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For many years from the sidelines, I noted that Convocation was taking place, but I only occasionally participated in the ceremony for my faculty. There were members of my department who were marshals and one who was the university marshal. Occasionally, I wondered how it all worked and only vaguely registered there was more than one Convocation taking place. I believe my attitude was typical of most faculty, viewing the proceedings at arm's length.
Two years ago, the Principal "gave me an offer I couldn't refuse," even though it wasn't really an offer. Reluctantly, I took on the job of university marshal. I knew I would need help as I was not prepared for this task. I asked the most knowledgeable person I knew to join me and Professor Edith Zorychta, of pathology, quickly agreed.
My attitude was completely transformed as I realized that this job requires an almost year-round effort for the Secretariat. While Edith and I make some decisions about protocol, and although we do coordinate the efforts of the many readers and other marshals, the real work takes place in the James Building on the third floor. There are about six extremely capable people who fully organize the 13 to 14 annual Convocations held mainly in the huge tent on the downtown campus.
There are many variables in setting up Convocation. First, the tent has to be erected and made safe, from the way the chairs are secured to electrical services, fire prevention, parking and security - all important aspects we take for granted. The stage seating changes with each Convocation. The work of photographers, audiovisual technicians, musicians, cleaners, groundskeepers and a significant number of student assistants must be coordinated. Naturally, the awards, diplomas, hats and gowns must be ordered and organized for the nearly 5,000 graduates, emeritus professors and honorary degree recipients. The correct protocol is known for these events, but there are frequent small adjustments that must be made for each one.
Initially, the thought of attending so many ceremonies was numbing for me, but having gained a much deeper sense of the power and value of Convocation, I've become a convert. Those who work for this event realize how vital this ritual is to the full university experience. I hope that other faculty - especially new hires - will volunteer to be marshals and readers. Even attending a single ceremony means so very much to the graduates and parents.
David Harpp is the Macdonald Professor of Chemistry and one of the founders of the Office for Science and Society and COOL McGill.