first day of the rest of your life....

One of the duties of being a professor is attending Commencement ceremonies. It's good to be able to congratulate your students and meet their families. You can hug them without violating the teacher/student boundaries because they're no longer your students. But the ceremonies can be excruciating.


This particular year I was smart enough to bring a water bottle, but not smart enough to hide it at the security entrance where they were wanding people and inspecting their bags as though it were an international flight. So no water. No food allowed inside either; I was glad I had eaten my granola bar a few minutes earlier. I picked up a cap and gown, stood in line for 45 minutes, and proceeded into the stadium to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance", which gets really old after an hour or so. And yes, it really did take another hour to get all the students, faculty, and administrators into their seats.

The sound system was what one would expect in a sports stadium: a very harsh tone, and we heard every word three or four times separated by a fraction of a second, so it was hard to make anything out. One of the chaplains said some words about the Virginia Tech shootings. A couple of students went to the lectern and made earnest, politically correct speeches about the value of their educations. Senator Schumer, as usual, showed up shortly before the ceremony, invited himself onto the program, and told the same heartwarming story he tells every year. A couple of honorary doctorates were given out, as usual, to business or political leaders. The commencement address was by Congressman John Lewis (still sporting visible wounds from the bridge in Selma, Alabama), and it sounded as though a lot of it would have been funny and/or heartwarming and/or inspiring if we'd been able to make out the words.

And then it was time for the degrees.

Until three or four years ago, the following was the procedure. We held a big ceremony on the soccer/football field, the President waved a magic wand and said "You all have degrees now," and then the students, faculty, and parents scattered to a dozen different places around campus to hold school-by-school ceremonies. In the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, all the department heads sat on stage while one of them read individual students' names and any special honors they were receiving, the students came up and shook hands with the Dean and department head, and there were cookies and drinks off to the side providing a convenient place for families and faculty to meet, take photographs of one another with graduating students, etc.

One perennial problem with this approach was the weather: if there was rain, or 90F/90% stickiness, or other unpleasant natural phenomena, we didn't have a good place indoors to escape it. And I imagine it was difficult for parents who had twins graduating the same day from different schools. But by and large it worked reasonably well.

Somebody must have decided a few years ago that the President really should shake hands with each individual student, one by one. So the separate school-by-school ceremonies were dropped, and we have one big ceremony in an indoor sports stadium. Each student's name is read, quickly; the student shakes hands with the President, somebody from the Board of Trustees, and the relevant Dean; and off the stage; that againe 2400 times. With careful shepherding, we can get through them all in under two hours (this is on top of an hour getting people into their seats, and an hour of speeches), after which everybody wakes up, applauds, and escapes in search of food because it's 1:30 PM and they've been there since 8:30. There is no convenient place for faculty and family to meet one another, only a disorganized mob of thousands of students, family, friends, and faculty outside the half-dozen different exits from the stadium.
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For my Bachelors, they did the "entire College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences" ceremony at Davis -- the only positive point being that, as the departments marched through alphabetically, those of us in Zoology got to squabble over who got to march absolutely last of all. (I lost the coin-flip and so was a couple of people from the tail end.)

For grad school, Berkeley does do an all-campus ceremony, but most people skip it and go to department-specific ones. So the linguistics department always did its own ceremony, which means that you knew everyone involved and if you really wanted to be one of the official speakers, you had a good chance of doing it. (The year I marched for my PhD, I was the only graduate-degree participant who actually wanted to be a speaker.) It was a lot cozier and more friendly. There was usually some musical group with a linguistics connection who would provide entertainment at the after-party. For about half the years that I was there, I provided the pre-show incidental music and processional. It was an immensely different, more memorable, and more enjoyable experience than my BS. In so many ways.
Ouch. That sounds ... unpleasant, all around.