January 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 16
Reviving and 'inventing' traditions and community are
goals of new committee
Every night around 10 p.m., women at Mount Holyoke College gather in their dormitory kitchens to consume cookies and milk left in massive, modern refrigerators by departing kitchen staff. On this campus, Dooley (the spirit of Emory "incarnated as the lord of misrule of undergraduate festivities," wrote Thomas English in his semi-centennial history of Emory) makes his presence felt at events of significance to the University community and hosts an annual ball.
Both are examples of traditions that graduates remember for years and current students look forward to participating in. But how are traditions inculcated, and how do they catch on to become the stuff of which memories are made? And has Emory, a forward-looking university with big plans for the future, kept and encouraged enough traditions, enough small moments, that will linger in the minds of its alumni?
These are some of the questions that will be asked by the Committee on Traditions and Community Ties (CONTACT Emory), a group created last spring as an outgrowth of the 1996 Alumni Leadership Conference. "We asked the couple of hundred alumni who attended, 'What can we do to make the Emory experience even more rewarding?'" said Gerald Lowrey, senior associate director of the Association of Emory Alumni. "They responded by saying [Emory needs to] build community ties by examining shared experiences."
"There was a sense that the connections people had when they graduated from the Atlanta campus were to friends they'd made, not necessarily the institution," said Karen Salisbury, director of student activities and a member of the committee.
The alumni passed their resolution on to President Bill Chace, who assembled the committee last May. The committee began meeting during the summer and developed plans to distribute a survey to faculty, staff, students and alumni that will give the group a better idea of the types of traditions already in place here as well as respondents' "wish list" for new traditions and suggestions for fostering a closer community at Emory.
The survey will be sent electronically and via "hard copy" this week. Questions will include: "How important are having deep campus traditions and a sense of history to your living, learning or working at Emory?" and "Name one aspect of community life at any other college or university you believe would improve community life at Emory."
After surveys are returned, CONTACT Emory plans to hold a series of focus groups to gain feedback as well. Committee members will also be visiting Brown, Stanford and Rice universities as well as the University of Virginia to get a sense of traditions and community life on those campuses. "These are schools quite similar to us," said Salisbury. CONTACT Emory plans to issue a final report to Chace in August.
In the planning stages is a Founder's Day celebration, commemorating the day in March when Emory College at Oxford was launched, said Emory College junior Tito Jackson '98Ox, who added, "I think it's important that the University invests more in human capital just like we invest in stocks and bonds. That's what builds community."
And while CONTACT Emory participants are not ready to test "new" traditions without community feedback, they have ventured suggestions ranging from hanging--and ringing--a real bell in the Cox Hall bell tower to reviving "pushball," a once-friendly competition between freshman and sophomores that ended in 1955.
CONTACT Emory members know they can't manufacture traditions, but they hope to plant seeds and watch them grow. "Traditions should happen naturally, they're part of human life," said Anthropology Chair and Professor Bradd Shore, a member of the committee. "They are something like memory, and having tradition in a community is something like the collective memory of a community."
Shore said rituals should stem from activities already a part of community life in order to keep them from seeming "hokey" or hollow. He gave a ritual he created in one of his classes as an example. On the first day he arranged chairs in a circle and began class by shaking the hand of the student next to him and telling his name. The student did the same to the person sitting next to him, and so it went around the circle. "The first time they didn't think about it," Shore said. The second time and many times thereafter, they giggled about it and thought it strange. "By the 15th time it was automatic," he said, adding that the students became very much attached to the ritual. "It helped them learn to speak to one another instead of the teacher, and it helped them to learn each other's names," Shore explained.
In making Emory an evocative place, Shore said, collective traditions such as those shared by his class and Dooley's Ball are important. So are building and street names that echo the University's past. And so are personal traditions that attach themselves to special places around campus. "This fits so nicely with what the Campus Master Plan is trying to do with its sacred and green spaces for the community throughout campus," said Salisbury. "We don't need one but several for the various schools around campus--places that people can have and relate to."
For cynics who would counter that it's impossible to manufacture such a sense of community and sharing, committee members are in full agreement. But, said Shore, there's often a cynicism in modern American about tradition itself that stems from the country's admiration of rugged individualism rather than shared group experiences. "But that kind of cynicism often masks a deep need for tradition," he noted.
Editor's note: Respondents can fill out the CONTACT Emory survey online
at <http://CONTACT.cc.emory.edu>, or call 404-727-6400 for more information
or to volunteer for focus groups.