…or ‘Congratulations’ in English. Up and down the country this is the time of year for graduation ceremonies. Proud parents, wider family and friends go along to watch their loved ones briefly smile and shake the (Vice)Chancellor’s hand, or something along those lines – such as being doffed with a hat made from John Knox’s breeches, according to tradition at Edinburgh University. Subsequently, either sweltering in unaccustomed heat or cowering under umbrellas according to our unpredictable weather, formal and informal photographs are snapped and, finally, sad partings from friends take place. Graduation. A day that means so much to so many but rather little to some others. My impression is that my generation tended to be in that second camp, but now that I see graduation from different angles (see here) I feel rather differently about the process. For many students and their families this is a day wreathed in smiles, relief and emotion.

Universities are not in the business of teaching deportment, nor fashion sense or how to pose for a photograph. For the duration of the taught course that is usually adequate and appropriate, but there comes a point, at this final juncture of Graduation, when this absence of relevant tuition may show! For that brief moment when each student has their moment of glory as they walk up to the podium, all eyes are upon them. Now I don’t wish to draw any parallel with the ‘catwalk’ that is Downing Street, either in the Daily Mail’s original version commenting on dress, marital status and other factors totally irrelevant to ministerial duties of the women involved, or the New Statesman’s and Guardian’s  responses discussing the sartorial elegance of the endless variants of the navy blue-suited male ministers. Nevertheless it is impossible to sit on a graduation platform and not consider the characteristic appearances of male and female graduands alike.

This week I was at Swansea University (Prifysgol Abertawe), honoured to be awarded an Honorary Degree, a ceremony mainly carried out in English but with distinctly Welsh overtones. I was told, being Welsh, they wanted to include the powerful trio of poetry, prose and music. The poetry was in Welsh and English; the music was show music, although the Welsh National Anthem was also sung. This is a wonderful tune, familiar to me (I suspect from footage of Rugby matches), but few people seemed to know the words. Additionally some of the formalities were carried out in Welsh and the programme itself was printed in both languages.

From my vantage point of sitting on the platform watching the hour-long stream of students walk onto the stage and off again, let me offer a few words of advice to those still to graduate (or coaching them), keeping them as gender-neutral as I can.

  • Chewing gum as you greet the (Vice)Chancellor is not attractive. If you really can’t bear to be without it, try at least not to make the chewing visible for those brief moments of exposure on stage.
  • Bare midriffs or jeans don’t really seem appropriate.
  • Wear shoes you know are comfortable. Shoes that look as if you’ve never worn them before and which cause you to teeter are ill-advised. At the very least practice walking in them in advance, ideally up and down some steps since most stages are raised and steps are likely to be a hazard you should anticipate.
  • Personally, light tan shoes and navy trousers don’t strike me as a good fashion statement on such a formal occasion.
  • Slouching, ambling or shuffling whilst staring at your feet may not convey confidence or pleasure in being present. (And if you are tall and wearing a mortar board, check the height of any doorways to avoid knocking the hat off.)
  • Be prepared to respond to any questions posed succinctly and appropriately. ‘What are you going to do next?’ is probably not asking whether you plan on getting hammered that evening so much as your future employment, further training or travel plans.

Most people end up getting some photographs taken some time around the ceremony – and that applies as much to an honorary graduand as to the ‘regulars’. For myself, this is not a process I feel very comfortable with and I tend to be very critical of my posture, my teeth and/or my hair when I subsequently get sent the prints. I don’t seem to have a set of face muscles that easily relax and can too readily look anxious, cross or simply tense. Indeed, my mother’s favourite and encouraging phrase (such as mothers are wont to produce) is that I look as if I’m waiting for my execution! Unfortunately for the honorary graduand, the speech celebrating their life and achievements may take some time, during which you are required to stand (or possibly sit) looking and feeling like a lemon in full view of the audience. However honoured and chuffed you may feel, it is also deeply embarrassing to listen to the flowery prose and wonder who this wunderkind who is being described really is. So, in my experience any photos taken during that phase do not show me at my sunny best.

I have had several doses of media training, but no one has taught me how to look relaxed and comfortable when I am anything but, how to keep a smile without feeling as if rigor mortis is setting in or that my facial muscles have started twitching. I would also like to know what tricks I can learn that would remind me before the photographer starts snapping that I should stand tall, shoulders back and stomach tucked in rather than only when I’m told it’s a wrap. The freshly graduated class may fare better because, with luck, they are being photographed in the presence of family and friends who will giggle with them and help them to look at ease. But the comments about posture may equally apply even so. Deportment lessons may once have been de rigeur for young ladies but we are all – men and women – sadly lacking in this department these days.

Despite these caveats, graduation should be and generally is a joyous occasion with a great sense of success and a journey well-travelled. I certainly enjoyed my time at Swansea. If my attention occasionally wandered during the ceremony it was only temporary. (I did find myself trying to work out, for instance, why graduands A and B received loud cheers whereas most individuals did not. Were they the most popular or simply had brought the largest family contingent? Was there anything in their gait or appearance to explain the enthusiasm with which they were greeted?) The organisation was superb. I felt like royalty when I arrived at Brangwyn Hall where the ceremony was being held, the car door was opened and I was instantly relieved of my luggage and escorted to the ‘green room’. Thank you to my delightful hosts and to those who nominated me for the honour.


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5 Responses to Llongyfarchiadau!

  1. I find these ceremonies unbearably pompous and didn’t turn up for my second one, though I did go to the first for the sake of my parents. You’d probably have approved of my son who graduated (from Aberdeen) in full highland dress (bought for the occasion by his grandmother). But uniforms are just one way that British schools (specially private schools) use to drill children into boring conformity. I’m told that Oxbridge too has firm ideas on what should be worn on every occasion. But personally I’m all for the student who turns up in jeans or barefoot. They show a proper sense of what’s important and what isn’t..

    • David
      No one insists a student turns up in order to get a degree, so if they feel the pomposity is too much they can obtain their degree in absentia without any trouble. Like you and most of our generation (and quite a lot younger too I suspect) I felt no particular enthusiasm for the ceremony and didn’t take my PhD in person. Yet, as I’ve discovered since I’ve occasionally done the conferring in Cambridge, for some students (and their families) this is a big deal and that has changed my own perspective. It isn’t a case of pomposity, I now see it as an important rite of passage for many and I don’t think it should be sneered at.

  2. I am all for the non-conformist and for people to wear whatever makes them comfortable. I’d also like to point out the importance of the degree ceremony to some families. A large proportion of the cohort graduating at Swansea will be the first family member to have attended university, therefore the occasion is very much for the family. The overwhelming sentiment that comes across when chatting with the families (typically including parents, siblings, and grandparents) is pride. Often the student will have worked one or more jobs right through their degree, in addition to their extended family supporting them in many ways, not just financially, through those three/four years.

    So that feeling of pride the families tell me about, I recognise it, and I feel it too as my students shuffle, teeter, or swagger onto that stage.

  3. Deportment is really a non-issue at King’s College London. You see, our gowns are Vivienne Westwood. And when you’re wearing Westwood, you can deport yourself however the hell you like, sweetie dahling. Mwah.

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