19 Aug 2010

Classroom Hijinks: Catchphrases, Mottos, Cheers, and Mascots

by Keith Larson


Let me sing the praises of the unknown genius who devised the system in which an MBA section is taught all its first-year courses in one classroom. According to A Delicate Experiment, Jeff Cruikshank’s history of the early years of HBS (p. 282), Dean Donham’s successors after World War II devised the section as a socialization substitute for in-dorm dining facilities when they proved to be too costly. And it’s true that the MBA Class of 1949 was the first to assign students to sections. Perhaps having all of a section’s courses in one room was just the most rational arrangement when every classmate was taking the same courses. I’m told that Harvard Law School classes also have sections, but they change rooms from class to class.

The natural result of spending so much time together in the same room is an extraordinary spirit of togetherness within the section, which manifests itself in a variety of ways, from catchphrases to elaborate pranks. Executive Education classes, also taught in one classroom, are together for a shorter time and are, perhaps, less impressionable than the younger MBA students, but they, too, develop a sense of class solidarity. I can imagine that being together so much might also exacerbate some instant dislikes between students, but fortunately I don’t hear about those in the class notes and am happy to highlight below only the positive examples of high spirits, recently submitted by class-notes secretaries.

The simplest are catchphrases and slogans — memorable phrases uttered by a professor or sectionmate that are taken up and repeated throughout the course or year. Some of them become cheers or migrate to T-shirts, as in this composite T-shirt for a Class of 1984 reunion. Cheers assert section identity (especially useful in competitions between sections, as in the Section Olympics), or they celebrate or tease individual sectionmates. The earliest section cheer I know of is 1987E’s marvelously silly “Give me an E! E! Give me another E!! E!! Give me another E!!! E!!! What’s that spell? EEE!!!!” Individual cheers celebrate sectionmates who perform a function well in the classroom (like 1993I cheering the guy in the Wormdeck in charge of lowering the screen for videos) or tease them for being late to class or making an off-the-mark comment in the case discussion. For the latter, see 1989E in the separate page of cheers here. Some cheers were accompanied by arm gestures à la “YMCA” by the Village People. The high point, let’s say, of cheers may have come with the Class of 1999, where all sections had cheers and some had cheerleaders. Some of the 1999 cheers were little rituals lasting 30 seconds and involving rhythmic foot-stamping and hand-pounding and a call-and-response pattern. I’m told such long, complicated cheers were banned the next year. My favorite cheer, perhaps because it was so discreet, was a purposeful mispronunciation of a sectionmate’s name, said sotto voce whenever he spoke in class (see 2010E).

Much less disruptive in the classroom were section mascots, be they a sectionmate’s dog (1977F) or baby (1992F), an animal (2001G’s penguin and 1938’s dinosaur), a brandy keg (1970C), or even a sectionmate (1997G, 2003J, 2005I, and 2009F). 1991I kept a stuffed moose or elk head in the Skydeck’s center seat that may have been their mascot, and 2005E had its E-Dawg (a sectionmate dressed up in a dog suit), on whom see here.

Next week I’ll finish this blog entry with a discussion of games, parties, pranks, and celebrations of professors in their last class. If you remember other examples of your class or section’s catchphrases, slogans, cheers, or mascots, please let us know about them in the comment box below.

Click here for the detailed list of catch phrases and cheers.

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