Daft University Traditions

Some students (and universities) do the silliest things…

Lots of universities have bizarre traditions which their students sustain year after year or in some cases disappear into oblivion. My eye was recently caught by a collection of “Princetonia” including this rather odd event called Poler’s Recess:

One of the more peculiar Princeton traditions was an exam-time ritual known as the Poler’s Recess, which began around 1900 and continued for several decades. A “poler” was a Princeton epithet for someone who was thought to study too diligently, perhaps in reference to the laborious poling of a boat.

Every night during the final examination period, as the 9 p.m. bell began to ring, all dormitory windows on campus were thrown open for a riotous, 10-minute cacophony. Students blew horns, beat drums and tin pans and set off firecrackers — producing a din loud enough to disrupt the studies of even the most zealous poler. An undergraduate writer observed in 1918 that it was “probably the most juvenile of all campus customs, but it brought a welcome break for everyone in a long night’s hard work.”

Firecracker exploding

The 1949 Poler’s Recess was a rousing success, but by the following year, opinion was split as to the benefits of the event and the necessity of yet another study break, and a well-enforced ban on firecrackers further dampened enthusiasm. After a few sporadic attempts to resurrect the tradition, it faded from student memory within a few years.

Closer to home we have the strange tradition of the Raisin Weekend celebrations at St Andrews University:

Historically, first year students would thank their academic parents for their guidance with a pound of raisins, although sinec the 19th century, the giving of raisins was substituted for a derivative – usually alcohol, setting the benchmark for the tradition today.

Usually held annually during the last week in November (or earlier, dependent on academic calendar), first years – known as Bejants and Bejantines – are entertained by their academic parents, starting with a tea-party hosted by the academic mother and a pub crawl or house party led by the academic father. Due to the lack of stringent rules on the number of academic parents a first year may have, it is not unusual for Bejants and Bejantines to attend more than one party or pub crawl, with many families joining together towards the end of the weekend.


Traditionally, the parents give their children a ‘Raisin receipt’ in return for the pound of raisins/alcohol. Throughout the years, the receipts have become more and more ludicrous, with livestock receipts banned in the 1960s after a particularly unsavoury moment involving a donkey and laxatives.

There’s more too. The Telegraph has a selection of rather odd university traditions of which this one is perhaps one of the strangest:

…the Time Ceremony undertaken by Merton College students who in the early hours of the last Sunday in October walk backwards around the Fellows’ Quad drinking port. The purpose is to maintain the space-time continuum during the change from British Summer Time to Greenwich Meantime.

Sounds pretty much like an excuse to drink more port.

Does your institution have any similar daft traditions?

Firecracker picture by ABF (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

St Andrews quad picture via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St_Andrews_Quad.jpg#file


Free books for freshers

Persuading freshers to read

Last year St Andrews gave a novel to all freshers to get them reading, discussing and engaging with each other.

This year, according to theBookseller.com, the scheme seems to have expanded:

Nearly 18,000 freshers across five UK universities have been given copies of a winning or shortlisted Man Booker novel for the autumn term.

First year students enrolling at Imperial College, London, Liverpool University, Newcastle University, St Andrew’s University, and the University of East Anglia received a copy of a Man Booker title to read over the summer, regardless of their area of study. Georgetown University, Washington has also initiated a similar scheme.

Just a really good idea. Would be interested to hear how it went.

Research money could be better spent on teaching students

Research consumes much time and money that could be better spent on teaching students

Good article in the Scotsman by Professor John Haldane of St Andrews offering a view on the balance of funding between teaching and research. The article is a version of Professor Haldane’s excellent presentation at the Lord Dearing memorial conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010:

ONCE again there is talk of a funding crisis facing higher education and some are talking of cuts as swingeing as those enacted during the first Thatcher administration…During the last two decades, university managers, academics and others have become accustomed to increases in the level of income in support of teaching and research, and although the sources of income have been diversified, there remains a great demand upon the public purse to deliver increasing resources to universities. There are questions of justice regarding this – particularly in Scotland, given that students make no direct financial contribution – for many who pay for the provision of university education do not participate in it, and much of what is paid for may not be valued by the wider society, nor deserve to be.

Haldane refers to two mid-19th Century works: Newman’s Idea of a University and John Stuart Mill’s Rectorial Address to the students at St Andrews University, delivered and published in 1867 (it lasted for three hours apparently).

From the perspective of the present, the most striking features of these two accounts of the nature and value of university education is what they exclude. Newman thought that it was not the business of universities to engage in research. He writes that “a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement of it. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.” Newman was not against research, but thought it should be conducted in special institutes. Mill likewise thought that the fact that certain activities are important for individuals and society does not mean they should be part of the university curriculum.

In short, the argument is this:

the growing mass of researchers may have become a drag on and even an obstacle to the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities – namely, education. It impedes the effort to put students first and it consumes vast sums of private and public funding.

So, given the new constraints on funding higher education faces and will continue to experience, the proposition is that we consider rebalancing limited funds to invest more heavily in teaching and learning and less in research. Controversial stuff but, as he shows, entirely in keeping with the ideas of Newman and Mill.

Getting Freshers to read, discuss and engage

THE reports on a really rather creative initiative at St Andrews

Every new student enrolling at the University of St Andrews this autumn will be sent a novel during the summer and will be encouraged to discuss it with other freshers when they arrive on campus in September. The university is distributing Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a Man Booker-shortlisted work, to all 1,500 new undergraduates in an initiative to give students a common discussion topic and to focus their energies on broad intellectual debate rather than narrow academic study.

This is a terrific idea. Helps with student induction and orientation in halls and ensures that the residential experience has a learning dimension too. Wish we’d thought of it