Campus myths and legends are an inevitable part of any college experience. Freshmen absorb false information disguised as tempting truth influenced by fun stories told on campus tours and articles in student-produced welcome-to-campus literature. Misguided freshmen perpetuate the cycle by passing these myths to the next batch of incoming students, unaware of the treasured-but-false legacy they are cementing in their school’s culture.
Northwestern is no exception to this pastime of creating glorified fiction. The school has been around since 1851 — plenty of time for absurd ideas to mature into the Wildcat canon of common knowledge. A closer look at some crazy "factoids” circulating around school provides a snapshot of the college myth-making process.
If you’ve ever taken a campus tour, your guide probably stopped in front of Deering Meadow and told of how the Wildcats used to be called the Fighting Methodists. You probably thought this was clever. You probably never questioned the truth behind this statement.
So were the Wildcats ever known as the Fighting Methodists? University Archivist Kevin Leonard says no.
“I’ve been working here for over 30 years and I just haven’t seen it. You’re not going to find any programs where they’re actually called the Fighting Methodists.”
Leonard says he has run comprehensive searches through local newspaper archives and hasn’t found an official mention of the Fighting Methodists. Until 1924 when Northwestern adopted the Wildcat name, the team was simply referred to as “Northwestern” or informally as “Purple,” but not the Fighting Methodists, Leonard says.
A possible origin of the informal name could be NU’s historical rivalry with Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, Leonard says. The two teams used to play a yearly game and the winner would receive a shillelagh — an Irish clubwalking stick hybrid — they try to defend their claim to the trophy in the next competition. This yearly contest started in 1930 and ended in the 1970s. Leonard says calling Northwestern the Fighting Methodists could have been a joke created in the midst of this rivalry.
“Someone in the ‘40s or ‘50s could have referred jokingly back to Northwestern’s days as a Methodist university,” Leonard says. “In modern days, people have picked up on it because it’s so goofy.”
Another story that comes up from time to time is the legend of the sinking library. The late Professor Dwight Conquergood writes about the myth in the July 1985 edition of the Northwestern Alumni News:
“Norris University Center, University Library and Pick-Staiger — all these buildings stand on artificial ground that was once part of Lake Michigan ... There is only one problem. The architect forgot to take into account the weight of the books. And that’s why the library is sinking into the ground. You can hardly notice it, just an inch or so every year. But it’s true. Little by little, year by year, the library is gradually settling and sinking back into Lake Michigan. Some poor Ph.D. student will probably look out a closed carrel window someday and see fish swimming by.”
Conquergood, who focused a lot of his studies on oral culture, acknowledges the library isn’t sinking and examines his interest in why students might believe such a tale. He points out the importance of folklore to modern societies and proposes that students believe the story of the architect’s partial failure to help offset the academic stress they endure in a very modern, high-end institution.
“This homespun legend also permits students to laugh at authority figures, to make fun of an architect who would make such a stupid mistake,” Conquergood writes. The story may function as a safety valve for letting off steam, releasing a little pressure. If the library with weighty books symbolizes the massive accumulation of theoretical and abstract knowledge, then the story of its sinking may unsettle, through laughter, the foundations of authority.”
In conjunction with the theme of academic pressure, another Northwestern myth suggests a student whose roommate commits suicide will receive straight A’s for the quarter as psychological compensation. False once again.
Dean of Students Burgwell Howard wrote in an email that this policy is a “classic college myth” and is “untrue here at Northwestern.” Howard remembers hearing this when he was a freshman at Dartmouth College.
Colleges can partially blame the media for this myth, according to snopes.com. Both CSI: NY and Law & Order: Criminal Intent featured episodes where students receive academic benefits as a result of their roommates committing suicide. Variations of this myth were also key components of the plotlines of two 1998 movies: Dead Man on Campus and Dead Man’s Curve.
Journeying through the steam tunnels is the illicit staple on NU’s unofficial bucket list. Some students say they’ve heard getting caught in the steam tunnels results in immediate expulsion. That’s not the case, says Dan McAleer, deputy chief of University Police.
Still, entering the steam tunnels is considered trespassing, McAleer says. Students may be issued a citation and forced to pay a fine or they could be placed under arrest and taken to the station for further investigation depending on the level of danger the officer on duty perceives, McAleer says. He says some cases may not warrant legal action, but that University Police reports all infringements to Student Affairs to determine further disciplinary action.