Academe, Folklore of. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Folk traditions of the college and university campus. The academic world consists of two
principal subcultures—student and faculty—which, like all groups sharing common
concerns over long periods of time, have developed constellations of folk belief, custom,
folk speech, legend, jocular narrative, and ritual.
The most prevalent folk beliefs among university students (beyond the assumption that
a college education leads to a job in “the real world”) fall into two arenas of potential
anxiety: class attendance and examinations. In both contexts, certain excuses (such as
“my grandmother is dying”) are believed to be more efficacious than others in obtaining
pardon or permission for missing something for which the student has already paid.
Virtually universal among American college students in their first two years of university
work is the belief that there is a standard waiting period for a professor who does not
arrive punctually. The most common system requires students to wait five minutes for an
instructor, ten for an assistant professor, fifteen for an associate professor, and twenty for
a full professor, although one also hears of ten minutes for a non-Ph.D., twenty for a
Ph.D., fifteen for most faculty, all period if necessary for a full professor. This set of
beliefs, like most folklore, is not learned from formal authority (indeed, such an
obligation has yet to be found in the formal student rules of any American university), but
from other members of the folk group: in this case, other students. University students in
Germany, by contrast, routinely arrive in the classroom about fifteen minutes after the
scheduled time, an acknowledged manipulation of time called der akademische Viertel
(the academic quarter [hour]).
Students facing examinations, especially “finals,” try to affect their fortunes or their
self-confidence by wearing lucky clothes (such as a shirt that was worn during a previous
exam that was successful), carrying amulets, dolls, or special pens, hoping the exam falls
on a lucky day (including the seventh, fourteenth, or twenty-first of the month), avoiding
normal personal grooming (not combing hair, not shaving, or wearing “grubbies”),
abstaining from sex (to conserve brain energy), and knocking loudly on the desk before
starting the exam. While these observances may seem superficially to be either naive or
simple matters of haste, they all fall into quite ancient categories of psychological
tradition. In addition to the student’s own talents in the class, which are affected by a
number of variables, and in response to the professor’s power in the class, which is
believed to be wielded inconsistently, the anxious student can obtain confldence or
magical help by utilizing a belief system that has been in existence for hundreds of years.
In a similar way, members of hazardous occupations (like deep-sea fishermen and
firefighters) adopt the beliefs and customs passed on by several generations of coworkers,
thus availing themselves of an accumulation of experience, know-how, and psychological
aids that they do not have time to discover on their own before being in danger.
Student customs extend far beyond the issues of academic anxiety, however.
Collectors of student folklore have noted extensive drinking games (“Cardinal Puff,”
“Fuzz-Buzz”), theme parties, engagement and marriage rituals (passing a candle around a
group of sorority women to announce an engagement), clothing and personal-decoration
variations (especially at sports events and at graduation), and the use of obscene songs as
unofficial expressions of membership in clubs, fraternities, sororities, and sports teams
(especially rugby). At Utah State University (formerly an agricultural college), a student
becomes a True Aggie by standing on a small concrete monument formed in the shape of
an A and being kissed by someone who is already a True Aggie, at midnight, while the
bell in nearby Old Main tolls the hour, preferably on a full moon, and preferably on
Homecoming Saturday. It is rumored that another more complex and private ritual
produces a “True Blue Aggie,” but its details have remained in the dark. At other
universities, gates, statues, and fountains are the focal points of similar rituals and
The folk speech of university students abounds with terms that mark the users as
insiders: “cutting” or “sluffing” for intentionally missing a class, “cramming” for earnest
studying, “Mickey” or “Mickey Mouse” to describe an easy course, “ballbuster” for a
difficult course, “brown-nose” for a teacher’s pet. Terms like “comps,” “finals,”
“defense,” “How much of a load are you carrying?” “What’s your GPA?” and the like are
readily understood on campus but are usually unintelligible to anyone not a part of the
academic group.
Academic legends (stories told as true, but not by someone who was an eyewitness)
recall prudish deans of the 1950s who prohibited red dresses and patent leather shoes
(responding to overzealous interpretations of in loco parentis), obscene or crazy
comments by professors in their classes, epic pranks (like the dead horse in the fraternity
cellar), and spectacular feats of cheating on final examinations. Professorial arrogance is
parodied in the legend of the lecturer who notices most of his students using tape
recorders so they won’t have to take notes; he responds by sending a graduate assistant to
play tapes to them so he will not have to lecture. An absentminded biology professor,
getting ready to dissect a frog, pulls out of his backpack the sandwich he thought he ate at
lunch. Students playing recordings backward discover satanic messages or hypnotic
orders that lead them to suicide (in joking response, other students claim to have played a
record of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir backward, obtaining twenty new recipes for
Jello salad).
Pranks are another important genre of academic folklore, though it is not always clear
whether the pranks actually are carried out, or if they are simply parts of the oral
traditions of campus groups. One hears about well-fed cows being left overnight in the
offices of unpopular professors and about the dean’s car being taken apart and
reassembled on the roof of the administration building, but it is easier to flnd avid
narrators than eyewitnesses to these events. Modern legends of student hackers gaining
access to academic records and changing friends’ grades are matched by newspaper
accounts of people who have been caught doing it.
Faculty folklore focuses more on the humor, irony, and occasional disappointments in
the life behind the lectern than it does on anxiety and fun. Although there are some jokes
about students—like the young woman who says she will “do anything” for a grade and
is then told by the professor to try studying, or the joke about the student who almost
chokes to death trying to swallow his “crib notes” at an examination—professorial
traditions complain about the devices used for cheating on exams, the range of excuses
given for being absent (it is noted cynically that final examination week is extremely
dangerous for the elderly, since so many grandmothers die then), and the unwillingness
of students to learn (teaching is characterized as “casting fake pearls before real swine”).
As much as anything, faculty members both instigate and utilize much of the folklore
circulating among their students, very likely because they were also students in a
previous life. When a professor is late for class, she can be sure that the students will wait
for at least ten minutes before daring to leave. If a professor wants to intimidate or
astound the students, he can quote from tradition, as when a University of Oregon
English professor asked the women in his Milton class to cross their legs so that the gates
of Hell would be closed when they discussed Paradise Lost, using a legend he had heard
at his own alma mater when he was a student. A music professor at the University of
Utah waited until the critical moment (was it twenty minutes?) when his students were
about to leave the room, then ceremoniously stepped out of the grand piano while
beginning his initial lecture.
Folklore is not found only among the backward, illiterate, and uninformed; it is a vital
expressive component in the lives of all ongoing human groups. Academic folklore is a
dynamic illustration of the ways in which folklore functions for modern, well-educated,
upwardly mobile people whose occupational context places them under particular strains
and concerns that are well articulated on the vernacular level.
Barre Toelken
Bronner, Simon. 1990. Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life. Little Rock, AR:
August House.
Dorson, Richard M. 1959. The Folklore of College Students. In American Folklore. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, pp. 254–267.
Toelken, Barre. 1986. The Folklore of Academe. In Jan Harold Brunvand, 3d ed. The Study of
American Folklore: An Introduction, New York: W.W.Norton, pp. 502–528.