Oral traditions in print (or, screwing things up at the University of Chicago)

Before I roll out today’s post, may I note that the piece on Anti-Americanism in Canada (Catherine Parrish is a…) continues to draw a lot of attention, with 40 comments and counting. There is an intensity of feeling around this issue I didn’t anticipate.

It turns out that the inestimably talented Chuck Freund addressed this issue a couple of weeks ago, when he observed the recent controversy surrounding the proposed sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Target. In the Canadian press, Freund detects an anxiety:

[T]hat a voracious and imperial U.S. continues to gobble up the culture, economy, and identity of a nearly defenseless Canada. The portrayal of the U.S. as the corrupt, grasping, and stupid giant next door seems to be in 24-hour rotation in the Canadian media, in whatever news guise happens to be available.

Freund may have put his finger on it. Perhaps this is a source of the anti-American hostility in Canada, the fear that Canada must fall before the American predator. May I say, editorially, that the way most countries secure their claims to identity and nationhood is not preventing the sale of department stores, but burning bright with creative energy and accomplishment. But then, poor Canada quite often asks for protected status and so creates a certain vulnerability, and the anxieties attached there to.

Find Freund’s whole post here .

Ok, here’s today’s post:


When I was working at a Museum, curatorial staff members were always ‘telling stories.” They particularly liked to tell the one about the “lost office.” Over the main entrance, there was an office occupied by the director, but at some point the museum decided to close it off and brick it up. I am pretty sure they let the director leave first, but, museum politics being what they are, you never know.

The lost office makes a great story. It fills people’s heads with Spielbergian fantasies. What would the office, locked behind its stone wall, look like now? Cobwebs everywhere, ancient artifacts unturned in the corner, and, no doubt, the last words of the director, scratched into the surface of his mahogany desk moments before he expired. The imagination loves dark, forgotten, historical spaces, and this one is perfect.

Curators tell this story with what Silverstein might call “pragmatic intent.” They giving the visitor “insider knowledge” and a little badge of membership in the charmed circle of museum life. We can be quite sure that the visitor then passes the little story along to other visitors, and claims the “social capital” that results. Like gazes, little stories form a small economy filled with value creation and value capture.

Every institution has these stories, and they all work pretty much the same way. They are one of the ways we induct people into the organization. I’m guessing that if we join Microsoft, we would be told little stories about “Bill.” These stories communicate essential secrets about the organization. And they drive the people at Human Resources crazy. HR has an official story of the corporation to tell, but little stories almost always tell another side of things. And too often, they get to shape the corporate culture.

These stories are charming even when they are wrong. They are quirky, imaginative, and captivating. (“Really, he’s still locked in there?”) But what they really do is to let us to divide the world into insiders and outsiders, the ones who know the oral culture and those who don’t, the ones who belong, and the drudges on the inside looking in. Little stories are the stuff of membership.

So what in God’s name did the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine think it was doing in the most recent issue? In a piece called “Myth Information,” Joseph Liss systematically reviews and debunks the stories that circulate on campus. Like the one that says that Ida Noyes Hall was founded when poor Ida Noyes was badly treated by campus sororities and committed suicide. Or the one that says that parts of the basement of Regenstein Library are still radioactive as a result of the nuclear reaction that Enrico Fermi created in 1942.

As a former student there, I can tell you we loved these stories. We embraced the idea that Fermi’s “gift” allowed us to glow in the dark and find our way home after a tough night of study. Glasses raised, we would toast poor Ida at Jimmy’s bar. We liked these stories not least because they made us a part of an institution that was, truth be told, pretty hard to belong to.

Like every great university, the U of C is a grueling, difficult place. A local joke asks, “how do you tell the difference between the undergraduates and graduates on campus?” Answer: the undergraduates are the ones talking to themselves, driven slightly mad by the unrelenting demands of the college program. Most of us felt like we were there on sufferance. One bad paper, a stupid remark in seminar, and they would send us packing. The University of Chicago gave membership stintingly, and little stories were one way we made our own connection. We might be one error away from ejection, but, hey, we knew the story about Ida Noyes.

Enter Joseph Liss and his debunking article. Most of the oral tradition at Chicago turns out to be false. No doubt, it was satisfying to bring the light of reason to our Pope-ish superstition, but, really, Mr. Liss, what have you accomplished? You have stripped the institution of an essential resource and the very stuff of membership. You have denied students the small points of purchase that secured them in a vertiginous world. Well done, Mr. Liss. I believe that one way the university can make amends is by walling you into an office somewhere…that the oral tradition might once again begin to flourish.


Liss, Joseph. 2004. Myth Information. The University of Chicago Magazine. August. 2004. here

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description. in Meaning in Anthropology. editors Keith H. Basso, and Henry A. Selby, 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

10 thoughts on “Oral traditions in print (or, screwing things up at the University of Chicago)

  1. Colin

    Freund has put his finger on nothing at all. He squawks about what a slightly silly newspaper has to say on a slow news day about the supposed “loss” of a department store chain. If most of the stuff is made in China, who gives a rat’s ass who owns the storefront? Freund misses the point. Has Canada made or in any conceivably likely future will make offshore purchases of companies in Canada illegal? Of course not. Watch what people and governments do and not what the chattering classes say.

  2. Independent George

    Well, at least he left my favorite story untouched – that if any building on campus were to exceed Rockefeller Chapel’s 214 feet, then the Rockefeller’s withdraw all their financial support from the University. Since he hasn’t refuted it, I steadfastly refuse to believe anything else.

    Incidentally, I have personally toured the steam tunnels in the summer of 1998. I was playing tennis at one of the lighted courts near Eckhart/Ryerson one evening (before they were paved over), when suddenly a half-dozen undergrads climbed out of a nearby grate. The next night, I came back with a flashlight and took a quick look around. The smell was awful, so I didn’t explore much.

  3. Grant

    Colin, thanks for the clarification. But what are we to make of the fact that the chattering classes are chattering so much? Government policy is not the only place to glimpse the soul of the nation. Thanks, Grant

    Independent George. Lucky you. There ought to be a knightly order: “those who have seen the steam tunnel.” But that smell might have been your “rite of passage” or a dragon, possibly. But, hey, if you got a degree at the University of Chicago even the order of St. George is not too much for you. Thanks, Grant

  4. The Owner's Manual

    The underground vault beneath Rosslyn Chapel is a secret story the bulkheads of which are under heavy pressure to breach. The Chapel used to attract some 9,500 visitors a year.

    “Last year,” reports Curator Beattie, “we had 40,000 and this year we’re almost certainly going to be in the low 50,000s. That’s a significant blip, due to the book and, indeed, to the various other ‘Cracking the Da Vinci Code’ books that have appeared.”

    Sadly, like the Loch Ness Monster, Rosslyn’s mysteries are too profitable for anyone to wish them resolved. But if an investigation of what lies beneath the chapel ever comes to pass, will it unearth knowledge, relics beyond price, mouldy old bones, or just acres of flannel?


  5. Grant

    The Owner’s Manual: I’ve been to the Rosslyn Chapel and was stunned to see, carved into the chapel, something that looked very much like ears of corn. Someone beside me looked up and said, “Oh, yes, the family believes that one of their own went to North America about 100 years before Columbus and brought corn back.

    From the rosslyn website:

    One popular story is that Sir William St Clair’s grandfather was part of an expedition which reached Nova Scotia in 1398, and this is supported by carvings in the chapel of Indian corn, unknown in Europe at the time of its building.

    Don’t know this made it into the Da Vinci Code, a book I started but could not finish, but it is, if true, a stunner.

    But ss you say, I don’t want the thing submitted to proof. That would spoil all the fun. Thanks, Grant

  6. The Owner's Manual

    Yes, the book covered Rosslyn Chapel at some length, including the maize carvings. The most astonishing things in the Da Vinci Code turn out to be the ones that are unbelievably true. It leaves a craving for more.

  7. Grant

    Owner’s Manual: I am prepared to believe anything flattering about my ancestors. Thanks, Grant

  8. Ennis

    I spent two summers working at the AMNH. One of my favorite things about it was that there were all of these hidden passages. There was the closet that was really a stair case, and the hallway that ran between spaces, and the off limits floor that had all of these specimens sitting in glassed in cases or shelves, like some bizarre victorian mini-storage mart. Maybe the guides told stories, but we didn’t. And I’m sure there were stories.

    Grant — some of my comments aren’t exactly on topic here, I’m just riffing …

  9. Grant

    Ennis, when denied story, it is your responsibility to make them up. I am quite sure you saw something move in one of those specimen jars, no? Grant p.s., your riffs are always edifying and always welcome.

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