Saturday, June 20, 2009


This morning we went to a friend's PhD commencement at the University of Heidelberg.

Graduation is not a big thing in general here like it is in the US. For instance, I've never seen graduation cards or displays in stores (but am open to correction - maybe I haven't been looking hard enough). So, we thought it would be interesting to see what a graduation here does involve - one type of graduation, anyway. She got her PhD in epidemiology, which falls under the medical faculty, so the ceremony was also for those earning their MDs.

Graduates sat in the front few rows, and each got to invite three people to come see them go up for their diploma. There wasn't any checking of tickets or anything, though. The graduates just dressed nicely - no funny robes or hats. There was one Scottish guy in a kilt. The program opened with some Beethoven on a piano. Nobody processed in, everybody was already just sitting there. Next, a guy with a cool bow tie and hat - the only guy who had any remotely academic costume going on - welcomed everybody, presented something to a couple of the graduates (frankly, I didn't find this part important enough to bother trying to translate it in my head), and introduced the main speaker.

We thought the speaker would say something relevant to the occasion of graduating, receiving a higher degree, education these days, the philosophy of the practice of and research in medicine, or something. But, the talk was actually about dementia. Not that dementia is not an interesting topic, but I totally failed to see how it fit with graduation. The speaker was totally full of himself, but it was at least amusing to watch him up there making animated academic-looking gestures, the likes of which you normally only see in comedy, quoting Latin and English, and being generally dramatic.

Halfway through his incredibly long speech, unfortunately a woman in the audience actually had a seizure and her friend called for a doctor. I think 3/4 of the room stood up. We were also entertained by some cute little bat that found its way into the auditorium and then just couldn't get out again.

After the speech, there was another piano piece, followed by an opera selection from The Marriage of Figaro. Again: huh? The singer and pianist were great, but the relevance of all this was still failing me. Then the graduates received their degrees. First the summa cum laude graduates were called up individually and received diplomas placed inside black folders. Then the rest of the graduates were called up four at a time and received their diplomas stuck inside a plastic sleeve with binder holes. Even though they were called up alphabetically, no advance effort had been made to seat the graduates in any sort of order, so they had to clamber over each other to get up to the front when called. There had also been no effort made to ask the graduates how their names were pronounced, so the MC had to stumble through them on his own, and it wasn't pretty. After this, yet another irrelevant opera selection, then we got to have some champagne and pretzels in the lobby (best part!!!). In all it took two hours.

We saw a group of four students put on mortarboards afterward and get their photo taken. The people behind us commented that they must be Americans. My friend (disclaimer: she is not German so this is more-than-secondhand hearsay) said that in Germany they used to do the whole robe-and-hat thing, but due to student protests at some point, they ditched it. We can only guess at why students would want to get rid of academic dress/ritual - to quit the pretense? If that is the reason, then why do they do such seemingly pretentious things as have opera performances and separate out cum laude graduates with different diplomas and by calling them up first and separately?

I can only compare the experience with undergraduate ceremonies in the US, because we left the country before the date for what would have been Damon's doctoral commencement when he got his PhD. (Graduate degrees are definitely not as big a deal in the US as undergraduate, when graduation ceremonies are concerned, but I don't have any personal experience, so I'm not sure what the differences are.)

At my undergrad commencement, we had to process in, wearing black robes and mortarboards (it was really hot!!), behind some guys playing bagpipes and a whole bunch of university officials wearing full academic regalia - the doctoral robes, hoods, and cute hats they earned when they got their graduate degrees. If you know a bit about them, you can tell what school a person graduated from and what field they were in from the costume. We were arranged by college and name, so we could be efficiently called up one row at a time to walk across stage and get our degree. The degree came in a leather folder. Everyone's name was prepared in advance - they asked us how we wanted to be called. There were two speeches by fellow graduates and one speech by a guest speaker. Our guest was Hanna Holborn Gray, who wasn't so much of a guest because she used to be president of the University - but this guest speaker is at many universities a famous personality, including even the President of the US if your school is into that sort of thing and you are lucky! The speeches were all relevant to graduating, the state of education, our school, and what an awesome distinguished group of alumni we were about to join. Then we all processed back out (way less formal than the way in) and had champagne. Pretty much everybody in the class was there, and the whole shebang even has its own website. My husband went to a larger university, and his was a little different. The colleges of the university each had separate graduations because it was so large. As each graduate received his or her degree, they also mentioned what the graduate's future plan was. (Everybody clapped when someone had secured a job working as Mickey Mouse at Disney a job for a graduate of the College of Agriculture...) He had a robe and mortarboard too, plus some ropes for graduating with honors. Many students at his university didn't bother to attend college graduation. His was entirely pretense-free - alas, with the bagpipes, mine probably wasn't - but I did like them!

I guess the robes and stuff are pointless, but they can be kind of fun. Not really any more pointless than opera singing and speeches about a single medical problem.


  1. How...unusual. I wonder what they do for the abi graduations?
    My undergrad commencement was almost identical to yours! Bagpipes too! Oh, and our "speaker" was the President of the U too. He was retiring that year and decided to do the speech to talk about how much better the college was since he took over and how the incoming president shouldn't screw it up. What an ass.

  2. Are bagpipes pretentious? They had them at my sister's graduation this month as well (small college in MA). Still, the fact that we have enough bagpipe-playing alumni to constitute a band pretty much rocks.

  3. MIHH: They run out into the streets, drinking, screaming, and blowing whistles while wearing matching t-shirts. ;) I don't know about ceremonies though!

    Jen: Maybe not? I got that impression but I'm not sure why. Your sister's college is also private, right? Like I said, I did like them. And liked hearing them practice outside Woodward (RIP). ;)

  4. >We can only guess at why students
    >would want to get rid of academic
    >dress/ritual - to quit the

    It is a leftover from Germany’s 1968 student rebellion.

    During the installation of the new rector at Hamburg’s university, students unfurl a banner with the slogan: “Unter den Talaren - Muff von 1000 Jahren” (”Underneath the professors' gowns lurks the musty smells of a thousend years”) which becomes iconic for Germany’s 1968 student rebellion.

    More under

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  6. Damon's response:

    We actually did have a university-wide commencement with Pomp and Circumstance and a famous speaker and all that, but since it was a huge university (the basketball gymnasium of our Big 12 school was the only location large enough to seat everyone) they didn't call out all the names of the graduates or hand you your degree in person. So, I opted for the smaller College of Agriculture commencement so that the family and friends who had traveled hours and hours to Ames, IA wouldn't have to suffer through such a ceremony. CN probably just forgot this fact as it only existed in theory to her at some point nine years ago. I don't know if there were bagpipes.

  7. We went to Haut-Koenigsbourg last summer. Stunning place, beautifully restored at the turn of the century, but the day we were there it was so very crowded inside and out, it was hard to enjoy it fully. It's too bad they don't somehow require cars to park far away, and limit the number of people crawling around there at any one time, either by bussing them up or building a small chairlift. It was a zoo.

  8. Abi graduation: Usually a very similar affair to the one described. Just without the pretzels. Usually has most graduates present (some ditch the affair, which can be ... awkward when they're called up) plus families and a couple invited alumni.
    The binge drinking in matching shirts happens a couple weeks before that mere formality btw, in Heidelberg the abi graduation ceremonies are always June 30th (because that's the last day the school insurance will still cover the graduates as students).

    As for the speeches - at least at HD Uni it's common in most departments that they'll select a few "outstanding" theses of the graduates and will force them to present it. I think the last time i attended one i fell asleep halfway through the second presentation on uh... something about the EM spectrum of pulsar stars i think.

  9. If you don't know what demetia has to do with higher education, then you may not remember college very well. ;P

    (Sorry, I just couldn't resist...)

  10. Michael: So the robes smell funny? ;)

    Kato: This guy was definitely a prof - maybe none of the student projects were good enough this year ;)

  11. Hah I'm glad to get a better insight into graduations over here. My friend just gradated from college in the Netherlands, and I think the story from this post perfectly compliments the photos I saw of her ceremony.

    Also, I just graduated from OU a couple weeks ago and it was completely anti climactic and kind of sad. I wanted to go out with people afterward for dinner but the lady planning it backed out. I still have yet to celebrate! Now I'm using it as an excuse to go out to dinner every time I don't want to cook :)


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