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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

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The Case for Zoom Commencement

By David D. Kane
David D. Kane received a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He was a tutor in Eliot House from 1993-97 and is currently a Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the Department of Government.

Switching my 120 students in Gov 1005 from the lovely Tsai Auditorium to creepy Zoom has been a pedagogical challenge. Is my virtual course as good as it was in person? No. But, after six weeks, I have learned how to make it not suck too much. Those lessons may be helpful to graduation planners.

The secret to a successful virtual commencement ceremony is the extensive use of small groups. The more time students (and families) spend talking and connecting, the better their experience will be. The more time that they spend passively listening, the worse.

First, each undergraduate House should have its own Zoom session, and within that session, 20 or so breakout rooms for its seniors, ranging in size from 4 to 10 graduates. Students will spend most of the ceremony in these senior rooms, chatting and reminiscing with their closest friends. Creating these rooms will require collaboration between house staff and the students themselves. Everyone needs to go somewhere; no one spends graduation alone. Yet neither is any group allowed to be so big that conversation is difficult. The natural starting place is rooming groups, but adjustments around the edges will be necessary.

The students in each senior room will submit a list of visitors they would welcome: anyone who has touched their lives at Harvard. Who wouldn’t want a chance to say goodbye to a friendly professor, to share one last laugh with a beloved tutor? You can be sure that every Harvard coach would love to swing by and say hello to their players. Most thesis advisers would be pleased to be invited and happy to visit. Faculty deans will probably do their best to visit all senior rooms in the House, as will many tutors. Indeed, the one big advantage of a virtual ceremony is that, with planning, it makes it easier for seniors to see many of the faculty and staff who mattered most to them.

Second, each house should have a family room counterpart for each senior room. Parents also need a place to celebrate. Many of them may already know each other, and all will be happy to talk, reveling in their joint membership in that most desirable of clubs: Harvard parents. When I teach on Zoom, like a maître d' at a fancy restaurant taking a tour of the tables, I try to visit as many of my breakout rooms each class as I can; good faculty deans will want to do the same with the family rooms, saying a few words to each group. The best faculty deans will have a funny story to tell about a student or two from each group. Personal attention makes for a memorable and meaningful experience.

Third, we need 50 or so activity rooms. These are separate Zoom sessions, one for each student extracurricular. Each sports team should have one, as well as most student organizations. Toward the end of the ceremony, these rooms will be filled with graduating members of these student groups who want to spend a moment together, even though they live in different houses. Families might join them. These organizations could also produce content — video highlights, photomontages — which chronicle their time together, their four years at Harvard.

Fourth, to unite these three different tiers of Zoom sessions, we need some common public channels. The main one, identical to the programming that Harvard has produced in past years, will have two hosts providing commentary and discussion. It will show the traditional three student speeches, the common awarding of degrees, and so on.

With this infrastructure in place, the College commencement schedule is simple:

10 a.m.: The main public channel starts broadcasting fun content: student-produced videos, a cappella groups, sports highlights, and student photos from the last four years. Then, the House Zooms open, where students are sent to their senior rooms to chat with their friends. (One big advantage of this, beyond building in time to get the technology working, is that students in senior rooms with missing participants will text those sleepy roommates and tell them to log on now!)

11:00 a.m.: The formal event begins with some digital equivalent of a student procession. Given Harvard’s global audience, 11:00 a.m. is the best start time. (Though apologies to Hawaii and New Zealand!) Then University President Lawrence S. Bacow will speak briefly. Everything on a screen is much more boring than it is in real life, so this speech must be short, perhaps no more than 15 minutes. Students can see this speech both on the main channel and in a shared screen via their House Zooms. After the speeches, students return to their senior rooms, where visitors come by to chat. This is the heart of graduation in the era of COVID-19. At the same time, families have a choice: hear a speech from someone on the main channel or go to the family rooms where they can talk amongst themselves.

12:00 p.m.: Students are brought back from their senior rooms into the House Zoom. A student from the house will give an amusing speech, and there will be main addresses from the faculty deans, after which students return to senior rooms. Again, this period, this private time with your closest friends and visits from those faculty/staff who know you best, is what makes the whole event work. More visitors come by.

12:30 p.m.: Graduating seniors can visit the activity rooms to reminisce with those outside their house, and may want to check in on the family rooms to see how their parents are faring.

1:00 p.m.: Commencement ends with final congratulations from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.

This won’t be nearly as nice as the real thing. But, with luck, it won’t suck too much.

David D. Kane received a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He was a tutor in Eliot House from 1993-97 and is currently a Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the Department of Government.

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