Skoog: Pomp and unprecedented circumstance

It’s not the vast misperception of the virtual commencement ceremony that bugs me, but the shortfall of the ‘here and now.’

by Caroline Skoog

Two years ago, I tweeted that the commencement ceremony would only be worth four years of tuition if we could each choose a walk up song, like a Major League Baseball player heading up to bat, with our statistics projected onto a Jumbotron. Maybe it’s my tendency to view symbols and pageantry with a large dose of cynicism, and it’s certainly my immense privilege that compelled me to take the milestone for granted, but graduation always seemed like a forfeit of a Saturday morning. Indifference is easy when the cap and gown isn’t yours or a loved one’s. Though I stand by the MLB graduation idea, I can say with 20/20 hindsight that I severely underestimated the function of collective closure. 

The University decided mid-March to postpone in-person graduation and later to host a “systemwide virtual commencement” scheduled to take place May 16 at 11 a.m. Honestly the information felt oddly banal at first, probably due to the surge of unhinged emails that inundated all of our inboxes. Compared to the tremendous loss endured these last few months, the commencement ceremony felt like a distant inconvenience. Regalia or not, a milestone is a milestone. How could one think of pomp in such a circumstance? 

Without the regalia and convocation, though, what’s left? The moment. There are few moments in life where you can witness yourself being ejected full force into a new chapter; I’ve been told that’s what graduation is. Even fewer are those where your family can see — and sometimes bring air horns. The ritual gets its meaning from its ephemerality, making a novelty out of the “here and now.”

Postponing the commencement ceremony was unavoidable and necessary, but as the year unfolds into a hodgepodge of contingencies, it’s hard to imagine reconvening at some point in the future. Uncanny, even. There also hasn’t been any further email updates on plans for a real ceremony for 2020 graduates.

I called my parents the morning of May 16 and clicked the virtual commencement link right as it went “live” at 11 a.m. We were anxious about being late for the ceremony’s livestreamed portion after sifting through various hyperlinks on the graduation website and standing by for my mom as she looked for her reading glasses. My parents’ excitement on the other end of the line, even with the ceremony’s compromised format, had me feeling pretty enthusiastic, too. I realized that they haven’t visited campus in years, and graduation is usually when you get to peek into the environment in which your child’s been submersed, four years over. 

Our enthusiasm tapered off when we learned that the virtual graduation had no live piece. While the interface was beautiful and loaded with mishmash content, everything was prerecorded. My dad said something along the lines of, “Oh, I can just watch it later?”  So we searched my name in the “marching order” slideshow, deflated our 2020 balloons and called it a day. 

Yes, some promotions of the virtual graduation ceremony noted that it was not a livestreamed event. Not all, though, and definitely not enough. Speaking anecdotally, I haven’t talked to a 2020 graduate from the U who wasn’t disappointed in the lack of liveness. My four roommates came out of their rooms and each asked where to find the graduation livestream link. It’s not the vast misperception of the ceremony that bugs me but the shortfall of the “here and now.”

It feels silly to take up space complaining about the virtual ceremony. I understand a lot of amazing hard work went into constructing the alternative ceremony, and at the end of the day, no virtual graduation could ever be anything other than underwhelming. Our expectations were low. That said, with the bounds and leaps of virtual communication in these past few months, the entire class of 2020 is aware how easy it is to do a YouTube livestream. Governor Walz does it all the time. Across the country, universities and high schools have used Zoom or another video broadcasting platform to celebrate graduation. 

Although the virtual format enabled people to tune in and celebrate from anywhere, the fragmented setup and prerecorded content wasn’t designed for collective long-distance viewing. 

My dad hasn’t watched the prerecorded ceremony yet, which is fine, because I haven’t either. It’ll be there until June 30, but even so, the moment has passed. What else is on TV?