The academic Dungeons & Dragons substitute vocabulary

In a recent tweet, I referred to some physicists as “gremlins”. This is not derogatory, but rather an example of the ancient and well-established “Academic Dungeons & Dragons substitute vocabulary”. (He said with the smile of a car insurance encyclopedia salesman.)

In this vocabulary, physicists are gremlins, mathematicians goblins, and applied mathematicians, naturally, hobgoblins. Chemists are gnomes; statisticians kobolds (or if particularly dry, mummies), biologists are gnolls; and so on.

Each field has its own subdivisions: for example, in biology those given to wild extrapolation are known, as per the old joke,  as “grassy gnolls”, and in mathematics the “goblin” that is the principal investigator (PI) of a research group is known as “Gringotts” for some obscure reason.

Social sciences people are elves; the antipathy between elfin and orcish races may or may not have an analogue in academic life. Those human-related pursuits especially abhorrent to hard science are populated by the drow: like elves, but with spiders.

Those engaged in divinity studies are known as ghouls; this is not atheistic prejudice, but a reference to the medieval belief that theologians eat their own dead.

The university administration is led by the chancellor / headmaster / Boss Nass, referred to as the Dragon; under his wings the PR department (trolls) and the personnel department (yugoloths) brood and crouch and bide. Between these types and the common academicians are layers of “draconic creatures” of middle management: dracotaurs, draconians, landwyrms and the like; the exact usage varies from place to place.

The various types of dean and faculty head have their own bywords: particularly experienced types are “liches”, while those with interests in efficiency and reorganization are called “illithids”. (The perhaps not well known Dungeons and Dragons race of illithids, or mind flayers, eats the brains of other creatures and makes them their mindless, groaning, stumbling slave spawn. Why this name had been assigned to this type of management is not known.)

Graduate students are known as oozes or, in the case of those with a slipping schedule, as mold.

Secretaries are secretaries. They are subtle, and quick to anger.

The astute reader may have noticed all of the races and types mentioned above are at best humanoid, but not quite human; this is intentional. The roles of humanity are left to the small folk, i.e. the students. The usual “character classes” of a role-playing game are used as shorthand to refer to the most common types of students, like this:

“Warriors” — those that do enormous amounts of work: making notes, highlighting random passages, diving head first at exercises, using every minute of exam time, and so on. As can be expected of warriors, these time allotments are not always intelligent or successful; but they are done with such gusto.

“Mages” / “Sorcerers” etc. — these students come up, almost preternaturally, with solutions from beyond the reach of normal studentdom. Their essays deviate from the norm; their calculations are not what the TA anticipated. One suspects they have a spellbook; their methods certainly are not from any book the lecturer or the TA has ever seen. Most often their approaches are wrong and stupid, but they have a certain mystique.

“Rogues” — this type has the exact same essays and answers as one of the other types. The reason should be obvious.

“Clerics” — these slightly uptight types adhere to a higher code of conduct; some pamphlet given out by the university PR department possibly. They have faith in the regulations and the rules, and a mystic hunger for knowing all the details of the course’s organization and scoring. It is not uncommon for these poor literalists to become martyrs to their cause, once they try to play their feeble rules against the Darkness That Is Dean.

“Rangers” — this type of student navigates in difficult terrain, and does not kowtow to clocks or calendars. They emerge from their rangings about ten minutes after the start of the lecture, cracking the door open with a loud squeak; they have a tendency to have everything going on at the same time, leaving them running from place to place, and popping up from wild brush to ask for make-up exercises and alternate dates; as a result, their academic output is like talking to animals.

Finally, there are “Bards”, who are voluble, loquacious, and ever eager to explain themselves in ways that do not involve the actual content of the course. As in the game, their explanations are usually if not wholesale then at least generously embellished with fiction.

It is to be wished that students would “role play” or actually desire to learn about their chosen subject; but many are “munchkins” instead, focusing on a raw calculus of credits and exams, seeking to “power game” their way to a degree. (Here the word munchkin is not used to refer to Ozian brightly-attired comic dwarfs; though some would argue otherwise.)

Common study strategies of students are relying on the abilities or notes of their elders (“power leveling”), repeating courses (“grinding”), taking advantage (if possible) of grading on a curve (“PK”), and asking for extra credit (“griefing”). When the exam then comes around, students may “roll one” and define integration as a function adapting into society; or “roll a natural twenty” and pass the course. (Some may “fail the saving throw against clock” and not show up for the exam at all.)

The place where this all takes place, the university, is of course “the dungeon”. Whether there is any authority one might call a Dungeon Master is highly debatable.

One Response to “The academic Dungeons & Dragons substitute vocabulary”

  1. Tavya Says:

    Thanks to this, I will go through a full day of student conferences tomorrow mentally classifying them each as warriors, mages, rogues, clerics, rangers, or bards. Perhaps it will make the conferences less tedious.

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