Claiming Space: Performing the Personal through Decorated Mortarboards (Utah State University Press) examines the growing tradition of decorating mortarboards at college graduations, offering a performance-centered approach to these material sites of display. Taking mortarboard displays seriously as public performances of the personal, this book highlights the creative, playful, and powerful ways graduates use their caps to fashion their personal engagement with notions of self, community, education, and the unknown future.
Claiming the space of these graduation caps is a popular and widespread way that individuals make their voices heard, or rather seen, in the visual landscape of commencement ceremonies. The forms and meanings of these material displays take shape in relation to broader, ongoing conversations about higher education in the United States, conversations grounded in discourses of belonging, citizenship, and the promises of the American Dream. Integrating observational fieldwork with extensive interviews and surveys, author Sheila Bock highlights the interpretations of individuals participating in this tradition. She also attends to the public framings of this tradition, including how images of mortarboards have grounded online enactments of community through hashtags such as #LatinxGradCaps and #LetTheFeathersFly, as well as what rhetorical framings are employed in news coverage and legal documents in cases where the value of the practice is both called into question and justified.
As university administrators and cultural commentators seek to make sense of the current state of higher education, these forms of material expression offer insight into how students themselves are grappling with higher ed’s promises and shortcomings. Claiming Space is a meaningful contribution to folklore, cultural studies, media studies, and education.
Sheila Bock is a folklorist and associate professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is an award-winning teacher and coeditor of Narrative Culture and has published numerous articles and book chapters.
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