Should the Nanny State Intervene to Fix Commencement?


Remember the “African proverb,” “it takes a village to raise a child,” Hillary Clinton borrowed for a book title? One would think this month that the village wise men and women would be out in force to congratulate the children they have nurtured with their tutelage. One would think. But one would be wrong.

My last post, about faculty workload, landed me in deep doo-doo with the academical set, some of whom resorted to ad hominem attacks when my arguments left them sputtering (check out Chandra’s comments). So rather than offering opinion on the matter of faculty failing to attend Commencement, I’ll let the professoriate speak for itself.

First, though, I’ll credit the source, David Galef’s essay “Showing Up” in the May 27 edition of Inside Higher Ed. Galef takes on the growing number of faculty who don’t bother showing up to watch their students graduate; he enumerates and handily dismisses the reasons faculty offer for their behavior. Since he is a seasoned academic Galef I am sure was 100% prepared for deluge of criticism that came his way.
Leading the charge was “erinna,” who self-identifies as an award-winning “highly rated faculty member”:

I don’t go to graduation for several reasons. First and foremost, I just don’t want to. I find it pointless, and I feel like a crowd extra in a biblical epic — there’s masses of people and I’m just one more. So I don’t feel like this is an impactful use of my time.

… the graduation ceremony ….[is] purely symbolic with no real use.

Finally, my school has repeatedly expanded the scope of my duties without expanding my pay. When you do that, people will start to pick things to dump that are not not important to them and for which there will be no reprisal. Ceremony is at the top of that list for me.

I’d love to know what (award-winning) Professor erinna teaches; given her take on symbols I’m guessing (hoping) it’s not mathematics or a humanities or social science subject.

Pop quiz: Is Professor erinna reviewing her awards or her excuses for not attending Commencement?

I’m also wondering what constitutes an “impactful use” of her time, and my guess here is that it’s probably the hours she spends deciding which of her “duties” she can “dump” without “reprisal.” Like the self-respecting and award-winning academic that she is, erinna takes principled action—skipping out on the one ceremony in the academic calendar that has real meaning–only when it won’t get her in trouble. Admirable.

Next, “20-year adjunct” pats herself on the back for attending Commencement:

I did go once because I had a student graduating. It was a miserable experience. We sat in the football field on folding chairs. The wind blew, it was hot, the process took too long, and I felt like wallpaper.

Since my husband and I share a gown, we do not have to pay rental costs. But I got tired of staring at the board of trustees, few of whom even have a graduate degree, handing out diplomas, and the administrators, most of whom are new to their job, overpaid, and have not earned my respect.

Perhaps if the trustees took off their regalia, 20-year wouldn't mind the view.

If I had tenure-level pay, maybe I’d show up more, but so long as I am seen as a temp, I am not really motivated to spend an afternoon sitting like a lump when there is still grading to be done.

Usually I have tremendous sympathy for adjunct faculty. They do the heavy lifting of intro courses for laughable pay and no respect whilst their tenured and tenure-track colleagues fret about missing the last episode of The Jersey Shore. But in “20 years”’s case I’ll curb my feelings. She attended one graduation exercise and was so fatigued by it that she vowed never to set foot on an athletic field again. I understand her point of view, though, after all the newly minted baccalaureates she so recently taught didn’t “even have a graduate degree” yet, so why get all hot and bothered? Admirable.

At least Steve Thulin, professor of history at Northwest College, doesn’t cite lack of eye candy on the podium as his reason for ditching Commencement. “I have worked at a small college here in Wyoming for over 20 years and until recently would not have missed a graduation,” he boasts, then delivers his zinger, “But I did this year and last because my administration crammed our finals ‘week’ into a ‘Wednesday-Thursday-Friday’ format (it was convenient to their needs?) and insisted that graduation would be on a Saturday morning — and grades are due on Tuesday. Some of us did not even get most of our finals until the day before graduation — and for myself, I was still under a pile of term papers when they arrived anyway.”
It’s hard to untangle Professor Thulin’s stream-of-consciousness rant, but I think it boils down to he’s mad because Commencement takes place on Saturday morning. God forbid a faculty member be asked to show up on the weekend. Thulin also takes a gratuitous shot at those vile 9-to-5 Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday administrators. They had the temerity to schedule a six-day work-week for themselves so that families members of the working class kids whose ranks make up Northwest’s enrollment could watch their sons and daughters graduate without the fear of lost wages.

Thulin goes on to say he’s watching Commencement on TV from home, where he’s correcting papers so his grades can be turned in on Tuesday. Admirable.

But leave it to a greybeard to sum things up. “OldCommProf” takes aim with the most predictable arrow in the faculty quiver—he blames somebody else for his behavior:

I’m considering skipping graduation, even though we’re encouraged to go and know all the arguments about honoring the grads. And I’ve been to 28 of the 32 that have been held since I’ve been here.

The reason I’ve come to this point is that it has lost all sense of decorum and dignity. The kids do handstands on the stage, hoist the chancellor in their arms instead of shaking his hand, hold up the line as they take multiple pictures with their pocket digital cameras (the let’s-get-our-faces-really-close kind that that they usually take in bars and at parties) and sometimes even kiss him.

It’s a mess and I’m embarrassed to be part of it.

With seconds to go before they never have to deal with the likes of erinna, 20-year adjunct, Thulin, or OldCommProf again, is it any wonder graduates are turning handsprings?

Before we put the Pomp and Circumstance CD away for another year, let’s let JE, Prof at Private U, have the last word, for his is a call to civility:

I think what is lacking in this discussion is a mutual respect for people’s individual decisions- faculty and student alike. I admit I don’t attend ceremonies. I didn’t as a student and I don’t as a faculty member. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this decision regardless of my reasons, just as I do not think there is anything wrong with choosing to participate in or even enjoy ceremonial events on the part of others.

In JE’s private universe “mutual respect” is defined as: “I do as I please. The rest of you can sod off.”
Sometimes I think Thomas Hobbes wasn’t writing about all of mankind. Just the professoriate.

When faculty speak for themselves: two outta three ain't bad.

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13 thoughts on “Should the Nanny State Intervene to Fix Commencement?

  1. I do not believe I “resorted to ad hominem attacks” nor was I left “sputtering.” I disagreed with you and explained why. If you think my comment about being “snippy” was an ad hominem, then please review your comment about “get back to me when…”

    • No, Chandra, I was not talking about your snippy remark. I was talking about your snotty aspersion on where I might have gone to school or the institutions where I might’ve taught: “If you truly have faculty and administrative experience, I suspect the difference in our views is formed by the differences between our colleges/universities and their expectations for high quality teaching and research.” A text book example of ad hominem attack, the favored rhetorical diversion of one who has run out of real arguments.

      • I did not put that forward as an attack. I have taught at several universities and they each placed different emphasis on teaching versus or teaching and research. That shapes my views of college faculty and administration, and as I said, I expect it shapes yours.

        And since this is the internet, I have no idea if you truly do have 35+ years of experience, as you said, so that is my caveat.

      • Well Chandra let me give you the perspective of one of those horrible, un-academic drones who’s shelled out about $180K for a quality education for his daughter. I and a lot of other grubby wage slaves paid you and all the other employees for that education. What we didn’t pay for was your condescending, angry and elitist whining. If you think you’ve got it so rough I’ll be happy to put you in touch with my college educated, serving army officer son who’s headed off to Afghanistan to fight the bastards who would be pleased to stone you to death. Get off your holier than thou plinth and be grateful that you live and work in place where your predictably boring and trite diatribes are not only allowed, but protected.

  2. Faculty at Commencement are unnecessary. Simply bring in a cast of 1000 fat and old extras. The College would do better to hire actors, throw them into regalia and let them march. No one would know the difference. Better yet, just have art students paint cardboard cutouts to be dusted off each year and stick them up as peanut gallery backdrop.

    • Yes, I was counting on you to write something like this. In fact, I suspect you of being “OldCommProf”!

  3. Every fine school talks at length in admissions publications about talented, dedicated faculty. Every development office cultivates the desire to give by piquing fond memories of life changing faculty/student interactions. Every faculty member’s salary is influenced by annual giving, the size of the endowment, and enrollment. How very sad that those same faculty do not show up at Commencement to cheer the students who have worked hard and accomplished so much and who some day might become donors.

  4. I just had the privilege of sitting on a lovely, concrete football stadium bench for three hours watching our daughter and about 1,500 other deserving undergraduate and graduate students receive their diplomas. The temp. was about 80 when the proceedings started and was about 90 when they ended. Humidity was a pretty constant 90%. It was all worth it. The speeches (mercifully efficient), the colorful procession of faculty and administration and the awarding of the diplomas were all worthy of the the time, trouble and money. It’s too bad that some faculty members can’t see beyond their own petty complaints and imagined slights to see the larger, more important significance of a graduation ceremony. The young people I watched crossing the stage are going to make a difference, they are going to make this a better world and they wont remember the faculty too bothered, jaded or worn out to show up. Have a happy life.

  5. Gracious, Bill, there are so many misrepresentations in your comment that I don’t know where to begin. So I won’t. But see ad hominem, straw man, and others: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

    But I have two points to make – elitist? Thankfully, no. I didn’t have a phone until college and didn’t have a car until I got married. I’m the proud product of state universities and could never have afforded to attend the university your daughter did. Congratulations on her graduation.

    At a Memorial Day party on Saturday I stopped the dinner to offer a toast and remembrance to our fallen and serving, including those in my own family. So, your son was included in my remarks.

    The negativity on this blog is tiresome. Take a breath and relax – I’m going back to my work. Even though the semester ended several weeks ago with my participation in graduation and meeting my seniors’ parents, I am -gasp- writing a letter of recommendation for a student who graduated a year ago. And as the new director of undergraduate studies, I am delighted to work this summer -without pay!- to implement changes that will better my students’ experiences in the major. Take a lesson from my students – they are a joyous bunch of new graduates and I will miss them, but we keep in touch on Facebook. And I look forward to welcoming a new group in the fall.

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