Akhil Amar had a visitor in his “Constitutional Law” class last Thursday. Philip Bobbit, one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars, sat in on Amar’s lecture and gave an inspiring talk on legal modality in Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, Bobbit was not the only guest who graced us with his presence. Halfway through the class, a shrouded figure wearing a skeleton mask walked into the Law School Auditorium and sat in an empty seat. The rest of the class let out a quiet collective groan. In the last week, we’ve had to deal with an annoying girl asking, “What would Jesus do?”, another making and drinking a martini in front of the class, and a group acting out a fake arrest (I won’t even go into the poor taste of running into a packed classroom yelling “Freeze!” the day after the Virginia Tech massacre). We understood that this masked man was another society tap who was about to further disrupt our class with some act he thought was funny.
A few minutes later, a boom box in the back of the room started blaring 1980s hard rock (another example of poor taste). The masked tap danced his way up onto the stage where both Amar and Bobbit were standing. In the crowning moment of his demonstration, he climbed onto the podium and proceeded to rhythmically hump it, hovering over Amar’s casebook, which was open to the page from which he had just been lecturing. After half a minute or so the music stopped and the tap took his cue to get up and run out of the room. He was followed by a chorus of boos.
With earlier pranks Amar gamely played along and made jokes, then continued his lecture. He explained to Bobbit that it was a pledge week and strange things were happening. This time, there was no way to play along — the sole purpose of the prank was to disrespect Amar and desecrate one of the best classes at Yale. So Amar stood there and watched, a smile covering the chagrin he must have felt as he was humiliated in front of his colleague. Bobbit got up and walked out of the room in disgust. When it was all over, Amar walked back up to his podium with saintly composure and continued his lecture.
While Amar was impervious to this society’s insult, I was not. Despite my attempts to concentrate on the rest of the lecture, all I could think about was how embarrassed I was. Amar is a gem of the Yale faculty. More than any professor I’ve ever had, he treats his students like adults and equals. From his charismatic lecture style to his eagerness to eat lunch with students after class, he makes it clear that he respects us. Amar doesn’t have to teach undergrads — he’s a law school professor. He teaches us because he wants to. Sadly, it is precisely his kind and generous nature that makes people think they can use his classroom as a stage for their idiotic pranks without incurring any consequences. And they’re right. Amar isn’t going to waste his time seeking to punish them, especially when they mask themselves to hide their identity. But the consequence that they don’t seem to see or care about is the image that they put forth. Thursday’s exhibition reflected poorly not just on societies, but on the entire student body and Yale as an institution. Though I’m not in a society, I felt partly responsible for being part of an environment in which it’s acceptable to show such contempt for a professor and a class.
While class-interruption pranks have become increasingly prevalent, they lost all humor value a long time ago. Instead, these people are simply imposing on their peers and their professors to show that they can act with impunity. I understand that societies feel the need to put their members through humiliating tasks to initiate them. I have no problem with that. But the fact is that the vast majority of students are not involved with societies, and we don’t want to be. Being part of a society doesn’t mean you’re entitled to humiliate the rest of us and detract from our educational experience. I know that not all societies do pranks like this, and I apologize to those that are more considerate. But when there are four instances in one class during tap week, that says something about the institution of societies as a whole.
Tap Night is now over, and societies can fade out of our collective consciousness for another year. So I guess my message is meant for next year’s society members — Jesus freak, martini girl and masked humper. Remember that societies were originally founded on the premise that their proceedings would be kept secret. Somewhere along the way, being in a society became less about secrecy and more about display. For the benefit of the rest of the Yale community, I suggest that next Tap Night, societies take a lesson from their forefathers. The rest of us have seen enough.
Ben Conniff is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.