Fact Check

Students Record Lecture

Students greeted by a tape recorder spewing out the day's lecture retaliate by leaving cassette recorders on their desks.

Published Sep 4, 2000

Claim:   Students who are greeted by the sight of a tape recorder spewing out the day's lecture retaliate by placing cassette recorders on their desks, setting them to record, and leaving.


Example:   [Reader's Digest, 1963]

Dr. Harold Taylor, former president of Sarah Lawrence College, addressing an educational conference in Aspen, Colo., told this story to illustrate the point that impersonality in teaching tends to kill curiousity and initiative:

A professor became so enamored of giving outside lectures that he decided to tape his weekly remarks to his seminar group. When he unexpectedly returned early because of a canceled engagement, he went right to his classroom to see how his students were getting along. As he opened the door, he heard his own voice coming out of the tape recorder — and in the students' places were 12 other tape recorders.1


Origins:   Once again, an arrogant professor is put in his place by students who neatly turn the tables by employing his own methods against him. Such a legend


is more of a "wish fulfillment" tale than anything else, but it does give those who feel left at the mercy of an unfeeling and overly-demanding prof a sense of getting a bit of their own back.

At some schools the legend is told about hats, not tape recorders:

[Brunvand, 1993]

A certain professor arrived one day a few minutes early to an empty classroom and dropped his hat on the
desk. Then he remembered he had left something in his office and went back to retrieve it.

On the way he ran into a friend and fell into conversation, losing track of the time. Returning to the classroom just over ten minutes later, he found it empty.

At the next class session, the professor berated the class, saying that they should have known he was there, since his hat was still on the desk.

The professor arrived on time for the following session. And he found a hat on every desk, but no students.2

Students often chafe at what they see as arbitrary rules governing attendance at lectures, and legends as told above satisfy a deeply felt need to rebel against stricture. But the rebellion has to be by the book if the "clever students" are to be seen as heroes, not hooligans, hence the need to turn the professor's own rules against


In a related bit of college lore, students' chafing over the perceived unfairness of having to wait for an instructor but be on time themselves is somewhat mitigated by the belief that the length of the wait is set out in black and white in the regulations of the institution, and that the time period specified is dependent on the instructor's status. This belief serves two purposes: it provides reassurance that those who govern them are themselves governed, and that an instructor's power over them is limited by his status as an educator, thus they need not be nearly as respectful of a teaching assistant as they must be of a full professor.

While it is true that a few isolated colleges do indeed have "obligatory wait" regulations on their books, no institutions of higher learning has yet been found where this policy varies depending on the academic rank of the instructor. Our Obligatory Wait page provides further details about this particular legend.

Barbara "wait til your father figure gets home" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend appears in reverse form in the 1985 collegiate comedy Real Genius: When more and more students start leaving tape recorders in their seats rather than coming to class, until eventually only one live student shows up, the professor finally gives up and sets up a reel-to-reel tape recorder to deliver the lecture in his place.

Last updated:   13 June 2011


    Bronner, Simon J.   Piled Higher and Deeper.

    Little Rock: August House, 1990.   ISBN 0-87483-154-7   (p. 49).

    2.   Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 297-298).

    1.   Reader's Digest.   "Campus Comedy."

   June 1963   (pp. 217-218).

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