Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oxford Graduation

My Oxford blogging would not be complete without one final post on graduation.

All Oxford programmes are individualised, and end in their own time frame. In addition, the graduation ceremony is performed in no larger than 4-5 student groups. Thus Oxford students do not all graduate together, but in small groups of 50-100 or so. I believe during the summer graduation ceremonies occur every two weeks on Fridays and Saturdays, in morning and afternoon sessions.

Mine was schedule for July 30th. The festivities began in college, where I was given my graduation robes - a fancy black robe (different from the robes I wore to high table and matriculation) and a green hood indicating the degree of "Master of Studies" - and a programme detailing the ceremony's procedure, as it would all be in Latin. I was also allowed to walk on the grass of LMH's front quad, an honor accorded graduates. I then meandered over to a pre-lunch drink reception in LMH's Senior Common Room, where I was given my diploma and had my name checked off by LMH's dean of degrees, possibly the most colorful don I've ever met. He had a long comb-over and was delighted by various spellings of names and just as excited by the fact that he would be the most senior dean of degrees participating in graduation, and we would therefore be at the front of each group, whatever that meant.

He also taught the small cadre of undergraduates and graduate "graduands" how to bow during the ceremony - center, then right, then left, then center again. Again, we were not told when this would happen, just that it would. We also learned to repeat a Latin phrase meaning "I swear" - "Do fidem," although we were not told what we would be swearing to.

Lunch soon followed. There are various levels of formality of which the catering staff of each college is capable. This lunch was a grade up from typical college lunch fare, and perhaps, besides the delightful spread of desserts, a grade below formal hall. It was nice, however, to sit with my husband and mom at a well-set table.

From there, we were whisked to the ceremony. Now normally graduation ceremonies are held at the Sheldonian Theatre. But, as the Sheldonian was under reconstruction, the ceremony was "streamlined" (an unfortunate editing-out of the removing of one robe in place of another and second presentation) and moved to the other University building big enough to accommodate the students plus family members, Exam Schools.

I had imagined that, Oxford beginning as a school for clergy as it did, that the ceremony would reflect the rites of passing from one priesthood office to another. I was right in part - it seems that the kneeling and being admitted to the doctorate or masters in the "name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" was only performed for some candidates, notably the "Master of Arts" students. These students, I was told, did not do any work for the degree they were receiving; rather, Oxford undergraduates are entitled to receive an honorary Masters upon six years of their graduating. Some said this was because Oxford claims its three-year undergraduate programmes to be as difficult as another other undergraduate plus masters programme. I doubted whether this was the case, but guess that masters degrees were historically acquired simply by remaining at Oxford researching and writing without a formal post beyond the time of one's graduation, and that the conferral of the degree without spending time at Oxford upon graduation was a relic of this older tradition.

After the processional entry of the Vice Chancellor and his entourage with large golden sceptres and an introduction in English, the remainder of the ceremony was indeed in Latin. I had brought along a book, thinking sitting through a meeting without understanding what was being said would trail towards boring. Wrong. I was wrapped the entire time.

The Vice Chancellor and Registrar engage in a pre-determined dialogue, wherein the graduands are said to have fulfilled all University requirements, and then the ceremony becomes particularized. Those being presented for doctoral degrees are presented for a "vote" for admission to the "Congregation of Doctors and Regent Masters," created by the array of the deans of degrees from the various colleges. Once assent is confirmed by silence, graduands are presented by the senior dean of degrees for the various colleges represented on that graduation day (my graduation day included graduands from LMH, Wadham, Keble, St John's, Mansfield, Hertford, and Nuffield Collges) with a Latin formula. The deans of degrees for each college accompany one row of graduands, standing on the far left of each row, holding the right hand of the graduand closest to him or her with their right hand. This is when the bowing takes place, first to the Vice Chancellor (center) and his two colleagues (on the right and one on the left).

What I then swore to (once my small group of five graduands were presented) was to observe the statutes of the University and submit to the regulations concerning further degrees. Doctoral candidates swore to "not impeded the worthy or put forward the unworthy" for future graduation admission. I felt relieved, given no opportunity to rehearse my performance, that I didn't trip, said the right Latin words, and bowed at the appropriate times (it must be done all in unison).

Although the cynic in me wanted to say that the ceremony was following mere form without the substance of priesthood progression, rendering it unmeaningful, I admit to being a bit enamored with the process. It may be the oldest continuously used graduation ceremony in the world and, despite being adorned yet again in what a Mormon scholar once called "the robes of a false priesthood," I rather enjoyed myself.

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