Tag Archives: history

Commencement ceremonies: From the 12th century until …?

Student at commencement

Imagine that through some divine provenance the founder of your college or university was allowed one day to see their creation in 2017. Much of it would look quite strange and incomprehensible. Yet if they strayed into your graduation ceremonies, these rituals would appear quite familiar — even if your college was founded in the 18th or 19th centuries.

In his monumental series “The Day the Universe Changed,” science historian James Burke said that rituals are ways that societies and institutions can make episodes of change feel comfortable and supported. Think about wedding ceremonies: The addition of hashtags notwithstanding, the way most couples tie the knot has not changed much in centuries. Ditto baptisms and funerals. And commencements.

Commencement ceremonies date back to the 12th century, and while they no longer proceed in Latin, the graduation gowns don’t necessarily look dissimilar. But tradition holds its strongest sway in things most formal:  The suit that hundreds of men (me included) will wear at this weekend’s commencement ceremonies date back to military formalwear of a bygone era; their cut and style may change but in 100 years you would likely see something similar at weddings and funerals and graduations.

But will we still have commencements then? When people can telecommute or technologically be present anywhere in the world, will the class of 2117 still be in the same large halls as trumpeters, robes and parades of academic regalia?

I’m betting we will. We’ve already gone through a couple of decades of the fastest technological evolution in history and what has changed about graduations? With the exception of live web video streams, not all that much. Some bold colleges have played with things like hashtags and near-real-time photos appearing on big screens, but that’s window dressing.

Sure, students can tweet, stream, post, gram and snap during the ceremonies, but they still do so while wearing a robe, then accepting a diploma frame and handshake from some prominent official and strolling down a ramp, beaming toward the audience celebrating their amazing accomplishments.

In the 21st century, as we spend more time online, study after study finds people feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever. That’s why our social and community gatherings, especially those ones rooted in tradition, become more important than ever.

The more some things change, the more they stay the same. It will be interesting if future historians will look back upon this year’s graduation ceremonies and see it as something comfortable and familiar.



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history, visualized: creating an interactive timeline via dipity.

With SUNY Oswego celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, we wanted to do some really neat stuff on the web. We started kicking around some kind of history timeline for the college and Rick, our resident web development genius, came across the simple yet powerful Dipity web application. The resulting interactive SUNY Oswego timeline has earned rave reviews.

With Dipity, you create a timeline, upload photos, caption them … and it’s just about that simple! Inserting the date automatically positions each entry. We’re running the basic version, which means the version on the Dipity site has ads … but we’ve also embedded it on our own site (sans ads). That said, we may yet ponder a paid version for multiple licenses … having easy-to-create timelines could be an excellent teaching aid for the academic area.

Those viewing your timeline can drag it back and forth to see different eras, click a photo to see more, adjust a bar to see longer or shorter timespans or tap little + signs at the bottom to see more photos in condensed time periods. Users can also view it in a flipbook mode. I find it user-friendly on both the back and front ends.

Developing our timeline was time-consuming only because of quantity and the desire to have something up quickly; I spent the better part of two days downloading hundreds of photos from Penfield Library’s Special Collections online archive, editing the photos, uploading to Dipity and creating captions. The Dipity part of the equation was probably the easiest part. In creating the timeline, you have thumb-up/thumb-down toggles that weight photos higher … meaning they are more likely to appear at the top.

Not many drawbacks I’ve found yet. Occasionally when I’d try to upload photos, I’d get a spinning icon that showed no progress, but I simply closed out of the interface box and tried again. Also, you’ll definitely want to crop and optimize the photos for the web first. We tried a beta version with larger photos and it was exceedingly slow. Now, with a couple hundred web-sized photos in our timeline, it moves pretty briskly. And alas, you can’t use an approximate time — like c. 1960s — because the site needs an exact year. Not ideal historiography, but you can explain in the caption.

All in all, a great and easy little program. Gathering content for it will take longer, but given the positive reaction we’ve had, I would highly recommend giving Dipity a try.

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much ado about beards.

Little did I realize when I let my facial hair grow between Christmas and New Year’s that I was stumbling into a trend. What began as a social-media related experiment, ending with a landslide vote to keep the beard, unintentionally thrust me among a facial fashion, as countless articles tell us beards are back.

The Times UK notes in a subhead: Film stars are sprouting it with abandon, women are tolerating it — even the man on the street is going ape. Beard scholar (yes, there is such a thing, aka pogonologist) Allen Peterkin noted that it’s one of the few ways a man can quickly and easily change his image. You can find blogs about beards, festivals devoted to facial hair and over-the-top growing contests.

Others put facial hair in an economic context as much as fashion statement. Sources ranging for fashion pundits to urbandictionary.com speak of men spouting recession beards, brought about by layoffs and the money savings of not shaving. Or are they acts of playful rebellion? AdAge talks (albeit not in free online content) of Norelco incorporating the recession beard idea into marketing its shaving accessories. (And, yes, the backlash against the recession-beard movement has already started.)

But the power and context of the beard span civilized times. In his excellent 1841 work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay includes a chapter on Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard. France’s Louis VII shaving his beard in the 12th century, Mackay said, had resounding implications; his queen, Eleanor of Guienne, hated his new look and, after the resulting fallout, married Henry II of England — which made her dowry of Normandy a British foothold and led to centuries of battles and bloodshed. During the Crusades, many Saxons remaining in England grew beards to differentiate themselves from the more staid Normans; the Cavaliers made a subtler yet similar statement as they squared off against the Roundheads in the 17th century British Civil War. In 1705, Russia’s Peter the Great thought the bearded look antiquated and instituted a tax and on men sporting facial hair, complete with its own bureaucratic system. (Let’s hope this doesn’t give our governor any ideas.)

So any current beardmania is just part of a long line of our hirsuite history. I just enjoy not having to shave every morning and that I receive the occasional complement on it. Apparent trendiness is a bonus.


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from the fishbowl to the glass house.

While skimming newspapers from the early 1960s for the paper I’m presenting at the upcoming SUNY 60th Anniversary Conference, perhaps the most earth-shattering development lay tucked in the middle of a Palladium-Times article on new student orientation in mid-September 1964:

All students filled out questionnaires for IBM data processing, which should make further improvement in the keeping of records and recording of grades in future semesters.

Even as the article showed how much more psychology-based and calculated student orientation was than even a decade earlier, this tidbit about the data processing still stands out the most. (Well, that and the college bragging that pre-payment of fees speeded registration, with some students able to complete registration in less than an hour … could you imagine a modern student waiting an hour for anything?)

The ever-booming Oswego campus of the ’60s hosted nearly 3,600 students that year — many times its World War II enrollment — so the nascent computerized system was needed to accommodate and track the influx. Now that we’re north of 8,000 students, I couldn’t imagine it flowing without online registration, computerized records and a thousand other authorized tasks we take for granted.

Yet I can’t help but think about a brilliant, and unintendedly prescient, observation by James Burke at the end of his PBS/BBC series The Day The Universe Changed. By mapping the world, he said in 1985 (!), we have mapped ourselves. What started as card questionnaires have turned into datasets that can tell anyone anywhere where we live and work, what kind of car we drive and the repairs to it, what groceries we bought last week and the last dinner out we charged. Cellphone photos and YouTube clips can deliver fame and infamy in the blink of an electronic eye.

Some 45 years ago, we aimed to track students, now we all can be tracked from pole to pole, minute to minute. We used IBM cards to put subjects into fishbowls, now we peer out of our glass houses. Every day in our online lives, we ponder if the line between the personal and the public has blurred; I almost wonder if it has disappeared. However different the styles and lifestyles, transportation and communication from two generations ago, how many things have changed more than the public nature of everything?

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