I’ve been talking to some of the seniors at my university and they are understandably sad that the arrival of the novel Coronavirus has destroyed their plans for the graduation ceremony they had imagined. After years of study and work, they naturally want to mark their accomplishment, and the transition to the next stage of their lives, with family and friends at a public ritual of recognition hosted by the institution that has shaped their lives. But how does one have a graduation during a pandemic? This is the question that educational institutions have been facing this spring and for many the answer has been to cancel them, do them online, or to postpone them. For the past two weeks I’ve been wondering if its possible to reimagine that graduation. Could one respond to the novel virus with a novel graduation ceremony? If so, what would it look like?
Of course we know, one of the most important aspects of a ritual is that it ties people together through their collective presence among powerful symbols and practices that have meaning. A graduation ceremony may take many shapes and forms, but if the graduates aren’t together in the presence of others and recognized by the representatives of the intuition, it just isn’t quite a graduation. If things don’t happen, they don’t transition to the next stage.
Cancelling a graduation ritual is a bad idea that some universities have already reconsidered—students will never feel graduated. They will remember that absence. Postponing is also a complex problem because the future is unknown and to a certain extent graduation does have a time aspect to it and a “freshness date.” Seniors graduate in the spring and usually pretty close to when they complete their final classes. Wait too long and seniors will disperse and winter will arrive. The ritual moment will pass.
A few weeks ago, while talking to a first-generation graduating senior who has worked hard and overcome quite a lot to finally finish college, their disappointment and frustration really was apparent. They have been working for graduation and want their parents and family and professors and friends to see them cross the finish line. A graduation canceled, a graduation virtualized, or perhaps even a graduation deferred too long just won’t do.
Ever since that conversation I have been working on this problem in my head. How could my university have a graduation in a pandemic? This morning I woke up and thought I really just want to write it out so I can get it out of my head and free up space for other things. I also thought it would be fun to share.
It seems to me that we should start from some first principles. As I see it, a graduation ceremony in a pandemic would have to satisfy at least the following six requirements:
- Pandemic safety. Any pandemic procession must be safe for everyone involved. Protecting participants, ensuring no potential spread of disease, and being at least as safe as the current government guidelines. Of course nothing is entirely risk-free, which is no doubt why risk-adverse institutions have chosen to cancel or delay. My rule of thumb in thinking about this, however, is that a pandemic graduation plan would not be more risky than going to a store to buy basic supplies. I think what I sketch out below, however, is well below this threshold.
- Have presence. A graduation must have people in a place at a time. A virtual graduation is not actually a graduation. People need to be together. Of course, as the slogan goes, the challenge is how “to be together while apart.”
- Have institutional representation. To be complete, the graduation ritual needs to be authorized by appropriate representatives of the university. This should include professors, senior administrators, relevant staff, the board of trustees and perhaps alumni.
- Have a symbolic structure. Graduations are filled with meaning because they are structured in time and space and filled with objects and words that convey meaning and process. They take place in important places. There are robes and hats and tassels and speeches and music and noise (clapping, cheering, etc.) The ritual process transforms people: Students start seniors and end as graduates.
- Kin recognition. Graduations are powerful because graduates make their transformation in a publicly visible way in the presence of their parents, family, friends and others who care about them. These may or may not be blood relatives. They are people important to the graduate that can fall under an expanded understanding of kinship. There needs to be a place in the ceremony for these “kin.”
- Recognizable. For a typical graduation in a normal time, most of the aspects outlined above go unremarked upon—they are bound by their repeatability as “tradition.” Pretty much every year the rituals are the same: same place, roughly the same time, pretty much the same people, etc. In fact, the ritual is recognizable in part because it is similar in some important ways. To be a graduation, then, things may change, but not so much that it becomes something different. Everyone needs to recognize that it is a graduation.
Starting from these six requirements, is it possible to imagine and plan a pandemic graduation for the class of 2020? This is what I have come up with, illustrated as best I can manage. (The black and white maps are screenshots from toner from Stamen Design under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under CC BY SA.)
What I have in mind is a commencement ceremony where everyone is socially distanced, masked, robed and present at the symbolic heart of our academic community along two sides of Hewitt Avenue, the road that cuts through our campus (Figure 1, areas in green). In normal times our outdoor graduation takes place at this site—so this is the traditional place where graduations “happen”—albeit in a different way. Instead of students processing across a stage in front of collected faculty, staff and friends, however, I have imagined the road itself becoming the route of the ritual progression of the ceremony (Figure 1, orange arrow).
So how do we structure the road as a graduation space? How do we fill it with the symbols and recognizable meaning as outlined above? And, of course, how do we do so safely?
First, we need the university president to take her symbolic place at the center of the activities (Figure 2, red P). As the figurehead of the university vested with the power of leadership by the Board of Trustees, she is the authority that bestows the graduation diploma. (Typically there is the physical contact of a handshake or hug, which obviously needs to be avoided, but can be substituted by another physical experience, the trumpeting of horns, as described below). Depending on current recommendations for the number of people in a social gathering the following additional people should be considered for inclusion:
- As is the custom, there should be a representative of the Board of Trustees (Figure 2, brown b) standing near the president (at 6′ distance of course!)
- Because of their age, it is not advisable to have an Emeritus professor participate in the ceremony. Instead, why not have an alumni representative hold the ceremonial mace or other ritual object? As a member of the symbolic community into which the graduates are processing, the involvement of an alumni might be symbolically appropriate (Figure 2, blue a).
- Finally, there should be other senior administrators or their representatives behind the president. At the very least we should expect the provost (Figure 2, purple p) and dean of the college (Figure 2, magenta d). Of course others should be added, for example the dean of students and other senior staff, again, as distancing guidelines permit. These additional members can be distanced out around the core “administrative circle.”
What we have established on the south side of the road, then, are the minimum number of representatives from the institution who confer the diplomas and whose presence is necessary as symbolic institutional guarantors.
The next thing that is needed to make the ceremony are the faculty who own and deliver the university curriculum—the structure and content of the education the graduates have received (Figure 2, green f). Because it would be unsafe to have all faculty present at graduation, it seems most important to have representative faculty participate. Again, the number of these representatives can be dialed up or down depending on various variables, tolerance for safety, etc. It seems, however, that an ideal minimum would consist of one faculty representative from every department or program in the college. Students should see representatives from the programs in which they have majored. Each faculty should, of course, be in full celebratory regalia. These representatives would line both sides of Hewitt Avenue at 8-10′ apart. So that they do not look awkward in their physically-distanced spacing and to symbolically join them across the required distance, I think it would be ideal to have each faculty member hold or stand near a colored flag with the name of their department or program on it.
If social distancing requirements do not allow so many faculty to be present, then we could just have the flags themselves standing in place to represent the various departments and programs? At the very least a handful of representatives could represent the faculty—perhaps the members elected to faculty council, or if an even smaller number is needed, the four elected faculty representatives from each division who make up the Planning and Development Committee.
Of course, in outlining this plan so far, I am simply starting from the presumption of a functional minimum of university representation—the administrative and academic structure. The university staff who play an important role in supporting students’ lives on campus, their extracurricular activities, and in so many other areas as they pursue their education are also obviously important parts to be recognized at graduation. I do not, however, presume to know which of these representatives would be most important and would also have no idea where to begin ranking them in terms of their significance to the graduation ceremony. Additional space marked off by the green boxes on Figure 1 could be filled with these appropriate staff: athletic coaches, support staff, student org representatives, etc.
A “REVERSE PARADE”
So at this point the stage has been set, so to speak. All of the representatives of the university and the faculty and staff are in position, there are flags and banners along the road and its looking pretty festive. As I’ve described above, however, how many people are actually present representing the university could vary from a minimum of perhaps six (the president, the CLA dean and four faculty) to as many as 40-50. But what about the graduates and their “kin”—those important to them either by blood or friendship?
This is a bit more complicated as we need to maintain the integrity and safety of the groups in which people have sheltered-in-place, or at a minimum those with whom they have been keeping safe since the pandemic started. This, it seems to me can be solved by using vehicles. Each graduate could drive along Hewitt, pull up to the curb cut in front of the president and get out to receive their diploma (the details of which I’ll describe below). Using private cars means that the student could have as many additional people in their vehicle as they deem safe—their Coronavirus “kin.” Because it is possible that they have been sheltering apart from other family members, the same way that students are given tickets at a normal graduation, each graduate could be allowed to have one additional car follow them in the procession. (For the folks who are concerned with managing and policing these kinds of events, each car could be given a special sticker to be placed on the dashboard entitling them to participation. Additionally, as it would be nearly impossible to order the graduates’ vehicles, their names would have to be visible on the dashboard so they can be identified as they begin to process (as discussed in the next section, below).
Basically, I’m imagining a “reverse parade” where, instead of floats and things for seated onlookers to vide view, we have a prepared graduation setting through which graduates and their accompanying “kin” (either in their car or in one car following them) move.
The most complicated aspect of this pandemic graduation concept is managing the flow of vehicles. This, however, this is where Hamline’s urban neighborhood is very useful. Graduates and their “tailing car” can line up along predefined streets and follow a specific route to get to campus. Figure 3 offers one possible model. The basic idea is that the cars in the graduation procession would park alongside smaller feeder roads in specific places and then join onto a main collector (in this example, Minnehaha Avenue) before moving to enter the procession route.
THE GRADUATION PROCESSION
Typical graduations consist of a collected seated audience in front of which various speakers speak to establish the ritual context of the event. Who these speakers are and the order in which they speak may be traditional in different ways for different institutions. Having them speak to a actual audience is, of course, impossible in a pandemic, so this part of the graduation ceremony would probably best be done virtually by streaming video to handled devices in the participating vehicles.
Speeches would need to be shorter and fewer in number, but at the very minimum an introduction, a student speaker, a guest speaker and some kind of ritual commentary would be ideal. My sense is that having these speeches live-streamed from the campus lawn near the assembled members of the campus community would link them to the procession in a meaningful way. People in the vehicles waiting to process would then see the ritual space being prepared to which they will travel by car to graduate.
When the event begins and when the speeches are completed, and at other moments described below, it would be ideal to have some kind of audible signal—horns, explosions, whistles, chimes or other kinds of sounds to punctuate events. It is important to take a moment to talk about the role of sound:
While physical distance needs to be enforced during the pandemic, sound can play a unique role in connecting the members of the ceremony together through their ears. We know that sound can “hit us” with its presence and make us emotionally respond. It doesn’t touch us, but touches us nevertheless. Auditory signals such as fireworks, trumpets or drums, at the beginning or end of speeches would reach out through space from the site of the event to the ears of the people in cars waiting in the neighborhood—connecting the virtual-being-watched with an actual physical cue. (Yes this might irritate some of the university’s neighbors, but with advanced notice I imagine they wouldn’t mind the inconvenience or more likely be happy to support the graduates.)
When the conclusion of the speeches are marked by an auditory signal and the graduation procession begins, students in their vehicles (or vehicle pairs) would be invited to begin moving toward the westernmost edge of campus at Hewitt Avenue. Upon arriving at the beginning of the route moving eastward through campus (the orange arrows on Figures 1 and 2, above) I imagine something like the following:
- A student vehicle arrives and the name of the graduate is announced by loudspeaker at a volume nearly loud enough to reach the length of the street, and is included on the livestream as well. This is the “public” address of the graduate to the community. It would be fantastic to have this accompanied by a trumpet blast or bell.
- The vehicle(s) then slowly proceed down the street to the clapping and cheers of the faculty and staff who line either side of the road.
- The graduate’s vehicle makes its way to the curb cut on the street directly in front of the location where the university president is standing. Old Main, the symbolic heart of the campus is behind her. Directly across from her, the iconic statue of “the Bishop.”
- The graduate emerges from the vehicle and walks to the curb facing south, facing the president at safe distance.
- At this time the graduate may pull out their personal camera, turn around and shoot a selfie with the collected administrators behind them. Because the administrators are already at a distance, setting up and taking this shot over their shoulder should be simple and easy. Alternatively, it would be possible for members of the same or accompanying vehicle to take a photo
- The president briefly congratulates the graduate.
- To keep the graduate at a distance from the university president, the “handing” of the diploma would have to take place via an intermediate step. I’m thinking the easiest thing would be for an assistant to “preload” the diploma on a small table between the president and graduate before the graduate emerges from their vehicle. This way when the graduate arrives in front of the president they can take the diploma without direct contact.
- Of course contact, the handshake or hug, upon conferring the diploma is an important part of every ceremony. Again, since physical distance must be maintained, sound can be a substitute. I imagine a drumroll or something similar to cue the student to take the diploma. Upon picking it up it would be great for the president, instead of a handshake, with a gesture to cue another blast of trumpet or drum or even a cymbal! This public signal, initiated by the authority of the president, would alert all present that the individual who arrived is now a graduate.
- At the auditory cue the graduate would return to their vehicle and continue driving east down the street past the remaining faculty and staff.
- After completing the procession the new graduates would be free to either park in the neighborhood to hear the remainder of the event, or could return home.
- When the final graduate receives their diploma. The president should make some final comments, then an appropriate ritual can be spoken and finally a single firework shot into the sky marking the end of the graduation ceremony.
- The entire event would be streamed and archived so that those who could not participate could watch it later.
A CONCEPT FOR A PANDEMIC GRADUATION
This has been a long post, much longer than I ever expected it to be! For some time I have been thinking about this concept and this morning I decided that I would write it all out so as to get it out into the world. This has also been an opportunity for me to deal with and process the disappointment I heard in the voices of graduating seniors in one of my classes last week. But, it is also a way of troubleshooting and problem solving the everyday of a pandemic existence. We need to do things and life needs to go on, but it needs to do so in a way that takes seriously the risks of spreading or contracting the novel Coronavirus and developing COVID-19. A novel virus demands novel thinking. Cancelling graduation or putting it online or delaying it, is dealing with a ritual from a different contextual moment. Redefining it, remaking it, altering it or, in the words of a grad school classmate of mine, “re-ritualizing” it might be the way to go. This was just my attempt.
It’s too late to do this plan or anything like it, even if it could work. Our university graduation is a week from today and my university, like many others, decided to delay their traditional ceremony. Of course, even if I had shared these plans many weeks ago the traditions and expecations of graduations are just too ingrained in our old normal. Not to mention that the risk-averse, committee-driven, bureaucratic structure of most university administrative structures makes innovation pretty tough!
I didn’t write this down because I actually thought anything like it could happen. It is just a concept, a dream. Of course, I don’t even know if this would succeed as counting as a graduation for them. Would graduating seniors accept it as a graduation? I’d love to know.
I should add, however, that this plan was the inspiration for a modified and much smaller version that our anthropology department is hoping to stage in the same location next week for our graduates. We won’t have our regalia and there certainly won’t be live streams, speeches, trumpets or other fanfare. Our graduates just said they wanted to see us before the end of their college lives, so we decided to visit them on the lawn in front of Old Main and deliver to them a ritual gift to mark this occasion. We will stand in such a way that the students will be able to take selfies if they want. Our basic plan is just to be there for our graduates. If it works out I’ll be sure to share graduation pics.