A Long, Strange Trip to the HilltopSource: Collected by Sara Childers, Interim 2009
Legend has it that one BSC English professor has a famous musical past. He supposedly was a dear friend to the late Jerry Garcia, and toured with the classic rock band The Grateful Dead. Apparently, he and Mr. Garcia were not only good friends who shared late night guitar jam sessions, but they also were roommates who made soap to supplement their income. Together they made music and soap to share with the hippy world of the 1960's. If you listen closely to a live album of The Grateful Dead, you are not only hearing the genius of Jerry Garcia, but also you could be hearing musical styling of an English professor from Birmingham-Southern College.
Telling tall tales about professors is nothing new. Students have always felt the need to explain strange behavior, appearances, or teaching habits of their professors. Elizabeth Tucker, author of the book Campus Legends, explains: “The power to give good or poor grades makes these characters especially interesting to students.” Students come up with reasons for earning bad grades, and since they are never at fault, it must be the unfair grading of the exceptionally hard professor. Bad grades are attributed to the professor's eccentricities rather than a just and rational grading system.
Leaving home for the first time can be a culture shock for some young adults; the desire to explain the characteristics of professors is the desire to make life away from home more comfortable. First year college students may spend more time with their professors than with their own parents. Being able to connect to them, even if through a tall tale, is comforting. When there is a reason your literature professor has crazy hair and wears the same tie every day, it becomes acceptable. Professor legends explain the unexplainable.
Professor legends are very common and come in many varieties, as delineated by folklorist Simon Bronner. There is the absent minded professor, such as Norbert Wiener from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who forgot he and his wife had bought a new house. When he is wandering in what he thinks is his neighborhood, he approaches a young girl on a bicycle to ask for help. The young girl says to him, “Mommy thought you'd forget Daddy.” There is also the unfair professor who instead of grading papers or exams he throws them from the top of a stairwell; those that fall to the bottom get A's and those that stay near the top get F's. There is also the story of the lazy professor that has his children do all his grading (Bronner 46-49). All of these stories are explanations students invent to explain poor grades and eccentric professor behavior.
- When did the legend begin?
- Are there other professors with a “famous musical past”?
- Why Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead? Why not some other band/musician?
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- Bronner, Simon J. Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life. Little Rock: August House, Inc., 1995
- Tucker, Elizabeth. Campus Legends: A Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.