One needn't be a philosopher of John Blutarsky's caliber to know that fun is generally considered a constitutive component of college life. But while the traditional elements of college fun (alcohol, sex, parties ...) are similar nearly anywhere you go, its regional manifestations do vary in interesting ways. In Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University, students living in off-campus houses celebrate and perpetuate college fun by giving their houses names and accompanying signs; these house signs tend to refer to or pun on the aforementioned traditional elements, and they serve to mark the houses as sites of additional, future fun. In contrast, however, a few houses' signs honor a very different aspect of the occupants' lives: religious faith.
Chaise LaDousa, associate professor of anthropology at Hamilton College, was struck by Oxford's unusual tradition while in a visiting teaching position at Miami. He and his students analyzed the origins and meanings of house signs, complete with numerous interviews with residents of named houses. From that project grew LaDousa's new book, House Signs and Collegiate Fun: Sex, Race, and Faith in a College Town (Indiana University Press), which explores the house signs and their significance in detail. As do the signs themselves, the book focuses on alcohol and drugs, sex and gender relations, and partying -- but it doesn't fail to note the particular privileges of this segment of the college-going population, and the subtle and less-subtle ways those privileges are revealed by the signs.
Inside Higher Ed interviewed LaDousa by e-mail to learn more about Oxford's quirky custom.
Q: Can you give a brief overview of the house signs tradition in Oxford? Have you any idea how it started, and have you heard of anything similar anywhere else?
A: Many students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, mount signs on the houses they rent off-campus. The signs are large and colorful, are most often made by the students living within, and include a name for the house and its residents. With names like “Hangover Here,” “Stagger Inn,” and “TKâˆ†: Tappa Kegga Day,” house signs reflect the use of alcohol for which college students have always been known in the United States. Indeed, students throw parties in the named houses, and use the names to invite people to the parties. Thus, one finds “Bed Booze & Beyond,” “Party Foul,” “Startin’ Early,” and “Stop Inn.” All of the students I met living in houses with names explained that house names are much easier to use to locate a house and to remember than a street address. I heard townspeople give directions using house names. Some students claimed that house signs made Miami University a cool, neat, or special school, and alumni weekend brought many former residents to a bar in Oxford where many house signs have been retired for display on the walls.
Different people have different ideas about when the display of house signs began. I was told repeatedly that the first sign was “The Ivy League” and that it was put up in the early 1970s. Yet others claim that the phenomenon began in the mid-1960s, and they variously identify “Hut Hut” and “Sugar Shack” as the first sign. While there are different assertions about the first sign, what is certain is that house signs emerged during a period of rapid growth in the student body, at Miami University and at universities across the country. I learned about the only occurrence of something like house signs from Inside Higher Ed, in a story about students at the University of Minnesota at Duluth residing off-campus who put up signs welcoming new students with more or less salacious messages. House signs are more permanently displayed
and, in some cases, are left up for many years.
Q: Can you describe the class and the project from which much of the book's material is drawn?
A: My students in a seminar in linguistic anthropology decided that house signs should be the focus of our attention as we thought about the relationship between language and culture. The students became engrossed in thinking, talking, and writing about how house signs should be approached theoretically and what house signs can be said to do practically. For example, we started by taking photographs of the signs and sorting the names into categories. Sexual ones included “Morning Wood” (waking with an erection), “Octopussy” (eight female occupants), and “Well Hung Over” (a mixed pun on the effects of alcohol and an expression for a large penis). Ones incorporating popular media included “Boogie Nights” (a movie about the adult film industry), “Leave it to Beaver” (a television series), and the aforementioned “Octopussy” (of James Bond fame). We started to interview residents and were shocked. When we mentioned the categories we had identified, residents claimed that we were taking matters too seriously. House signs were about having fun and getting an easy laugh, and about partying. The students and I learned that it is imperative to consider the ways that language is tied to the contexts from which it emerges, as well as the ways in which that language can be reframed and reworked.
Q: "... [H]ouse signs and their relationship to ideas about fun reflect many of the shifts noted by scholars of college life..." (p. 54). Can you outline some of these shifts, and how they are reflected in the Oxford house signs?
A: Scholars such as Helen Horowitz have shown that the earliest days of college life in the United States consisted of elite boys, on the one hand, and young men of humbler background studying for a life in the church. Only a tiny minority of youth in the U.S. went to college until the late 1800s, and the energy of the college men, or elites, was devoted to what we would now call hazing of juniors and harassment of the faculty. As the institution grew rapidly in the 20th century, it began to bring under its purview much of the energy of the elite and coordinate it into what we now call extracurricular activity. By the late-1960s, the point at which the house sign phenomenon began, student fun began to move off-campus and to be less coordinated. House signs reflect what ethnographers have argued for recent college students: the notion that fun is increasingly elusive just as there should be evidence of it everywhere.
Q: Those living in named houses repeatedly stressed to you that it was important not to take the signs "too seriously." Are there still serious conclusions to be drawn from them? (And is writing a book about house signs not, rather paradoxically, inevitably taking them too seriously?)
A: We were indeed put in the position of taking the house signs too seriously. There are a few lessons to be learned from our experience. First, I think we learned that our initial approach to house signs as being about the categories we could derive from their names is probably the approach many take. We were able to experience the shift involved in stepping out of a particular view of language – one where language is thought to have meaning that anyone can, potentially, apprehend – and into another one that depends on the habits of a group that shares some beliefs about what they are doing, or not doing, in the world. And second, we were able to show that the students living in named houses were using the names to do things that few, if any, believed they were doing. Students living in “Inn Pursuit” and “The Rock,” for example, wanted for their house signs to advertise their Christian faith and provide an invitation to others to join them on that basis. Students not living in such houses largely missed the significance, and reported that “Inn Pursuit” was about sex, and that “The Rock” was about drugs, both of which could be described as partying. And the students living in houses with religious names had a tough time reconciling partying with their faith.
Q: What is the relationship between house signs and race? Between house signs and gender?
A: With respect to race, we found that there is no direct connection between house signs and anything that could be identified as racist – that is, deriving habits from a person’s or group’s physical characteristics. What we found instead is that students living in named houses claimed that a small part of town named the Ghetto was the place where students could have the most fun partying. There are house signs in the neighborhood like “Ghetto Fabulous” and “Girls Gone Ghetto.” There was no invocation of race until a student would claim to know someone from the “real” ghetto, usually through a job. The celebratory dynamic of the interview would come to a grinding halt and never manage to return. I make the claim in the book that the partying at the heart of the house sign phenomenon rests on the existence of a “real” ghetto being elsewhere, one that is understood as essentially racial.
Many more of the house signs involve sexual elements than have an association with the Ghetto, of course, but it was hard to know what to make of the signs in and of themselves. We knew from the signs, for example, that sometimes gender was involved, as in “Absolut Angels” and “Band of Brothers,” and sometimes sexuality, as in “Hot Box” (box being a euphemism for vagina) and “Deez Nutz” (nuts being a euphemism for testicles). Some signs involved sex acts such as the command in “Liquor Up Front Poker in the Rear.” It wasn’t until we heard residents use the signs in an interview, however, that a specific dynamic emerged: women tend not to use male genitalia in their names whereas women as well as men use female genitalia in their names. During interviews, males living in houses with names that involve female genitalia enjoyed shouting out the names, and this was often met with irritated grimaces on the faces of the women present.
Q: Is there a need for students to give more thought to the implications of their signs? Why, or why not?
A: In what is perhaps a typical anthropological stance, I think that house signs are great to think with. We found lots of evidence that students appreciate their fellow students’ creativity through house signs. It is true that I found myself sometimes wishing that residents of named houses would use the signs to think about intellectual property issues, the means by which we imagine, create, and speak for publics, or the possibilities and shortcomings of what makes life satisfying and enjoyable. But it is very hard, I think, to consider such things when one is invested in something. We found that residents of named houses did struggle with sex, race, and Christian faith in ways that are pretty typical in the U.S., and house signs prompted them to do it. So, what I can say is that the meaninglessness of the signs nevertheless lubricates a good deal of conversations about significant topics. If the students involved in the display of house signs read the book and disagree with the ways that I think house signs lead them to engage, in different ways, with sex, race, and Christian faith, I’d love to hear why. To reflect on one’s life through the eyes of another kind of person, however that is apprehended, is one of the things that make life worth living. I want to make explicit, though, that I don’t think getting rid of house signs will solve any of the really serious and pressing dilemmas to which they are oriented.
Q: What lessons can be drawn about collegiate fun, and college life more broadly, from house signs? To what extent might these lessons extend to students at other institutions, and to what extent are they specific to Miami University?
A: College cannot and has never existed without fun. Though residents of named houses claim that one takes a house sign too seriously as soon as one starts to think about its meaning, the names’ engagement with alcohol, sex, or, to a lesser extent, drugs, takes its place in expressive activity at a transitional and infamously uncertain point in life. It is important to remember the significance of house signs emerges, in part, in the eye of the beholder. Not all college students in the U.S. are young, studying at four-year institutions, and able to pay rent for a house. No doubt there are many outside of Oxford, Ohio, and they might see in house signs something recognizable at the same time that they might see something that makes Oxford special. But many students with whom I have discussed house signs find them unrecognizable and alien. House signs can help us recognize a dominant – if not representative – notion of the college student in our society and help us to think about the fact that there are many college students who do not fit that dominant image.