Showing Up

Commencement is supposed to be students' crowning achievement. So how come so few professors bother to see their students off? David Galef asks.

May 27, 2011

That special day in May has arrived. The students in their graduation robes assemble by the administration building or the stadium or the largest parking lot on campus. They mill around, excited that they’re about to leave the place where they spent the last four or more years, and anxious over the same state of affairs. A few administrators walk by in their regalia, the band or sound system starts up, and soon everyone will march.

So where are the faculty?

“Sorry,” a veteran professor from the English department told me the day before, “but I never show up for these things.” When I ask why not, he just shrugs. He’s taught there for over 25 years. A few other professors respond similarly. The point is, they’re not alone. I’ve taught at three different schools, and faculty attendance at commencement has always been dismal. This year, I was the only faculty member in my department to show up at graduation, and I find that -- let’s be kind and say “puzzling.” Why would you spend years helping your students and then refuse to attend the culmination of all that hard work?

Yet to ask that of most faculty seems to annoy them. They’re independent-minded and don’t like being told what to do, or even be questioned.

“Look, it’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the administration here,” a colleague of mine tells me. “This is my way of flipping them off.” He’s not an evil guy, and this is his rationale for staying away from graduation, year after year.

“But you’re mainly hurting the students,” I reply. “When they’re ready to graduate and none of the faculty show up, what do you think that says to them?”

He shrugs, and the conversation ends there.

Another non-attending teacher puts her hands on her hips when I ask her. “The students don’t show up, so why should I?”

This observation is partly true, so I choose my words carefully. “How about for the students who do show up?”

Another shrug. That seems to be a popular response.

“Hey, I work for my students during the school year,” a colleague from a previous school once told me. I didn’t answer this point, mainly because I’d heard about his terrible teaching evaluations and recognized a self-serving argument when I heard one. “I’m too busy grading finals,” a history professor from the same school told me.

“It’s just too big,” says another faculty member. “I might show up to see the students I taught, but I don’t really feel a part of this...” he searches for the right word “...undertaking.”

In fact, many institutions have both commencement exercises and individual school convocation ceremonies and departmental parties to see off their graduates. But attendance isn’t great at those events, either, and anyway, that’s still not a compelling reason for staying away from graduation.

At one institution where I taught, any faculty who didn’t own their own gowns were obliged to pay for their own regalia, and that was the reigning reason for poor faculty attendance -- until the administration waived the fee, and faculty still stayed away.

At some schools, attendance at graduation is written into the faculty contracts. I gather this measure is necessary because otherwise, faculty representation would be pitiful. Why this should be so, I still can’t fathom. I didn’t enter this profession for big bucks or prestige -- if I had, I would’ve been misinformed -- but because I liked teaching and research. For all its pious platitudes, graduation still celebrates those aspects of academe.

It was many years ago, but I still recall the day I got my doctoral degree: an overcast afternoon that never quite rained. My department was, to put it charitably, ill-represented. My dissertation adviser arrived late and grumpy. I heard him telling another professor that the only reason he showed up was to hood someone -- “and I’m sorry I came because it looks like rain.” At my undergraduate commencement, a few of the faculty from my department came, but none stayed around afterward, though my father asked me to point out some of my teachers.

So I show up at graduation, part of a small cadre. “Hey, professor!” shout a couple of students who see me in my gown. I get a lot of handshakes and a few hugs. With a few, I discuss plans for after graduation, though a handful just want to chat. After the ceremony, some parents want to take pictures of the graduates alongside their professors, which is hard to do without faculty attending.

One student asks me point-blank, “Where are the other professors?” All I can do is shrug -- sympathetically. When it’s over, I pack up and leave the school, still a little emotional, though I’m usually not that type. I’m proud for the students. I’m also upset at my colleagues.

Professors instruct in all sorts of ways. This method is called setting a bad example.


David Galef is an English professor and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.


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