Be careful, this really happened to my sister's friend's boyfriend...

July 16, 2004

Heard the one about the student who bought an essay and handed it in as his own, only to find it had been written by his tutor 20 years earlier?

His tutor gave the paper top marks, commenting: "My professor failed it, but I always thought that it deserved a better grade."

Or how about the fact that if your roommate commits suicide, you will get a first-class degree?

These are all examples of "urban myths", a modern form of folklore that has now become the subject of global research and is the focus of an international conference to be held at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth next week.

Papers to be presented examine the rich diversity of "contemporary legends" - often bizarre tales passed on by word of mouth on topics ranging from vanishing hitchhikers and hook-handed psychopaths to haunted halls.

According to Mikel Koven, lecturer in film and TV studies at Aberystwyth, who is coordinating the conference, what interests academics most about these legends is not so much where they came from as what they mean to those who are repeating them.

He explained: "It's not just about the telling of the story, but how it's told. That helps us understand how a culture expresses itself through these legends."

The myth about the tutor awarding top marks to his own plagiarised paper was a good example of how a story could contain a different message depending on who was telling it, he said.

"One thing about these legends is that they always contain some implicit warning. But a lecturer telling this story may have a different reason for telling it than a student. Folklorists know that the warning contained in the legend changes depending on the perspective of the teller," he added.

The conference runs July 21-24. Details: http:///users.aber.ac.uk/mikstaff/aber00.htm

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