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John Kelly's Washington: Teaching the Aggies at Texas A and M

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John Kelly
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Friday, April 24, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist John Kelly was online Friday, April 24 at Noon ET to chat about the week he's spent teaching journalism among the Aggies of Texas A and M University.

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John Kelly: Howdy! I'm finishing up week as a journalist in residence at Texas A&M University in College Station. My column hasn't been running in The Post, but I have been blogging about my experiences at the university.

For some reason I seemed to have touched a nerve. But such is the fate of the modern journalist. It's my last day in Aggieland. Tomorrow I head to San Antonio. Before I do, let's chat. If you're part of the global Aggie diaspora, tell me about your A&M experiences. Recommend any good restaurants in San Antone? And what have I missed in Washington this week? Anything interesting happen?

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. K: The "aggie" situation, if I may call it that, is all over the U.S., although probably at its peak with Texas A and M and Texas U. Any state with a separate "ag" school has this split. For example, old joke told by U of Kansas grads about Kansas State: KSU grad writes the faculty "Am trying to raise chickens, using the best eggs. I plant them, fertilize and water, but no chickens come up. What should I do?" The dean of the faculty writes back "First, we need a soil sample." Change names, and it works in any state with a "U" and an "Ag"

John Kelly: Dare I even respond to this?

Several people said the interesting dichotomy between UT and A&M is a result of the difference in location. One is in a relatively urban area known for its relatively liberal population. The other is in a relatively isolated area.

I don't know anything about UT; never been there. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that some of the more florid comments on my blog this week were posted by UT grads posing as A&M grads in an attempt to confirm people's stereotypes about Aggies.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey John!

Thanks for taking a trip to Aggieland to give some insight to the "rest of the world" about life in (and after) College Station, including our beloved Muster. I hope you enjoyed your time there, got at least a few "Howdys," and ate some delicious BBQ!

Thanks again, Lauren Nygard '06

John Kelly: Hey Lauren. I did have some delicious BBQ, at a place called Rudy's. I had the chop sandwich. The beef was great, with lots of little crunchy bits in it. Good potato salad too. I didn't have a chance to try C&J.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've just learned that Swedes put dog statues in their roundabouts, which I find charming. Bo be a great candidate for the Ellipse! I can't think of any dog statues in D.C.

Roundabout Dog (Wikipedia)

As an ex-Brit, do you miss roundabouts?

John Kelly: Whenever I'm stuck at a traffic light and there are no cars coming from the intersecting street, I miss roundabouts. It seems like they are more efficient in some ways. You know, it struck me the other day that Washington's roundabouts are a bit of a mess. The way British roundabouts work is, you yield to the traffic already in them. But some of ours are the opposite of that.

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Canyon, Tex.: As always when someone writes about A and M there is a lot of sarcasm. I hope most people who read your article and blogs do understand what A and M is and what it stands for. Your ridicule is offensive even if you were well intentioned. Mike Smith A and M Class of 1971

washingtonpost.com: The Aggie Files

John Kelly: Mike, for the life of me I can't detect any sarcasm in anything I've written about A&M. I'm certainly capable of it, but I thought I'd played it pretty straight. And I certainly didn't ridicule it. What I did do is make some attempts at understanding it, or at least some of its traditions. You might say, "Well, you'll never understand. You shouldn't even try." That strikes me as a particularly insular viewpoint, anti-intellectual even. Weren't you ever curious about something like Muster, about how it resembles other rituals, about why A&M would have a unique blend of patriotism and pride, or are you content to think: "This is what Aggies are; outsiders aren't welcome"?

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Silver Spring, Md.: John: As a fellow Terrapin, I'm disappointed that you think UMD students don't have any traditions. Are you forgetting the spontaneous symbolic conflagrations that periodically burn around campus? Granted, it's not as moving as the Aggie Muster, but does mark a return of the sofa, chair, or whatever other kind of used furniture is available, to it's original carbon form. It's really an allegory for humankind's journey from birth to earth...please respect the tradition and fear the turtle.

John Kelly: And aren't you supposed to touch the nose of Testudo or die a virgin?

So, I guess Terps have a few traditions, but nothing like A&M (and other schools, I'm sure).

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Silver Spring, Md.: John, as someone who has spent a lot of time in England, I can't think the Aggie Muster should be that unfamiliar to you. Almost every British church, and certainly every cathedral I've ever been in, has a chapel or alcove dedicated to local war dead. Ditto colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and public schools. I dare say there are very similar ceremonies held regularly in Britain on Remembrance Day.

On a more general note, I was worried that your posts from Aggie-land would carry a tone of condescension which, while present, has been pretty mild. Thank goodness Weingarten didn't go with you.

washingtonpost.com: Muster's Last Stand: The Aggie Files, Part 3

John Kelly: Condescension. Hmmm. I don't see that. Or, rather, I don't see me writing about College Station any differently than I wrote about Oxford. I pointed out plenty of interesting/unusual/odd things about England and was never accused of being condescending. I also never heard anyone in Oxford say, "You're making fun of us."

Chapels with names of war dead? Yes, Oxford has them. I didn't see anything like Muster. And what's unique about Muster is it happens all over the world on the same day.

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washingtonpost.com:

washingtonpost.com:

John Kelly: Here's an Aggie tradition: Adding a penny to the foot of the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross. It's supposed to bring you luck on your exam. I put one there before my first lecture and it worked. I didn't bore anyone to death.

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Arlington, Va.: Hey John. FWIW, when I read your blog post on Muster I didn't think you were criticizing or making fun of anyone or anything.

Also wanted to give you heads up -- Bike to Work Day is May 15. As always, WABA (Washington Area Bicyclist Association) has all the details.

John Kelly: Thank you. I was just wondering when that was.

There are some bikes on the A&M campus, plenty in fact. Most students use them to get around ON campus, as opposed to TO campus. There's a pretty good campus bus system but I think many students prefer having their own cars. Or trucks. Lotsa trucks in the parking lot, including mine: a Toyota Tundra. It was the only one Enterprise had at the airport. It's like climbing onto a tractor. It's cool, but it's way too much vehicle for me. I'll trade it in today.

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Fairfax, Va.: John:

The proper A and M way to refer to the University of Texas is t.u. It is also called the "forty acres" for the miniscule size of the campus.

Bill A and M Class of 1955

John Kelly: Ah, thank you. And what's this about "teasippers"? I saw a reference to that somewhere but couldn't understand it.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: John --

Heard any good "Aggie" jokes? They always used to be pretty good and knowing that the "offended/targetted" group has often heard the best/worst ones, perhaps some have shared the better ones. Please?

John Kelly: Not a single one. I remember when I lived in Texas as a kid (Universal City, c. 1972-76, Kirby Junior High), Aggie jokes were a no-no. I mentioned that to some Aggies and they said, "We can tell them, but no one else can." Then the one they told was: "What do you call an Aggie after graduation? 'Boss.'"

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A and M escapee: Please tell me someone's pointed you at College Station's greatest culinary delight, the kolaches from Brazos Blue Ribbon bakery. I spent a year and a half in grad school down there, and those are the one thing I seriously miss.

John Kelly: No, I hadn't heard of those. What IS a kolache, anyway? I know I had to replace the kolache in my old MG (the transmission wouldn't go into reverse), but I imagine it's not the same thing.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Wow, Hax is making me bawl. Make me laugh, please.

John Kelly: Why do Aggies hate M&Ms?

They're too hard to peel.

(Note: The telling of this joke in no ways implies disrespect to the past, present and future graduates of Texas A&M. I'm just trying to make this poor person laugh.)

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Houston, Tex.: I almost fell out of my chair when looking at the blogs and found that you were in Aggieland. I fell in love with an Aggie grad student while he was in D.C. on business and have recently moved to Houston. I loved your observations of the traditions and the descriptions of muster. As someone who was completely dumbfounded when she first visited College Station, I think you were spot on. A and M is seeped in so many traditions -- some interesting, some incredible and some downright silly. The problem you encountered is that true diehard Aggies don't question the traditions, they just do them -- and get very upset with others question them. Questioning them does not make them bad or wrong -- it is just questioning something that is different. Aggieland is a unique and different place -- sometimes for the good and sometimes not. The fact that the old mascots that are buried near the stadium have their own scoreboard to see the score of the football game is just totally wacky -- but the tradition of the 12th man -- the REAL 12th man is just so neat to me.

I think part of it is Texas. I have come to realize that there are some Texans who are so proud that they are Texans that they do not understand how anyone could question how great things are here -- as a Yankee, that's just a different view of the U.S. than mine.

In any event, glad you got to fly into the little airport -- don't bother getting there 1 hour in advance to come home -- 20 mintues should do!

John Kelly: Many of the students I met have done internships in Washington or other cities in the northeast. I'd love to hear their observations about that. Did they experience culture shock? Is it harder to be a Washingtonian in Bryan-College Station, than a B-CSer in D.C.?

And I'm reminded, being here, that America is a big country, with a lot of different viewpoints. We can get into a bubble in Washington, forgetting that.

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washingtonpost.com:

washingtonpost.com:

John Kelly: I assume you would not see this sign above a water fountain at George Washington U.

(Note: Posting this picture in no way implies that I think I'm *better* than people who chew tobacco.)

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Aggies? How quaint: The problem I saw with how you wrote about TAM was that you were condescending. Even the way you described yourself in the column, sounded condescending. The anthropologist describing a hallowed South Seas tribal ritual, considers himself to be more advanced, educated and informed than the more primitive, uneducated and unworldly tribesmen. And that's the way it came off, as if you were the urbane, witty, superior outsider documenting a quaint local custom. You didn't convey that you felt the power of the event only that you recognized that the Aggies felt the power of the event. You used phrases intended to be entertaining or amusing which felt like mockery to Aggies. If you had tried to write about the rituals as an honored guest trying to pay due respect to the event, rather than an outsider trying to describe a quaint local ritual, then you might have been received better.

Condescension is rarely appreciated by the subject and you do come off as condescending. Although I enjoyed the article as an outsider and Yankee, I can easily recognize why some bristled at the column.

John Kelly: Well, first of all, I'm a journalist. We're not supposed to go "go native." And, again, I don't think I was condescending. Would people have gotten upset if I'd written, "I attended the convention of the Modern Language Association, looking for data the way an anthropologist strives to understand a South Seas ritual"? I don't think so. And yet that's exactly the sort of thing I might write.

I honor A&M, I think, by taking its traditions seriously, by thinking about them.

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Dog statues : There is a statue of FDR's dog at the memorial. A lovely statue.

John Kelly: Where else? I think there may be some dog statues in some of Washington's older cemeteries.

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Alexandria, Va.: I love the idea of using pennies to honor the dead. It would give me something to leave behind when I'm at a cemetery and there are no pebbles, and it would also give me something to do with my pennies.

I was driving past a Funeral Home the other day and misread their sign "Funeral Home and Crematorium" as "Funeral Home and Creamery". Lamentation and soft-serve ice cream would be an interesting combination.

John Kelly: Though there are a lot of traditions here regarding the dead--"our fallen Aggies"--I don't think the Ross statue is one of them. Here's a story that explains the background.

Funerals homes and ice cream? Cry me a frozen yogurt.

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Alexandria, Va.: Maybe you can help with something I've been wondering about. Why do we have to drive on the left in the public parking garage at Union Station? It always strikes fear in my heart -- not because it is hard (did it in Ireland on small crazy roads with no mishap) -- I just keep expecting to run into someone -- literally -- who is going the wrong way.

John Kelly: I haven't parked in that garage for a while. Is that how it works? Union Station is also where the up escalator from the Metro is on the left side. I'll have to look into it. It is a like a wee little bit of Ireland.

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Kolaches: There are two versions -- one is a sort of puffy danish with fruit filling, the other has sausage and/or cheese filling. Central Texas was settled by a lot of Czechs, and that's where the kolache comes from. I've only seen them around here once, for the Folklife Festival one summer, and theirs weren't great.

John Kelly: Mmmmm. That sounds good. Also good was the sausage I had with breakfast every morning at the B&B I'm staying at. Patties, not links. Nice and flavorful.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a 1987 undergrad from journalism department at A and M. Can you tell me the current state of the program today, based on your experience down there?

I also received my doctorate in history from A and M and have discovered that I obtained a solid, very practical education there. I am not a Texan and thus never quite fit in down there, and I believe some of the uniqueness you experienced was the "Texas thing." Regardless, I had a wonderful undergrad experience, though wish I had gone elsewhere for grad school.

John Kelly: I imagine the program is completely different. For starters, you can't earn a journalism degree from A&M. There is a communications major but only a journalism minor. The J school was dismantled a few years ago. The story I heard was that, while enrollment was high, the quality of students had suffered. They were letting in kids who didn't quite fit in other majors and who thought journalism was "easy." Rather than tighten or strengthen the program, it was just killed. The journalist-in-residence program is seen as a way to still provide some quality exposure for students, along with the writing and communications classes that are still offered.

Interestingly, you can still get a journalism degree from A&M: an agricultural journalism degree. It's run out of the Ag School and has something like 700 students.

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Arlington, Va.: : John, I'm a native of Chicago, liberal politically, and the only place I would ever live in Texas is Austin. That said, your Aggie notes do come off as a bit condescending -- not truly disrespectful, but a tad superior in tone.

John Kelly: Let's say for the sake of argument that you're right. Replace "Harvard" with every occurrence of the phrase "Texas A&M" in my blogs and tell me if you think I was sounding superior. And if you think, "Oh, no. No one can be superior to Harvard," then I think we have our answer.

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John Kelly: More thoughts: The language may have been a little, not extreme, but DESCRIPTIVE. For example, I think this chat is being billed as "John Kelly among the Aggies," as if the Aggies were some exotic species. But the Aggies themselves talk that way.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: The real question is: Did you try ring dunking at the Dixie Chicken?

John Kelly: Sadly, no. I've actually been working too hard. The senior Aggies got their rings not long ago. These are impressive pieces of jewelry. Officially, the university frowns on ring-dunking, which if I have it right, is dropping your new class ring in a big beer and chugging the beer down to get to it.

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Fairfax, Va.: "Teasippers" is a reference to the annual March 2 (Texas Independence Day) celebration held at the University of Texas. It's an outdoor party anyone can attend and tea and cake are served. I'm not sure if they celebrate it anymore, though. During my years at UT (92-96) it drew an increasingly large number of protesters and there was some talk of canceling the event for good.

John Kelly: What were they protesting? Sandwiches with the crust cut off?

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Florida Chick (the original and real one!): John, how interesting about the penny tradition! My mother has one for every New Year's Eve where we put pennies on the window ledges outside and then go to sleep. When you come back in the morning, if your penny stays there, you will make money in the year and if your penny disappeared, you will lose money. I don't know that I've ever seen any correlation to my finances, but fun nonetheless. My mom also believes washing clothes on New Year's Day means you have sentenced someone in your family to death for the year. No joke. She will fight you if you try to put clothes in the washer! I don't know where these superstitions came from, but I've never met any other family that follows them.

John Kelly: I love weird family traditions. My mother used to tell my brother and me that seeing a Brink's armored truck would bring...not good luck, necessarily, but a change in luck. Some interesting thing would happen. Someone should compile a list of all these wacky things.

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GWU Restroom: No tobacco, but we have our own problems....

Gelman and Marvin Center see uptick in lewd activities (The GW Hatchet, April 23)

John Kelly: Those nasty GWUers.

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Re ag schools: I think Herndon is on to something. Having grown up in a state that had only one big (land grant) state university, I was surprised when I got to the U. of Michigan for grad school and saw how bitter the rivalry between UM and Michigan State (originally an ag school) was. I chalked it up to in-state rivalry -- part familiarity breeds contempt, part rivalry between a lot of Michigan kids who grew up together and then chose between the schools -- but Herndon's theory makes a lot of sense.

John Kelly: Rivalries are fun. Oxford and Cambridge have them, of course. Harvard and MIT. There may be more heated ones than A&M and UT, but I'm not sure if I know of any.

I learned an interesting thing here: There's a law in Texas that if you graduate in the top 10 percent of your high school class, you're guaranteed admission to either A&M or UT. I like that, although I hear there are complications to it.

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Aski, NG: Step in any cow pies while you are out there in Bushland?

John Kelly: No. Speaking of Bush, I walked around the George WH Bush Library this morning. Lovely building. Lovely grounds. I hope I'll see some cows (longhorns?) on the way to San Antonio.

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Cameron, N.C.: How interesting. The sign above the water fountain outside the ladies room.

John Kelly: To be fair, the water fountain is for anyone.

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Dog Statue: There's a statue of Balto in NYC's Central Park.

John Kelly: Right, to honor the time he brought a soy latte to New Yorkers stranded in a blizzard.

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Condescending?: I have never been to A and M. I have never been to Texas. So I have "no dog in this fight."

I am baffled that anyone could think your writing this week was condescending. It was descriptive, even a little colorful, but condescending? No.

And a good anthropologist would not consider himself above the "natives." I think you might have made a good one.

Some of these people have a little bit of an inferiority complex.

John Kelly: Well, people are bundles of thoughts and emotions. Cultures build up stereotypes, try to get away from them, fall back into them.... Someone somewhere has written a PhD thesis on this, I'm sure, maybe here at Texas A&M.

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Fairfax, Va.: Re: "Teasippers."

They were protesting the oppression of the native peoples, or something to that effect. UT students are very politically active, especially compared to A and M students, so there's a group to protest practically anything.

John Kelly: There were lots of exhibits here on Earth Day this week. Also a debate in the school paper about an effort to allow students to carry concealed handguns on college campuses in Texas.

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Silver Spring, Md.: FWIW, I think some of your writing about England is condescending, too.

John Kelly: Well, nothing compares to Silver Spring.

Wait, was that condescending? I can't tell any more.

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Atlanta...: Thanks...that helped. Man it's tough over there.

John Kelly: Actually, it's lovely. Though it's cloudy today, so far this week there's been nothing but blue skies and warm breezes, with the live oak trees on campus providing refreshing pools of shade. I hear that come Mother's Day it'll be too hot and humid to go outside--like Washington in August.

Thanks for stopping by to chat. I should be back home in the paper on Monday. Until then, adios.

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