The Taming of the Frosh

A quick look at the slow evolution of orientation

Credit: 
Journal File Photo

Personally, I liked Frosh Week. It wasn’t a defining moment in my life, but I had a good time. Still, there are those who swear that the universe-affirming events of Orientation Week are what make Queen’s the best university in the whole wide world, and there’s also those who detest its cultish, mind-controlling rah-rah-rah propagandic nature. Some think it’s become too sanitized and that all the fun is gone, while others criticize that its focus lies in sex and booze, not academics like it should. Whatever the deal, one thing is clear — the tradition that is Frosh Week is as about ‘traditional’ as watching Survivor on your television. Frosh Week, as we know it, is a new thing.

Granted, Orientation Week has been around in one form or another for well over a century, but almost everything about it has changed: its duration, its purpose, its events, its focus, and above all, the relationship between the incoming frosh and the second-year students who would be both their mentors and tormentors.

Those entering Queen’s in 1928 (the year acceptable hazing was written into the AMS constitution), for example, faced obstacles and challenges much more dire than, say, shaving cream fights. Never mind being pelted with tomatoes, eggs, paint, tar and grease, male frosh were forbidden from dating until after they had written their Christmas exams and earned the right.

Exactly how was this enforced? How were pre-university relationships dealt with? The answers may have been lost through the passage of time, but one gets the instant impression that if the Frosh of ’28 were told they couldn’t date... they didn’t. And if the Frosh of ’28 were told that they had to wear their tams and faculty ribbons every time they were out in public, you know that they did. Just like they were forced to tie the shoes or light the smokes or buy the beers for any senior or sophomore in their path. Just like they were forced to carry an open umbrella (?) everywhere they went for the first week of their university life. And they did it all without ever once disobeying their 10 p.m. curfew, as imposed not by the city or the faculty, but by a bunch of students a year older than them.

Even in the post-war era, when new Queen’s students were spared many of the earlier indignities in the name of gentlemanly progress, you’d still find hapless Engineering frosh transporting their trusty slide rulers in mandated “large, clearly visible holsters” and with a well-sharpened 5H pencil behind their working ear. And, if it was before the completely arbitrary date of October 7, you could also expect them to be shaving only the left side of their face, their hair parted down the middle and combed straight down over their ears. Punishment a little more ‘unusual’ than ‘cruel’.

Or maybe it wasn’t ‘punishment,’ after all. In September of 1969, a Journal editorial expounded the wonders and importance of “physical hazing [and how it was] designed to make the year into a closely-knit group and to instill the proverbial ‘school spirit’.” After all, even if “the Engineering Initiations may seem barbaric and extreme upon occasion but it seems to be effective,” the editorial continued, then it also “appears to instill a sense of individual and group accomplishment through separate activities and through the program taken as a whole.” Or, as drama professor Roderick Robertson chimed in via a letter to the editor, “it develops a cheerful willingness to obey the orders of those who are above us.” A little fascist by today’s standards? Maybe. But hazing and humiliation were important conditioning for Orientation Week frosh for the next couple of decades.

Even as recently as 1988, ArtSci students were faced with the dona sabaid (“evil struggle”) to earn the privilege to get their tams. While the Engineer frosh swam past the cattle skulls and bloodied rib-cages that floated around their vaunted pole, the ArtScis were forced to run through the basements of Jeffrey Hall, making stops at various stations to fondle fish heads or cover themselves in cat food. Although initially thought to be a good idea because it focused on sheer disgusting-ness rather than really bad stuff like sex or alcohol, the dona sabaid was often a less-than-positive experience for many terrified first-years. As Head Gael Kathleen Waters sagely observed, “no one should be forced to eat anything, and... water should be the only substance placed on anyone.” Reason prevailed and the following year, things changed.

Though traditional hazing remained for the Engineering and Commerce first-year students, those entering the faculty of Arts & Science were presented with a kinder and gentler Frosh Week. Orientation ’89 completely eliminated the dona sabaid for ArtScis in favour of an all-new dana spairn — a ‘brave endeavour’ to earn one’s tam. Gone were the pigs’ ears and the slime and the gauntlets. In their stead were trivia contests and a game named “Grapefruit for Breakfast,” which involved learning the names of all your gael group members. Things may have been tamed a little too much. Even that year’s AMS Orientation Week Chair felt that things were now “a little too campy and too cutesy” and many other faculties — notably the EngFrosh — mocked the ArtScis mercilessly. Still, it was an important step in a new direction, one that was more about ‘orientation’ than ‘initiation’.

Despite this, Orientation Week’s reputation was still marred by controversy over the various slogans written across the back sides of the Orientation Week coveralls, especially in light of the fact that they would be seen on a nationally televised Golden Gaels football game. Unsurprisingly, many felt that seeing “Lick It, Slam It, Suck It” under the words “Queen’s University” was a bit of a cause for concern. Sexual connotations of violence and chauvinism aside, there were financial complications and the makings of a public relations nightmare, as one letter to the editor astutely pointed out.

“For those of you who still think that it is ‘uptight’ to complain about slogans, or those of you who don’t believe that these slogans have a negative effect on the Queen’s atmosphere, or those of you who refuse to believe that there is a correlation between sexist slurs and sexual assault — think about the dollars involved. Can Queen’s, in this period of underfunding and lack of government support, afford to look bad, crude, violent and sexist? Can we afford to offend our supporters, our alumni, our future frosh and their parents?” The answer was obviously a rhetorical ‘no’, but the theory would be tested even further. A month later, an incident occurred that wasn’t even initially considered worthy of the Journal’s front page. Shunted into the news section under the amicable and innocuous little title “Residents Try to ‘Lighten Up’ Campaign”, the article revealed that several students living in Gordon House had engaged in a dona sabaid of their own. Some of the guys on the fifth and third floors of the then all-male residence decided to mock the campus-wide date rape awareness campaign with signs in their windows that were take offs from ‘No means no.’

“No means tie me up.”

“No means harder.”

“No means more beer.” The residents befuddled the intrepid Journal reporters who sought to interview them, all claiming that their name was simply ‘Dave’. They further asserted that the signs were not meant to mock the seriousness of date rape, but just to poke fun at the flood of pamphlets and flyers they kept receiving in their mailboxes. The Daves said it was ridiculous that they had to be inundated with a constant barrage of ‘no means no’; that they clearly already got the message.

One has to wonder.

In any case, the Daves stated that they were completely unconcerned about people who couldn’t take a joke and that, after all, “jokes help people deal with serious situations. What if you were an AIDS victim? Wouldn’t you want to laugh at an AIDS joke?”

In the nights that followed, residents (including at least one don) in Gordon House received anonymous, threatening phone calls and two slogans — “ROFF’s Watching” and “No Means No” — were found spray painted on the pavement outside Leonard Field. Described at the time by the Queen’s Women Centre as an “independent collective of militant feminists whose purpose is to eradicate misogyny on campus,” ROFF is the acronym for the rather subtly-titled Radical Obnoxious Fucking Feminists.

In the wake of these incidents, Gordon House sponsored a Gender Issues Awareness Week, featuring representatives from the Women’s Centre, along with speakers from the Gender Issues Committee and the Birth Control Centre. After the slew of negative publicity the signs had brought Queen’s, damage control was in full swing. Still, Main Campus Residence Council refused to suspend, much less fine, those that put up the signs and concluded that it would be too “cumbersome” to track down which individuals put up the signs, much less force them to apologize. Gordon House President Colin Empke’s assertion that the signs “upset a small, minority of feminists” and his thoughtful observation that “it’s not a crime to offend anybody” are clear indicators at just how serious the incident was being treated.

Still, the bad press that the Gordon incident and the coveralls had brought Queen’s must have been a bit of an influencing factor by the time Frosh Week ’90. Popular rock group the Phantoms, whose open-air concert was scheduled to be the week’s highlight, were replaced at the last second by the AMS due to allegations that their live show was sexist and possibly, misogynist. The fact that many of the Orientation Committee members admitted to having never seen the Phantoms was irrelevant — in the wake of last year’s debacle, no chances were going to be taken. Their replacements were the Downchild Blues Band, just short of Raffi in the ‘inoffensive and non-threatening’ category.

As well, 1990 saw not only the inaugural Wimmins Frosh Week (sponsored by the Women’s Centre), featuring alternative events ranging from house parties to self-defense classes to movie viewings, but also more inclusive ‘alternative’ events sponsored by groups like the Queen’s University Muslim Students Association and various campus Christian organizations. Perhaps most cryptic of these was the so-called ‘Other Dance,’ which was described by AMS Orientation Committee Chair Nicky Brink as a special evening for “lesbians, gay men, feminists, people of colour and ethnicity”. In any case, the importance of alcohol was de-emphasized, academia was a little more focused, and any slogan that was going to be flashed across your backside had to be cleared first by the Orientation Committee. Gone was “Eat Me Raw,” in its stead was “Les Cheesedoodles.”

Ten years later, the more things changed the more others stayed the same. Reminiscent of the Gordon incident, crude, offensive posters and signs hanging from highway 401 overpasses and carried by students prior to Orientation Week ’99 were thought to have gone too far; this year many felt the content had crossed the line between poor taste and outright intimidation. “Go down or go home” and “Don’t forget your knee pads” may have lacked the gender specificity or intensity of the signs in the Gordon incident, but the fact that these men and women were possibly orientation leaders, coupled with the fact that the signs were displayed for all to see, made things even more unacceptable.

If you want to be completely cynical, whether the signs were a harmless prank or allusions to sexual violence is irrelevant. So is whether they propagated aggressive male imagery or whether engineers were unjustly being used as scapegoats. If you want to be completely cynical, the highway signs and those carried by anonymous purpled students were a public relations nightmare, pure and simple. The Signs (as they came to be know) were splashed across the second page of the Toronto Star and they found their way into an editorial in the Sun. They were discussed on CBC Radio and lamented by Kingston citizens on the bus as they went to work. They were argued over by students in the ghetto and written up on the front page of the Whig-Standard. In short, they made national news, and negative national news at that.

And no sooner did the Kingston Sexual Assault Crisis Centre issue a press conference from the steps of Ellis Hall (a location deemed appropriate because it was largely an ‘Engineering building’), that Principal Bill Leggett fired off a letter condemning the “disgusting and unacceptable” incident. Other voices of disapproval and anger over the repugnance of the event started popping up in the letters pages of the Journal. Student government leaders, big-league faculty types... everyone seemed eager to distance themselves and swear that it would never happen again. Almost everyone could agree that the signs were offensive and completely insensitive to say the absolute least, but what the repercussions would be wasn’t so easy to decide.

The Senate Orientation Advisory Board, the group which oversees the regulations that go into the different faculties’ orientation weeks, made a series of wide-sweeping recommendations to the Senate last November, the Signs still fresh in everyone’s mind. Their report called for the outlawing of purpling (beyond health risks, it was contended that the gentian violet dye provided a Carnival-esque mask that guaranteed the anonymity that encouraged unruly behavior), an end to unsupervised house parties and an elimination of pseudo Frecs. The report may have been harsh, but in light of the Signs, it was expected that many would have embraced the recommendations. Instead, the SOARB Report was rejected by the vast majority of student and faculty senators and sent back to the drawing board. A revised and highly watered-down report was sent back to Senate on January 27. This one did manage to get approved, but it was barely a shadow of its former self. All of the sweeping recommendations originally made were gone, replaced by merely a call for strict re-inforcement of rules that were already put in place ten years ago. The Frosh Week of 2000 would be watched and watched closely to help ensure a debacle like the Signs would not happen again.

And how did this year turn out? At press time it was too soon to tell whether or not their were incidents this week that threatened the successful operation of Orientation Week, and it’s also still too soon to tell whether or not political correctness has sanitized the frosh experience too much. With SOARB promising to submit a much more substantial report and more detailed recommendations in time for next year’s Orientation Week, the future of frosh week may indeed evolve into something a little different. Into something a little less ‘traditional’. But, hey, it’s been doing that for over a century.

'... treated as the scum of the earth ...'

“In the early days, frosh were treated (only rightly so, we hasten to interject) as the scum of the earth... Being but slightly removed from the humilities suffered as a first-year unfortunate, the second-year sadists were only too eager to inflict bigger and better tortures upon their subordinates. Of course, each preceding year tried to out do the previous one in terms of devising ingenious methods of instilling horror and fear in the hearts and souls of the unsuspecting freshman... With little or no external control over these infant de Sade’s frosh could but submit or be hung by the yardarm at dawn.”

— “Roll Out Those Lazy Crazy Hazing Days,” The Queen’s Journal 10 September 1974 (author unknown)

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.