Wise up, robes are all the rage

August 26, 2005

Susan Bassnett remembers when attending a graduation ceremony was naff, but all that's changed and she's loving every minute

Every year I go to two lots of degree ceremonies: one in winter, the other in summer. For the thousands who graduate every year, the event is a rite of passage. Family members sometimes fly in from the other side of the world to take part in the ritual that signals the end of formal education.

Degree ceremonies vary as institutions vary. But whether the speeches are in English or Latin, whether academics take hats off or leave them on, whether rings are placed on fingers, or whether there is kneeling, bowing or just hand-shaking, the basic format is the same. The student steps out, gowned and hatted, in full view of an audience and is formally received into the graduate body. Afterwards come the photos, the champagne, the bouquets and, I am told, sometimes the cheques.

I enjoy degree ceremonies because of that celebratory quality. The pride on the faces of students and relatives is a pleasure to see, and when you sit on a platform you can observe audience reactions. You can watch as a relative starts to get the camera ready five minutes before their student comes forward, you can listen to the outbursts of cheering from different parts of the hall, and smile at the occasional mishap. This summer one man lost his mortarboard as he shook hands with the chancellor, scooped it up again, waved it to the audience and walked off to tremendous applause.

There are also the heartening moments, such as the time when a disabled student struggled out of her wheelchair and managed to walk across the stage, cheered every step of the way by her female relatives in the gallery.

So why is it that many academics don't take part in these ceremonies? I wrote a piece for our Warwick magazine, pointing out that degree ceremonies are enormously important to students and their families and that academics have a duty to support them. The response to the article was surprising: colleagues wrote saying they had never thought of the ritual as important to anyone and had assumed that students today felt the same as they had 20 or 30 years ago, when going to such an event was regarded as slightly naff.

I myself didn't bother with one of my degrees, and went to the first ceremony only to please my mother. Today, the picture is different. At Warwick, attendance numbers have increased phenomenally over the past 15 years or so. There has clearly been a cultural change: just as formal balls have made a reappearance and GCSE pupils at comprehensive schools have black-tie events when they finish their exams, so degree ceremonies are back in fashion. We live in a time when rituals have acquired a new significance. Dress codes that seemed to be dying out when I was a student are back, we mark violent death by the creation of impromptu shrines in the street and the cult of formal weddings is thriving all over the land.

Academics who refuse to join the procession and who dismiss "dressing up" as a relic are out of step. Moreover, by not attending the ceremony you risk snubbing the very students you have worked with for so long. They want to see you in your regalia and to show you off to their families. And their pleasure is not the only payoff for putting on robes and sitting broiling for an hour or so: the sense of exhilaration in the hall and the obvious delight of all those taking part are contagious. There are not many occasions on which you can experience vicariously the happiness of several generations. If you are sceptical, give it a try next time. You might change your mind.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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