Mark Tonelli

Assistant Professor of Music at Millikin University

The Importance of Being Present

Full vitae present grad ceremony

Image: Marcel Schoenhardt, Creative Commons

In absentia. That Latin phrase pops up frequently near a semester's end. I heard it as I attended commencement and honors ceremonies. The announcer would say “in absentia” to denote that a student was not in attendance. Every time it happened — which was more often than I would have imagined — it struck me as odd: After the student's name was read, there would be a pregnant pause and then sometimes a bit of anemic applause. Were we supposed to applaud? Why were we applauding someone who wasn't there?

I imagine that the audiences in the ceremonies I attended were collectively thinking, “I wonder why this student isn't here,” and inventing all sorts of emergencies. We want to feel reassured that there is indeed an acceptable rationale for not showing up to receive your own hard-earned degree or a prestigious award. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt.

The truth, however, is that not all students have an emergency-related reason for missing their own graduation ceremonies. Some purposefully choose not to attend. I know because they have told me ahead of time. I listened patiently to their reasoning and then dutifully followed it with some version of, “Well, you might reconsider. It's important to mark these milestones in our lives. And the ceremony isn't as much for you as it is for your family.” In turn, the students would agree with my assessment, yet their minds must have remained unchanged, because when their names were read at commencement, they preceded by “in absentia.”

Why does this bother me? Well, I have a confession to make: I did not attend my bachelor's or master's degree commencements.

It dawned on me while sitting through the spring ceremonies that my own name must have been read at both of my commencements — along with the hollow “in absentia.” And some people must have wondered why I wasn't there. At the time, commencement simply wasn't on my radar. I rationalized that it was for people who were “into that kind of thing” — you know, ceremonies and speeches and stuff. It was an option, and I was opting out.

But I distinctly remember how I eventually received my bachelor's degree. A woman from the registrar's office advised me over the phone to pick up my diploma in the college's mail room, a place on campus I had never been. When I walked in, no one was there. It was eerily quiet. There were only stacks of mail and supplies. “Hello,” I called out. A man appeared from a back room. I explained why I was there. He nodded, returned to the back room, and reappeared a moment later with a sealed tube that he handed to me. I said thank you. He went back to work. I left.

That was it. That was how I observed the passage of a major achievement in my life. It was about as anticlimactic as it could get. At the time, I remember thinking, “shouldn’t this be more official?” Maybe the college president could have temporarily deputized the mail clerk to declare that he was satisfied I had fulfilled all requirements and was thus bestowing on me all the rights and privilege thereunto, as he nonchalantly handed me my diploma.

By the time I earned my master's degree, I was married. My wife encouraged me to attend commencement, yet I resisted. I still didn't see the advantage. So when the diploma arrived in the mail a few weeks later, in an oversized cardboard envelope, I admired it, then promptly replaced it in its envelope and tucked it away. Once again, I had managed to render the passing of a milestone completely devoid of ceremony.

It wasn't until I earned my doctorate that I finally acquiesced and attended my first commencement ceremony in higher education. That was to be my last degree so, I again rationalized, I might as well attend. Ironically, because of the enormous number of graduates from all 20 colleges across the university, none of our names were read aloud, and none of us walked across a stage to receive our diplomas. I was finally not in absentia, and it didn't matter.

Nevertheless, the sheer spectacle — the sea of classmates in academic regalia, the air electric with excitement, the cheers of thousands of family members, and the shared sense of jubilant victory at having endured to the end of this academic marathon — took my breath away. It was an incredible sight to behold, like nothing I had ever seen. And I had been missing it all these years. That is what I wanted to convey to students who told me they were skipping graduation. That special moment is what they would miss out on.

As I reflected further on the phenomenon of being in absentia, I began to consider the more subtle implications of its meaning. How often as faculty members are we “in absentia” — sometimes literally but also metaphorically? Even after only a year of full-time teaching, I can see how easy it would be to fall into familiar patterns, to justify complacency with busyness, to pat myself on the back and say I'm doing fine, to not challenge my own status quo.

Being pedagogically in absentia could consist of not genuinely being interested in a student, and reasoning that merely teaching that student is enough. My impression is that students sense that indifference from a faculty member. They divine shallow teaching. I admire teachers who achieve that balance of being themselves around students while also commanding their respect. It is a true skill to cultivate that combination of academic rigor and warmth. In a similar vein, the keynote speaker at our recent faculty retreat encouraged us to teach the courses our students need, and not just the ones we want to teach. That is an admittedly selfless approach to teaching but one which resonated with me as the opposite of “in absentia.”

The takeaway from all of this for me is twofold:

Be there in person, not just in spirit. It has been said that half of life is just showing up. I have found that to be true. It seems that people are often given opportunities simply because they are there. They cared. For us as teachers, beyond showing up to class, being there could entail attending student-led events, performances, and the like. As a faculty member in a bustling school of music, I could attend a concert almost every night. As much as I would truly love to, attending all of them is unrealistic, nor is it expected. I also don't want to be in absentia to my family, either. Even so, I probably could attend a few more events if I planned better. I know how much it means to students to see their professors in the audience.

When we attend our students' events, it makes them feel pride in what they are doing and reinforces the message that being present for these moments in life is important. If students don't attend their own commencement, perhaps it is only a reflection of how much we as professors attended their events.

It also occurs to me that attending commencement might be commensurate with participating in family traditions on holidays. Neither is strictly necessary but they teach us to stop for a moment, take inventory of our lives, and consider the future. Though some faculty members may resent being required to attend commencement, I suspect it serves a useful purpose — just as it does for students — in formally demarcating the end of an academic year, processing the experience, and planning for what comes next.

Beyond your physical presence, be present in the moment. This may be the more challenging type of being present, because it requires more of us as faculty members. It requires us to give of ourselves beyond merely being there. As anyone who teaches knows, it can be draining. Sometimes it's all we can do to make it through class and deliver the lesson.

But there is always a little more we could do, isn’t there?

Just listening to what students are saying — trying to understand what's truly on their minds — can make all the difference. We can help them discover interests they didn't know they had and set them on a path of discovery that may profoundly change the course of their lives. Students appreciate good teaching but, I’ve found, they are far more interested in how much we care about them.

When we invest of our time and ourselves in our students, they will likely respond in kind. If we're in absentia, that sends a message that it's OK for them to be, too. If we are present in the ways that count, our students will learn to be the type of people that show up, care, and ultimately make the world a better place.

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