Change of Direction: The Locust Walk Compass

Bridget A. Brody, C’22


The word “compass” comes from Latin: com (together) + passus (step). By its very definition, “compass” denotes stepping together. On Penn’s campus, however, the compass set into in the center of Locust Walk used to have a very different meaning. According to popular campus legend, those who walked over the compass would fail their midterm exams. Before Covid-19, it was common to see students going well out of their way to circumvent the granite compass, despite whatever obstacles. Today, the compass is physically deteriorating, and the tradition has deteriorated, too. The pandemic caused most students to be away from campus for one year and a half, leaving few to walk around—or walk over—the compass, and few to pass on this student tradition. The compass retains memory through active use. As a kinetic memory site, it requires tradition in the form of bodies in motion interacting with material objects—and also the immaterial presence of past student bodies. To what extent has the current pandemic stifled both kinds of interactions, and the legend itself? How has the literal deactivation of this memory site during remote learning impacted the rising cohort of alumni? Is the site still working? This podcast attempts to answer these questions, and to reconcile a dichotomy between upperclassmen who continue to adhere to the tradition of the bad-luck compass, and underclassmen who don’t.



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