Thursday, April 03, 2014


Friday Fragments

I’ll be at the AACC conference in Washington, D.C., over the next several days.  I’m hoping to touch base with several people over that time, but I’m also psyched for the presentation by my HCC colleagues Michele Snizek, Alana Wiens, and Rebecca Lewis. (It’s called “Changing the Game: Improving Achievement in a Model Career Program through High-Impact Grant Collaboration.”) They’ll be talking about the ways we’ve aligned different grants to reinforce each other, particularly in the context of allied health fields.  

They’ve been bumped by Joe Biden, which is frustrating.  So they’ll be presenting on Tuesday morning at 7:30.  I’m hoping for a good turnout -- they’re a great group, and the work they’ve done is both impressive and largely transferable.  BIden’s okay too, but will he help you figure out how to stitch grants together?  No, he will not.  If you’re at the AACC, check them out.


Chad Orzel wrote an interesting piece in response to Caitlin Flanagan’s widely-read article about fraternities.  Orzel’s is necessarily somewhat circumspect, since he attended a college without frats as such, though he correctly notes that the rugby team at Williams was pretty fratty.  The guys who would have been frat boys elsewhere were called “hammerheads” there.

Orzel’s time at Williams and my time there overlapped slightly, so I can offer a different perspective on the same context.  

Yes, there’s a persistent appetite among some students for what Orzel calls “drunken idiocy,” and they’ll find ways to slake that appetite.  Williams had banned frats in the 1960’s -- that was part of why I went there -- but that didn’t prevent the social scene from revolving around teams and kegs.  If you weren’t either on a team or part of one of the church groups, the social scene was largely catch-as-catch-can.  Frats may have been absent, but drunken idiocy was not.  Drunken idiocy isn’t all that different in a dorm than in a frat house, except that when it’s in a frat house, those who prefer not to be surrounded by it can escape to the dorm.  When it’s in the dorm, there’s no escape.

My recollection was that the problem wasn’t so much sports and beer, but the almost complete absence of nearly anything else.  (Williamstown is in the middle of nowhere, and most students didn’t have cars.) Drunken idiocy ruled by default.  If that was your thing, you probably didn’t see a problem.  If it wasn’t your thing -- it mostly wasn’t mine -- the problem was all-pervasive.  

In choosing a college without frats, I was hoping to avoid frat boy culture.  It didn’t work, which suggests that some of the criticism aimed at frats is mistaking the symptom for the cause.  

All of that said, though, it was the 1980’s.  The web didn’t exist yet, and phone calls off campus were expensive.  I hope for everyone’s sake that life on the ground has changed.


I know I shouldn’t pick on Sandy Shugart.  He’s a well-regarded president of a community college that has emerged as a national leader in improving student success.  And he recently published a mostly-thoughtful piece on the ways that student behavior often flummoxes systems.

But this has been bugging me ever since I read it.  He wrote:

“[Students] swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. And because this was exceptional 50 years ago, when we were in college, we continue to think it is the exception.”  (emphasis added)

“50 years ago, when we were in college…”  Sigh.

It’s a smallish thing, but I’ve bumped into that blind spot enough times that I’ve decided to stop pretending not to notice.  Not every educational leader is a baby boomer.  It’s time to acknowledge that.  


Speaking of Gen X, this weekend marks twenty years since Kurt Cobain shot himself.

That one stung.

Courtney Love may be a train wreck, but the footage of her reading his suicide note, with commentary, to a crowd of mourners gathered outside their house was one of the most harrowing moments I’d ever seen on television.  It was mercilessly raw, and human, and true.  

Nirvana’s music wasn’t terribly forgiving, either.  Everyone knows “Teen Spirit,” rightly, but check out “Aneurysm,” or “Pennyroyal Tea,” or “All Apologies.”  And if you’re really focused, give a close listen to “In the Pines,” from Unplugged.  When he got that direct, you realized that the distortion in their songs wasn’t overpowering; it was cushioning.  Undistorted, the music landed harder.

From a distance, it may be hard to see why it mattered so much at the time.  But it did.


The Girl: Daddy, if the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?

I didn’t have an answer for that, but I loved the question.

It isn't expanding into anything. The space itself is expanding.
I asked that expanding universe question of a physicist once and this is what he said.

Imagine the surface of an orange. It expands. There is now more orange - but that additional surface didn't come from anywhere. It just suddenly exists.

The universe is constantly in the process of coming into being.

Let's see what CCPhysicist has to say....
I'm happy to tell you that Williams in the 2000s was very different! There were plenty of different social groups and activies; even as a visiting student, I could tell that you could have a social life there that didn't revolve around alcohol. Of course, there was also a very large subculture of alcohol-fueled, sports related partying, but I didn't feel it shut out other options. I actually always assumed having such a healthy variety of social outlets for such a small school was related to the lack of frats, so it's interesting to hear that wasn't always the case. Either way, I don't think that "fratty" culture is a universal part of college life.
Snark: Sandy Shugart must be older than Letterman. Observation: He is making the bad assumption that everyone was like us back then. Are there data? Anecdote says there were plenty of kids back in the 1965 to 1975 era who changed majors and had to restart, or dropped out (literally and figuratively) and worked and came back at my R1 undergrad institution, and our local CC had night classes for calculus for students who wanted to go from the shop floor to engineering school.

... I'd like to hear Chad Orzel's take on it. I forget how he explained it to his dog. My preference is for what Anon@9:42pm said, but could elaborate on the "orange peel" analogy to make that point a la Flatland -- we are noticing that there is more orange, but doing so without looking at the orange from the outside.
But your drunken idiots didn't haze people into becoming their co-hosts of their parties. And they didn't have the power of the bursar's office to collect dues (to pay for their parties) -- or, as it is on some campuses, own their own houses and charge rent to raise their operating expenses. Furthermore, a frat house is a space that is under control of the frat, which changes the social dynamic a lot. And calling the police on a frat house is very different than calling campus police on a dorm party, especially for houses that are not owned by the campus.
You may be interested to learn that MIT has 30+ fraternities and "independent living groups" (essentially fraternities with no national affiliations) but the the "frat boy culture" is almost entirely absent. Social groups don't have to be about intoxication.
What physicists really mean when they say the universe is expanding is that everything we see in the sky is moving away from us, and the farther away it is, the faster it is moving away from us. If you have a rubber band and you draw a bunch of lines on it and then stretch the rubber band, all the lines get farther apart, and the more rubber-band length there is between any two lines, the faster the distance between them increases.

Physicists don't think there's anything "outisde" space, but they're still not sure whether space just goes on forever or whether it eventually wraps around so that if you go far enough you'd end up where you started. Either way, though, the space between all of the objects we can see in the sky appears to be stretching like a rubber band, and that's why we say "the universe" is expanding.
Orzel’s is necessarily somewhat circumspect, since he attended a college without frats as such, though he correctly notes that the rugby team at Williams was pretty fratty

I argued here that they're also serving the needs of many women in college—which is something that gets left out of many of these conversations. The frat boys (or Rugby players) wouldn't be doing what they do if women stopped showing up.

In choosing a college without frats, I was hoping to avoid frat boy culture. It didn’t work, which suggests that some of the criticism aimed at frats is mistaking the symptom for the cause.

I went to Clark University in Worcester, MA, and as far as I know there was very little frat-culture there.
I was at Williams just ahead of you, and your picture of the culture is spot-on. I certainly hope things have changed since the late 80s...
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