from the Chronicle of Higher Education
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Friday, November 17, 2006
Making Peace With the Greeks
By Susanna Ashton
Scanning the faces of my first-year composition students, I quickly saw that something was awry. Out of 22 students, 17 were men.
Clemson University, where I teach, does have more male than female students but the ratio didn't warrant that kind of discrepancy. Nor did my topic. This composition course was required across the board for undergraduates. So what had happened? I figured it was just a demographic fluke and handed out my syllabus.
After a few sessions, however, the rowdiness was more than I could handle. I like to have the occasional freewheeling moments in my class and I certainly appreciate discussion and interaction among students. But certain things in this class struck me as a little odd. Students were referring to each other by nicknames awfully early in the semester. By the third session I realized that students in one group were calling each other "JoeBob," "the Sweeeeeet" (to a student whose last name was, indeed "Sweet") and, inexplicably, "Wago-Pago."
It seemed odd that so many students in the class already felt so close and seemed to share so many inside jokes. While attendance seemed better than average and a lot of the boisterous behavior seemed to keep things in an upbeat mood, the cheers from the class every time I praised a comment became increasingly disconcerting.
tried my best to calm things down, but I was baffled. I'd had disruptive students before, but they were usually guilty of some sort of truly negative behavior. In this class, the behavior of many students (it seemed to be spreading rapidly) was certainly creating a fun atmosphere, but it was increasingly getting in the way of my course agenda.
Then I noticed that when I broke students up into groups (which I always did in random configurations in order to mix up abilities and temperaments), the amount of off-task communication was more than I had ever noticed before. A couple of gentle rebukes would usually focus the groups, but I was nonetheless astounded by how frequently I had to force them to focus.
It must be gender, I decided, for the young women in my class were not participating in the rowdiness in any meaningful way. All those young men were just enabling this genial goofiness, I reasoned.
But after the first month, when I asked a struggling student to talk with me after class, I made a discovery. He claimed that he was having trouble doing the recent assignment because he hadn't bought one of the textbooks and had instead relied on borrowing it from his friends. That week, he said, the other students hadn't been willing to lend their copy. "Practically everyone in the frat was busy writing the paper and couldn't spare the book," he told me.
I interrupted him: "Everyone in your frat?"
Ah, yes. It transpired that 11 students, or half my class, hailed from the same fraternity. How they had managed to sign up for my course with all of the traumas that usually accompany online registration and lottery-assigned enrollment numbers, I haven't discovered. But there they all were. Apparently two former students of mine were in the same fraternity and had recommended my class to their younger friends and fraternity brothers.
Now, at least, all the bonhomie and backslapping made sense. And so did the erratically reticent and occasionally frantic behavior of the rest of the class. But how to handle the increasing tide of friendly but disruptive behavior?
The next class session I asked "the gentlemen from Kappa Wokka Wakka" (or whatever its name was) to please stay after class. They gathered at my desk nervously, obviously expecting me to chew them out for what had been a particularly rowdy session. It was a tempting thought, I confess.
I took a deep breath, however, and decided upon different tactics.
It recently came to my attention, I said, that they were all from the same fraternity. I told them I would like their leadership help. There were several transfer students in the class, as well as two international students and a very recent immigrant to the United States. I explained that since they were clearly taking such a "leadership" role in keeping a positive atmosphere in the class, I would really like their help in reaching out to the other students.
I suggested they scatter their seating around the classroom differently so they weren't clustered together. I asked them to help me elicit participation from the other students by asking follow-up questions of one another in group discussion. I asked them to use the first names of other students in conversation -- not necessarily to nickname them as they did with one another -- but simply to make them feel part of the group. I asked the young men to put special effort into listening and responding to the other students in the class. Lastly, I asked them to help me keep everyone else on task. (That last appeal was especially disingenuous since they were the primary offenders on that score but I figured appealing to their sense of themselves as leaders who were skilled in group dynamics might work.)
The men of "Kappa Wokka Wakka" responded by standing up straighter and getting increasingly polite. "You can count on us, ma'am," "Yes ma'am," "No problem," they replied in deep and serious tones. Several of them even shook my hand as they filed out of the classroom.
Sure enough, it worked.
As the weeks went on and I saw "my frat boys," as I came to think of them, choose to pair off in partner exercises with the international students and transfer students, I saw a collective solidarity build in the class. I had exaggerated my sense of the situation in order to calm down the frat boys but now that I saw them purposefully including the international students and transfer students in everything, I realized that those students had indeed been marginalized. Our work became more focused and the rowdiness soon diminished significantly.
Drawing upon their fundamental good nature and genuine pride in themselves as representatives of a group made a difference. While I had almost gagged on my own cynicism for having appealed to their supposed leadership skills when I had really wanted to just chew them out, they turned the tables on me.
Given the opportunity to rise to the occasion, they pulled themselves and the class together. What I had thought of as canny manipulation (as a colleague put it, I had "sold my soul" by "sucking up" to them) turned out to be a genuinely positive and effective strategy.
I spent my own undergraduate years at Vassar College, which is different from the large university where I now teach. Like many small liberal-arts colleges, Vassar doesn't have fraternities or sororities and discourages exclusive societies of any kind.
Getting used to the role and influence that fraternity and sorority systems have on a campus is a hard task, and even after many years teaching at the University of Iowa, where I earned my Ph.D., and also now at Clemson, I still find much of the "Greek system" baffling. I am still suspicious of its positive influence on an academic mission. I still sometimes use "frat boy" as shorthand for a disinterested or rowdy baseball-cap-wearing undergraduate.
But I'm aware that my prejudices aren't entirely fair. My most obnoxious, troubled, or difficult students have tended to be loners, not joiners. And my sorority students have almost always been among the most responsible population of students I have ever encountered.
The presence of "Greek life" helps shape classroom dynamics for better or worse, and it poses particular challenges to the cultural expectations of many professors who may never have belonged to fraternities or sororities as undergraduates, much less those who attended institutions where fraternities and sororities were seen as positively antithetical to college culture.
My prejudices against frat boys led me to sarcastically invoke their supposed interest in "leadership" skills in order to manipulate their little gang. And yet those same students forced me to acknowledge my own shortcomings in having underestimated them. Their genuine attempt to create a positive and more scholarly environment shamed me into respecting them and their efforts.
I can't say I want another class like that. It exhausted me beyond words. But watching the frat boys effectively invite everyone into their group reminded me that some classroom problems are best solved by students, not teachers. And while I'm not likely to rush anytime soon, I've made my peace with the Greeks.