Hegemonic convocations (14 May 2019)

On 13 May 2019, Carleton University president Benoit Bacon published his latest blog post, imploring graduating students to attend convocation. While I am respectful of his attempt to gather people together for such an event, here I would like to highlight the misguided and hypocritical nature of his arguments.

Benoit Bacon rightfully claims that we are “always at the beginning of something”, which truly does apply to completion of a university degree. But why does he call this “convocation”? The term convocation was originally used for religious ceremonies, which is a very peculiar use for a university like Carleton that was never associated with religion, at least not until its absurd affiliation almost a decade ago with Dominican University College and its equally absurd recent purchase of the still consecrated Dominion-Chalmers church. The term convocation literally means “with a vocation”, playing into the ridiculous Ford trope (tripe?) about “being open for business”. If completing a university degree really is a beginning, then why don’t we call this event “commencement”, as do many of our colleagues in the States? Personally, I prefer the simpler and less pompous term “graduation”, which connotes that students gradually transition from one phase of their lives, school, to another phase of their lives. Given that most people hold paid employment while they are students, this really does seem gradual.

Benoit Bacon claims that the term convocation “evokes a call to gather together.” If true, then why does Carleton hold nine (9) separate convocations each spring? That seems more like separation into nine different ivory towers than it does coming together as a single community. While there are logistical difficulties holding a single convocation each spring, these are worth surmounting.

If convocation is really meant to bring the community together, then why don’t we also invite and celebrate those students who did not finish all of their degree requirements? Are students that had to drop out of school for financial reasons or family responsibilities any less worthy of our celebration than all the rich white people that still make up too much of Carleton’s graduating class?

Benoit Bacon’s blog referred to the “power of convocation”. The term “power” connotes authority and even coercion. It is a militaristic term. How is that appropriate for a celebration, especially for students who have been subservient to faculty and administrators for too many years? We might as well have camouflage regalia.

Benoit Bacon makes the insulting claim that convocation “marks the passage to adulthood”. I am not sure what constitutes adulthood, but legally in Canada that milestone occurs when someone turns 18 years old. Thus, most Carleton students were adults when they first arrived on campus. I was 45 years old when I finished my PhD. Does that mean our university president considered me a child until then?

I applaud that Benoit Bacon did not attend his own undergraduate convocation. The way we currently run university convocations imposes extreme conformity on all graduating students, which is the antithesis of what we hope that our students have become: unique, idiosyncratic, free-thinking individuals. Benoit was right that modern convocation ceremonies are medieval, which to me means hegemonic, anti-intellectual, and needlessly European. Carleton still uses a medieval weapon, a mace, as the ceremonial centerpiece of convocation, highlighting colonial oppression during an era when we purport to care deeply about reconciliation. No wonder some people chose to skip such a hypocritical event as convocation.

I want to end by truly congratulating all of our students, whether they met all of their degree requirements or not. You have worked hard and enriched the lives of so many people around you, including the lives of those who taught you. Thank you!

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