Higher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Commencement speeches

At my small school, I am required to attend graduation as part of my faculty duties, but it’s something I’d probably do anyway because most of our students attend their graduation. I like to see them so happy and excited and to congratulate and wish them well.

Of course this means I’ve sat through many graduation ceremonies and I’ve heard a lot of commencement speeches.  I generally don’t remember much about them, and I certainly don’t remember the one given at my college graduation.  During the past few weeks or graduation season, I’ve seen articles and tweets about how boring this is and how we can basically fill in the speech for ourselves. Amanda Marcotte suggested that we simply eliminate graduation speakers in an article about how controversial speakers were dropping out of their gigs.

The problem there seems two-fold – who should be invited as a speaker (with a potential agenda that has little to do with the graduation of the students they are speaking to as well as the cost associated with “hiring” them) and what value does the commencement speech have?

Marcotte’s point was that these speeches aren’t useful at all:

All this back-and-forth about the issues of political correctness and free speech is very interesting, but unfortunately it’s all predicated on a false premise: That anyone actually listens to the commencement speaker in the first place.

I have a couple of problems with this quote. The first one is why are we assuming students want a controversial speech and an exercise of free speech at their graduation? This is a day to celebrate the completion of a journey that took time, money, and hard work – who wants to listen to wrangles about politics or religion or whatever? The speech should be about them, the graduates, and their accomplishments.  The second problem is that yes, (non-controversial) commencement speeches are often quite forgettable, but are they intended to stick in the mind on their own, or are they intended to help the graduates reflect on that journey? The speech may be forgettable in its own right, but the point to me at least is to resonate with the feelings of the graduates so that the day reminds them that they have achieved a great thing and that thing can lead to other great things.

While I am certainly a fan of short and sweet commencement speeches, I would rather continue to have them to allow that pause for reflection, that smelling of the roses, before everyone takes a deep breath and commences onto the next stage of their journey.

Maybe that’s hopelessly old-fashioned though, and our graduating students just want to get to the party…

Here’s my question to you: what’s the point of a commencement speech?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

1 Comment

  1. May 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm —

    Commencement speeches are pretty much time wasters and filler for a ceremony of calling names of people to walk across a stage. I know they are suppose to be uplifting and “go out into the world and kick ass” speeches but I find them snore city. Few of the students actually listen to the speeches and in my opinion the only one who really cares about the speech is the person giving it and the administration. Why the administration? They want that person to make them look good. So maybe it is a PR stunt to market “how awesome is our school, right !?!?!?”

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