As a faculty member, I’ve always loved graduations. It’s the last bastion of pomp and circumstance in our regular world. It’s the last vestiges of historical (European) scholarly life, where the gowns were the uniform of the scholar. By showing up and robing up we mark the occasion as important, we tell the students that they matter.
Because of my niche, teaching the British Literature survey, I get to have students who are at the sophomore level, many of whom do actually graduate as they transfer and some of whom walk at graduation. I had about 8 students whom I had taught for 2 semesters graduate last night. One of them was the reason I had pushed myself to go to the ceremony. I had just written him a letter of recommendation for a transfer scholarship, and he said in his email, “maybe I’ll see you at graduation.” I had wanted to go in past years, but we had always had church camp over this weekend and I hadn’t pushed it. Church camp got moved, Jack said, “maybe I’ll see you,” so I went. And he had a thank you card to give me.
I was sitting with a couple of English faculty members. My department chair teaches all composition and he had very few students graduate, but when he did, he called out to them with pride, and for one young person he jumped out of his spot to greet her on the stage (chancel?).
When I received my Ph.D., my friend Jim gave me his robe. He was a retired community college teacher from Canada who came to California to live by the beach and finish his Ph.D. He graduated the year before I did. He really wanted the regalia (UC Blue instead of rented black), but would likely never need it again. He justified getting it by passing it on to me with the idea that I would probably be involved in graduations in the future and would wear it again. I finally was and did last night.
The funny thing is, and neither Jim nor I had any idea about this, I wear the gown a lot more often than once a year at a graduation. Because along with graduation ceremonies, there’s one more place the historic academic garb hold sway, and that is the reformed churches. When the reformation was happening, the clerics chose academic garb as their ministerial robes because it didn’t set them apart as priests. In mainline churches we wear robes on the chancel not to set ourselves apart, but to mark the occasion, to show that it matters, to note the sacredness of the function and the moment, and, particularly as women, to not call attention to ourselves and what-we-are-wearing. When I was commissioned as a pastor, I was given a simple white robe that I wear more often, bit there are times I pull out my UC Blue Geneva Gown with dark blue Ph.D. stripes. And I love every minute of it.