Thursday, January 3, 2013


Many universities have some way of recognizing their graduating students.  In the US it’s usually called commencement – presumably referring to the commencement of the students’ new careers since it’s the termination (in most cases) of their studies.  The British style of ceremony goes back to the clerical background of the oldest universities – Oxford and Cambridge – and the faculty dress up in imposing gowns with hoods (worn uncomfortably around the neck) and parade through the hall trying to look impressive before settling on the stage.  Every student in turn is called up, also wearing a gown appropriate to the degree he or she has just earned, the dean announces the student to the congregation (i.e. to the hall packed with students and their parents), the student walks across the stage, shakes the chancellor’s hand, and is hooded from the chairperson of Convocation (the alumni association), and a degree certificate from an officer of the Faculty.  This is also the format used at my University – Wits for short.

In my younger days as an academic at Wits, I used to think this was as silly as it sounds and would look for excuses to avoid the multiple ceremonies.  They may last for four hours – a challenge to both the mind and the bladder.  As my career at Wits developed, however, I met a variety of parents who had attended one of these ceremonies and felt that it was one of the highlights of their children’s careers.  If the ceremony meant that much to them, they deserved it.  After all, who is footing the bill one way or another?  During a term as dean, I discovered that the real challenge is a to pronounce the students’ names more or less correctly.  Wits has students with names from all the eleven official language groups in the country to say nothing of immigrants populations from Portugal, France, Spain, China, India, Pakistan and – shudder – Poland and its ilk.  Pronouncing names of fifteen letters, all of which are regarded as consonants in English, is a true test of fire for anyone with thoughts of rising in academic administration.

Nowadays I’m a part time professor in Computer Science and only attend these ceremonies when my masters and doctoral students graduate.  I had a student receiving a PhD in December, so I borrowed a Wits gown and hood and loyally turned up for the graduation.  The student had been co-supervised by a French academic who had never heard of anything like a graduation ceremony, and also turned up at least in part out of curiosity.

Sometimes one is surprised.  The University also uses these occasions to award honorary degrees to distinguished persons in any field of endeavor.  It’s usual for them to address the gathering and make a few comments to encourage the students on their way.  I had no idea that an honorary degree was to be awarded nor who would address the congregation.  It turned out to be one of South Africa’s two Nobel Prize winners for literature – John Maxwell Coetzee.  This was a big surprise.  Coetzee now lives in Australia and is something of a recluse.  He has won the Booker prize twice (the first person to do so, and was just edged out the third time by Hilary Mantel) and did not attend the awards ceremonies.  He is not short of honorary degrees.  I was amazed that he'd come in person.

I’ve read several of his works and I’ve been stunned by them.  It’s hard to describe, but there is a difference in kind of writing at that sort of level.  I think Stephen King put it well in his short memoir ON WRITING (highly recommended to anyone interested in writing, by the way).  King divides people into three categories: Those who cannot write and will never be able to do so, those with a genius for writing, and the rest of us.  It seems there are some people who will never be able to do better than string words together more or less into disjoint sentences no matter how hard they work at it.  In a literary sense, they are tone deaf.  The middle group can improve their writing significantly, and can work to become really good - maybe excellent - writers through practice, imitation and study.  King puts himself in that category and his book is directed at that group.  But no one there will ever reach the rarefied category of the outstanding talent.  (As King puts it: “Forget about it!”)   Coetzee is unquestionably in that top category both as a novelist and an essayist.

The citation for the award of the degree was overly long and not very well written (containing phrases such as: “It is not for nothing that JM Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature...”), but Coetzee listened politely, accepted his degree and the applause of crowd graciously, and turned to address the congregation.

Many were disappointed.  The address concerned the importance of having men as well as women teaching at primary school level.  It was read – of course – and Coetzee is certainly not a performer.  And the topic was inappropriate to this particular ceremony where the students were mainly receiving degrees in commerce or higher degrees in the sciences and engineering.  (Perhaps Coetzee had expected to be at a different ceremony?  But perhaps he just decided that this is what he wanted to say.)  To me it was original thought and perfect language.  It made me consider.  And it made me jealous!  Forget about it!

My student had her few moments in the limelight as the dean briefly described her research (in no more than 100 words without Polish names!) and I was glad for her.  But I will remember the occasion for that brief glimpse of the mind of JM Coetzee.

Speaking of commencement, this week we welcome two new everywhere murder writers – Caro and Lisa – and “graduates” Tim and Dan.  Dan has promised it’s just a sabbatical, meaning he’s taking a break but will be back.  Tim says he’ll pop in for guest blogs from time to time.  I think once a week or so will be fine for those, but we’ll let him off this month.  Thanks to Dan and Tim for the past and to Caro and Lisa for the future.  Stay tuned.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Talk about surprise, you certainly did that to me with this post. Not only did you actually get to see one of my writing gods in the flesh, you quoted from what I regard as a sacred text to explain the experience! JM Coetzee has always been an inspiration to me, and remembering that quote from Stephen King's "On Writing" has encouraged me to labor on after reading practically anything by Coetzee--rather than burning whatever I'm working on at the moment.

    Thanks for sharing, Michael, and Happy New Year.

  2. Indeed, Jeff! Sounds like we've been a similar route! It was great to meet him, however briefly.
    All the best for 2013. Hoping to link up somewhere during it.

  3. My admiration of Coetzee is great. And I was much looking forward to meeting him when he came to Brazil to participate in a big literary event called the FLIP. (About which I have written a blog post. Search for it in the archives if the subject interests you.)
    But, a bit like Michael, I was disappointed by his speech. And he made no attempt to tailor it to his audience, which mosts folks found disrespectful. All in all, I'd rather read him than see him.