Anxiety. A day full of pictures you’ll remember forever. Hours of speeches whose details will morph into scattered soundbites. Finally, your name is called for you to shake hands with the college president and receive your diploma ... just kidding. Your diploma is in the mail, here, have a nice cover for it.
These are the things I remember from my graduation from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in 2018. It was also raining, and I lost my best umbrella at the ceremony, but that’s life, and also one of the risks of doing a traditional outdoor graduation ceremony. But despite the weather, I would always choose my in-person graduation over the virtual graduation ceremonies the college put together for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 that are free for anyone to watch on YouTube.
An impersonal touch
At issue is not necessarily the quality of the speeches or anything MCLA produced itself, but the quality of the graduation videos that were put together by a third-party vendor, specifically the name-reading parts. The videos featured a robotic text-to-speech voiceover — which reminds me of Siri — that not only left out double majors and honors, it pronounced a number of students’ names wrong and even used the dead names (their former names, not the names they use) of transgender students, prompting a Change.org petition that has amassed over 500 virtual signatures asking the college to apologize in a public statement.
In response, a spokesperson with the college told The Eagle: “We felt strongly that students should be able to choose the names they wanted to be called at commencement, so we provided an opportunity for students to indicate that decision. We do know that some trans students made different choices based on whether it was safe for them to be out or not. We have reached out to the individuals who were impacted by this misstatement to apologize and make amends.”
A lot of people from the college I know were not impressed by this, as while the college claims it apologized to those impacted, they don’t offer an actual apology in their statement like the petition requested. In fact, it seems like they’re shifting the blame onto students for making “different choices” based on whether it was safe for them to come out or not, which is probably true for some, but is not why the people who signed the petition are upset; in this year’s graduate application, it explicitly asked students how they wanted their names to appear on their diplomas — and presumably for the graduation ceremonies — and for some inexplicable reason, the virtual ceremonies ignored graduates’ wishes across the board.
I know this because my girlfriend went through the process this year. To give you an idea of how bad it was, her name is Shanet, pronounced phonetically as it reads — shuh-NET. It’s not shuh-NAE, SHAE-net and certainly not Shantel; believe me, we’ve heard them all. In the graduation ceremony, it sounds like the robotic voice is pronouncing it SHAW-nit, though when you listen carefully, it does seem to be pronouncing it right, just whatever software they used does not know how to stress syllables, so its reading came out monotonous and off. We laughed it off, but she was very disappointed by the whole thing, especially considering area high schools and other colleges in the state — some larger than MCLA — managed to pull off in-person graduation ceremonies.
After a year of pandemic learning in which spring break was canceled, and where the college had to forcibly go fully remote at the end of the year because of a cluster of COVID-19 cases on campus, virtual graduation ceremonies in which transgender students were deadnamed and many had their names mispronounced was a slap in the face, especially considering that they were fully capable of having a real person recite the names correctly. In fact, MCLA Professor Graziana Ramsden commented on the Change.org petition that “as the graduation ‘name-reading’ faculty member for the past 5 years, no one approached me to perform this duty. No machine can replace a human.”
A better choice at hand
Having seen the Class of 2021 graduation in its entirety — and some of the Class of 2020’s ceremony — I affirm that MCLA communication students would probably have done a much better job, and there was absolutely no reason to give the name-reading duties to a machine. It’s a great example of why it’s not necessarily a great idea to outsource this type of stuff, especially when you’re a college like MCLA, with professional TV production and editing facilities and many talented students, alumni and professors in fields relevant to productions like this that would have put in extra care and love you just can’t get from a third-party production company.
This is not to say it’s never a good idea to use a third-party company for graduations, especially when they provide a quality service you can’t get anywhere else, but graduations are very personal, intimate events people remember for the rest of their lives, especially at small colleges like MCLA, and while the ceremony might be very important to the school, graduates and their families, it’s just another job for an outside contractor. Graduations demand the personal touch of their local communities, and replacing a local speaker with what is basically the equivalent of Siri is just about as impersonal as you can get.
Going forward, I’m not sure what the college can do to make this right. Like it or not, those ceremonies will be the last thing a lot of graduates remember about MCLA, as both classes scatter in the wind all across the country and world, starting their next chapter in life. The best thing the college can do is listen to criticism, learn from their mistakes and make amends where they can.