May 30, 2002

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vol. 24, no. 3


When I tell my colleagues that I have attended convocation regularly since 1967, they look at me as if I were a bit dotty.

By Charles Crawford
I remember my first SFU convocation. I was a brand new PhD and I was
wearing the scarlet and green McGill University doctoral gown that my wife had given me.

Marshall McLuhan, the communication guru, was getting an honorary degree and giving the convocation address. It was the summer of 1967 and Simon Fraser University was beginning to set new trends in Canadian higher education.

When I tell my colleagues that I have attended convocation regularly since 1967, they look at me as if I were a bit dotty. Some say in a patronising tone, “That is really a nice thing to do.” Others say, “Isn't it really boring?” Still others say, “Wouldn't those hours be better spent in the lab or the library?” As this is my last convocation, I have decided to justify to myself, and to others, not only why I do it, but also why I like to do it. I hope in doing this I might encourage other faculty members to participate in and enjoy the convocation experience.

All societies mark life passages, such as birth, marriage, physical maturity and death, with ceremonies. These ceremonies help us accommodate to the new roles in life that we must adjust to as we grow, mature, senesce and die. Convocation is an important life passage for students, their families and their friends. Although many think of it as a graduation ceremony, it is actually an admission ceremony - a ceremony that admits students to the ranks of the intellectuals - to a new phase of their lives as responsible citizens who have an important role to play in the development of our culture.

Over the years I have talked to many students, including my two children, who tended to denigrate convocation, but who, when they crossed that stage, realized that something important in their lives had happened, and that one phase of their lives had ended and another had begun.

Faculty can make convocation a bit more meaningful for students by attending. It should be a meaningful experience for faculty members because it is also a celebration of what they have done to help students enter the ranks of the intellectuals. It is not unusual for a student who has not been in one of my classes, and who I do not know, to ask me to have my picture taken with the family. I think the pictures would be more meaningful if one of their professors was in it.

Several times a week we are informed by radio and TV, read in the newspapers, or hear from our friends that it is important for members of minority groups, such as new immigrants and Canadian First Nations people, not to lose their heritage. Losing one's culture, the argument goes, leads to all sorts of social disorganization. The loss supposedly contributes to marital discord, drug addiction, the inability to hold a job, child neglect and abuse, and a host of other social ills.

We encourage members of these groups to rediscover their roots, to learn about their ceremonies, and to use them to help deal with the stresses of the modern world. The convocation ceremony is part of our heritage. For us to ignore our ceremonial heritage while telling others that they must rediscover and use theirs to improve their lives seems slightly academically snobbish to me. It implies that we are just a bit better than they are. Telling others how important their rituals should be to them, while denigrating the rituals of our tribe of intellectuals also seems to me to be a bit patronizing.

Convocation is a good place to network, especially for new assistant professors. You can introduce yourself to the president, other senior administrators, and honorary degree recipients, as well as provincial politicians. Our current minister of education, Christy Clark, has been attending convocations since she became an MLA. I didn't agree with everything she said over convocation coffee, but I realized that if the Liberals ever won, she would have an impact. My closest association with a Nobel Prize has been to shake the hand of Dr. Herzberg and Dr. Khorana who were receiving honorary degrees.

Attending convocation regularly over the past 36 years has helped me understand the changing character of Simon Fraser and our place in the local and academic community. Thirty-six years ago most of those who crossed the stage were Smiths, Joneses, and MacDonalds. Then Wongs and Jangs replaced the Smiths and Joneses. Then came the Singhs and Jaswals. Now we have graduates from eastern Europe with vowels in unusual places in their names. It always amazes me how well our deans do in pronouncing the names in that diverse stream crossing the stage.

The university's choice of honorary degree recipients has always fascinated me because it tells me something about how the senate and the board of governors want to present the university to the local community. Sometimes the focus is on local heroes, while at other times it is on international academic stars. We have given honorary degrees to some magnificent intellects. Tuzzo Wilson and John Ralston Saul come to mind. However, my favourite honorary degree recipient was Edward O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology. He filled the Images theatre twice; once for a lecture on evolution and human behaviour and once for a lecture on the social behaviour of ants. In a third talk he argued for the development of evolutionary, cognitive neuroscience.

Academically, I am a Darwinian psychologist. One of my scholarly interests is in how we use displays in our daily lives that would have helped our ancestors communicate important information about their status and power to other members of their group. Forgoing convocation can be a signal of how important one is: one's work is so important that one cannot simply take two or three hours once a year to attend a community event. But attending convocation can also be a signal of competence: a signal that one has one's life and research under control, and that one can relax and devote those hours to help celebrate the activities of the university.

But the real reason I try to attend convocation once a year is that it is kind of fun. There are a lot of happy people at convocation. Their happiness creates energy that invigorates me. It is a bit like going to a country fair, the PNE, a sporting event, or the arrivals lounge of a big airport. I like the music. We have the best bagpipe band in the world and their playing at convocation adds to the energy of the event. Finally, where else can an old codger, or even a young trendy, dress up in a flamboyant outfit from of the middle ages and parade around to the skirl of the pipes without everyone laughing at them? I hope to see you there.

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