We have entered one of the most pleasant rites of spring and summer commencement season.
As a teacher at the University of Oklahoma for more than 20 years, I attend our ceremonies once every three years as part of my faculty responsibilities. Though my attendance is a service obligation of my department and my university, I inevitably end the evening vividly remembering the excellence in performance and character that I have witnessed over the past year.
I attend commencement—now without complaint—because I recognize that I need its ritual and ceremony as much as students and their families do. Even when the commencement speakers occasionally seem to be offering no more than another heaping helping of slow-roasted banalities, the totality of the experience—especially visiting with the families of my students—returns me, without fail, to the optimistic and idealistic frame of mind that led me to be a teaching scholar in the first place.
If ever I find myself unable to return to that emotional place, it will be a sure sign to me that it is time for me to move on.
So, what should we be thinking about at commencement—in addition to how far we have traveled on a difficult individual mission? To what other great works should we commit ourselves?
Money, dreams, debts, and decisions
All the daydreams from which one’s future plans originate are idealized images that experience must and will “bring down to earth.” I used to wonder what my professors did with what I believed was the vast wasteland of time that existed between their class meetings with me and my colleagues.
I imagined them in their offices, relaxed and contemplating important problems from a safe distance. This vision, I now realize, conveys more about my own need for peace, reassurance and stability back in my teens and twenties than it did about what university faculty did or should do.
Of course, it did not occur to me to ask my professors what they did. I did not know that universities expect more of professors than teaching and research. I did not fully appreciate then that the same stress that I felt while striving to get an assignment “right” and done on deadline might also be integral to whatever career I would choose for myself.
I must note an additional difference between my life as a student and the student experience today: College cost far less when I attended 30 years ago than it does now.
I was able to save for two years (while living at home) so I could devote my junior and senior years entirely to my academic work. Boy, was I fortunate! I did not begin to incur any student debt until I was halfway through graduate school.
As college costs go up and as loans become an increasing part of a student’s load, the path that I followed between 1979 and 1984 is simply no longer open to many students whose economic situations resemble mine 30 years ago.
When we commit ourselves at commencement to renewing the highest values of our society, let us see what we can do to change this. If we do not, we run the risk of having students choose majors based solely on the always shaky promise that they will earn enough in this or that career to pay for school.
The teacher’s workplace has pressures
It is to the everlasting credit of my undergraduate mentors that I never learned that the academy is like any other workplace: People, possessed by vanity and anxiety, feud and compete over the stupidest things and sometimes act out of the worst of motives.
I have since learned that “hostile work environments” are not restricted to the corporate boardroom, the temporary cubicle office of the often equally temporary white collar worker, or those who toil at the modern versions of the assembly line.
I have had much to learn about this particular world of work. I am a fortunate one. To an extent that was not true in my student days, universities rely more and more on temporary and at-will employees to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching.
In addition to these kinds of pressures, of course, they are often not paid a living wage. As we observe the pageantry of commencement and as we recommit ourselves to doing good and doing better, we need to end these practices before they devalue the experience of learning for all concerned.
There is value in commencement
The University of Oklahoma canceled commencement this year because of a severe tornado threat. As difficult as this was for students, parents and faculty, it only changed the scene, not the substance, of that day.
Those who missed the chance to “walk” for their degree have the satisfaction of knowing that they were all part of a historic moment created by nature — and endured without loss of life or serious injury.
Because the value of struggling to improve one’s self and one’s world remains vibrantly alive among students and teachers the world over, commencement still matters, even when the ritual itself must occasionally be canceled to make way for stormy weather.