Thursday, June 19, 2014

Regarding a Cham Strip

Jorge Cham's PHD Comics is a common bit of reading among those in the academic community. In depicting various aspects of life in graduate school, it addresses the common experiences of those who have pursued post-baccalaureate education, allowing them to laugh at themselves. This is true of the 18 June 2014 strip (if that is the correct word for a webcomic) "A Guide to Academic Regalia," in which Cham identifies and skewers many pieces of the academic costume seen only at the most formal academic functions, typically graduation ceremonies. It is the tagline, "Nothing says 'We've learned something' like dressing the same way they did in Medieval Times" [sic], that attracts the attention of those who study the ways in which the medieval continues to manifest, for, as I note in a 7 June 2014 post to this blog, academic regalia is one of the appropriations of the medieval by contemporary popular culture--and the sneering attitude the strip exhibits betrays some misunderstandings of the invocation of the medieval.

Some of the assertions made in the strip--those regarding the standard colors for various degrees, for example--are factually correct (although the examples identified may well be read as sarcastic commentary). At least one, however, is incorrect: regalia is not standardized by "the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume." Insofar as they are standardized, it is by traditional usage described in Eugene Sullivan's "Academic Costume Code and Ceremony Guide" and presented on the American Council on Education website.* As part of that code, Sullivan attests to the fairly common understanding of the Western academic system as emerging from training for religious orders, situating the foundations of academic dress in items carried over from priestly and monastic robes and climate-driven additions. This does mean that Cham is right in pointing out the medieval origins of the academic costume, but it does not mean he is correct in the aspersion with which his strip regards it.

Several reasons his error is an error suggest themselves. One of them is that learning does not mean a rejection of the past. Those who study history will necessarily engage with the past to perform their studies, as will those concerned in such other fields as archaeology and paleontology. In addition, the practices of the peoples labeled as "medieval" are not necessarily so backwards as they are popularly assumed to be (as I touch on in a comment from 13 June 2014). They were, among others, attuned to the idea of preventative medicine through diet (with which many people in the early twenty-first century struggle) and invested in what might now be called "deep" semiotic readings as a matter of course. To offhandedly deride their practices as indicating a lack of learning does them a disservice--and it does the contemporary reader a disservice through perpetuating both erroneous ideas of the medieval (another continuing discussion on the Society blog) and through promoting a myopic view of the contemporary as the only time that matters. It suggests too much that the problems present in the now are not as problematic as they actually are, which tends to vitiate against their remedy.

The excision of the historical view--and ridicule of the historical conduces to that end--does not help people. Instead, it serves to disconnect them from their societal histories, histories which inform the current circumstances of their societies. Without the historical view, systemic inequities cannot be identified or addressed, which serves to denigrate those who are made abject through generational circumstances beyond their control; it facilitates blaming the victims for their own victimization. Further, to borrow from a cliché, it prevents the recognition of historical parallels, making avoidance of the problems of the past nearly impossible. The retention of the medieval aspects of academic dress serve as a palliative to that (albeit only in a small, small way). The common experience of regalia--again, the many who graduate from high schools and colleges share it--may not be overt in connecting people to societal histories. Rarely do academic ceremonies highlight the history of Western schooling (and I am aware of the problems in focusing on it to the exclusion of others, but see my note, below). But that a thing is not overt does not mean it is not present, and there are always those who are induced to curiosity about their circumstances and use regalia as a (perhaps trivial) way approach the medieval--or how the medieval continues to appear in whatever it is that gets called popular culture.

Cham is not necessarily wrong to lampoon any aspect of the US system of higher education (insofar as such a thing exists). Much of it deserves ridicule, and even that which does not does not suffer from it. Even in "A Guide to Academic Regalia," there is much of value. The strip is funny, overall, with a number of the implicit and explicit jokes working well. Even the sneering comment need not be taken at face value. And it is the case that academic regalia is awkward for the contemporary wearer and uncomfortable in many circumstances; I took my bachelor's in central Texas and my graduate degrees in southwestern Louisiana, neither of which has the kindest climate to long black robes in May or June when most commencements happen. But jokes are often used to express ideas that are deeply held but run counter to prevailing norms and so are not best suited for flat discussion, and sarcasm tends to blunt serious consideration. As a medievalist and as a scholar of how the medieval is presented, I want to have the serious conversations. I almost need to have them. Thus I react to the Cham strip as I do, even though I am and for some years have been a regular reader of PHD Comics; I worry that it forecloses the possibility of doing what I--and the Society--do.

*Cham operates primarily in the United States and speaks mostly to the US system of higher education. As such, this discussion focuses on US practice; discussions of other nations' practices would be welcome in the comments.

Works Cited
  • Cham, Jorge. "A Guide to Academic Regalia." PHD Comics. Jorge Cham, 18 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "Against Some Perceived Limits on Popular Culture: A Small Case." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 7 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • ---. Comment on "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 13 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Sullivan, Eugene. "Academic Costume Code and Ceremony Guide." ACE: American Council on Education. American Council on Education, n.d. Web. 19 June 2014.

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