Education

This Professor Joined a Sorority. Now She’s Written a Book About the Enduring Appeal of Greek Life.

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When Jana Mathews became an assistant professor of English at Rollins College, she initially struggled to connect with her students. As a specialist in medieval literature, which wasn’t the most popular subject on campus, Mathews figured she’d need to make extra effort to develop a recruitment pipeline and ensure that students took her classes.

So she did something unconventional: She joined a sorority.

“It was totally bizarre,” Mathews said. She had grown up as a devout Mormon and attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate, so she knew next to nothing about Greek life.

Mathews fully embraced the sorority-rush process, participating in new-member rituals and forging a close bond with her “big.” In the 11 years since then, she has served as a faculty adviser for two sororities and a fraternity at Rollins.

Now Mathews has written a book: The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). It’s a study of the close same-sex friendships that are a central part of sorority and fraternity membership.

Mathews didn’t want to make an argument for whether to abolish Greek-life organizations, as some have recently called for. She instead dove deeply into how fraternity and sorority relationships can uplift students while also perpetuating harm — with the goal of prompting a more informed conversation about the future of the groups.

In the process of researching and writing the book, Mathews often found herself in positions where she witnessed students talking and acting in ways they wouldn’t in the classroom. “It was a really tough balance and hard to negotiate between the roles — where I am the professor and where I am the observer and where I am the chaperone and interested in their well-being,” she said. She built such a high level of trust with the students that some would show up on her doorstep when they were in crisis.

Mathews, now a full professor at Rollins, spoke recently with The Chronicle about how powerful friendships contribute to the enduring appeal of fraternities and sororities, how those relationships influence campus social life, and whether the benefits of Greek life outweigh the downsides. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is this kind of a study important for understanding Greek life?

We tend to think of white fraternities and sororities as kind of R-rated Boy and Girl Scout troops — that their influence on individual lives and broader culture begins and ends on the college campus. And actually what I hope to show is that these organizations are powerful social influencers that impact the way we think about foundational relationships and what it means to be a friend. What does a family look like? How should I treat my brother and sister? What does it mean to call someone who’s not related to me a brother or a sister?

The other thing that interested me was the unsatisfactory answer that I kept getting to the big question that we always ask about these organizations: Should they stay or should they go? We have to understand first: What do they do? Why are they so pervasive in popular culture, in the face of such enduring controversy? And how do they operate? Once we get at those questions, then I think we’re better prepared to engage in a nuanced conversation about whether they should stay or go. And more importantly, we have some of the tools that can equip us to act on some of those ideas.

When you first began interacting with Greek life at Rollins, what notions about the organizations did you have? How did that change over time?

My exposure was about what a person who was from another country might have. I had seen Legally Blonde, and I knew they lived in houses, and I knew all the stereotypes about them being big drinkers and partiers. That was the extent.

But they populated my classes. At the time, 45 to 50 percent of Rollins’s student body was part of the Greek life system. I teach medieval literature, which doesn’t exactly appeal to the masses. I was really yearning for ways to connect with my students. The common denominator that linked many of them together was their fraternity and sorority experience.

As I went through the initiation process and the shadowing process and then serving as their adviser, I learned that these organizations are really critical to the lives and happiness of many of these students, but are also a source of tremendous angst and anxiety and tension and heartbreak.

Greek-life organizations have long been a venue for intimate friendships. Is there something distinct about the kinds of bonds that are being formed today?

Same-sex platonic relationships have always been critically important. They were formative in the frontier era of our nation’s founding, and they date back to Greek and Roman mythology — this is nothing new.

What’s changing is the fact that women and men are staying single for longer periods than they were in the past. People are getting married later and living longer. At critical stages of their life — in their 20s and 30s, and also the end of life — people are single. Those bonds become really critical in understanding the composition of society at large. Platonic friends mean more than they did in the past.

Fraternity men told you that they engineer a gender imbalance at their parties, and the result is hookup culture. Is that problematic?

We have more women going to college than men. That’s not going to be reversing itself anytime soon. Men are finding ways to capitalize on that and pursue their romantic interests, and heterosexual women are put in a position where they have to combat that. Fraternities and sororities will call themselves lots of different things, but they’re primarily social clubs. Part of the social experience if you’re a college student is romance and dating and sex. These groups inherently play a critical role in how that culture operates on a college campus. It’s neither good nor bad.

But what has been underappreciated to this point is the ways in which the sex-ratio imbalance on college campuses works to foster a hookup culture, and then how, in turn, women are working against that — how they’re trying to hold their own.

When I talked to women and men, men were much more ready to admit what exactly they were doing. “We are creating a scenario where there are fewer men than women.” Women were not as conscious about what they were doing. I would say: If you look around, what do you notice about the demographics? It would take several steps for them to say: There are twice as many of us as men. Then they would articulate what they were doing in response. It was less strategic.

When they did figure it out — what sororities absolutely do is negotiate and build teams that can help their own members compete and try to get teams of guys. The way to do that is to block other sororities out.

Another dynamic you explored was the role of LGBTQ members in facilitating connections between straight men and women. Can you talk about that?

Homophobia is still rife within the college environment and in society at large. But what we are seeing is that more chapters are seeing LGBTQ students as assets. Fraternities see them not as threats to their masculinity, but as partners. Some gay men affectionately refer to themselves as the hot girls’ best friends. They have this gaggle of girls that they’re all really good friends with, but they’re not romantic competitors to fraternity men.

For the gay member, it enables him to gain access to this space and this group of male friends. On the surface, it’s a wonderful thing. The dark side of it is, fraternities are putting LGBTQ members in a position where they’re asking them to bring in women and that serves as their primary purpose. The level of self acceptance is conditional; there’s no reciprocity. You could never bring a gay date to a dance, or bring a man home into the fraternity house, or publicly display any kind of affection.

You talked about how close fraternity or sorority friendships influence what happens after an alleged sexual assault. You wrote, “When things do go slightly or horribly awry, the metaphor of family becomes even more dysfunctional than it already is.” What did you mean by that?

When a sexual assault occurs, often the only people to know in the beginning are the sorority woman’s friends. The reason they were reluctant to report or do anything about it was that their experience with Title IX and the legal system, from watching other friends, didn’t bring about the resolution they wanted. They believed going in that there would be no apologies, only excuses.

So instead of blaming the person who committed the harm or anyone else, they often turned on their friends. They blamed their friends for not protecting them, for letting them drink too much, for leaving them alone. That sounds really problematic, and it is. But they did that out of self protection. They knew that they could pass blame onto their friends, and that they were going to get an apology. They knew that at the end of that exchange, that friend was going to hug them and tend to their needs — that there was going to be this resolution.

There has been increasing scrutiny of sexual assault in fraternities. Is there something inherent about Greek-life organizations that creates that culture? Or is it just one manifestation of a broader culture?

To put every fraternity chapter in the same category and say that they all promote rape culture is a gross exaggeration. But that’s the perception of the culture, broadly defined, and the fraternity and sorority community has not taken that seriously. So they’re holding the line again and again, saying, “This is just a few bad apples,” and in doing so are missing opportunities to have an important conversation about sex — one we should also be having in society at large.

Having worked with a fraternity comprised of wonderful gentlemen — they are spectacular on a one-on-one basis. When you put them in a group, they often don’t bring out the best in one another. I would say the same of sorority women. Part of that is a developmental issue. Fraternity men, from what I observed, are a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds who are posturing and trying to figure out who they are, so they lean into the easiest, most dominant version of who they think they should be, and that is often a crude, sexist jerk. Sororities do that too; they can be catty, nasty, and mean. I’m not excusing the behavior, but part of it is caused by the sheer number of young people who are together with no sense of perspective and different experiences to check them.

Do the benefits of Greek life outweigh the problems?

If you think about higher ed across the globe, every other country is able to function without sororities and fraternities. The idea that we need them, that it’s an essential part of our educational identity, feels problematic. There are other ways you can accrue the same benefits without being part of a fraternity or sorority.

But maybe, arguably, the biggest benefit that fraternities and sororities provide is that they provide scapegoats for colleges. We like to say that all of the bad behavior — the misogyny, the racism — is concentrated in these little pockets, and it’s only a small percent of our population that says and does these horrible things. We have to know that that’s not true. Fraternities and sororities provide convenient ways for colleges to not have to deal with the pervasive issues that affect all campuses and all populations.

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