Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Deconstructing Tiger Tunes

We have been here at Ouachita Baptist University for less than three months but we’ve already experienced what I’ve been told (and I believe) is, without a doubt, the biggest event of the year here: Tiger Tunes.  Tiger Tunes is a musical show featuring acts performed by some of the campus social groups (fraternities and sororities that are unique to OBU) as well as Campus Ministries, Campus Activities and the band.  The event is competitive, with awards for best choreography, best costumes, best overall act, etc.  The money raised through ticket sales and donations (totaling over a million dollars since it started 35 years ago) goes to student scholarships, but the real excitement is generated by the competition itself.  The football team is undefeated so far this season but all the talk and energy on campus so far this semester has been focused on Tunes.  The heat generated by the awards is so great that people who have nothing to do with OBU have to be brought in to judge the event.  Doesn’t it seem that every university has something like this that is the center of gravity of university life (OBU’s Tiger Tunes was patterned after Baylor’s “Sing”)?  Our undergrad experience at A&M back in the day featured the all-consuming Aggie Bonfire, an event with considerably more hair on its chest; so much so that it became too dangerous to continue (the stack collapsed in 1999 and killed a dozen students).

If I were to look at Tunes strictly through the eyes of the grumpy professor, I would want it abolished or drastically scaled down, which would be tantamount to holding the tide back.  The prep for Tunes for the rank and file social club members starts with the beginning of the school year and for the month leading up to homecoming, they’re spending three hours a night rehearsing.  Poor classroom attendance is a problem and a lot of the students have a tougher time than usual staying awake or concentrating.  The whining and complaining about academic requirements crescendos in the week leading up to Tunes, as if continuing with classes in the middle of a fall semester that also features a fall break long weekend and a Thanksgiving break were some onerous, unreasonable expectation. 

But the fact that just about every university seems to have a Tunes-type event (or several), combined with the fact (I take it as a fact because I heard it from a prof who was here then) that Tunes started 35 years ago because students were spending too much time and money working on homecoming floats, convinces me that an event like this is not only unstoppable, but a necessary and strongly positive part of college life.  Each group is forced to put together a routine and employ everyone in a way that showcases the abilities of the most talented members and covers up the limitations of the less musically talented.  There’s no faculty advisor standing over them telling them to keep rehearsing or to schedule another practice or make the costumes better.  It’s completely student-led and that’s the real key: you become an adult when there are no “adults” standing over you making you do stuff.  Obviously, most of us are not destined to sing and dance professionally, but the leadership and followership required for a social group to do Tunes is exactly what it takes to make a good business, church, team and family.  And while I'm on the subject of being a grownup, I'll just add that there's another important element to the relevance of Tunes: the fact that classes and quizzes and mid-terms should go right on.  For one thing, we need to be fair to the 2/3rds of the student body that does not participate in Tunes.  And in adult life, you choose to participate in "extra" stuff.  Want to go run the Chicago Marathon on a Sunday in October?  Super.  Your boss is still going to expect you to be standing tall at work at 8 a.m. in Texas on Monday morning.  When we're kids our parents decide for us.  When we're grown up we make our choices and manage the consequences.

So for me, the crusty old professor, the challenge is to generate excitement about learning Spanish in the same way that Tunes captures the imaginations of so many students.  The main ingredients will have to be teamwork, autonomy, fun and competition with publicly advertised consequences.  How do you do that in a traditional classroom that is generally anathema to all of those things?  I don't know yet, but I have some ideas.  

Just don’t expect to see me in a chicken suit. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ouachita Baptist: The College Athletics You Don´t See on ESPN

Ouachita Baptist University, the school in Arkansas where I started teaching in August, has an enrollment of about 1,500, about a third of which participates in varsity athletics.  You read that right.  1/3 of the students are varsity athletes.  That percentage is a large paradigm shift for me coming from Texas A&M where an on-campus sighting of a star athlete during the school day is fairly novel and the famous Johnny Football only comes to campus for practice and games (he takes on-line classes).  I’m sure there are many effects of having such a large percentage of the student body involved in varsity athletics that I haven’t digested yet, but one of them may be that of returning the quaint term “student-athlete” to its original meaning. 

Ouachita is a small school in a small place (Arkadelphia) and most of the schools we play seem to be equally non-descript (the schedule reads like a litany of intercardinal directions of Northeast or Southwest somewhere) but that doesn’t mean the athletes don’t train or compete hard.  The wrestlers, in spite of sharing just a few scholarships, go through grueling two-a-day practices for months before their season starts, and you can bet there’s no athlete here who ever went for a loose ball thinking, “It’s ok if I don’t win it. It’s only Division II.”

The Ouachita football program still boasts of its one notable NFL alum, 1970’s Dallas Cowboy great Cliff Harris.  This year´s team has a defensive end, Antwion Patterson, who seems to be unblockable, knifing into the backfield to blow up plays and sacking the quarterback.  But he's listed as 6´4" and 215 lbs.  Is the NFL of today a bridge too far from here?  Ouachita´s A.U. Williams stadium sits in the shadow of our bigger cross-town rival, Henderson State (when Henderson and Ouachita play each other the visiting team gets ready in their own dressing room and walks across the street to the other school’s stadium) and it would be dwarfed by most 5-A Texas High School stadiums.  The football roster carries a lot of 5’ 11” guys who were passed over by bigger schools, but the quality of play at the first home game I attended was excellent.  The vibe at the game, in spite of drizzling rain, was great.  Students get in free and their section punched above their weight in terms of being loud and active. The little school band played “Will the Circle be Unbroken” when the team ran out on the field and the players looked as pumped as if they were running out to play the Rose Bowl.  My minister of music grandfather, Harvey McGraw, who graduated from here in 1931, would have been proud.   

Many of the biggest fans of the athletic teams (in addition to their parents) are the other athletes.  They know firsthand what it takes to practice and compete while succeeding in college and they pull for each other.  I went to a volleyball game on a Friday night thinking attendance would be sparse, but the stands were packed with softball players, swimmers, basketball players and wrestlers who yelled their lungs out in spite of a loss on the court. 

When I went to my first volleyball game here last week I saw something that made me think I’m seeing a fundamentally different college athletic experience at Ouachita than the one covered by ESPN.  Maybe it’s more pure and positive.  Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s better for the average collegiate athlete as he or she moves out into post-college life. As the pre-game warmup routine of running, hitting and serving came to a close, it was time for the customary national anthem.  One of the Ouachita players, still sweaty and catching her breath, grabbed the microphone and sang the national anthem for the hundred or so fans who crowded into the few bleachers courtside. 

And she nailed it.