Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University
How American campus life shapes students, and how students shape campus lore
From their beginnings, campuses emerged as hotbeds of traditions and folklore. American college students inhabit a culture with its own slang, stories, humor, beliefs, rituals, and pranks. Simon J. Bronner takes a long, engaging look at American campus life and how it is shaped by students and at the same time shapes the values of all who pass through it. The archetypes of absent-minded profs, fumbling jocks, and curve-setting dweebs are the stuff of legend and humor, along with the all-nighters, tailgating parties, and initiations that mark campus tradition—and student identities. Undergraduates in their hallowed halls embrace distinctive traditions because the experience of higher education precariously spans childhood and adulthood, parental and societal authority, home and corporation, play and work.
Bronner traces historical changes in these traditions. The predominant context has shifted from what he calls the “old-time college,” small in size and strong in its sense of community, to mass society’s “mega-university,” a behemoth that extends beyond any campus to multiple branches and offshoots throughout a state, region, and sometimes the globe. One might assume that the mega-university has dissolved collegiate traditions and displaced the old-time college, but Bronner finds the opposite. Student needs for social belonging in large universities and a fear of losing personal control have given rise to distinctive forms of lore and a striving for retaining the pastoral “campus feel” of the old-time college. The folkloric material students spout, and sprout, in response to these needs is varied but it is tied together by its invocation of tradition and social purpose. Beneath the veil of play, students work through tough issues of their age and environment. They use their lore to suggest ramifications, if not resolution, of these issues for themselves and for their institutions. In the process, campus traditions are keys to the development of American culture.
Campus Traditions is well written, enlightening, and entertaining. It should appeal to the general reader and the general college student. It will have special relevance for the folklore student, the professional folklorist, and the American studies scholar. Teachers of folklore courses could profitably use it as a supplementary text in an introductory course. Also, teachers certainly could incorporate excerpted readings from key sections to illustrate many an important fine point about texts, contexts, meanings, and functions of folklore. What is exceptional about Campus Traditions is its richly documented and engagingly written presentation of both data and interpretation. Based on the author's collections; materials from all the major folklore archives of America; special surveys sent to students, professors, administrators, and college alumni; the personal experiences of the author himself; and a mastery of multi-disciplinary scholarship, Campus Traditions is an encyclopedic monument of folklore scholarship. It is also an important statement on the nature and value of tradition in American higher education.- John A. Gutowski (Saint Xavier University), Journal of American Folklore
College graduates and students will savor this book's delightful and timely content; scholars will appreciate its range from early to recent college lore. Arguing that the college campus serves as a transitional space in which students come of age, Bronner analyzes games, pranks, jokes, ghost stories, and other kinds of folklore with matchless wit and refreshing insight. A wonderful book that every college library should own!- Elizabeth Tucker, author of Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses and Campus Legends
If one of the most important functions of folklore in the lives of people is to provide them with resources for coping with the psychological and social strains of everyday life, then Bronner's excellent book on the folklore of American college and university students provides for scholarly and general readers alike the rich detail and analytical commentary that makes clear how folklore helps students negotiate a stressful, transitional stage in the life cycle and at the same time negotiate living and working in a complex, modern, bureaucratic institution. He describes and analyzes a vast body of oral lore, material culture, and customary lore, everything from simple charms for good luck on exams to complex campus traditions of stylized battles, and he shows the essential meanings of these seemingly trivial customs.- Jay Mechling, professor emeritus of American studies at University of California, Davis