Thursday, March 19, 2015

Frat Boys, Jocks, and Deprecation (23 Oct. 2014 [19 March 2015])

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            Fraternities are/were very much in the news with my reposting this blog — I was one of the bloggers "orphaned" when OpenSalon closed in mid-March 2015 — but the immediate occasion for the original post wasn't immediate at all, but an old memory coming back from early in my teaching career, a memory that sent me down a thread of others.
            I have no idea what we were discussing, but it was probably a class in College Composition (I taught a lot of classes in College Composition), and a student said something about jocks, and I picked up the term — and was interrupted by a student who usually didn't say much with, "That's 'student athletes'. The word 'jock' is usually preceded by 'dumb', and I don't like people just assuming I'm stupid." Or something like that: it was a comment that was articulate, to the point, and heartfelt, by a guy who was quiet but definitely not dumb.
            Seizing a teaching moment when it came along — and responding to a legitimate rebuke — I said that when and where I came from, we could use "jock" neutrally and talk about "math jocks" and "chem jocks" as well as "sports jocks."
            The class said that, nah, their usage usually implied "dumb" with "jock," and we went on from there. I think I had the sense to keep that discussion brief and on-task and end with repeating the basic lesson. "Okay, unless you intend an insult, use 'athletes', and if you do intend the insult, be prepared to defend it, and maybe yourself."
            I got thinking of the "jock" comment again when teaching Michael Moffatt's excellent, Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture (1989). Coming of Age is a popular report by a professional anthropologist about campus life at Rutgers in the 1970s and 1980s (minus use of illegal drugs and details on illegal use by minors of legal ethyl alcohol: Moffatt refused to narc out his subjects — and people he lived with). Even in a book for a general audience, Moffatt tries to be professional and admits to failure —explicitly admits to it — in noting that he just couldn't keep up anthropological cultural relativity in dealing with Rutgers's fraternities and the inhabitants thereof: he classified many fraternity members among the "Neanderthals" in sexual attitudes (apologizing to the literal hominid species of Neanderthals) and anti-intellectual.
            Systematic headhunting in New Guinea, and occasional headhunting elsewhere: "Different strokes / For different folks"; fraternity culture in New Jersey: too close to home, too atavistic among academics, and something anthropologist Moffatt was prepared to judge and condemn.
            Moffatt has some data and some indirect personal experience, but this is not always the case for his negative attitude.
            I recall one instance, if only one, when, as an undergraduate fraternity member, I kind of anticipated my student-athlete student by telling someone, "We prefer 'fraternity men' to 'frat boys'," maybe or maybe not knowing at the time to add, "'Boy' is an insult." I later learned that some guys in the dorms — "residence halls" hadn't come in as the PC usage (nor the term "PC") — I later learned that some of the guys in the dorms had strong feelings about fraternities, and negative ones.
            This was interesting.
            At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the early 1960s, a young bachelor underclassman had four possibilities for housing: (1) living with his parents and commuting, (2) living in a University men's dorm — it was perhaps 1970 before a private, luxury dorm got built — (3) living in "independent men's housing," or (4) living in a fraternity. And that was living in a fraternity for underclassmen: from pledge semester until senior year or so (when an upperclassman could move into an apartment), one lived in, and mostly at, "the house."
            UIUC was definitely a residential campus at the time, with few commuters, so that meant basically dorms, independent houses, and Greek life (fraternity houses and sorority houses).
            The tripartite division, though, got a little blurred, as I had to explain to this nice guy, poor schmuck of a Sociology grad student who couldn't get a study to work.
            The investigator was doing some sort of work on consensus-building in small groups and was looking at how you get consensus among opponents, with two locally-available ones frat-rats and indies.
            So he brought in guys from fraternities and guys from independent men's housing — University-approved private houses for maybe five to fifteen guys — broke us into groups, and set us some issue to find consensus on.
            Which we did, quickly and easily, undercutting his hopes of getting data to get the fucking dissertation done already and get the hell out!
            (I was to go on to write a dissertation, and I'm pretty certain of how he felt.)
            Pitying the grad student, a couple of us stayed after the session and asked, "You thought 'Indies' and 'Greeks' are opposed, didn't you?" And he said "Yeah," and we said he misunderstood.
            First, guys who lived in fraternities and independent houses agreed on most things, starting with not wanting to live in the dorms. Second, neither group thought all that much about classifying people by where they lived, with the frat rats' — initially a pejorative, but one we'd adopted — with frat rats' lack of interest possibly stemming from a bit of snobbery.
            At that time and place, the disagreement among males would be between dormies and frat rats, with the guys in independent housing usually seeing themselves as the true Independents and above such trivial oppositions.
            And the disagreement got emotional tinge mostly from the dorm side.
            Among those of us who thought about it at all, most frat rats wanted the social life and relative community of a fraternity over the impersonality of the University's dorm complexes. Among those of us who'd been raised political, there was also the issue of not wanting the Big U as our landlord. Even back then, the Big U was big and a pretty total institution, supplying not only education (for those interested in such things) and credentialing, but police, fire department, health services, many of the streets and much of the lighting — and, optionally, public housing. Especially since living in a fraternity could be cheaper than living in a dorm (if you "worked a meal job"), fraternity life could be attractive to a nice liberal, at the time, from a big city and — certainly, with what they called at Cornell ca. 1965, "the White houses" — to political Neanderthals.
            ("White" in that context meant WASP: no Jews, just maybe a Catholic or two. Blacks weren't an issue, since — outside of the chapter of my fraternity, at Cornell at the time — the fraternities were at least de facto segregated: all White, plus the one to three Black fraternities.)
            Anyway, to those who cared about such things at the U of IL in the mid-1960s, the key category was "frat rat," and it was not a friendly act of categorizing.
            This attitude has continued, and I think it colors and "inflects" a fair portion of current debates about campus life, in which there is an unhealthy degree of semi-prurient interest to start with. For example, it's significant that a respectable anthropologist like Mike Moffatt had just about nothing in Coming of Age on religion or sports — two areas usually of interest to students of culture — but two chapters on sex. Less sensationally, in MAD Magazine years before even Moffatt's research, Ricky Nelson (renamed something like "Rickety") came home from school and lamented all the extra parties and mixers and other social events he had to attend. A neighbor asks his mother about Ricky's classes, to which his mother, replies, "Oh, Ricky doesn't go to classes; he goes to college." As the sweatshirt on John "Bluto" Blutarsky implies: COLLEGE has been what has interested most people, not, say, college classes and the frequent failure thereof to mean much to products of US education K-12.
            Fraternities offer community, relative democracy, and a good deal of freedom from what Mike Moffatt called "adult authority" — which I saw as mostly advantages at 18, and still see as such; but these aspects are problematic to those suspicious (with some good reasons) of fairly traditional communities, and of democratic decision-making among those who will often choose wrong.
            The current complaints against fraternities center on sexual assaults, and here, as in many places, I'd like to see (1) the numbers, (2) larger contexts, and (3) fairer and more effective law enforcement across the board, emphatically including better dealing with sexual assault, but with less concentration on — occasionally near-obsession with — sex and safety on campuses: as places go, university campuses, like most schools, are safe places.
            On numbers, I'll note that the instances of rape and/or child molestation that have touched my life involved as perpetrators two Black men and a father from a family fairly new to the US, from a non-WASP background. One of the Black men was a student athlete, and serial rapist, and his choice of crime sites tended to apartments, not fraternity houses. The other Black man raped before I met her a woman I came to love; as she told me the story, the rape — a "stranger rape" — resulted in pregnancy and her attempting suicide. I have no direct evidence of the pregnancy, but her left wrist was scarred vertically, so I infer a serious suicide attempt. With the father, I have only the daughter's version, but assume it to be true, as her husband did, on more evidence; I never pressed for details, but I assume the father had emigrated to the US, or was first generation American-born.
            That background is going to "inflect," minimally, my view of rapists, and is a reason why I need the reality check of looking at the numbers. "A 'for instance' is no proof," as the saying goes, and N = 3 proves nothing. I need the numbers, and so — obviously — does everyone else who grew up in cultures and societies with deep currents of racism and xenophobia.
            And if we need the numbers and larger contexts for Black felons and football players and non-Nordic child abusers, we need the numbers and serious sociological discussion for incandescent White lacrosse players, and jocks and frat rats of all hues and levels of privilege.
            I can use the term "jock" as neutrally as I use "frat rat"; but I try to remember my student's objection and not use the term to reinforce a stereotype of "dumb jocks" as a kind of formula — even if we have the concept, as I do, and can contrast it with "serious student athlete."
            Some jocks are dumb, and there are colleges and universities where "student athlete" is a coincidence or a joke: where the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics brings in semi-pro jocks, for whom academic pursuits may be career-endangering distractions. And some jocks and frat rats are rats (with apologies to the admirably resilient rodent): macho assholes (with apologies to the anus).
            Athletics can be good for people, especially athletics that bring together fathers and daughters and those that give big quiet guys a place to assert themselves — especially those organized by participating athletes and not run top-down like a corporation or military unit. And fraternities can be good places to live, and certainly good given most of the alternatives.
            People can argue otherwise, and there are strong arguments to be made: but those should be fact-based arguments, not casual dismissals with "jock" or "frat boy." They should be rational arguments with sound comparative statistics and a sense of proportion: anthropologists who can be open-minded about headhunters can show a little more tolerance for frat rats and at least consider the possibility that intramural athletics may not be as big a part of life in a dorm as sex, but are there.

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