Rites and rituals

It’s the time of year where me and my colleagues get dressed up in medieval costumes and participate in the ceremony to mark the graduation of our students. The photo accompanying this blog is of me with (now) former PhD student Dr Frank Watt. It’s kind of anachronistic in many ways as the style of robes pre-date most universities in the UK. And we only ever wear them on these occasions. And given how crazy the hats are, that is quite understandable. My own PhD ceremony at the University of Aberdeen was carried out entirely in Latin where the Deans struggled with reading their announcements (apart from the Head of Divinity who clearly spoke both Latin and Ancient Greek!). My service in the army left me rather jaded about parades and a northern grammar school education means I dislike pompousness. Attendance at the ceremony is voluntary and yet I always go. Why?

Being awarded a degree simply marks the end of a period of study. We do many things that come to a natural end and we don’t always put on a theatrical event to celebrate this. There is also a side-effect that is often surprising: even an achievement as significant as graduating can feel something of a let down. The euphoria of seeing that you have passed doesn’t last very long. There is really good research showing that achieving a major goal is extremely stressful as people are often left wondering “Is that it?” Or, “why on earth did I put myself through all that?”

I have found that there is a great deal of value to be had from having a moment where achievement is recognised. The reason for this is that it marks the ending of a particular chapter. It means that those graduating have, through participating in the ceremony, had to face up to the ending. And only when this has been properly faced up to can they move on to beginnings.

It does tend to be common that endings are not properly recognised – especially I think in the UK. When somebody leaves or is promoted or moves to a different part of the organisation, there should be some sort of marking of the ending so that the beginning will happen. We all fear change so perhaps we would rather pretend it isn’t happening. But if we have some sort of event that makes it explicit that a particular stage has ended, then there is more chance that we can move on.

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