By Sam Grinsell |
For those of us who have only studied in one country, a ‘graduation ceremony’ has a fairly fixed meaning. In the UK, this generally involves hundreds of students in slightly absurd clothing lining up to receive pieces of paper proving their scholarly exploits. There are variations, of course: in Edinburgh the students get touched on the head with absurd clothing (aka the Geneva Bonnet), for example. Nonetheless, graduation ceremonies across the UK largely reflect its shared academic culture. It was fascinating for me, therefore, to recently experience a few Italian graduations, reflective of a different history and culture. It’s always productive to remind ourselves of the specifics of our own position, and this is what the following observations are designed to do. What does thinking about an Italian graduation from a British point of view tell us about Italian and British higher education? These observations stem from attending three masters’ level graduations at Turin University last week.
What’s in a word?
Graduation might seem to be a relatively straightforward concept, but in fact the differences start here. At British universities, the graduation ceremony is where degrees are formally conferred, but marks are known well in advance and the students will have completed their studies weeks or months before the day. By contrast, Italian graduations include a public thesis defence before a committee of the department. Following this presentation and discussion, the public leave the room for the committee to deliberate, and then are called back in for the final mark to be conferred. Rather than a formality followed by a celebration, as in the UK, the graduation ceremony in Italy is the final student examination. This also means that family and friends get to hear an academic discussion of the student’s work in a way that would be unusual in the UK.
Society and the individual
As well as involving actually doing something, another striking feature of Italian graduations to a Brit is that the celebrations are focused on individuals. In the UK you generally graduate on the same day as a large number of your peers who have been with you throughout your studies. (This can be a little different for part-time or distance learning students.) By contrast, Italian students do not necessarily progress through their degrees at the same rate as one another, so you may not finish at the same time as your peers.
Combine this with the individual thesis defence, and you have a celebration that tends to be focused on one person: her friends and family will gather from across the country and beyond to spend the day marking her achievement. As such, the atmosphere is rather more like a birthday or even a wedding than what I have experienced at British graduations. The latter tend towards a rather more collective atmosphere, in which a whole class joins together to celebrate the end of their studies. While family attend, and the day is likely to end with individual family celebrations, it starts with the focus very much on the group. Broadly, one can see the British ceremony as essentially collective, and the Italian as individual.
Dressed to impress
Reinforcing this is a different approach to graduation dress. In the UK this is a pretty fixed, formal affair, with different robes, hoods and headgear depending on institution and degree. Italian graduands, by contrast, simply dress smartly. After having the degree conferred upon them they will be crowned with a wreath of laurels, being now laureata or laureato, which is to say a degree-holder. Again, the British ceremony seems designed to cloak the individual in a shared collective identity, in which even the professors don the colours of the institution from which they graduated to preside over the formal acceptance of their charges to a higher level of the academic community.
The informal elements of a graduation can be as central to shared rituals as the formal: in the UK standing with your friends to throw your mortarboard in the air is a big moment, and the source of innumerable facebook profile pictures. As well as drinking, eating and gift-giving, the celebrations following Italian graduations often involve games. These are designed by the graduate’s friends and involve challenges or riddles that in some way respond to the character of the student or their subject. One of the ones I attended, for example, involved a psychology graduate being set a version of their own experiment, with an added alcoholic element. I personally have not encountered anything similar among UK students, although no doubt there are exceptions.
Thoughts on academic culture
It seems to me that such clear differences in graduation ceremony must be both indicative of, and play a role in shaping, different academic cultures. Most higher education systems have some kind of tension between treating the student body as a group and focusing on the individual, I wouldn’t want to suggest that this is some kind of straightforward Italian/British binary. Nonetheless, it does seem to me that an event that is more closely centred on individual achievement is suggestive of a different view of academia. Perhaps the idea of creating an educated elite can be found embedded in the British collective graduation. Possibly the individualism of the Italian is performative of an idea of the lone humanistic scholar. These ideas are mere speculations of course, but I hope they have prompted you to think about what you consider the norms in higher education, and how these might contrast with alternative models.
Sam Grinsell is in the second year of a PhD on British imperial architecture in the Nile valley, and the current chair of Pubs and Publications.