This week’s Research Unplugged tackled American college traditions, always a popular topic in these parts! Our speaker? Acclaimed folklorist Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, and Director of their Doctoral Program in American Studies.
Drawing from his just-published book (among over 30 he has authored or edited) titled Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University—and showing many images of college life found in Penn State’s archives—Bronner delved into issues such as hazing, drugs and alcohol abuse, sports and extreme college rivalries, and sexuality, and tracked their changes over time.
Some of the college traditions at Penn State and elsewhere included the underclassmen participating in a “rush” (also called a scrap or a push) where they would “rush the field” and try to win the turf against the opposing school class, in a sort of precursor to college football. This tradition often resulted in blood being shed, explained Bronner, and drew passionate responses from both its supporters and detractors. One of the supporters at Penn State was revered faculty member Fred Lewis Pattee who nonetheless noted that when classes became too large, “the scraps assumed dangerous proportions” and had to be discontinued.
These contests also became less popular, explained Bronner, when students began to declare majors and their primary identification switched for class to major.
There were many Penn State alumni in attendance—as well as Penn Stater magazine editor Tina Hay who later blogged about the event; thank you Tina!—and many questions were asked about the history of these traditions at universities nationwide. There was a bit of nostalgia, and some bewilderment at the traditions of the past—as well as a lively discussion about the size and significance of “dinks” or “beanies” and other headwear that signified one’s standing in the student body hierarchy!
Rushes, scraps, and beanies: oh my! We can only imagine how future folklorists will analyze the traditions of our time.