Drafting Tradition

Greetings, 2019. I feel extremely lucky to be—by mere coincidence—the first addition to this platform in the new year. Accordingly, I’d like to talk about the opportunity that this changing of the calendar presents in the way of traditions, which seem to be the blueprints that structure the December and January months. Whatever the roots of these traditions may be, I find it significant that the closing and opening of the year is marked by acts of familial and societal rituals that are performed simply for the sake of doing so. However, the perpetuation of these ritualistic acts is not immune to the critical eye, and it isn’t difficult to question the value of such traditions. I for one find it easy to grumble about the meaningless nature of tradition when my wife’s family declares it time to dress in our matching Christmas eve onesie pajamas. Come Christmas morning though you won’t find me complaining about the abundance of gifts we’ve been given, let alone the attire we wear when tearing the presents open. I think my inconsistent attitude shows just how tricky it is to engage with tradition in a fair or unbiased mode, yet acknowledging this subjectivity doesn’t keep one from repeating the question: what is the value of such traditions?

Ironically, the tradition of setting new year’s resolutions presents a chance to answer that question. Looking back on the past year, we can reexamine our routines, our habits, our traditions, and evaluate the function that they play in our lives. With that in mind, let’s talk about our university context, and as an undergraduate, I’d like to bring the student perspective to the table.

For professors, I imagine it might be easiest to teach a course the same way you taught it last year. Obviously, you don’t have the time in between semesters to seriously reform course material, and that resolution might have to wait until summer or a leave of absence to be actionable. But what elements of your syllabus have become the subjects of tradition? What things might you change that could benefit your students? I’m told that my student evaluations “really do matter,”but do they really matter to you, the teacher? I won’t pretend to know what it’s like organizing a classroom, but having worked in the office of a department in the College of Humanities for two years, I do have a sense of the busy and unending workload of a professor. We undergrads have the fortune of leaving all our worries behind after finals week has passed; the same can’t be said for our instructors.

For students, I wonder if the way we go about putting together our schedules has become, in its own way, a subject of tradition. Do we try to register for classes that seem safe, shooting for the easy A? Do we only enroll in courses taught by professors that we know and like? I’ve always been a bit leery of the “ratemyprofessors” exchange, where students can essentially advise each other of which professors to avoid or make judgement calls based on the experiences of a few. I mean, yes, I see the ability to communicate the success and failure of certain classes or teachers as productive, allowing students to engage in a rigorous college system. That’s what anyone does when asking a friend if they’ve ‘taken this’ or ‘that class’ and ‘how was it?’ It just feels like that added layer of information in our decision-making process creates a risk-averse mentality that could forego unseen opportunities. Who knows what awaits us in the difficult classes, with low-rated professors? Perhaps connections with faculty, peers, or curricula that could otherwise change our entire educational path are to be found on the other side of risk and uncertainty.

It is at the barrier between uncertainty and risk that I see traditions as sometimes less worthwhile. Doing only what is traditional prevents creativity and innovation. Visiting the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle last week taught me that some of Dale Chihuly’s most renowned and respected pieces—like the Persians sets—came about when he departed from traditions of symmetry and form.2 And while rereading The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Conan Doyle’s most popular works,3 I noticed that the titular character was left out for nearly half of the novel’s pages, a very nontraditional move for a Sherlock Holmes story. But glassmaking and storytelling are just a few examples when it comes to the exciting possibilities beyond the domain of tradition.

To finish, I do want to express my fondness for traditions. I love staying up until midnight, eating shrimp cocktail and playing board games until the countdown when every clock strikes twelve, rushing out to the front porch to bang pots and pans and watch fireworks shoot out across the valley. So maybe holidays and schooling are two different things that don’t easily compare when talking about the worth of traditions. But in the spirit of tradition, perhaps we can go back to the drawing board, or the keyboard, and take a second look at our ever-incomplete rough draft of traditions. Last year, former Humanities Center intern Holly Boud talked about the virtues and vices of considering a new year, reminding us that “there might not be one ‘right’ answer.”So it is with considering the merits of tradition, be it the old or the new. What is important is that we keep asking the question. Indeed, “the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes”unless we take a second glance as life and time pass us by. And don’t forget to take a cup of kindness for the sake of auld lang syne.

This post was written by Garrett May, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] http://studentratings.byu.edu/. I don’t mean to say that I always complete a student evaluation for every class that I take. But I do appreciate the emphasis that President Worthen places on both students and professors utilizing the evaluations for feedback.

[2] https://www.chihuly.com/work/persians. After writing a research paper on Tiffany glass for IHUM 262 American Humanities, I’ve been amazed by stained glass and glass blowing as an art form. The Chihuly exhibit next to the Space Needle is definitely worth your time and money.

[3] If bestofsherlock.com says so, then you know it must be true.

[4] http://humanitiescenter.byu.edu/considering-a-new-year-the-virtues-and-vices/.

[5] Doyle, Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes, the Complete and Unabridged Novels: a Study in Scarlet, the Sign of Four, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the Valley of Fear. Prion, 2008.

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