Sunday, May 9, 2010

College Commencement: A Virtual World Ends

University of Richmond Commencement 4/11/08

Location: Robins Center Floor

Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Reznicek at Flickr

The names have been read, and 800+ graduates have walked across the stage. For the last time in their lives, even in the age of constant connectivity, some of these kids see good friends for the final time.

A world just ended. And it happens every single Mother's Day at my school.

This year, baton in hand, I served as a Commencement Marshal, and it provided a far better way to pass the three hours than sitting up in the faculty section behind the party on the podium. I was able to shake hands with many graduates I have known for four years, as they left the podium with their newly minted diplomas.

They have lived in what our students refer to as "The Bubble" of our private university, a breathtaking place of Collegiate Gothic buildings set on manicured grounds. These students know how good they've had it, and they also know--as every graduate does--that Commencement marks a milestone we always recall.

Among the graduates are the first who had Second Life avatars in my classes. I'm not sure they'll ever log into SL again, or, of more interest to me, if they see how invented the entire rituals of Commencement and indeed college life to be. My hope is that a brush with a synthetic environment online helps them see the invented nature of the world on the typist's side of the screen, too, once they have hung the diploma on the wall. My hope is that they'll see, from stock market valuations to personal fame, so much is invented and transient.

I know, I know: that's the old English major speaking. "My name is Ozymandias. . . " but that very reality argues more strongly than ever that we all get some liberal arts experience. It can (and should) humble us.

Elements of the distant past persist, however, better than did the statue in Shelley's poem. With Commencement, we ladle on rituals whose origins in the universities of the Middle Ages are lost to us. The Marshals' batons, while useful as pointers as we line students up, bear no resemblance to what must have once been, in less civil times, real clubs to keep crowds in line.

Today, I can report we had perfect order, with no beachballs, fog horns, or lit cigars as the students walked.

Was it only yesterday I made such a walk? Well, it was 27 years of yesterdays. Singing the alma mater, even for a school that is not the one that changed me forever, intellectually (thank you for that, UVA and your faculty) was touching. Then the walk back to my office, where the next academic year already shows signs of commencing, was quiet and lovely. The golden moments right after Commencement, when I leave the huge building and stroll past the parents and students taking photos, have always been my favorites. Today the past seemed to be watching, and for a moment, I was an undergraduate again at a different school, taking a last stroll as a student across the grounds in Charlottesville.

The campus breathed an enormous sign of relief, and the silent quads between the dorms were as wistful as an abandoned city from Antiquity. I had the strong sense that whatever show we faculty and students put on for four years, whatever virtual community we created on that set, the set would outlive us all.

There's no deep message in this post except to watch the cycles of things and accept change. One lesson for me from spending time in virtual worlds has been to see how much of our brick-and-mortar world is constructed of elements we only half understand. Some survive our passing.

Look for them.

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