• Michael Randall

Why Virtual Graduation Ceremonies Are Like Dinner Parties: A Write Up of Strathclyde Law's LLB Event

Last week, Strathclyde Law School hosted its virtual LLB graduation ceremony - the programme for which you can still see here ( T

hese have, unfortunately, become the norm for 2020, and overall (we think) the event ran smoothly. However, I’ve found this week that because of the level of work which went into this behind the scenes, in faffing around working out what to do this week, I’ve done very little. Therefore, in some way to trick myself into thinking that I’ve been far more productive today than I have actually been, I felt it was worth giving a little bit of a behind the scenes as to what we were able to pull off.

Whilst I think it was a really positive event, I sincerely hope that it is a one-off. I want to be very clear that in no way am I critical of us doing the event, or criticising anyone involved (the people we approached to record videos for us were far more gracious and accommodating than we had any right for them to be). I think, instead, it is more a case of conveying the sheer level of panic behind the scenes on my part to tie it all together.

Virtual Graduation is Like a Dinner Party

It is always risky for me to bring up Come Dine With Me (watch the “what a sad little life Jane” clip back, and there’s a guy in a check shirt with short brown hair and glasses, who I promise isn’t me). But the analogy I’d use is it is a little bit like planning a dinner party.

Firstly, you need to know who is attending. You then need to plan a menu, taking into account dietary requirements, and what is currently in the shops. You need to decide when you’re hosting the dinner party, and make sure people get the invites. You think about what you can prepare in advance, and what needs to be done on the evening in question. There is then a frantic spell in the kitchen as you try and bring everything together – something will go wrong at some point, and you’re then just hoping you don’t burn the place down. You are inevitably trying to cover up something (you haven’t tidied up properly, or a slightly overdone steak). You are desperate for people to have a good time, and then after everyone has left, you go to bed without having done the washing up, because you’re exhausted. And this is with people that I know and like, not a bunch of strangers doing it for 4 nights in a row with scoring – no wonder they go crazy at each other.

The biggest challenge was not being able to really discuss/communicate the plans with students until results were out. Behind the scenes, there had been efforts to work out what the University and Faculty plans were (to make sure you didn’t overlap and do the same thing again). These discussions were happening at the same time as the exam boards were sitting. These, correctly, take priority, and people also have duties acting as an external examiner for other institutions, too. You know it’s important, but everything gets delayed.

The Guest List and Date

One of the things that I do as Senior Tutor is attend the exam pre-boards and final boards themselves, and take a note of students either with further decisions that need to be followed up with by Personal Development Advisers, or who are awarded degrees (two reasons – one, so PDAs can congratulate their students, but two, so I have an accurate record of the number of students before I do the next allocation). There is an undertaking to make sure you got everyone’s name and award correct (apologies to the two students I know of with a typo in their programme). Next, we needed to pick a date - one that bought us a little bit more time, but also one which was not so far removed from the conferral of degrees on 3rd July. Mid-week the following week became the logical conclusion.

'Planning the Menu'

Then there was the research and planning – what have other Universities and schools been doing, and what can we do that is either similar (but works for Strathclyde), or is different, and makes us stand out? One common trend was having pre-recorded videos from a notable person. You may, for example, have seen the Obamas giving virtual graduation speeches. Unfortunately, we don’t have them on speed dial, so who could we get?

Secondly, we wanted something which students could keep to remember their time/the day. The standard one is to complete a virtual yearbook – given the turnaround time, that was always going to be ambitious, but we tried. However, we wanted something Strathclyde specific.

Thirdly, we knew we wanted to have names read aloud (but by whom?), but was there anything else we could do to mark the event beyond reading names aloud, in order?

Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends

The call was put out to staff – a six degrees of separation-esque “do you know anyone?”. We felt that we could get some notable practitioners, but as someone who has a law degree, but who never wanted to go onto the Diploma/Bar, I was conscious that exclusively having practitioners implies (unconsciously) that you can only do one thing with a law degree.

I will spare the machinations, but particular credit for our speakers needs to go to Professor Alan Patterson, Kenneth Norrie, Stuart Kelly and Stephanie Switzer for getting agreements. The difficulty then was following up, accessing the videos, checking the content, editing them together and determining the best order to present them in. More difficult when you are not a video editor.

It’s also more difficult when you are stuck out in Partick the day before the event, because the Subway service has been suspended, and you can’t check the last 3 videos have come through and are ok (one person sent theirs literally via WhatsApp as I was stuck underground with no Wi-Fi). Again, though, given the degree of notice we gave some people, for them to send a video at all was fantastic.

We were lucky enough to get a keynote speech from Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court. I won’t give a full breakdown of what each speaker said, but his message was optimistic about finding your place in a post-graduate world, and reflecting on how invaluable the skillset of a lawyer is beyond law. He also spoke of the importance of self-value and self-respect that students shouldn’t lose sight of, after receiving their degree awards.

The other speakers we had were Dame Elish Angiolini (Strathclyde alumna and former Lord Advocate), Amanda Millar (Strathclyde alumna, President of the Law Society of Scotland), Roddy Dunlop QC (Vice Dean Faculty of Advocates), Thomas Leonard Ross QC (Strathclyde alumnus), Denise Mina (Denise wrote her first novel ‘Garnethill’ whilst studying for a PhD at Strathclyde Law School) and Lauren Mayberry (Strathclyde alumna and lead singer of Chvrches). We have sent our thanks to all, but of course since Wednesday, I’ve been listening to Chvrches on loop, bought myself a band t-shirt, and bought one of my best friends Garnethill for his birthday this coming Friday.

The Banner Image

We wanted to send something digitally which could be kept by students for the future. It turns out that whilst it may be relatively easy to design one of those hoodies with “Leavers 20” on the back (with everyone’s name making up the “Leavers 20” message), trying to get a poster version of that is really quite hard, and there’s no guarantee that you can get the digital file.

That left us with a blank, until, and I can’t remember how the idea came about, we contracted with a freelance graphic designer to illustrate a skyline silhouette image of Strathclyde campus – in effect, a black and white banner image, featuring the monument at the top of Rottenrow Gardens, the Royal College, Barony Hall, Lord Hope Building and the Andersonian Library. That came through late the week before we had the ceremony - to continue the dinner party analogy, these were the chilled desserts that we'd made in advance - worst case scenario, you're at least getting trifle for dinner.

Quite whether it will replace the current banner illustration I have printed in my flat of a line of Taylor Swifts from the ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ video, I don’t know, but it might go up in the office when we’re allowed back.

Student Showcase

That still felt a bit light though, and we needed something else. One of the notable things which marks a graduation ceremony is the chance for students, staff and their parents to speak to each other, which normally consists of the staff singing the student’s praises. In a virtual setting, that same interaction was not possible, but we needed to find a way to acknowledge student achievements without doing a formal prizegiving (it’s a separate ceremony, and any new prizes needed to go through an approval process).

At my secondary school, when we had prize giving, there was a prize for effort and achievement for each year group and subject (I won the best effort for my tutor group award 4 times - £7 book vouchers – spent my first prize on a Gary Rhodes cookbook which I still own). However, there was always a section at the end for ‘head teacher’s awards’, which was, essentially, anyone else that deserved a mention.

That idea was adapted into our student showcase – we are fortunate at Strathclyde Law School to have students from a variety of backgrounds on a variety of courses. It’s very easy to focus exclusively on grades, but as I wrote about on this blog re results, that can reduce student performance to a top trump-esque comparison, which overlooks work ethic, contribution to the law school community, or overcoming personal circumstance difficulties. Staff were asked to nominate students, and so we listed 20 examples showing these values – something which all of our students share.

The Stresses

I did have help, but the event required communication skills, planning, video editing, word processing and graphic design, major testing of Zoom skills, and hosting abilities. This may surprise some, but I’m not an editor, graphic designer, or gameshow host. So I was going into the event feeling like I was a bit short in some of those areas. I also, quite probably, have an incredibly mild form of self-diagnosed OCD, so could see a few 'problems', which weren't really problems in the grand scheme of things (no one look at the alignment of the images in the programme, OK?)

On the Saturday evening before the event, I realised I had forgotten to put a card in the post for my sister’s wedding anniversary on Monday (bad brother). On Monday evening at about 1pm, my Wi-Fi just decided to pack up and stop working. It took about 2.5 hours to get it back working. On Tuesday at 5pm, not all of the videos had come through, I was away from the flat and tired from the Wi-Fi incident. I didn’t finish working until 1am. On Wednesday, I did a test run on playing videos 2 hours before we were due to go live…it did not go well. I felt like I had a tight chest, and was shaking about an hour before we went live. The last time I got that nervous before something was when I did a best man’s speech – I try not to swear on here, but the pressure in representing the school in doing something for the students to remember for all of their hard work, and feeling you had f***** up already was something I don’t really want to revisit any time soon. If I get a line wrong in a lecture, it doesn’t really matter. If I slip up during a wedding speech/formal event – you’ll remember the slip up, not the other things.

That doesn’t mean I was on my own – I did have help, and where there were mistakes, people were very nice in going out of their way to help/try and be nice about things. That, weirdly, made me feel worse. It’s a weird reaction, but as an example, I was an assistant for a conference and was responsible for ordering the catering, among other things. It was only when the wine order didn’t arrive about 15 minutes before the end of the conference that I realised I’d put the wrong date on the order, and it wasn’t coming. It is something which was solely my error, and I felt dreadful about it. The senior staff were incredible in telling me not to worry about it, and scrambled to find a solution. I felt so bad about it at the time, though, that honestly, I would have preferred to have just been called an idiot sandwich and asked to leave Gordon Ramsay-style.

I do hope that the students enjoyed it. I know some couldn’t attend, and I need to send out the recording once I’ve gone back and subtitled it (Zoom’s transcription software is not the best – it has previously transcribed “I am a lecturer in the law school” as “I’m electric in the school” and “Senior Tutor” as “Senior Cheese”). But my instant reaction is the same as when I’ve hosted a dinner party – that went OK in the end, but never again…I need another gin and a lie down.

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