• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Scenes From Graduation Week

Special moments ... and dark humor.

May 16, 2019
 
 

Graduation week is the most affirming, and most tiring, week of the year. A few scenes from this year’s version, all true:

At the morning ceremony, as one student crossed the stage to get her degree, a voice boomed from the stands: “That’s my Mom!”  The whole place muttered “awww…” in unison. Moments like those get me every time.

At the afternoon ceremony, as another student crossed the stage, the unmistakable squeal of a gaggle of young girls rang out.  I looked to my right and saw a row of three girls, probably ranging in age from about three to about six, screaming and waving at who I assumed was their Dad.  He acknowledged them, and they squealed again.

At the post-ceremony reception in the morning, as I was chatting with a professor, a student who had just graduated walked up and asked his parents to take his picture with her.  She obliged happily. He mentioned his plans for moving on to a local four-year school with a major in finance, and he thanked her for reaching him.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course.  This time of year can draw on some pretty specialized skill sets.

For example, walking back from a governance meeting, a faculty colleague related this with juuuuust a little too much gusto: “This time of year, grading is like battlefield medicine in the Civil War.  Take a shot of whiskey, bite a bullet, and saw off the leg!”

As an administrator, it can be helpful to have selective hearing.  Sometimes, dark humor is just dark humor. You have to know when to let it pass.

Happily, I’ve been in training for that since childhood.  As part of a devious plot to encourage me to read, Mom got me a subscription to Mad magazine as a kid.  I devoured every issue. The movie satires taught me about genre long before any English class did. Later, I discovered movies like Grace Quigley, Heathers, and Brain Candy, each of which -- especially the latter two -- consistently evoke belly laughs from objectively awful situations.  (The Addams Family movies are probably the best mass-market version of those.  Christina Ricci’s character fires off some instant classics.)   And my brother is one of the funniest humans on the planet, with a genuine talent for balancing the absurd with the morbid.

Dark humor, done well, can offer solace when situations are overwhelming.  It can cut down terrible obstacles to manageable size, even if only for a while. It also translates very, very badly into bureaucratic settings. That’s where the selective hearing comes in. Imagine taking the above quote literally:

“I’m sorry, I’ll have to report your plans of giving students whiskey and chopping off their limbs to HR.”

“Huh?”

“We can’t have that sort of thing around here.”

(bang head against wall)

Institutions don’t do dark humor well.  Actual humans have to pick up the slack.

Remarkably, the first summer session starts on Monday.  I tip my cap to the folks who can turn it around that quickly.  Social mobility waits for no one. There are more kids out there waiting to squeal for their parents crossing a stage.  

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