It’s uncanny how every year the weather turns hot and muggy around the time of our graduation ceremony. Just when the academic year is over, you’ve done all the marking and been to all the exam boards, and you feel like sitting in the garden with a cold drink and catching a few rays, it starts pouring with rain and you’re expected to put on something formal and top it up with a woollen gown and a floppy hat that makes your head sweat. Then you have to line up in a procession of what look like extras from one of those Tudor bodice-ripping series on the telly, some with bits of tatty fur, and the odd exotic confection with gold brocade and a fez with a coloured fringe, and then parade around for the delectation of smug-looking parents.
At our place you stand around for ages waiting to process, until someone gives the “off!” signal. We then march around a bit in front of gawping bystanders and then sit for several hours in a baking-hot hall with terrible acoustics. This year my robes were steaming, as I’d been caught in a monsoon-like shower as I went outside for a quick smoke. I loathe the whole deadly business, but we’ve had a three-line whip put on us to attend, ever since the time when only half-a-dozen Goody Two-Shoes bothered to turn up and a load of parents complained.
Grudgingly, I have to admit that from the parents’ perspective, seeing Samantha or Adam trot across the stage to shake hands and pick up their certificate probably gives them some sort of warm glow, although if it were mine I was watching I’d be sitting with a calculator adding up what the idle young lout had cost me over the years. I’d also be wondering about job prospects, given that these days everybody and their cat has a first-class degree from somewhere, even if it’s only in Pet Maintenance Studies.
All right, I made up that particular degree, but I once met someone who was doing a PhD on cats at play, so by now there’s probably at least a few dozen undergraduate courses as the field of study of cats at play has filtered down the chain. I went to the cat man’s house once, which was full of cats, all of them psychotic, that he claimed to have rescued from the lab. They were the nastiest bunch of moggies I’ve ever seen, and one swiped a chicken leg straight off my plate when I reached for my wine glass and another bit my big toe so hard under the table it drew blood before I could kick it. They were the feline equivalent of a gang of knife-toting hoodies.
Once you’re in the hall, the deadly tedium of name-calling and rounds of applause goes on until your eyes glaze over. I try to keep awake by studying the variety of shoes some students wear, and willing some of the wearers of six-inch heels to fall over. Then, all of a sudden, it stops and some bloke in an ill-fitting gown is escorted up on to the platform. Every year we give an honorary degree to someone nobody has ever heard of, usually some dull bloke who has given us a few thousand pounds for more lab equipment. Everything we’re given vanishes into the science and engineering blocks, Lord knows what they buy with all the dosh. Just once it might be a good idea to give an honorary degree to someone who has even the vaguest claim to scholarship or creativity. Big D, our v-c, likes the idea of sports personalities, so periodically one of those trots across the stage with much bowing and doffing of caps, although we never get the champions, only the also-rans.
The whole business of degree ceremonies is a commercial racket. Students and their families pay for gown hire, photos, a DVD of the whole thing, sandwiches and warm white wine. I’m not quite sure when all this hoo-ha started, but I remember seeing notices for black-tie balls appearing on student noticeboards in the corridors – something nobody of my generation would have been seen dead at – and with hindsight, that must have been the beginning of a revival of rituals. Then our departmental secretary brought in some photos of her daughter getting out of a stretch limousine that she’d hired to go to her local school prom. Apparently US-style proms are all the rage, and school-leavers’ dos, which used to be a lot of heavy metal with everyone swigging cheap vodka and trying to have sex in corners, have been replaced with balls and stretch limos and full evening rig-out.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that students should want to dress up and parade around on degree day, but if that’s what they want, I think those of us who provide the performance should get paid a fee for turning up. If we got a brown envelope as we left the hall, I bet the platform party numbers would increase dramatically next year.
Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.