Magolda Peter Nov/Dec 2003 Saying Good-Bye an Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Magolda, Peter. (Nov/Dec 2003) "Saying Good-Bye, an Anthropological Examination of a Commencement Ritual." Journal of College Student Development. Pp.1-6. Retrived from Find Articles database of journal articles on 26 Oct 2005 at

Conveying Citizenship through Commencement Ritual via a Descriptive Anthropology

Anthropologists can use descriptive, longitudinal, comparative, and multiscale research when studying human societies around the world -- and also deploy these same methods quite close to home, even in the scholastic environment that surrounds them -- and surrounds their students. The 2003 article by Peter Magolda, entitled "Saying Good-Bye, an Anthropological Examination of a Commencement Ritual," attempts to conduct a descriptive anthropology of a specific graduation commencement that will become part the author's larger study of exit rituals in higher education. The graduation event described in the article is a singular one, however. It occurred in "May 2001 at a medium-size public, 4-year residential campus in the Midwest, serving mostly traditional-age students" Thus, the anthropological research is observational and descriptive, but will be combined with later and larger comparative analysis of different graduation in different locations of the United States. (Magolda, 2003, p.1)

As manifest in the article's title, the conductor of the research, Peter M. Magolda, sees the commencement ritual as a liminal ritual, or a ritual rite of passage from one state of being into another state of being for the young participants, as college students say good-bye to their old lives as students and hello to their new lives as citizens and laborers in a capitalist democracy. "Commencement, an institutionally sponsored annual exit ceremony on most American college campuses" has come to celebrate "the academic accomplishments of graduating students and marks the end of their college careers and the beginning of their lives in the real world." (Magolda, 2003, p.1)Thus, rather than focus on a comparison of high school and college commencements, or subsume all commencement ceremonies into the same category, the paper focuses on college commencement alone because the author believes that this ritual has become particularly significant as a marker of status from youth to adulthood, from student status to working status. It is the last civic ritual in a young person's life for many secular students and thus "illuminates the power of rituals to transmit cultural norms and provides an anthropological perspective that benefits scholars, practitioners, and policy makers as they endeavor to better understand and modify campus culture." In other words, the author suggets, from the carefree and questioning days of college, students move into a more rigorosly critical and conformist style of behavior through the regime of the commencement ceremony. (Magolda, 2003, p.1)

The ritualistic nature of commencement at college is manifest even in the language of the rite, notes the author. Much as a hymnbook, mass, or kaddish ceremony in different faiths, ritual texts that have certain pre-set words, the commencement graduation rhetoric of urging students to become "good citizens" of the world or national community, to "make a difference in society," or to "become the leaders of tomorrow," or simply "get out there and do something." has become so commonplace the parental audience and students hardly question whether college actually prepares graduates to meet the challenges of citizenship, or if there is an implication of moving between the questioning of the college classroom and the demands of civic life in America. (Magolda, 2003, p.1)

Magolda justifies his anthropology of commencement rituals because the ritualistic nature of the rite is so commonplace and ingrained in the fabric of the campus culture, it is immune from critical analysis that anthropology is designed to bring forth, through examination. What is most familiar can be most foreign to analysis, the anthopologist and author suggests. Meanings are embedded in the structure of the rite, and rituals, in particular those that take place in educational contexts "are seldom scrutinized" as well as exist as "important sources for revealing social and cultural conditions," such as, for example, the heightened paranoia after September 11th. Rituals in general "reveal much about the ritual organizers and participants," and finally "are political acts that communicate expectations and norms for behavior and performance (that is, transmit culture)" of citizenship and societal identity. Even the act of sitting still, silently, and listening to the rhetoric of citizenship and service is peculiar to commencement not to the experience of college in general.

Type of Anthropology and What Author is Addressing in Debate

Although Magdola states that he will later expand his anthropology of commencement into a larger study, he defends his primarily descriptive approach to his thesis that commencement attempts to inculcate American social participation as vitual to his thesis and a valid method of understanding a local exhibition of ritualized civic culture, rather than one that exists many miles away, in a different land. "One way that anthropologists enhance awareness of the power and reality of culture is through the study of ritual, a cultural form." (Magdola, 2003, p.1) He calls his specific descriptive methodology "interpretive interactionism, " where he both observes, participates, and interacts with the commencement environment, but with an anthropologist's eye.

To do so, he collected data using three primary ethnographic tools, observations (or descriptive analysis), statistical data (such as the fact that each year approximately 1.2 million college seniors officially complete the academic requirements necessary to receive a baccalaureate degree and more than a half million students receive associate degrees (, interviews, participation, and even artifact analysis, although description forms the main part of the author's interpretive method. He "kept a detailed chronology of my fieldwork activities including the date, time, location of each event and a list of those with whom I interacted. I recorded my observations, participation, and interviews in a notebook and elaborated upon these notes shortly after each event. Whenever permissible, I audiotaped formal interviews and videotaped public events and checked my findings with participants." (Magdola, 2003, pp.1-2) Thus, Magdoal attempted to guard against an overly subjective approach to descriptive research, while still valuing the importance of anthropological narrative when deconstructing a civic rite.

The author describes the ceremony, complete with Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1," and proud, sleepy graduates who appear to be the traditional of age seniors in the 22-to-24-year-old range, although older students occasionally appear in the doublefile line. The President exclaims, "Good morning, Class of 2001! It is my pleasure to welcome you to ____ University's 162nd Spring Commencement. Please remain standing and join __, a senior voice performance major, in the singing of our national anthem.

Personal Critique

As might be noted in the above description, which is more extensive in the actual article, the ritual that was analyzed was fairly generic in its form and content. It may be valuable to conduct an experiential anthropology of a single rite in some aspects of civic life, but one immediate element of falseness that strikes the reader is the great variety in commencement rituals, rituals that often vary greatly from college to college and weave in the college's own code of ethics with American civic ethics. For example, consider the difference that might exist between a commencement ritual at the all-women's college in Wellsley, Massachusetts (from which Hilary Clinton graduated), and West Point Academy. Although both higher institutions of learning might follow a preset script of behavior for the participants involved, the scripts would be quite different, even if different American civic codes of conduct where infused into the words of the speakers. As colleges differ, so do the different scripts for becoming different kinds of Americans. Magdola does acknowledge differences in ceremonies, although he is primarily interested with an analysis of the anthropological moment, not the institution, which goes beyond his study's scope. For example, smaller more intimate settings in sacred spaces result in a more respectful attidue and more seriousness on the part…

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