Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Inventing tradition

When I first got to my current institution, I was surprised by its traditions for commencement.  I was used to big ceremonies with major speakers.  But here commencements were split up by college, repeated three times to get everyone across the stage, and there was no celebrity giving a speech.  The advantage was that the ceremonies remained relatively short -- about 90 minutes -- and the focus stayed firmly on the graduating students.  The disadvantage was that those with a role on the program had to attend all of them, doing the same thing three times in a row, which made for a long day.

Word came down earlier this year that the new administration was interested in making a change.  The vision was a single outdoor ceremony with a major speaker, surrounded by individual ceremonies for graduates in each college.  The advantage of this scheme would be more publicity for the university as a celebrity or public figure gave an address, and the lack of overlap with the same people having to reprise commencement roles over and over (since each college would run its commencement with its own personnel).  The disadvantage would be unpredictable weather with no alternate location (only the football stadium is big enough to host such an event, and it can be very hot and thunderstormy in early May), and our general dislike of change.

One of my senior students is an officer in student government, and she showed up this morning for class with an interesting report.  Commencement changes won't be happening this year -- even though we've heard since August that they were a done deal, and all that was left was working out the details.  Students apparently staged a bit of a revolt, feeling like they hadn't been consulted.

It's a relief in a way.  Now those of us who've gotten used to the way things have always been won't have to figure out something new.  The advantages and disadvantages of the old system will remain in place.  But of course, it just puts off until later the adjustment we'll need to make eventually to something new -- with advantages and disadvantages we can't quite picture yet.  I've grown attached to the system in place, as weird as it appeared to me at first.  I recognize that my preference for stasis, though, is as much a lack of imagination on my part as the result of any logical reasoning process.  Once everyone is consulted and a new tradition has been invented, ten more years will go by and we'll all feel proprietary about it in its turn.

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