Eternal Return

The four-year cycling of some issues at colleges and universities is pretty damn annoying sometimes.

Right now, for example, we’re voting again here at Swarthmore about whether to have a mascot or not. We just did the same thing a few years back, and 58% percent voted against having any mascot, if I recall correctly.

Last time around, we even had some more inspired choices to stack up against “none of the above”: the Earthworm, for example (an anagram for Swarthmore). Manticore? Phoenix? Gorilla? Gryphon? Come on. How about Bookworm? Hermit? Sourpuss? Scold? Abstraction? Consensus? Save-the-Worlder? or my favorite suggestion from the last time, the Swarthmore Other.

I know that new populations of students may want a chance to decide issues that were decided before they got here, but really, there should be at least a decade-long moratorium on elections like this one so that it doesn’t feel like the fix is in, that someone is going to keep pushing something until they get their way. I wouldn’t want to ascribe to conspiracy what could be explained by disorganization. However, it was somewhat notable that this time around, “None of the above” was not only initially omitted from the ballot, but also that many students who signed the petition in favor of the vote weren’t aware that omitting “none of the above” was seen as one of the goals of the petition. It’s been added back on, and people can redo their votes, so we’ll see if the result is different this time than last.

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21 Responses to Eternal Return

  1. BLB says:

    The Subjects? The False Dichotomies? The Pass-Fails? The Nomatterwhatyousayordotomes?

  2. RCinProv says:

    I like the earthworm. You dig into things there at Swarthmore, right?

    I trust you know that UC Santa Cruz has the banana slug.

    Lamely, we have the bear here at Camp Bruno.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    If we’re going to go mythological, I’d toss in Chimera (how better to describe a college curriculum)?

    The Hominids! You could have a family of mascots: an australopithecine, a neanderthal, a homo erectus!

    The Footnotes.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    I think you should confine yourselves to adaptations of Zizek titles:

    the Sublime Objects
    the Ticklish Subjects
    the Fragile Absolutes
    the Universal Exceptions

    Choose one, and the others can become the names of campus bands. (Someone once told me that Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals was a lousy title for a book, but would be a great name for a band. Maybe a mascot too?)

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The Rat Choicers!

  6. Alan Jacobs says:

    Yes! Maximizing Self-Interest Since We Forgot Our Quaker Heritage!

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    The Insidious Orthodoxies!

  8. Joey Headset says:

    If they want a mascot that truly represents the intellectual life of the college, they might go with the Swarthmore Victims. Or perhaps the Swarthmore Bullshit.

    Anyway, I’ve read up on how the mascot issue came up again. As before, it seems like a small group of students who want a mascot only so they can say THEY were the ones who developed the college mascot. Just as the students who wanted to shove an Honor Code down the school’s throat mostly wanted to be able to credit themselves as the Authors of the Swarthmore College Honor Code on their law school applications. Just as in the Honor Code instance, there was no groundswell of support for a mascot the first time around, and none this time around either. There are a few kids who know how to game the system through committees and manipulated voting processes so as to create the illusion of popular support without having to go through the hard work of actually acquiring it.

    If a Swarthmore student thinks there should be a mascot, here is what he or she should do about it:

    1) Come up with a GREAT idea for a mascot… one that really reflects the culture and history of the school would be best.

    2) Create their own mascot costume and start showing up at Swat sports events wearing that costume. Also dress up in that costume during other appropriate and well attended events. Hang around Sharples during lunchtime dressed in the costume, handing out mascot manifestos.

    3) If other students like your idea, get them involved: put up mascot posters and print mascot t-shirts, etc.

    4) Once the your mascot concept gains a critical mass of popularity among current students/staff/faculty… and preferably sustains that popularity for a few years… then AND ONLY THEN do you see about getting it installed in an official capacity.

    Sadly, making a fool of yourself running around sporting events in a stupid costume doesn’t serve as great grad school application fodder… so these students aren’t intersted in doing it. But my way is WAY more in line with how a school mascot should come to exist than their method ever could be.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think that’s really more appealing as a description of how fundamentally cultural things change over time. You can’t create “school spirit” or a broad culture of acceptance for athletics by creating a mascot through plebicite. Broadly speaking, that idea is roughly what people who have too much time on their hands typically suggest, the expensive and excessive creation of a phony or superficial symbol or ritual to substitute for deeper changes in practice and consciousness.

    The mascots that are beloved at other schools often have a much more organic history that looks much more like the process you describe: an idea so great that people are amused by it, a personal but also light-hearted and humorous commitment to making it real through practice, and so on.

  10. David Chudzicki says:

    I agree with all of these worries. Plus some others:

    1) Not that I would suggest any impropriety in this case, but it seems like (in general) a bad idea for the people pushing a cause to be the ones running an official-sounding vote on the issue.

    2) Maybe related to (1), it’s not just that the choices are bad, but how the choices were selected is bad as well. Not only did a small group of people start pushing this without real popular support, but they also seem to have hand-selected the candidates.

    3) This vote is for faculty and students. We’re promised a vote that will include alumni and staff after the result of this vote is determined… which seems weird, especially given:

    4) the announced intention to ask the board to adopt a mascot as soon as the May meeting. I guess it should be clear that won’t succeed (right?), but still.

    5) The expectation that the board will listen, if the current students decide they want a mascot. This relates to your worry (“…someone is going to keep pushing something until they get their way”), but I think there’s more: Why should a single generation of students (ever) have the ability to change something so lasting? Maybe students should need to adopt something like this three times (each separated by four years) before anyone ought to listen.

    Given the point about how cultural things change, the following quote from today’s Phoenix is interesting:

    “…And, as the campus culture continually changes with each incoming class, I think that support will grow for the mascot as it becomes more of their initial identity.”

  11. too_many_logins says:

    Timothy, as a professor in a college, this is one of your fates. Not a terribly bad one, if I may say so myself. You perceive the college over a year, then a few years, then a decade, then a couple of decades. Students perceive their college over a few months, then over the course of a year, then over the course of a few years. Then as alumni, but that’s at about 1% of the intensity (on a good day).

    So issues will cycle through; students will reinvent the bicycle, the flat tire, and maybe fire. The administration will have a cycle of ignore for a year, stall for a year, negotiate for a year, study for a year, and back to ignore, as the students raising an issue graduate. Professors will be continually amazed as their students make the same mistakes, year after year after year, sometimes for decades.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. And I think you have to bite back that response most of the time. I sure as hell didn’t care for it when I heard it from older people. This is part of what students are here to learn, in part, is to experience for themselves the mistakes that others have made before.

    By comparison, though, this run at making a mascot is more screwed up and less appealing than the last one, both procedurally and substantively. It’s kind of hard for me not to say that.

  13. abstractart says:

    You did see my angry screed in the Phoenix about the origin of the Manticore as a mascot choice, right?

  14. abstractart says:


    Joey Headset’s is pretty dead-on about what the acceptable, correct and honest way about getting a mascot approved would be. The fact that Swarthmore students seem to have a reflexive belief that the right way to approach any matter, no matter how trivial, is to find a way to exploit bureaucracy and politics into getting the whole community to do it together, rather than simply doing it yourself and attempting to lead by example, is one of the things that really really bothers me about this culture.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I saw it. I don’t mind that the Manticore is evil, but you’re right that it would be awfully hard to make a decent costume of one.

  16. abstractart says:

    I don’t care all that much that it’s evil (the Devils are a popular mascot out in the world, after all). I do care that it’s really obscure and hard to make a costume for, as you said.

    But mainly I care that the reason it was suggested in spite of all these factors is that it’s a reference to a STUDENT BAND. A STUDENT BAND COMPOSED OF UPPERCLASSMEN. It’s a self-indulgent, cliquish in-joke that, in a few years, will become a completely meaningless in-joke.

  17. justice_fishy says:

    I’m still pushing for the Swarthmore Hegemony, the Heteronormativity, the Platapus, or possibly the None of the Above

  18. Raghu Karnad says:

    Mr Burke, did you consider that if Swarthmore’s mascots were Earthworms, we would have to suffer rival teams yelling, “Eat dirt,

  19. Alex_Kieft says:

    Before Arthur clogs this blog with too much unfounded ranting, I feel obliged to mention several important points:

    1. In Arthur’s opinion column, he writes: “Do you want to know why I’m pissed at SAAC? Because it’s transparently obvious that the only reason “Manticore” is on the list is because members of SAAC are friends with members of the student rock band Manticore.” He continues: “If there’s a different rationale behind making the choices what they were, I want to hear it.”

    2. The official members of the band Manticore are Ben Saller ’06, Jason Horowitz ’07, James Crall ’07, and just recently filling in for James, who is studying abroad this semester, Joe Kille ’06. No one in the band claims to even know who was on the committee responsible for choosing the mascot, much less be their friends.

    3. In the same edition of the Phoenix, the news article about the mascot election explained:
    “All four choices — the phoenix, manticore, griffin, and gorilla —were picked from the 50-60 suggestions that were received. According to Heidi Fieselmann ’06, a co-chair of the SAAC, these four possibilities were selected by SAAC and the Garnet Club based on the number of times they were suggested and their appropriateness for Swarthmore.”
    While it is entirely untrue that members of SAAC have friendly ties to members of the band Manticore, it is true that “Manticore” was submitted as a suggestion by numerous fans of the band. In compliance with the stated decision process, the “Manticore” was added to the ballot based on outstanding support as well as meeting the other criteria mentioned of “a ‘tangible creature’” and passing “through the Board of Managers or administration.”

    4. Ben contacted Arthur by e-mail asking him why he accused Manticore members of unfairly using ties with SAAC to get the Manticore on the ballot when there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. Arthur responded that he was not stating this connection as fact, since it was mentioned in an opinions column, and that opinions are neither correct nor incorrect. However, you will note from the citation above, the “because” clause in Arthur’s statement implies that the first part (“it’s transparently obvious that the only reason “Manticore” is on the list”) is opinion, while the second part (“members of SAAC are friends with members of the student rock band Manticore”) is stated as fact upon which the opinion is based. With that supposed fact being completely unfounded, the rationale of the opinion must also be questioned.

    Ultimately, the point is this: despite unsubstantiated claims by outraged students who failed to do their background research or submit their own suggestions, the overall selection process for the mascot candidates was held fairly and without any evidence of bias. Students who are upset about the choices apparently ignored calls for mascot ideas, or failed to rally sufficient support for those ideas. Despite the inital online glitch, the “None of the above” option is still avaliable on the ballot and anyone unsatisfied with the four options, or even the idea of a masot at all, is free to make this choice. And while suggestions such as the Manticore may seem like “ridiculously self-indulgent shout-out” that won’t be relevant in three years, the vote is now going to faculty and alumni who may sway in a different direction, possibly towards indifference.

    But in the same way that tour guides on campus love to explain why a roll of Scott toilet paper is awarded to the winner of the annual McCabe Mile race, so would they years from now enjoy telling the story of how a three-person rock band won the hearts of fellow students and was immortalized as the Swarthmore mascot… that is, at least until the next election…

  20. abstractart says:

    I don’t see why we have to have a “selection process”, period. Let the students make their own choices. Just collect submissions, have an end date, and let students vote for the whole pool, maybe using approval voting (check mark for everyone you like, multiple rounds of voting) rather than one-man-one-vote voting. It would essentially be the same thing as the process you describe, except open, transparent and actually fair.

    That is to say, if I or my friends had been that aware of people sending in votes for Manticore before the election, we probably would have created our own mascot (probably the “Garnet Fox” or “Little Quakers” or something else with a more solid connection to the school’s history) and sent repeated e-mail after e-mail to the committee pushing that idea specifically so that “Manticore” wouldn’t win by virtue of going up against three rather lame and uninspiring choices. We didn’t, so that didn’t happen. But saying that the process of a particular clique of students being more aware of the process and sending lots of e-mails when other students weren’t aware of what was going on is “fair” bugs the hell out of me. This isn’t the first time that I’ve only actually started caring about some sort of selection process when I realized that the committee in charge had started leaning toward a bad choice that a lot of people didn’t like for subjective reasons. (How many votes would “Alice Paul” have gotten as the name for New Dorm if we’d actually polled the campus, instead of having Student Council subjectively filter the process? Especially with Student Council making completely false arguments in its favor, like nothing on campus ever having been named for Alice Paul, or there not being any buildings on campus named after women?)

    Honestly, I don’t know who knows whom, and who considers whom the best of friends, and this isn’t the sort of thing it’s easy to do “research” on without being creepy. I do know that there are a dozen people or so on SAAC and that it’s not unreasonable to suppose there’s overlap between them and the band or fans of the band. I still think that the idea that SAAC was filtering choices completely objectively and fairly is thrown into question when “Manticore” is one of the top four choices out of the “fifty or sixty” available options. There are many reasons why, if you *don’t* count student opinion, “Manticore” is a bad choice — there’s no way to buy a Manticore costume, you’d have to make one that would look stupid, most people wouldn’t know what it was, and *it’s a self-indulgent reference to a passing student phenomenon* — and if you *do* count student opinion, there’s a big reason why it’s unfair to put Manticore on the list because it gets a lot of spontaneous e-mails in its favor and others don’t, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to express student opinion in favor than student opinion against. There was no way for me, before the election, to say “I don’t really think Mighty Oaks is all that cool, but I like Mighty Oaks a lot better than Phoenix, Griffin, Gorilla or Manticore, so could you please put Mighty Oaks on the ballot along with those four?” That’s why I have a problem with this process.

    Yeah, it may have been disingenuous of me to state the idea of a connection between SAAC and Manticore as strongly as I did, but I thought it came out in the piece that I wrote that I *didn’t* actually know, that the reason I was offended was because it took all of five seconds for me to look at it and come to the assumption that that was what happened, and that’s a bad thing to do if you do it unintentionally. (Hence my saying it was “transparent”, and then saying that if there *was* another reason, I wanted to hear it, and I wanted to know why the committee didn’t try harder to avoid the appearance that it was that way.)

    It’s the same reason it would’ve been a goddamn stupid idea to name New Dorm “Kalafus” after James Kalafus, because it would’ve looked like being annoyingly, cliquishly in-jokey about a particular student, even if — *especially* if — the people who did it weren’t actually friends with Kalafus and did it because it was cute, or ironic, or whatever. It would look like the portion of campus that was into this particular band or these particular people were declaring themselves to be more important than everyone else and other people *accepting it* for whatever reason, and that’s obnoxious. If you *do* have to have a filtering process that would be the sort of thing you filter *out*, for the same reason that “Kalafus” was filtered out of the New Dorm naming contest.

    I would be the same way if they decided to make the mascot the “Garnet Chu Devils”, or the “Garnet Stobos”, or even the “Garnet Pterodactyls”, because even though SWIL and the Pterodactyl Hunt have been around for about ten times as long and have about ten times the number of people involved as Manticore has, it’d still be really fucking annoying to saddle the whole campus with a mascot derived from one random clique’s random thing that a lot of people probably don’t like. The Phoenix would only be acceptable because it’s been the official school newspaper since the 19th century, and even then it’s pushing it.

    P.S.: So what exactly are these basic requirements? Was every other suggestion besides these four really not a tangible thing? (The “Mighty Oaks” was the only one listed in the Phoenix article, and that definitely *is* a tangible object.) How is SAAC deciding what “would” and “wouldn’t” make it through the Board of Managers? Isn’t the point of submitting it to the Board of Managers to let *them* to decide what they “would” pass? Would it be so bad to have completely open approval voting, create a ranked list of mascots, and then let the Board of Managers vet the list?

    What bugs the hell out of me most about this is that it seems to me the only good reason to make sure we absolutely have a single mascot choice on the table by the time the Board meets in May is to make absolutely sure that the mascot gets pushed through before the next school year, even if that doesn’t accurately reflect the reaction from the students, alumni, faculty and staff. It’s really irksome that the people in charge of the mascot voting are themselves very obviously biased in favor of a mascot, and in favor of a certain kind of mascot (i.e. they desperately don’t want the new mascot to be abstract or nonrepresentational even if a lot of us like the “Tide” better than we like something that can be represented by a man in a suit doing a stupid dance), and that they’re doing everything they can to make this process rushed and highly choreographed to get the result they want.

    And color me an asshole if you want, but I’m suspicious about the whole “computer glitch” thing. Wasn’t there a rumor circulating that the petition had been interpreted as giving them leeway to remove “No Mascot” from the ballot? Certainly they’re all aware of the devastating victory of “No Mascot” in 1996 and have publicly stated they’re doing everything they can to avoid that result this time. I do know, for a fact, that the “computer glitch” was neither corrected nor reported until many people had e-mailed in complaining about the lack of a “No Mascot” option (because my friends made up many of the many people). And I have a hard time imagining what kind of a glitch removes the last voting option from a page, then restores it and gives you the ability to re-vote at the same time. (That was too convenient — it felt a lot like an attempt at a “quiet fix” that they then decided to scrap.)

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    You know, “None of the Above” as an ACTUAL MASCOT sounds kind of cool. The Swarthmore None. Make the mascot costume a kind of big blank cutout figure. You could even bring felt attachments to give it different outfits or faces for each appearance.

    There’s plenty of good chants and such for Earthworms, seems to me.

    On the procedural stuff, I’d just say the following:

    a) I agree that you don’t need a selection committee to vet the choices. Just ask the community to submit suggestions and cull the top six or so. Then it’s up to various groups that actually have an opinion to push for their favorite during the nominations. Or offer a really big slate (10-20 choices) that includes some of the funnier/freakier/more abstract ones and see what happens. The idea that the freaky and abstract ones wouldn’t be approved by the Board, or need to be “selected out” by a small committee, is just wrong.

    b) I hate to say it, but I would agree with Arthur that the “whoops, we forgot to put ‘no mascot’ on the ballot” thing is pretty suspicious.

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