Professors Michael O’Rourke and Gary Williams
Name is inextricable from identity, more so than a fingerprint, retinascape or social security number. It is the colorful, dog-eared sticker on the baggage of individual experience, an abstraction that concretely links us to family, to heritage and to self.
To hear your name ring out over a sea of humanity in the Kibbie Dome is to have your accomplishment publicly acknowledged, your membership in a community confirmed.
That brief moment is at the heart of Commencement Day pomp and circumstance.
“How often does your full name get pronounced in a context that calls to mind several years of hard work on your part?” asks Gary Williams, head of the English Department and a reader at the December 2009 Commencement. “We owe our graduates at least that – and correct pronunciation.”
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Commencement readers practice before delivering the small but significant gift of names read aloud. There is an element of theater in the delivery, said Williams, and timing is crucial. “We had to work to get up to a one-every-five-seconds pace,” he says of last spring’s commencement.
Michael O’Rourke, professor of philosophy, has served as a reader since 2005. He will be on the dais with Williams again in December.
Readers get help from the Registrar’s Office on pronunciation, and when in doubt seek clarification from students themselves. Williams and O’Rourke also rehearse by reciting their lists of names aloud at home. “When it sounds like I’m reading the phone book out loud, my family knows it’s about commencement time,” says O’Rourke.
But even with due diligence, mispronunciation can happen.
“I’ve found that it is the names you think you know that are the most trouble,” he confesses. “During one of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences ceremonies, I had the name ‘Jerime’ which I thought would be pronounced Ja-Reem. I proceeded to pronounce it that way, only to have someone from the crowd yell out so that all could hear, ‘Way to go, Je-Ruh-ME !’ An instant,public and embarrassing correction. I had to laugh.”
At December Commencement, approximately 400 names will be read aloud. Even if an accent should fall on the wrong syllable, commencement remains one of those defining moments when we come to understand exactly who we are.