Why We Need Rituals Right Now

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Higher education, college campuses, are chock full of rituals. Commencement is the flashiest one, though welcome convocations and orientations are close seconds. But there are other rituals and markers. For me the day the RAs start training is the beginning of the new academic year. For others it may be the beginning of sorority recruitment or the opening faculty meeting. I took a class with a professor who had a ritual lecture for the last day of his introductory zoology class. (I loved it so much I went back to hear it the next semester. You did know I’m a nerd right?) Rituals and routines are scattered throughout the academic calendar and across all the different components of every campus I’ve ever been on.

At Trinity, the university marshal told me he thought Student Affairs ought to try out a bunch of different ideas and see what stuck. I took him up on that and started messing with both convocation and commencement. None of what we tried was original. I copied an idea from SMU, who had copied it from Brown. I also adapted one from Southwestern University. This one was to have the faculty line up at the end of graduation so the graduates can file out between them. One of my faculty colleagues came up to me after we tried it the first time to tell me she had thought this was hokey when she first heard they were being asked to do this. It only took that one time to convince her that this was a good idea. This one still exists many years later because it met a need many people hadn’t recognized.

And that’s the point of rituals. Whether they are small personal rituals or recognitions or large communal experiences, rituals serve a profound purpose. I’m most familiar with colleges and universities, but every organization has its rituals and rites. Robert Fulgham, o the essayf “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” fame has written a book called From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives in which he explores the variety and purposes of rituals. In writing this book, he developed a number of what he calls “propositions”. Here are a few I think are relevant to our organizations and may be particularly important at this time in our shared experiences of coping with a pandemic.

  • Rituals are one way in which attention is paid.
  • Rituals arise from the stages and ages of life.
  • Rituals may be spontaneous or arranged.
  • Rituals are in constant evolution and reformation.

In a conversation with a coaching client last week, I suggested that perhaps she and her colleagues needed some sort of ritual to acknowledge making the shift back to a more normal work experience. I can think of so many reasons to do something to mark this time in our collective organizational experience. Here are just a few.

  • To acknowledge both shared and private trauma for so many people over the past year.
  • To say thank you for extraordinary work on the part of so many people to keep individuals and communities safe and healthy.
  • To welcome the many people hired during the past few months, some of whom have never met their colleagues in person.
  • To recognize all the people whose work never moved off campus, those who kept things going.
  • To celebrate coming through an extraordinary time and acknowledge that we aren’t done yet.

I’m sure you can  think of at least this many reasons that are specific to your campus, division, or department. Yes, some people like my faculty colleagues may think the ritual is hokey, and it’s difficult to design something that meets everyone’s needs, but that shouldn’t stop us from taking time to stop and acknowledge our shared experiences, both positive and difficult. I’d love to hear what you are doing to welcome students, faculty, and staff to this new semester.

Take care,


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