Trick or Treat

Readers offer expert advice on the perfect costume to inspire fear at an academic Halloween party.

October 31, 2005

Still trying to figure out what to wear to that Halloween bash tonight? We’ve been thinking about which costumes might be particularly scary to people at colleges and universities. Of course some of this will vary from campus to campus. What could be more terrifying at American University than someone dressed up as Benjamin Ladner tossing tuition dollars to chefs, relatives and travel agents? Sure, AU students and professors have lived it, but it’s still scary. And if you are going trick-or-treating at a certain president’s house in Cambridge, would be it more effective to dress as a female scientist or a Boston Globe reporter?

We decided to seek expert help on this question from some of our readers and offer their suggestions to inspire you in planning for tonight.

To many faculty members, students (or certain kinds of students) have the potential to terrify. Russ Pinizzotto, dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Merrimack College, says the most terrifying academic costume would be a student, in jeans, sideways hat, and rock band T-shirt, walking around saying, “I haven’t been to your class yet this semester, so what can I do to catch up …”

Others think it would be fun to frighten the undergrads. Ann M. Tuttle, chair of business and management at Keuka College, would dress as Academic Warning. "I find this to be a terrifying costume because it represents trouble, it wipes the smile off of many a student's face and it is filled out in triplicate."

Similarly, Terry Martin, a professor of art at William Woods University would dress as an academic adviser: "My head would be a huge memory stick. I would have a backpack stuffed full of a variety of forms. I would have a laptop computer attached to my chest for e-mail appointments and various searches. I would have a cape that helped fly me from meetings that seem to occur between scheduled student appointments."

Of course professors these days have many nightmares besides those involving students.

The blogger known as Bitch.Ph.D. didn’t hesitate when asked what costume would incite the most fear: David Horowitz.

Another prominent blogger -- Ralph E. Luker of Cliopatria -- says he would be scared to find either a dean or a philistine outside his door. And since neither has distinctive clothing, they are particularly dangerous, he adds.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says that “if some trick or treater showed up on my step dressed as a rejection letter (‘we are sorry to inform you that your book manuscript ....‘), I would close the door and scream Nooooooooooo!”

Thoughts from Charles Behling, who co-directs the program on intergroup relations at the University of Michigan: "Come dressed as a melting polar icecap? Nah, too real. A journal editor? Nah, too academic. A glob of cholesterol? Too gross. The student who is so much smarter than you that they see right through you? Too many to choose between. Since all those are out, I asked myself what is the scariest thing in life (death, pain??), and realized, of course, that it is high school. And specifically, high school gym class. So, there it is: Come dressed as your high school gym teacher.”

Some academics are afraid of things that they will in fact experience. Michael Degnan, academic dean at Hilbert College says “An interminable commencement speaker costume would be terrifying because deep within each faculty member is the fear of a commencement speaker who can draw energy from the microphone, never fatigue and never come to the end of their speech."

Other professors think it could be scary to look inward. Kevin G. Quinn, associate professor of economics at St. Norbert College, says the scariest costume for a faculty member might actually be nothing at all. "We can't admit when our emperors have no clothes,” he laughs. "This is why the ivory-coated, hallowed halls of academe often are the elephant graveyards for so many dumb ideas long-discredited everywhere else.... but as Paul Samuelson once said ‘funeral by funeral, theory advances...’ ”

Quinn isn’t the only one to think professors can frighten. Brian Compton, a science faculty member with Northwest Indian College, reports that lots of students and staff have asked him what he’s going to be this Halloween. “But if I reveal my plans, it will ruin my traditional approach to the holiday, which is not to reveal my plans,” he laughs. “Truth be told, I think I’m just scary enough that I don’t need to take it to the next step by actually dressing up.”

Halloween might be seen as posing a particular challenge to those who dress up every day. The Pirate Captain, whose fellow students at North Carolina State University elected him president of the student body last spring, is going for a change of pace from his usual eye patch. "I done bae dressen up as one o' them orient ninjas for tha haloween times," he said in an e-mail message (yes, he sends messages via e-mail, not cannonball). "If i wanted ta bae a scary lad I'd done bae a 4th order non-homogenious differential equation... What ever they look like...scary."

Even more frightening to some people is the prospect of any Halloween party with academics: “Most terrifying would be actually going to the gathering!” says Christina L. Azocar, an adjunct assistant professor of journalism at San Francisco State University.  According to her, academic crowds are “not your original party people.”

At Morton Community College, we were fortunate to catch up with a trio of administrators ( Brent Knight, the president; Mark Escamilla, executive vice president; and Jonathan Carroll, associate dean) who said that they would be scared to run into such campus figures as Hannibal Lecturer or the Vamprovost: “I vant to drink your academic freedom!”

Others within higher education most fear real life forces from outside their institutions. John V. Lombardi, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the scariest visions he could imagine would be two people "in the costume of state and federal regulators, their clothing made of a special material that attracts large quantities of expensive paper, and carrying a sign with their motto: Inefficiency, Ineffectiveness, and No Innovation."

"A terrifying apparition to be sure," he added.

All of us here at Inside Higher Ed hope that our readers stay clear of the Vamprovost and any scary government officials, real or imagined, and enjoy more treats than frights tonight.


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