Friday, May 30, 2008

MI Graduation Ceremony

Just two weeks ago, the Medieval Institute held its annual ceremony to honor graduating students from undergraduate through Ph.D. levels.  We have faculty in academic robes processing into the faux-medieval Alumni Hall Chapel, followed by a rank-by-rank initiation into the scholarly community of medievalists.  The baccalaureate students kneel and profess academic fealty while the master's grads also swear to use their teaching skills only for good purposes.  Ph.D. grads shed their master's robes and are re-vested with doctoral gowns.  The whole ceremony is conducted in Latin, led by Tom Noble, the Institute's director, as the main officiant, and assisted by other faculty in the roles of praelector, chaplain, beadle, and proctor.  The highlight is what we refer to as the "head-bonking."  Graduates are tapped on the head with a Gospel book three times and wished the "fortitude of David, the wisdom of Solomon, and the charity of Mary."  The first-time participants (whether students or faculty) sometimes assume that hoakiness will trump pomp and circumstance, but in fact, it seems to work in the other direction.  Proud parents are not the only ones to get teary-eyed as we move through the solemnities, and ultimately adjourn in the courtyard for punch and cookies.  The faculty/staff newspaper covered the event this year and published a story and picture at:

1 comment:

Sarah R. Fields, said...

Thank you for sharing such a detailed description of the graduation ceremony. How different from my experience last year at Columbia. The medievalists graduated in amongst our humanities departments (in my case, a literature department). Since Columbia is a secular institution, little mention was made of a Higher Power, except in some very neutral remarks by the university chaplain. There was no head-bonking, to be sure, but neither was the Gospel or any other religious writing mentioned from the stage. Instead, during the convocation, a professional photographer took our pictures as we crossed the altar of the school chapel, which was used as the stage, as we received our diploma. Then, on the way off the "stage", the university president whispered at each of us to inquire what our future plans were. I, five months pregnant, whispered back that I was a mother.

I felt cheered for, to be sure, but not blessed or commended to God's purposes and calling. I felt hypocritical, as well, because I still had several months of revisions left to do during the summer prior to depositing my dissertation--so I was "walking" but not graduating. I did not have a chance to voice my hypocrisy, as we were not invited nor expected to make any vows regarding the future use of our education, which, in my case, was still a work in progress at that point.

Sometimes now, since I am not working for a university, I wonder if I ought to use the letters behind my name or not. Except for folks in the career center during post-graduation resume coaching sessions, no one gave any indication of how the title of Doctor of Philosophy should or could be used in the world. Without the blessing and commendation of our calling to the guiding hand of Providence, sometimes one remains uncertain as to whether the degree-granting institution would approve of one's use of the title for a religious vocation, or for a new business venture outside academia, or for personal correspondence. The convocation did not clear up that sense of uncertainty--but perhaps that is not the university's problem.

During commencement the next day, the doctoral students (including pregnant me and the women beside me, a pregnant friend from neurobiology and a not-pregnant friend from Italian) stood outdoors on top of chairs, in a crowd of students from all schools, departments and degrees, numbering in the thousands. The music was enthusiastic. The deans' comments were witty. The university President's speech was inspiring. But reverence would not be an apt term for any aspect of the event. The dentists threw toothbrushes. The public health grads threw what looked like condoms. The journalism students threw shredded newspaper, and the business school grads threw money. Despite our having perhaps the longest tenure on campus, the 80 of us receiving Ph.D.s in the sciences and humanities that day didn't know in advance about the throwing part. We joked about wishing we'd known, so that we could have had our dissertations copied and thrown from an airplane--but then worried about injury. I suppose we could have thrown some books or journals from our chairs in the audience. Without knowing about Notre Dame's tradition, something deeply ingrained in the human psyche urged us to consider the forceful moving of books and some bonking to be an appropriate solemnity for the occasion--but we had to use our imaginations.

Instead, between two of my best friends, I sat and cried. Hard to say goodbye to an institution that has formed one's pattern's of thought over the years, for better and for worse, and to receive that institutions blessing (even if that word is not used) in future endeavors. The university President, Lee Bollinger, reminded us that the lap on the Alma Mater's statue in the middle of the steps in front of Low Library holds a book which is always open. The image of the open book, and his suggestion that we follow her example, has nudged me to commit to a regular discipline of reading: theology, Scripture, history, science, mathematics, philosophy, and literature. I believe that in the thirteen months since my own graduation, that discipline has provided meaningful structure, and has blessed me with a sense of purpose on my way to wherever God leads next.

Thank you for this blog! It's good to be connected to the wider community of medievalists through the U. of Chicago forum and this list. Thank you for providing that sense of community.