“Change of Direction: The Locust Walk Compass”

Bridget A. Brody, C’22

A longstanding symbol form guidance and direction, the word “compass” comes from the Latin word “com” which means together and “passus” which means step. By its very definition, “compass” denotes stepping together. On Penn’s campus, however, the compass plastered in the center of Locust Walk has a very different symbolization among the student body, and recently has come to represent the exact opposite of togetherness. Robert Lundgren, the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architect, designed the compass which was installed at the heart of Penn’s campus in 1984 on Locust Walk and 37th Street. Since then, the compass has transformed into far more than a campus landmark and meeting place, and has been subject to one of Penn’s most popular urban legends with an unknown origin: those who walk over the compass will fail their midterm exams. This urban legend has translated into a tradition among the student body to avoid the compass at all costs. In previous years, it was common to see students going out of their way to circumvent stepping on the granite compass, despite the obstacles that may ensue. Yet, as this semester comes to a close, the compass is significantly deteriorated, with many tiles missing including the granite “N” symbol for North. Perhaps this symbolizes a tradition that is slowly fading as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which took students away from campus for a year and a half, leaving no one to walk over — or not walk over — the compass, and therefore no one to carry on the tradition of this longstanding urban legend. The compass serves as a physical embodiment of time and memory, along with use and non-use. This site represents a long-standing collegiate tradition that relates to bodies in motion interacting with material objects, as well as interacting with our predecessors who pass on the legend. In what way has the current pandemic stifled both kinds of interactions, and thus stifled the legend itself? How has the de-activation of this active memory site during virtual school impacted the next generation of students, and will this impact persist? This podcast attempts to look at these questions to reconcile this dichotomy between the upperclassmen, who continue to adhere to the legend of the bad-luck-compass, and the underclassmen, who were apparently have not acclimated to Penn with this same mindset.

The University of Pennsylvania’s granite compass on Locust Walk and 37th Street. 17 Nov. 2021, photo by Bridget Brody.



Cheema, Karman. “Holy Sh*t! Freshman Stepped on Compass, Got Wrecked by Midterm.” Under the Button, 24 Sept. 2018, https://www.underthebutton.com/article/2018/09/freshman-stepped-on-compass-got-wrecked.

Davis, Heather A. “The Stories behind the Stories: Penn’s Urban Legends.” Penn Today, University of Pennsylvania, 15 Jan. 2004, https://penntoday.upenn.edu/2004-01-15/features/stories-behind-stories-penn%E2%80%99s-urban-legends.

Simon, Caroline. “New Student Issue: Need-to-Know Guide to Penn Lingo.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania, 20 May 2015, https://www.thedp.com/article/2015/05/penn-terms-and-abbreviations.

Vondriska, Michael. “The Editor Speaks.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, 26 Mar. 2001. The Daily Pennsylvanian Digital Archives, https://dparchives.library.upenn.edu/


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