Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cultural Studies; Or, The Perils Of Mislabeling Campus Problems

One of the things I have noticed, probably because I live with an anthropologist, is that academics tend to use the word "culture" to describe a variety of things that, actually, are not cultural at all. It is true that "culture" has a great many meanings, depending on the context in which it is being used, the historical period or thing that is being described, and the intellectual tradition (if any) that is being referenced: here are a few. For social scientists, most centrally anthropologists, "culture" is far more likely to invoke a set of usefully contentious questions and methodological choices than an answer to any given problem.

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about "culture" it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will most frequently hear the notion of culture being invoked by administrators and faculty when what is being addressed is a problem, or set of problems, that either no one wants to name or can name -- at least, not without opening a can of worms that general consensus dictates ought not to be opened.

For example, my friend Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries, a dedicated muckraker of university athletic scandals and the lavishing of public dollars on stadiums and celebrity coaches, recently reprinted a letter from the New York Times about "the culture of athletics." It was written by a Berkeley alum who is justifiably angry about a budget cutting climate in which academic staffing is dispensable, but the funding of Cal's semi-professional athletic programs continues to "balloon." He writes:

In my experience as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and as a high school teacher, I have seen how the culture of athletics promotes anti-intellectualism, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and bullying, and competition as opposed to collaboration. The athletic culture, which dismisses and demonizes opponents, most often acts in opposition to our other goals as an academic institution, not in concert with them.

I agree with the larger point about what ought to be the funding priority at universities: education. But I don't think sports are inherently bad for students or for student life, nor are they a waste of time and money when they are prudently budgeted. As a former student-athlete myself, I think athletics, at their best, promote discipline, friendship, a sense of community and self-esteem. Developmentally, they have the potential to help young people learn to accept failure in a nation where failure (particularly in an educational context) is overly stigmatized. Furthermore, while athletic teams with bad-a$$ marquee players get the most ink, such behavior is hardly confined to athletes on any campus, large or small. Young people in groups egg each other on to actions that they would not perpetrate alone. Fearful of being labeled Debbie Downers, individuals fail to intervene when they know the group, or a popular member of the group, is being violent, foolish or destructive. Athletics is only one of many ways that groups of young people cohere and demand conformity on a campus.

Hence, the author's invocation of "culture" to describe a set of malicious or destructive behaviors that vary dramatically in their incidence across gender and athletic specialties, and that are quite similar to behaviors exhibited by non-athletes, strikes me as wrong-headed and unhelpful. It unfairly stigmatizes athletes as bad people, when in fact the vast majority of undergraduate athletes -- like the vast majority of their non-athlete peers -- are good people who are occasionally prone to ill-considered actions. More importantly, the rubric of "culture" blurs questions of agency and responsibility in a way that makes a program of institutional reform, or the sensible re-integration of athletics into a university setting that prioritizes intellectual life, impossible.

If nothing but "culture" is at fault, to whom and to what do you turn for a solution?

Let's not be entirely dim here: while we all know that jock-$niffing faculty, administrators and boosters demand, authorize and pay for the budget excesses in big-time college athletics, the "behaviors" being referenced (with the exception of the occasional high-profile coach being arrested on a DUI or being extorted for an impulsive, public game of hide the salami) are exclusively student behaviors. So when we talk about "culture" on campus we are both talking about students being out of control, and we are being deliberately mysterious as to the role of the adults in promoting and tolerating that. Why the mystery? Because the university is dis-identifying with those activities, whatever it might be doing to facilitate them, and obscuring its own possible moral or legal liability for not dealing with them. That's why. So, to use another example, one great stumbling block to rationalizing tenure procedures across the university is not disciplinary differences, as you might imagine, but the invocation of "departmental cultures" that make each disciplinary entity mysteriously and necessarily unique from the others.

Let me give you another example which is at least as pressing a policy matter, and perhaps a less controversial one, than tenure. At Zenith, as at many schools, we have a big problem with various forms of extreme inebriation, which no one can pretend is related to our national athletic prominence. Students routinely end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning after weekend partying, as they do at other schools. Periodically, our very able Student Life professionals address this problem by revising the restrictions and penalties attached, not only to the possession and consumption of alcohol and drugs, but to the breaking of state and local laws that pertain to underage drinking. You can read them for yourself here. Furthermore, in part because of excessive drinking, we have a sex problem, which I would describe as a spectrum of unwanted intercourse along the lines of a Kinsey scale: 6 = unambiguous felony rape; 1 = being really impaired and having some spurious form of consent winkled out of you because you fear being called a c0cktea$e and/or you once "hooked up" with this same person (under our regulations 1 is still sexual assault.)

But in addition to sexual assault, drinking leads to a big, messy, dangerous and budget-sappingly expensive category of behavior on all campuses which is often mistakenly described as "campus culture." I say expensive because, when I was working at Ben Franklin University twenty years ago, BFU was said to have budgeted $500K a year for what was generically called "frat damage." But this too is a spectrum of behaviors dangerous to self and others that I would not call "culture," but The Doing Of Stupid Things. Teenagers are famous for Doing Stupid Things even when sober and living with one or more competent adults: dip into the field of popular psychological writing about parenting adolescents if you don't believe me. But when they get to college, are living with each other, and drinking, these activities can often include one or more of the following: vandalism, hiring strippers, ending up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, throwing up on people, theft, contracting STDs from willing sexual partners, driving into trees, breaking arms and legs, sending nude pictures to each other's cell phones, and insisting that first-year students who have very little acquaintance with alcohol learn to drink like idiots too through drinking games and hazing practices.

A problem no one talks about -- because it is more or less invisible damage except when someone flunks out -- is that many students spend the time they could be studying or sleeping drunk, stoned, or recovering from being drunk or stoned. Five will get you ten that the "stress" we hear so much about nowadays is often intensified by the fact that students have less time to do their work because of the expansion of activities designed to "relieve stress."

Now it sounds like I am blaming students, exactly what I warned against, right? Wrong. I blame us, because by grouping these activities under the rubric of "culture" we obscure their actual causes and effects. We also distance ourselves from any responsibility for helping students grow up. As an aside, this is actually something a number of athletic coaches I know do particularly well, and is a logic for having modest and well-run intercollegiate sports programs. This is also the time to note that although Zenith prohibits underage drinking, it promotes a custom called "senior cocktails" in which undergraduates, in their final year, periodically get drunk at events hosted by the university (events that are sometimes prowled by younger male faculty); and it tolerates a well-known arrangement between the downtown bars and the local police department by which no Zenith student is required to show an I.D. to purchase alcohol on Wednesday nights.

I say this not to expose Zenith as particularly hypocritical in this regard, since most colleges probably have similar arrangements, but to underline my point. By invoking "culture" we are tacitly taking the attitude that the best we can do as professional educators is to contain student behavior by policing it in increasingly draconian ways, turning a blind eye to it when we can, paying for any physical damage. What other choice do we have if students are bringing something to the table -- "their culture" -- that is terribly foreign and inferior to "our culture?"


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Great post, TR. Important for its critique of slippery uses of the term "culture" and its articulation of what that slipperiness enables. As a sports fan on what many would see as a "big-time" athletics campus, I also appreciate your suggestion that "the culture of athletics" tends to get painted with too broad a brush. Not to defend execrable behaviors and practices that occur within and around college sports, but sports can be good (duh) for those who play them and for those who follow them. The English profs of Roxie's World have taught a number of student-athletes who take the student part of their identities very seriously.

Oh, and booze? Huge problem, everywhere. Maybe it's the culture of, um, our culture that is the problem.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Okay, I'm on board with this (except for the "all colleges probably have something like this" part), but the question remains of how we, as faculty, can change this culture. And how might situations and solutions be different at a smallish college like Zenith, versus at a large university like Florida State, Penn State, or UCSB (all on this year's "party schools" list)?

Tenured Radical said...

Well, the party schools could start by aggressively re-labeling themselves: it's hard to believe that the campus PR people at some of these places are not actually promoting their schools as party schools.

I can't speak to everyone's situation, although universities have a lot of power in the towns they are in, and if students are drinking illegally, the university is not pressuring local law enforcement or business owners to do anything about it. My guess is that student drinking is perceived as acceptable collateral damage for having a "vibrant" community. But it's very rare that anyone talks about drinking on campus as anything but "partying," or as a student problem that can be policed, punished and contained -- but not prevented.

I dunno -- let's see what other people think.

token undergrad said...

While it may not be something individual faculty have the power to do, I find that the more opportunities a university provides for over-21 students to drink in a "grown-up" way, and for under-21 students to see good drinking behavior modeled, the better off everyone is. I'd argue this is still possible to do at large "party schools," provided that the school can afford the cost of alcohol: serve wine at a fancy university-sponsored dinner, at a departmental reception, at a social event for seniors, etc., and trust the students to be honest about their ages or at least, if they're going to lie, to do so in a way that's not embarrassing to anyone. Watching adults drink, I think, is really important for young people who are often segregated from the alcohol-drinking population and only have access to a world of frat parties, etc., where drinking underage gets implicitly connected with drinking irresponsibly.

When I came to college, one of the few ways I knew to socialize (and to drink) was to go out to large parties on weekends where terrible, cheap beer was freely accessible and people got smashed within an inch of their lives. I thought this was just what you did, and not only did I not fully make the logical leap that one could drink alcohol with dinner or at a reception or out at a bar without making an idiot of oneself, I myself wouldn't have had any idea how to do those things. I think many other students must have this problem: no one has really told them that there is an alternative, safer, saner way to consume alcohol, or put them into settings where doing so is rewarded with the stamp of maturity and sophistication.

But, having learned this lesson from watching our elders, my friends and I drink illegally (I'm 20) but we do drink responsibly and sociably, doing things like hosting pretentious wine-and-cheese parties for each other and not contracting alcohol poisoning. And I'm tempted to think that illegal pretentious wine-and-cheese parties are just as much a part of college culture--and of growing up--as raucous and dangerous frat parties are.

Tenured Radical said...

Agreed, token. My pretentious friends and I, senior year, would sometimes have "cocktail hour" before going over to eat dinner off a (yecchh!) steam table.

trixie dang said...

so i'll admit, i somehow survived 4 years at Centralia Methodist University with my ignorance of the wednesday night arrangement intact. And i managed to drink plenty, and probably more cheaply, so i'm only slightly upset about that.

but in a hypothetical completely different paradigm of undergrad alcohol policy (where, say, the University didn't transmogrify Getting Schnockered into Culture, the better to cause courageous knights to froth while tilting their lances at the whirling arms of a straw giant named Cultural Relativism), couldn't the Understanding between the bars and the police be part of a smart, sane practice, and even be expanded to more nights of the week?

Bartenders, at the very least, are legally enjoined from serving alchohol to someone who is visibly impaired. Which is more than can be meaningfully said of any situation where undergrads are giving booze to other undergrads.

Bardiac said...

What a GREAT post.

My school is in a state with the highest percentage of adult binge drinkers/drinking. That's something to be proud of. Not.

It's no wonder that our students binge drink. And Thursday is the new Friday.

But all the "alcohol awareness" my campus engages in... does it do any good? Keep students out of the hospital? Reduce rapes? (I'm told the one thing that actually works is to give students actual statistics about the numbers of people who binge drink etc, which is less in real life than in the popular imagination.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

My grad school was on the "party schools" list one year (#2 that year, I believe), and the faculty and administration were mortified. Sadly, even though we all knew about the party "culture" of our undergrads, the U only did something about it when they realized that they were "getting a reputation" (as used to be said about some of us ladies).

But that was a big uni in a smallish town (undergrads represented about 15-20% of the total population). For unis like Grit City U, where I now teach, our students make up about 3-5% of the population, and many of our students commute in from other nearby towns, so the problem is more diffuse. Students still come to class hungover or don't come at all, but how can we know or do anything about their personal choices there? Should we? Or is this part of the maturing process, where students have to make their own mistakes to learn?

And now I realize that I may have gotten off track here. It seems that we have two distinct (if linked) issues: a "culture" that affects quality of life in a university/college and its town, and a "culture" that affects the ability of individuals or groups of students to succeed. Hm.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) TR, were you at BFU during "Waterbuffalogate"?

(2) Shit like this makes me glad I do not have systemic responsibility for teaching/mentoring undergraduates, and I greatly admire and respect those of you who do.

(3) That Wednesday shitte sounds fucken greate! I wish we hadde that when I was an underage undergradde!

Tenured Radical said...

CPP: I was. What a clusterfuck that was.

When I was in college the drinking age was 18, so we didn't need special arrangements -- but Trixie Dang's point is quite a good one: that bartenders are legally required to stop serving (even though sadly, they often do not.)

Anonymous said...

To return to Athletics, I would agree that it is a mislabeling problem that many universities misuse young people by bringing academically unqualified but athletically talented kids on campus, use them to fill their athletic teams, many of which are essentially there to satisfy Title IX requirements so that they can give out the maximum in scholarships to the men's (essentially pro) football and baseball teams, only to let these young men and women leave without a degree when injured or when their team's last game has played. This is not a matter of culture (although the high value placed on college football and basketball by the public at large may be) but abuse.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

When I heard about that water buffalo shitte, I was all like, you've gotta be fucken shitteing me. Do I recall correctly thatte the evidence was pretty goode that it was an english translation of hebrew slange for a noisy troublemaker, and notte a racial slurre?

charles marx said...


PMG said...

There was a great This American Life episode this year where they profiled the drinking culture at Penn State. In addition to being amusing/horrifying, one observation was that there was an alumni "culture" that nostalgically remembered their own wild and crazy student times. The result was a lot drinking encouraged (and supplied!) by parents and random alumni at football games, and crucially a lot of resistance from alumni the administration would attempt to crack down.

I went to Zenith, and I didn't know about that wednesday night thing until after I graduated!

Don't Call Me Here said...

@Anonymous: Your comment strikes me as a step back to the broad brushstrokes TR brought up w/r/t "culture." Let's not forget that the kids in athletic programs are among the best served on campus. The giant R1 state uni with nationally elite football program I attended had a bevy of assistants, counselors, and tutors for its students. Many of the kids get a better sense of structure, discipline, and studying technique than I ever did in my humanities-oriented program. If we want our schools to expand their definition of "qualified" to embrace non-traditional or first-time college students, we could do worse than adopt some of the support systems put in place by athletics.

(All of this, of course, does not mean that students weren't still exploited--often ridiculously so--at my school. But I would argue that this is worst at the big-time football and basketball programs than across the athletics board altogether.)

Gail B. said...

What would happen if instead of talking about "culture" or even "health," we actually use the word "morality?" What if we told our students that this behavior--including binge drinking-- was immoral, and explained why?

A lot of the behaviors you're talking about could easily--and I think correctly-- be characterized as unethical. In fact, if you take the long-view--400 years or so--a lot of these behavior were/are seen as religiously immoral. (See Leviticus and St. Paul on drunkenness).

You don't need to be a theist to talk about morality. But I think a lot of us don't like to use that term, because it doesn't fit with late 20th century "therapeutic mentality."

Still, something valuable is lost if our bottom-line moral standard is, "Do whatever you like as long as you don't hurt anybody else."

This usually seems the ultimate moral standard even among our Catholic student body, here at BVM University. Even the practicing Catholic kids are really confused about how to talk about ethics, when it comes to “victimless” behaviors like binge drinking.

What do you think, TR? Perhaps it's time to bring back that old-fashioned and currently unusable word, "morality"--as long as we make it clear that we're not basing our moral standards on religion?

Tenured Radical said...


I think that is very smart -- and it reminds me of Michael Callan's early AIDS essay "How To have Sex in an Epidemic," published prior to discovery of the HIV virus or knowledge of how it was transmitted. He urges men to practice sex through an ethic of care and love for one another, and to use condoms as part of that ethic. Part of what he argues is that sex doesn't need to be tied to eternal or romantic love, but that in the moment of the encounter, men should treat each other with love.

This kind of discussion would be very useful to the contemporary practice of hooking up, but also -- as you suggest -- to the curbing of behavior that shows a lack of empathy and care for others.

Ellie said...

Great post, TR! Thanks. This is ripped from the headlines of our mid-Western college town, home to a top ten party school with a football problem and a serious undergrad drinking problem. We are in the midst of the latest effort to crack down on the bar scene and binge drinking. The initiative for the move came from the locals, though, because the roving crowds of drunken, vomiting, fighting students has made downtown a no-go area for "civilians" past 9PM three nights a week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday). The U has signed on this time (in the past, they have passed on joining in town council efforts to curb drinking), but they're taking a primarily punitive approach--enforcement of underage drinking laws, university sanctions for students caught drinking underage, controlling tailgating on football game days (amazing that they're actually doing the latter).

There's some effort to come up with other things to entertain students in a small, mid-Western college town, but what they're not doing is the most important thing I think TR mentions: putting more energy, resources, and time into academics. If students had to study more, they would spend less time drinking. Seems pretty simple. Having Friday classes means no going out on Thursday nights and the academic consequences of spending the whole weekend drunk/hung over would serve as a deterrent to keep things more reasonable.

This IS one area where faculty can help change students' expectations of their college experience (better than campus culture?), but they can't do it without the full support of the administration. As long as student evaluations are the primary tool for assessing faculty teaching and as long as "expects too much," "too hard a grader," or "assigns too much reading" are grounds for slamming an instructor, few faculty members are going to stick their necks out ahead of the curve on raising academic expectations. And administrators--under political/career pressure to increase enrollments, retention, and "customer satisfaction" scores--have very little incentive to make students unhappy by raising academic standards. If it would take at least one full graduation cycle (4-6 years) to "re-educate" the student body about academic expectations, what administrator would be willing to have 4-5 years of angry students on their record?

Sorry--very long-winded way of saying that the politics of the athletic/alcohol nexus at the big, public party school make it harder to break the cycle of expectations. 1) Students are only part of the sports fan base, and most of the fans are ordinary citizens (read: voters) who see football/basketball as the only useful things that the university contributes to the state; 2) Administrators are more concerned about tuition revenue than academic standards--unlike someplace like Zenith, academic excellence is just not what they're selling; 3) In rural, college towns, universities are often caught between state-level politics (love football) and local politics (love the culture that the U brings to town, don't so much love sharing downtown with drunken students).

anthony grafton said...

Great post, TR. On a related point that hasn't come up: high-cultural extracurriculars--theater, little magazines, dance--can just as easily be attended by destructive behaviors, from really awful cliqueishness and pretension to alcohol abuse and sexual exploitation, as athletics can. It doesn't have to happen, of course, but it does, when those involved are growing up, or trying to, and sorting themselves and others out. Something to remember when cursing the coach who calls asking for an impermissible extension for someone who has barely showed in class and done little work (and yes, I have had that happen).

As to substance abuse: oy. Our university spends a great deal of time, effort and money on trying to deal with this, but it's largely wasted. The students aren't going to go to alcohol-free events when beer is free in their clubs. As to over-21s modeling better behavior: I'd love to see this, but there just isn't much social interaction between our undergrads and our grad students.

GlassPen said...

something faculty could do: create a course on your campus that covers ethical issues that should concern students and young adults...driving without a license or insurance, date rape and sexual harassment, cheating, "minor" violations of law like graffiti, drinking/drugging, and please include my favorite: plagiarism and intellectual property theft. texts can be classics or "ripped from the headlines". make it *required for all students* in order to graduate, not just the province of "student life" coordinators and RAs. everyone seems to think that people know stuff...mostly, they don't...learn it through (often bad) experience. law, medical, and business schools usually have an "ethics" requirement (often only--laughably--a 1-hour credit)...time to take the concept to undergrads.

Tenured Radical said...

GP: I think that is a fantastic idea.

Liz said...

To follow up on Anthony Grafton's point: at Harvard, certainly, the drama/student newspaper crowd certainly did way more cocaine than any of the athletic teams I had contact with. Athletics at least had the virtue of adult supervision of much of the group's time together, which can obviously work for good or ill, but in this case worked largely for good.

Anonymous said...

with regards to excessive drinking, i think college slowly teaches you how to drink responsibly, at least in my experience as a "Zenith" student. freshman year i got wasted 4 nights a week. over the years i slowly got sick of sleeping through class and having work take me twice as long as it should because of the effects of over-consumption. now i might have two drinks once or twice a week, work permitting.

that doesn't imply that the universities should just sit back while kids go to the hospital every weekend. but i think, in part because our "culture" is a little funny about alcohol or anything that involves pleasure, the discussion about campus drinking gets a little hysterical sometimes--at least at colleges where the academic culture allows this sort of pavlovian conditioning to take place.