Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

Me, me, me…

Cover artI apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. The only excuse I have that is remotely worthy is that I’m teaching a new class this semester, which is requiring five billion new PPTs which take some time to put together. (Hyperbole is the best, I think…)

Plus my computer has a mind of its own on occasion and I’ve lost a handful of files which meant I had to recreate them. Grr.

But the upside is that I have a great bunch of students this semester, and I’m also seeing some of my old students from the last few semesters around the building, so I’m enjoying saying hi to them… (Since I’ve only been teaching for the past year, having old students around the building is a new thing for me – I love it.)

In the meantime, I’m getting the new routine sorted out and organizing the work load more efficiently, so all signs point to more blog posts in the future weeks.

I’ve been reading, but just not as much as I did in the summer since there’s been that prep for class (which I don’t mind at all). All the prep also means that I have rather tired eyes at the end of the day, and now I finally understand what my parents and grandparents meant when they said that they were “just resting” their eyes … 🙂

And so, what have I been reading? Well….

I happened to find a brand-new copy of the old kids’ book called “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster (1961) which was quite a clever read. The title doesn’t make my Top Ten reads or anything, but it was a fun non-demanding read and just right for the overload at the beginning of the semester.

Image result for troublemaker leahThen, I moved on to something very different: “Troublemaker”, the autobiography by Leah Remini of her years spent in Scientology. Wow. It’s a very strange way of life and costs thousands of dollars to stay in it, but its attraction, I think, is that it provides a home and a direction for those folks who are feeling a little lost in their own lives. It promises so much – eternity, happiness, riches, saving the world – but the personal cost to each individual is immense.

Remini was in the religion due to her mother being a Scientologist, but when Remini was older, she saw the cult for what it really was, and tried to get out. However, if you’ve grown up in the religion, most of your friends and support system are also Scientologists, and the rule is that a Scientologist who leaves the group must be “disconnected” by their friends and family (i.e., they never speak again), so leaving is a big decision for some people. They lose their family, their friends, their entire support system… What a scary risk.

From the outside looking in (the position that I hold), it’s hard for me to see how otherwise fairly sane humans sign up for this, promising their lives to the religion for a billion years (via reincarnation) and spending gross amounts of money to reach the much-esteemed level of being deemed “clear”, the ultimate goal. (Tom Cruise, naturally, is probably up there by now since financial donations help you move up the ladder. In fact, Remini is not very complimentary of Cruise at all…)

So, this was a fascinating read for me, and in the end, I feel badly for the folks who get sucked into this group. Most are not very wealthy and the religion forces such spending on people that they end up declaring bankruptcy on many occasions. However, I try not to judge anyone as they’re just trying to improve their lives (and others) in many cases, but it actually does the complete opposite of that.

Remini gets out in the end and is in the position (socially and financially) that she can escape without having to suffer some of the huge consequences that others may have to endure. However, her mother and others do disconnect her in the end…

Anyway, I found this to be a fascinating read on human behavior…

For another perspective on Scientology, I would suggest “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman (2011).

 

The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg (2012)

The Power of Habit sounds as though it should be placed in the Self-Help section of your local independent bookstore, but it’s really more along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk in that it’s a more science-y based book (although there are some self-help tips in it towards the end in terms of changing habits etc.)

Written by the NYT’s Charles Duhigg, the book takes more of a meta-analytic approach to habits, reviewing scientists and their published research in terms of human and organizational habits. It’s really quite fascinating for me to read, especially since I spent a lot of my professional career trying to change people’s habits from a public health perspective. So many talks and so much time chatting to people about developing more healthy behaviors…

Towards the turn of the millennium, I was involved in a large community-wide health initiative and tried to read as much as I could about changing behavior for the long-term: how did people change their long-time habits? And how do you keep them sustainable? At the time, I was a big believer in Prochaska et al and their Stages of Change, and I still believe that there are stages of development that most people have to travel through to make big changes in their lives.

This book took a slightly different angle to Prochaska and viewed habits as a behavioral loop that would be similar for almost everyone, whether they were smoking or sitting on the couch all day. (And actually, Duhigg addresses other non-health-related behaviors as well – a habit is a habit is a habit after all.) If you are more of a theory-driven learner and like me, need to know and understand the “why” before there’s any chance of moving further, “The Power of Habit” is set up to warm the cockles of your heart. Pages and pages of readable discussion about the various scientific studies that have been published about behavior, from the success of AA to not buying a cookie at three o’clock every workday. I wouldn’t say that this info was mind-shatteringly new for me, but it was thoroughly researched and supported by reputable studies so that its conclusions are more convincing than others have been.

What was interesting about this book was how it demonstrated some of the research findings into real-life scenarios. For example, studies have proven that most people who enter a large supermarket will automatically turn to the right when they go through the front door. (Do you?) This routine habit means that most supermarkets will put the more expensive impulse buys there. (For example, one local supermarket here has its florist, chocolate box selection and magazines to the right of its main door at one location.)  Thinking about it, it also has its grocery trolleys there as well, so that makes me wonder: did the placement of the trolleys come before the behavior or did the behavior come before the trolleys were put there?

It also helped to explain just why the produce section in most places is located towards the beginning of the shopping trip for a lot of people. According to Duhigg, it’s because if the consumer has already put “healthy” food into the trolley, then it’s easier (and more justifiable) to put a packet of Pringles on top as “the healthy food evens it” out sort of thing. I had noticed the arrangement, but could not work out why. Now I know one possible reason.

Additionally, it explains radio stations. Most listeners crave songs that are familiar to them, either because they know them through repetition or because the songs remind them of another song. We can only listen to a few things at one time, and if we’re having to concentrate on new (and therefore different/challenging) songs, then we have less attention to pay to more important actions (like driving a car). Few people will admit that they like Celine Dion songs, but research shows that if a Dion song comes on the radio station, hardly anyone will change the channel. They might protest in a survey or to their friends, but they won’t actually move to change the channel. (Interesting – will have to see if I can see this in action.)

Familiar songs are called “sticky” by those in the music biz (apparently), and makes sense to me as most top 40 adult contemp songs sound quite similar to me when I first hear them. (Not that I am a big fan of live radio as I get frustrated by the ads and the DJ drivel. But supposing I did…) When a radio station wants to introduce a new song that is not “familiar” in how it sounds for its audience, the station will sometimes “sandwich” the new song between two older and much more familiar songs so that the listener is not faced with having to deal with “too much different” at one time.

All fascinating stuff for me to learn. The book even portrays the Civil Rights movement and AA as beginning with habits, both on the personal and the cultural level. A quick and very interesting read that I enjoyed.

Duhigg is a very good writer and has been working for the NYT since 2006 doing investigative journalism. He backs up what he says and tends to keep his personal opinions to himself (which I appreciated). The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that it didn’t have a formal bibliography for further study. Apart from that, this made me think and that’s always a good thing.