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I'll Make a Mawrtyr Out of You

Sarah Ann's picture

Sarah Bristow

Paper 6


I’ll Make a Mawrtyr Out of You…

                               “All that ridiculous nudity?” laughed Carolyn Lloyd, a staff member of residential life at Bryn Mawr College. “That’s a new addition. The skinny dipping happened, yes, but streaking on parade night? No way,” She shook her head. “Things have changed a lot since I went here.”

                               As not only an employee but an alumna of Bryn Mawr (a “Mawrtyr”), Ms. Lloyd knows what she’s talking about. She has experienced the college’s rich culture firsthand, including many of the major and minor traditions that I, as a freshman, am about to see for myself. What I know as traditions, however, are very different from what she knew – and her conception was very different from those women who went here before her, and so on, and so forth. The evolution of the traditions that define Bryn Mawr’s culture mirrors the way that larger cultures change in society as a whole. But what causes these changes?

                               As different people combine to create a specific community, they use their different backgrounds and experiences to create their own definitions. For example, Carolyn mentioned a minor tradition in which I participate daily, “splitting the poles,” or, rather, not doing so. There is a set of two poles in the walkway that passes through Pembroke Arch from the main campus side (as opposed to the side nearest the road). The tradition, as I learned it, is that all members of a group passing through these poles must pass through the same space; if a pole comes between two girls, they can’t be friends. “That didn’t start until 2004!” Carolyn told me. One Hall Assistant that year was “a little OCD,” as Carolyn put it, and it simply bothered her if somebody “split the poles.” This HA started herding her freshmen through the poles that way, and other freshmen picked up on it. That’s how changes to culture become fixtures. Younger generations (like the freshmen, in this case) see a person or group they perceive to be older and wiser (the senior HA, or other upperclassmen) make a change based on their own odd preferences, and follow suit.

                               While this is true for minor traditions in the Bryn Mawr culture, and likewise elements of larger forms of cultures, major traditions often cannot be changed by a single person. In these cases, it’s shifts in communities as whole units that create the changes. In this sense, shifts could include technological changes, or responses to controversial practices. For example, Hell Week (and what little about it I am allowed to know as a frosh who has not yet been Helled) has evolved greatly since its inception as the freshman play back in the early days of the college. Changes in pop culture and the availabilities of things like costumes and technological aids have turned the skits of old into stunts like a freshman sneaking out in the middle of the night to serenade her Heller, as my sophomore friend did last year.

                               More evidence of this group-influence idea is seen in the changes to another tradition, parade night. Parade night began as a serene parade of the ladies who attended the college, wearing dresses and walking slowly. The parade night I experienced, however, was radically different. We ran through Pembroke Arch into a crowd of sophomore pelting us with water, juniors handing us candy, and seniors cheering incoherently from the senior steps. This instance of change, however, can more be explained by changes of other levels of culture in different areas. The population of international students at Bryn Mawr has been growing steadily. My class, the class of 2014, is 27% international students. The influence of so many ethnic, geographic, religious, and other cultural differences coming together in one place has certainly taken its toll on parade night, and probably many other areas as well. Parade night’s changes can also be attributed to cultural changes like fashion (no more dresses) and the effects its practices were having on the surrounding community of the town of Bryn Mawr. “The push and pull between communities creates traditions,” said Carolyn, in reference to this particular night of festivities. At one point, apparently, parade night included a huge bonfire on one of the greens. Outside factors from the town itself probably put a stop to this, like the effects of the fire on the residents (large amounts of smoke, disruption) and fire codes and regulations. This, though, creates another question. It is a tautology to say that changes in cultures create changes in cultures. What causes the initial culture changes? Does this bring us simply back to the idea that individuals create the change in culture? Does this, then, mean that an individual is the smallest unit down to which a culture can be defined? And how will these changes continue to occur in the future?

                               At Bryn Mawr, at least, I would say culture shifts cannot be predicted. Because it is true that individual women can each have their own effects on the culture here, and we cannot predict the personalities and quirks of every future student, it is impossible. Even the group shifts cannot be predicted. We can’t say right now what percentage of future classes will be international, or even what other countries these women will come from. We can’t say what technological advances will be made, or what will be important in fashion and pop culture. Culture shifts are, simply put, unpredictable.

Works Consulted:

Conversation with Carolyn Lloyd. 26 Oct. 2010. 10:00 AM

“Wellness presentation on self-governance, honor code, and traditions.” Carolyn Lloyd. 17 Sept. 2010.

"Admissions & Financial Aid." Bryn Mawr College. Web. 28 Oct. 2010. <>.