May 28, 2006

College folk cultures, formal and informal

I'm currently in Pennsylvania, having come up here with my family for my wife's 20th reunion at Bryn Mawr College. Last night we went to the reunion stepsing, which has its roots in a thrice-yearly ritual at the college of undergraduates' gathering in the evening to sing a bunch of songs. At one level, the ritual is fairly formal, with each class sitting together, led by a class songsmistress and, when all of them sing, by the senior songmistress. There are several songs that are de rigeur, starting with two in Greek. (Hey, this is Bryn Mawr, where significant minorities of students take Latin or Greek.) Even the parodies of college life can be fairly old. (The times when Haverford College students are welcomed to respond can be embarrassing. The one we alums were called on last night to sing includes the following verse:

Her suite will be occupied by ten cats
A parakeet, goldfish, and two white rats.
Mind's precocious, hair's atrocious;
If you get her in bed, she's ferocious

This is to "The Girl That I Marry," from Annie Get Your Gun, and that's the least offensive verse, either in the version sung by Mawrters or the one down for Fords to sing. I'm assuming it was written in the 60s, and oh, is it dated. For one thing, Haverford has been coed for about a quarter-century, and I don't think the authors were that enlightened about same-sex marriage when the parody was written.) And yet the culture is clearly a folk process, even within the formality. The alumnae association reunion songbook includes a number of clever turns of phrase, such as the following from one of my wife's classmates (Claudia Ginanni, to the John Denver tune, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"):

Well I haven't seen a man in 17 weeks;
The closest that I've come is a wimp and a geek.
Can't remember how they look, but I think they have beaks;
Thank God I'm a Mawrter Girl

I remember that from when I was an undergraduate, and it's still one of the best set of lines written by a student at that time. (Too bad it wasn't one of the songs chosen last night.) It's not surprising that an all-women's college would have parodies that poke fun at single-sex social life, but there are plenty that also poke fun at the strenuous workload, such as the parody of "How Lovely is the Morning" referring to early-morning classes and the way that the central building on campus tolls the hours (in round form):

Oh how ugly is the morning, is the morning.
Taylor Tower sounds its warning, sounds its warning.
Goddamned bell. Goddamned bell.

The larger context at Bryn Mawr is a single-sex residential liberal-arts college with a student-run honor code, a college that used to be affiliated with the Society of Friends (i.e., Quakers), and where there was a long history of informal group writings on campus well before blogs existed. So-called "backsmoker diaries" (group journals) survived for many years after the relevant dorms were declared no-smoking domains. There is no "gut" degree anywhere in the college, the only Greeks are those majoring in the subject, and while the college is not as physically isolated as some well-known liberal-arts colleges I could name, getting into or around Philadelphia isn't exactly easy for students without cars. Students respond to that isolated pressure in different ways. Many thrive. Some turn to individually-destructive actions. A few turn (and I hope as relatively few as I saw when I was a student at Haverford) to collective destructive actions when drinking. And those who aren't sure whether they're thriving often forge social support networks through creative endeavours.

The parody songs sung at stepsing (see how many forms of that verb we can use in a sentence...) are the most visible signs of that creative culture on the campus. The formality of the ritual should not obscure the informalities behind it. Part of the reasons why the students at Bryn Mawr continue stepsing is because a critical mass find value in a shared culture at precisely the time when they both want to demonstrate independent value in their lives and also when they realize how desperately they need social support in the tough environment of a liberal-arts college.

Disclosure: one of the songs I wrote as a Haverford student appears in the songbook, albeit uncredited. That's okay—folk processes tend to obscure authorship, especially when a lyric sheet is passed down as faded copies retyped over the years—it was rather nice to see it there.

Small-worlds note: I discovered this weekend that the advisor of my colleague Barbara Shircliffe—SUNY Buffalo professor emerita Maxine Sellers—was in Bryn Mawr's Class of 1956. I never did catch up with her to tell her that Barbara's new book, The Best of That World, is finally out. It's a history of the desegregation of Tampa, and I strongly recommend it. I'm biased, of course, but I'm also right here.

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Posted in Random comments on May 28, 2006 11:59 PM |