The secret life of professors: Graduation edition

Unlike most of the rest of the universities and colleges in the US, our academic year just finished up (we have 3 10-week terms instead of semesters). Graduation was on Saturday (thank you, rain, for largely holding off until the OUTDOOR ceremony ended!), and I’m just now finishing up final grades for spring term.

Being at a small school means that almost all the faculty go to graduation. Yes, every year. (Well, I did skip one year when I was traveling to a conference, but other than that, I’ve gone every year.) There are definitely parts of graduation that I look forward to all year: watching the students process in, the student speeches (I can’t remember a single bad student speech in any of the graduations I attended), and my personal favorite, the “gauntlet” at the end, where the faculty form 2 lines and the graduates process out of graduation and through our faculty “tunnel”, where we greet them with handshakes, hugs, and applause.

But of course, not all of graduation is teddy bears and gumdrops and rainbows. Let’s face it, some parts are just plain b-o-r-i-n-g. And if you get a bad and long-winded speaker(s)….well, it’s gonna be a loooooong morning. (Luckily this year’s speaker was short, to the point, and thought-provoking.)

So, you may ask, what do professors do to pass the time when the graduation ceremony starts to drag? Luckily I’ve spent years observing faculty behavior in the field (literally—remember, our graduation is held outdoors!) and field-testing various strategies. This extensive research led to this list of my favorite graduation time-passing strategies:

  1. Guess the Institution: If you’ve been to a college/university graduation lately, you likely noticed the faculty sporting Hogwarts-like robes, some of them downright colorful. Those colors have meaning! The robe’s color signifies the institution of the wearer’s PhD (although not all schools offer colored robes—black is the default everywhere), and the various colors on the hood signify….other things. (Field of study among other things, if memory serves.) If you’re lucky enough to be sitting on stage, or towards the back of the faculty section (so you don’t look weird turning around and staring at your colleagues, duh), you can spend a lot of quality time trying to figure out if that particular shade of purple signifies Northwestern University or the University of Washington, which school has that interesting shade of rust, and whether everyone wearing green is from the same institution.
  2. Count the Academic Honors: A good game to play if all students walk across the stage in your ceremony, or if a speaker is really going on and on and on for a while. This game is great because it has a number of variations. If you’re short on time or lazy, you can count the students who are not graduating with honors, because this number (at least at my school) will be way smaller than the number graduating with honors (thank you, grade inflation?). The statistically minded can separate out the cum laudes from the magna and summa cum laudes, or break the counts down by major, division (STEM vs. the social sciences!), male/female, etc. (My institution has the summas walk the stage last and separates them out in the program, so some of the computation is already done for you!) The possibilities are endless!
  3. Speaker Bingo: What is it about graduation that brings out the cliches in speakers? Rather than rolling your eyes at any “two roads diverged in the wood” or “oh the places you’ll go” references, see how many cliches you can rack up. Will the president make that same cultural reference he’s made every year? Will there be an appeal to the “newest alums” to donate? Who will use the first Maya Angelou quote? The truly organized will actually make bingo cards beforehand; the rest of us will say “hey, we should make up bingo cards next year!” and then just tally them on the back of the program.
  4. Facebook/Twitter: Duh. Or, formerly, crossword puzzles (I haven’t seen these out at graduation in a few years, though).

So next time you find yourself at a graduation ceremony that’s dragging, feel free to use one of these time-tested strategies for making it through to the end. Feel free to add your favorite graduation games in the comments!