19 July 2009

graduation weekend dispatches

Grantchester revisited. Among the items on the Cambridge tourist to-do list that we missed when my family visited in January is the walk to Grantchester. This may sound familiar to longtime readers with sharp memories. Grantchester is a tiny village a few miles up the River Cam where the poet Rupert Brooke once hosted future members of the Bloomsbury Group—including John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Bertrand Russell—for tea and civilized conversation. Today Brooke’s old home and orchard are a teahouse that preserves some of the memory of that group.

After my parents and I arrived back in Cambridge for graduation weekend, the Grantchester walk was first on the agenda, but unfortunately the appointed day did not turn out quite the way I might have hoped. Contradicting an observation I had made earlier in the trip that thunder and lightning are rare in Britain, the afternoon was spotted with thunderstorms and pouring rain, with spells of cold drizzle in between. Dispirited by the weather and feeling a touch of pre-departure depression, I felt like calling off the walk, but my parents were game to face the storms, mud, and cows. The teahouse and surrounding orchard would usually be jammed with people on a summer afternoon, but for at least part of the time we were the only people sitting outside. In the end I was glad we went—the hot tea, conversation, and visiting a fun old place helped to restore my mojo for the festivities to come that evening.

Latin lessons. After changing into some dry clothes, we headed to Emma, where I had organized a graduation-eve formal dinner for Development Studies classmates and their families. The countries represented included China, India, Japan, Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Austria, Germany, and Greece. We had pre-dinner drinks in the cloisters by the college chapel and then moved on to a cozy upstairs room with lots of portraits of dead white men in wigs. I was incredibly grateful that Dave, a member of the catering staff who we always prayed would be the one quarterbacking our MCR dinners, was overseeing things. Dave did throw me one surprise, though: shortly after we were all seated, he came over to me and asked if I wanted to recite the College grace. I think my initial response was on the lines of, “uhhhh… I don’t speak Latin, Dave.” He showed me where both pre- and post-dinner graces were printed in the program and we had a 30-second dress rehearsal. I remember exactly two things from the third of a year of Latin I had in seventh grade (and any Latin scholars in the audience are welcome to correct me on this). First, the letters more or less always make the same sounds, unlike in English; second, it’s pronounced more or less the way a native English speaker would expect. With that slender bit of background knowledge and Dave’s confidence, I read out the grace without any obvious stumbles. I don’t know if the same could be said for my pronunciation, but I doubt anyone in the room had the slightest idea what I was saying. If you're curious you can check out the graces, with translations, here.

Pull my finger. Graduation, like so many other things in Cambridge, is steeped in formality and 800 years of tradition and takes little note of the way the rest of the world prefers to do things. There are lots of graduation ceremonies on different throughout the year, and the timing of any particular student’s graduation depends a lot on the idiosyncrasies of his or her course. There are no go-out-and-get-‘em speeches. Graduates shuffle through their small piece of the all-day ceremony by college, so I wasn’t even with my Development Studies classmates. My required outfit included a tuxedo, a white bow tie and bands (which made me feel like I should be trying somebody for witchcraft in 1690s Salem), a black gown, and a big black hood lined with blue silk draped over my back. I knew little about the ceremony going in and warned my parents not to expect much.

What I did know was that I was going to have to hold some guy’s finger. (Eight hundred years of solemn tradition, building up to… a fart joke?) Each college appoints one of its fellows as Praelector, and from what I can tell that role involves presenting the graduating students and enforcing the dress code. Rumor has it that if one of us students commits a wardrobe infraction, our college Praelector is fined… in bottles of port. Anyway, the graduates from each College march into a fancy old building known as the Senate House, and their Praelector extends a hand to the first four graduates in the phalanx. As each graduate holds onto one of those fingers, the Praelector leads the group forward and gives a brief testimonial, in Latin, to their learning and morals and their fitness to proceed to the degrees which they are to be awarded.

Now comes the really weird part. Picture, at the center of this grand assembly, a fairly senior man or woman sitting in a fancy chair and dressed in a bright red cape lined with white fur. This is (rarely) the Chancellor, Prince Philip; or (less rarely) the Vice Chancellor; or (usually) a deputy of hers, often the Master or President of a college. Our caped MC was the Master of Magdalene College, and the outfit combined with his kind face and round glasses gave him the appearance of a clean-shaven Santa Claus. After the Praelector’s testimonial, each individual graduate’s name is called, and each in turn kneels on a cushion in front of the big chair and extends his or her joined hands as if in prayer. It looked a bit like we were being knighted, minus the part with the sword. The presiding officer then clasps the graduate’s hands and formally confers the degree, in Latin. The new graduate rises, taking extreme care not to trip over the gown in the process, and gives a bow before exiting stage right.

Amazingly, the least ceremonious part was the paper diploma. After all of these traditional flourishes, I was expecting a huge piece of parchment with Latin calligraphy and perhaps a wax seal. Instead, what I got was a piece of 7x10 paper that looks like something I could have easily printed out on a home laser printer. It certifies, in English, that I attended the Congregation of 18 July 2009 and only later gets around to mentioning that I was awarded a Master of Philosophy degree. The mode of presentation was no more dramatic: we received our diplomas inside a plastic sleeve from an usher as we exited the Senate House. Like most of my friends, I opted to get a wooden University of Cambridge frame—partly because I fear that no one will believe it’s a diploma otherwise, and partly because I fear that one day I might accidentally toss it out with some old bank statements.

This has probably sounded a bit snarky, and there certainly was plenty of joking all around about the sillier aspects of the ceremony. But like many other things here, I think Cambridge’s odd approach to graduation is best approached with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a healthy dose of respect for eight centuries of history. And most importantly, after the red capes and Latin incantations we all get to walk away as Cambridge alumni—which is really, really cool in any language.

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