Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back to our regular scheduled programming

I've mentioned that my daughter Jane Bob is preparing for college. She's currently mired in the insane test taking phase, but I'm trying to look ahead. We've been to a couple dog-and-pony shows. Representatives from five colleges give short speeches and then take questions. They are quite erudite, but you learn next to nothing about what it's like to attend any of those places.

Fortuitously, I found a very helpful book out on the sidewalk in front of a used bookstore on Court street. The author got to wondering how life at a residential college had changed since he went to school in the 60's. He spent time in residence halls at 12 colleges (including my alma mater) in (somewhat) diverse geographic regions. The book it titled “Binge.” It has two subtitles, or I guess one subtitle and one uber title. What do you call a blurb like a subtitle that actually goes over the title? Anyway, they add up to “Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess: What your College Student Won't Tell You.”

Sounds pretty scary, eh? Bingeing. Disconnection. Excess. Gotta sell books I guess. I'm surprised they didn't mention sex since sex is an important part of the book.
But although it's portrayed that way on the cover, the book is actually not alarmist at all, and only minimally judgmental. The author makes a good effort to accurately describe what it's really like to be in college these days, or at least what it was like in 2005, which is not so long ago.

The book is not, as the title suggests, primarily about excess drinking, but bingeing does get mentioned a lot and merits its own chapter. An interesting part explains how efforts to control alcohol consumption on campus have led to dramatically increased alcohol consumption. Since students can no longer be seen in public with alcohol, they now have to drink easily-concealable hard liquor rather than beer. And after they've smuggled the hooch into the dorm, they have to do their drinking before they go out. So they huddle quietly in little circles guzzling hard liquor as fast as they can. Plenty of stories detail the deaths of young people who had 20+ shots in a compressed time period. Prohibition always fails. Spectacularly.

And of course the book touches on the state of racial segregation, which is reportedly severe. I've read again and again, including in “Binge,” that every college has its “Black” table in the dining hall and that people of recent African ancestry are likely to catch some flack for not sitting at the black table. And not just a black table, but a variety of other separated tables. Apparently there is a good deal of segregation in roommate assignments as well.

I was talking about this with other parents and an African woman made some interesting observations. She had come to the United States and gotten an undergrad education at a rural college. She had dealt with the issue of dining hall segregation. She explained that she had lived in the foreign student dorm and sat at the foreign student table during meals. From that experience she understood the social forces resulting in the segregated table phenomenon. Every now and again, one of the foreign student regulars would try to assimilate with some white American table. The foreign student regulars would make “who does she think she is” type comments. There was a general feeling of condemnation. Not from the African woman, mind you, but she understood where they were coming from.

The African woman drew “why aren't you sitting with us” attention from the black table and felt like maybe she should sit there, at least on occasion. But it turned out she wasn't entirely welcome. She says there was an impossible-to-define tension she felt coming from the American blacks. She said that there was another level of segregation at the black table, based on the relative darkness of one's skin. She was pretty much always the blackest person in the room, so double cursed. She returned to her people at the foreign students table and soon moved off campus.

Dealing with that kind of shit is going to be challenging for Jane Bob. Here in Brooklyn, we live in a fantasy-like world of near color blindness. Jane Bob and her friends have a wide variety of skin tones, but they're all very similar socially. No one pays all that much attention to your skin tone round here. The African woman told a little story that brought that point home. She'd recently spent a few weeks out in the heartland. She said she was shopping in a mall and noticed someone looking at her, an African American woman about the same age. She realized that she and the other were the only black people in sight. The black woman smiled and nodded. The African woman returned the gesture. The African woman told us that she had lived in New York for so long that she had forgotten what it was like being a highly visible minority and she was surprised when she felt it again. Out in the sticks black people tended to acknowledge one another as kindred souls in a sea of other. Just like at the colleges. There was usually a black table at work. It wasn't the best way to organize a society, but it was apparently natural. At least in an otherwise unnatural environment.

As you can probably imagine, I'm starting to cop an attitude about all this college crap. Jane Bob's going to have to read the book and formulate a list of questions based on it. Then she can ask those questions at her college interviews and make her own decisions.