Generally speaking, it is safe to say that most college commencements are the same. The students file past their camera-wielding relatives offering smiles and small, inconspicuous waves. A speaker invokes Robert Frost or Dr. Seuss or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to encourage the graduates to live lives of purpose and distinction. Degrees are conferred. A representative from the alumni organization urges these new alums to donate money to their school. The alma mater is sung. The young adults file back out.
And after, on the quad or the lawn or whatever the campus’s green space is called, the professors unzip their robes, remove sweat-soaked tams and complain about the heat. They shake hands with parents, pose for photos with their now former students. They pronounce positive judgment on the graduates’ plans for the immediate future. “Excellent.” “Oh, that sounds great.” “Hey, it’s a foot in the door.”
I graduated 16 years ago, from the very university where I have been teaching for the past three years. This is my final commencement, as my visiting assistant professorship is at an end. My second graduation, in a sense. I’m a middle-aged man now, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that my classmates and I stood on this lawn, sipping lemonade and talking with our relatives and mentors about what was to come. It was an exciting time -- the future was pure potential. We don’t realize, as students at commencement, that some doors are closing, or are already closed, that childhood is now finally at an end. The graduate will never take meals with a group of her best friends again. A mistake made at 20 may unexpectedly stay with a person for the rest of his life.
One may find oneself, at 39, grinning next to a 22-year-old as her mother snaps a picture, thinking, She doesn’t know, yet, that life is going to be just a little bit harder from here on.
Of course, I wouldn’t say such a thing out loud. There is no need to spoil this recognition of the graduates’ accomplishments. I remind myself to be happy for these lives that are really just beginning. I remember to be grateful for my own blessings and opportunities. Besides, I wouldn’t really want to experience my adolescence or young adulthood -- dating, career anxiety, acne -- again. The grown-up world may be hard and scary, but honestly, in many ways it’s still better. Or at least, it is for me.
What’s more, I think I know how to handle this world in a way that I didn’t quite know how to handle the world I lived in as a youth. So I sip my lemonade as the alma mater plays in my mind and the wacky kid coasts by on his skateboard, cap still perched on his head but gown unzipped to reveal his cargo shorts and fraternity T-shirt. And for God’s sake, I tell myself, it’s a celebration. Smile.
William Bradley is the author of a collection of personal essays titled Fractals,forthcoming from Lavender Ink. He's also looking for work, so if you need an essayist…
A colleague from another department passed me on campus the other day, a week before the end of classes. “Hi,” I said as we approached one another.
“Glad the semester is almost over!” she exclaimed in response and walked on.
“Glad the semester is almost over”? What kind of greeting is “Glad the semester is almost over”?
Is this how people acknowledge each other’s presence in a fleeting moment of recognition -- with a declaration regarding the semester’s demise? I’m familiar with common phatic addresses of greeting: hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going, hey, nice day, looking good, nice weather we’re having and many others. But why would a nod to the semester’s conclusion be treated as a greeting?
“Glad the semester is almost over” is unique among all phatic exchanges in that it is not actually a greeting at all. “Glad the semester is almost over” is specific to one type of encounter, the academic exchange.
Greetings are phatic. That is, greetings serve no real rhetorical purpose other than to perform a social task or ritual that recognizes the encounter taking place among at least two individuals. Greetings are like small talk. They make the social moment easier to deal with. There is no reference point for the repeated phatic greeting other than its communal recognition (we all know what “hello” is supposed to do when two people meet). There is no real meaning in the greeting.
“Hello” conveys no information in and of itself. One does not walk away from the greeting with new information, only the greeting. In the moment of social encounter, two individuals coming into proximity with one another search for a way to -- even in passing -- acknowledge the other without conveying any information other than the expression itself. Hello. How are you? What’s up? How are things? Glad the semester is almost over!
“Glad the semester is almost over” would not be a greeting in any profession other than academia. “Glad the semester is almost over” marks the academic anxiety and apprehension about work (we work in semester blocks) and about not working (whew, the semester is finally over and I can go on with my life). Besides this interest in a semester’s length, academics excel at phatic expressions and greetings.
In hallways, at conferences and in the grocery store in town, when two academics come together -- and I am usually one of the two -- we greet each other in phatic expressions. Some traditional, professional phatic greetings found in many places of work include “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Hump day!” Academic phatic greetings, however, center on the supposedly rigid occupation of reading books for a living and working with students on a daily basis. This labor tension creates such a level of exasperation one can only exclaim upon seeing a colleague, “Glad the semester is almost over!”
Semesters begin and end. In the fall, we work with X number of students, and in the spring, we work with another X students. We likely go to some departmental meetings along the way, and maybe we are conducting some research during the semester when we have time. The important point about semesters is that they do not really end. Each one replaces the other. My only response -- when I have the chance -- to “Glad the semester is almost over” is “Yes, but another one will begin right afterward.” Is “Glad the semester is almost over” really an expression of joy that these 16 weeks have concluded and another 16 weeks will begin again?
Knowing that we will do the semester all over again after a short break, what does it matter that the semester is almost over, and why should I be glad? Or is “Glad the semester is almost over” a statement about how little academics -- who should have so much to talk about with each other given their political, disciplinary and social interests and concerns -- have to say to one another in any real fashion?
“How’s your semester going?” “Can’t wait for spring break!” “I am so busy!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “What are your summer plans?” “Busy, busy, busy!” “I have so much grading to do.” “Grading! Grading! Grading!” “Can’t wait for summer!” “What are you teaching next semester?” “Glad the semester is almost over!”
At conferences, phatic greetings including the endless discussion of the weather where one lives. “Does it get hot there in the summer?” “I bet the winters are cold.” With each new job I have been offered, friends who learn of the news respond by asking me about the weather in the new city I will live in. Such greetings do not actually express interest in weather or lack of knowledge over seasonal change (winter and summer are regular occurrences in most locations, after all), but signify the lack of interest in the topic (“Who cares, you have a new job!”) or lack of ability to respond with any real content (“You have a job/I have a job/I have nothing else to add”).
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega stop talking for a brief moment while having dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “Don’t you hate that?” Mia asks Vincent about the lull in conversation that has occurred.
“What?” Vincent responds.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
We do, however, feel that it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in academe. The uncomfortable academic -- always hyperbolic in his/her semesterlong anxiety of teaching -- does not know what to say when passing a colleague on campus or chatting in a book exhibit at a conference or spending a minute in the elevator as it proceeds to one’s floor. There’s an uncomfortable silence. What to do? Express something phatic. “How’s your semester going?” “Busy, busy, busy!”
Phatic academics do not only occur on campus or at events. Via the status update, we greet each other online phatically as well. Disaster and social unrest turn us into phatic machines: Ferguson, celebrity RIPs, Nepal, Baltimore. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of phatic posting. It’s not that such events do not deserve commentary (they do). It’s not that the events don’t move us to emotions (they do). It’s that the update is not a moment of commentary or discussion but rather a ritual or social gesture of digital greeting where content is not emphasized. The update is meant to greet the follower or friend, not engage them, since engagement typically can lead to blocking or unfriending. The update says phatically: “Something terrible has happened in the world; look at me.” The update is not content based, but is a social ritual of online posturing as greeting, the way “Hello” can be in the physical world or even “Glad the semester is almost over” can be among academics passing each other on campus.
Do you care what happened in Baltimore or that Joni Mitchell is in a coma? Probably. But the update does not convey any meaning regarding either event beyond the headline. The shared headline is the repeated phatic greeting that avoids content by only focusing on address. A phatic address such as “hello” or “what’s up” avoids content by focusing attention on the empty greeting and not the actual encounter. I say “Glad the semester almost is over” because I do not know what else to say. I repost Baltimore headlines because I do not know what else to say. I want to avoid the uncomfortable silence that should accompany some of the world’s worst moments.
This ritual is the social media equivalent of “Glad the semester is almost over!” I really do not know if my colleague is glad the semester is almost over. I know she has heard this statement repeated for what is likely many years as an address from one academic to another when neither knows what else to say. “Spring break is almost here!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “Things are really crazy this time of year.” Is she glad the summer is over? Is she outraged suddenly by the socioeconomic and racist situation in Baltimore that has led to a senseless death and consequent rioting? Does she actually care what I’m teaching this semester or any other? Are things really that crazy? As academics, we are supposed to, after all, meet a few times in the semester as a department and assess student work toward semester’s end. Then we plan for the next semester.
Phatic addresses are comforting. They allow us to pass over that awkward silence that arises among academics who spend their days with so much to discuss (their own work, classroom lectures, theory, administrative issues, politics, race, gender), but when confronted with the casual moment know only the at-hand phatic comment. “Glad the semester is almost over” comforts both sides of the conversation. Thank God I don’t have to actually inquire into your life; thank God I don’t have to respond. Thank God I don’t have to know what really caused certain things to occur in a certain city in America. Thank God I don’t have to deal with any yak or bullshit.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.