To manage the demands and the joys of life at Swarthmore, most students enjoy some form of routine. Perhaps they feel best after they've watched the sunrise from one of the Matchbox elliptical machines every Tuesday morning; they always finish their daily French assignment before dinner; they can't imagine a week without their RA's Wednesday night snacks. Each April Fools' Day, however, routine is suspended – sometimes in midair – by who else but Swarthmore's engineering students.
The engineers' annual April Fools prank stretches the limits of what is imaginable in space, time, gravity, and the human eye. This year, the engineers broke ground (overnight) on Anfänger Hall, a new all-first year residence hall scheduled to open in Spring 2017. The new residence, named for the German word for "beginner," joins the long list of current construction projects underway on campus and according to a sign outside of the site, will include all of the amenities of Swarthmore's peer institutions, such as "running water and a bed for each student." Other features – which were inspired by 432 all-campus email surveys – include grass floors (to help students better engage with nature) and Wi-Fi in every room (subject to availability). As one student posted on Yik Yak, "Swat engineers built a new dorm faster than the construction on Danawell."
Last year, they built an extension onto the environmental art installation Crum Creek Meander leading directly into Sharples Dining Hall. Prior pranks have included placing life-sized versions of Waldo on rooftop perches across campus, and perhaps most notoriously building and then suspending an identical copy of the Parrish Beach big chair upside-down from the ceiling of Eldridge Commons (watch the video). With simple machines and extraordinary creativity, they fool the very order of life on the Swarthmore plane. Learn about more past pranks, and about McCabe Library's planned renovations.
Yet pulling off the prank successfully is anything but simple. First comes conceiving the prank itself – a process that tends to occur informally as engineering students of all class years toss around ideas until one sticks, says engineering major Eric Liu '15 from Allentown, Pa. Neil Macfarland '15 of Annapolis, Md., also an engineering major, explains that whatever it is must resonate with as many students as possible. "It has to be something funny," he says, "that everyone can understand and enjoy." And to captivate this common, campus-wide audience, it also needs to be an extremely uncommon feat. Macfarland states the prank "has to be something kind of remarkable, with a sort of 'how the heck did they do that?' effect – something...on the side of ridiculous." The prank must also pass official approval. Each year, a group of participants present the idea to administrators and Facilities staff members for their okay – and, according to the engineers, the College's own engineers usually get pretty excited themselves.
The most intense labor – or, as many would have it, magic – takes place during the overnight hours on April Fools' Day. This is the engineers' only opportunity to ready the prank for morning while hiding it from public view. According to Liu, a core group of around 10-15 engineers work throughout the night while many more come and go as they are able, all contributing something necessary. The effort and camaraderie of this moment make the whole thing worthwhile for many who take part. Macfarland expresses that "the night is always full of bonding, enjoying time with the other engineers, and that giddy feeling of doing something stupidly awesome and slightly unreal." It's also when some serious creativity kicks in, as materials, structures, and time itself impose unforeseen constraints.
All in all, there is no tradition on campus like the engineers' April Fools' prank. It requires unencumbered innovation that is perhaps only possible when students aren't just engineers, but also critical theorists and biologists and historians too; when creative problem solving bridges engineering with other liberal arts to save the day. And if curious Swatties are already imagining next year's prank, they'll probably have to wait a while. It may literally leave the campus hanging.