Sunday, July 24, 2011

Going Native: An Anthropologist Amongst the Undergraduates

In the 1970s, Rutgers anthropology professor Michael Moffatt had a realization. He didn't need to travel to the West Indies to study intricate languages, mating rituals and coming of age traditions. He could study young people's behaviors right in the comfort of his own university! And so he began a decade's worth of observation and research on undergraduates at Rutgers University, from 1977 to 1987.

Professor Moffatt first posed as a student, living with and going through orientation with first year students. But he couldn't keep his act up for long, what with being in his early thirties and all. After revealing himself to the students, he continued relationships with them, interviewing them and hanging out to observe their habits and rituals. As the years went on, he used different strategies for collecting  anthropological data. One was to live part-time in a dorm, observing the goings-on and interviewing students verbally and through surveys. To learn more deeply about students' views on and experiences of sex and sexuality, he created a pass/fail voluntary assignment in his anthropology of sexuality course, where students could write anonymous self-reports of what sexuality meant to them; 237 completed the assignment and 144 agreed to let him quote their papers anonymously.

Moffatt's book, "Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture" is the result of all this research.

Though published in 1989, the natives' habits will still be very familiar to anyone who has gone to college in the past 15 years. I recognized many traditions from my own college experience (initial cliques and friendships rejiggering as the year goes on; the prevailing view of promiscuous women as "sluts" but promiscuous males as "natural"; the joys of pranking each other), but it's fascinating to see it through an anthropologist's eye and observe how he explains it all.

For example, Moffatt identifies a few "dominant modes of discourse" in his 10 years of observation. They include Undergraduate Cynical, Lockerroom Male, Deanly Officialese, and Faculty Lofty, to name a few. He also analyzes rituals like Secret Santas (Rutgers students' version includes a lot of pranking), and does a fantastic analysis of male versus female students responses to the sexuality papers assignment. He points out that in the early and mid-70s, co-education was still relatively new, and makes a strong case for how this combined with the recent sexual revolution, puts many undergraduates between a rock and a hard place: mainstream culture tells them they're supposed to love sex acts and have lots of orgasms, but many still aren't ready yet or don't know how to approach it in a way that is healthy or equitable.

Moffatt writes little about "nonheterosexuals" as he calls them, but when he turns the spotlight to these students, we get an interesting glimpse of LGB life in the late 70s/early 80s. Four of the sexual self-report writers self-identified as gay or lesbian (six others mentioned same-sex fantasies or experiences but still identified as hetero), and Moffatt presents a short section on the themes in their papers. He writes,
"Most of [the lesbian and gay writers] complained about the stereotypes and myths that heterosexual people had about gay sex, and they contrasted these stereotypes to the actualities of non-exclusively-heterosexual practice: [quoting a lesbian senior's paper] 'I'd love to get rid of some of the ridiculous myths that exist. One--I am not a lesbian because I wish I had been born a man. ...I am a woman who appreciates and enjoys my female body and who appreciates and enjoys other women and their bodies. Two--I do not hate men nor have I turned to women because I have had a traumatic experience with a man. ...Three--The majority of lesbians do not engage in Butch/Femme sex roles ...We don't have rules and we express ourselves however we feel like whenever we want.'"
That senior female quoted above wrote her paper in 1986. Unfortunately, the stereotypes she details are still with us in 2011, especially the third one. (My favorite was when my ex-girlfriend's roommate asked me, "So who's the guy in your relationship?" My response: "Neither of us, that's the whole point.")

Along with the "Sex" chapter, the other stand-out was "Race and Individualism." About 80% of students were white at Rutgers at the time of Moffatt's research. One of the floors that he observed for a whole year was the home of the university's Paul Robeson section, where students who were interested in learning and being a part of "black culture" could opt to live. The Robeson section took up half of the floor, and housed 26 black students and one white student. The other half of the floor housed 29 white students and 4 black students. Moffatt writes, "the floor embodied most of the dilemmas and contradictions of contemporary American individualism and race relations."

Through interviews, Moffatt found that white students tended to be suspicious of their black neighbors, frequently calling them "unfriendly." The black residents mostly reported feeling neutrally towards their white neighbors, though some shared stories of racist epithets they had seen or heard in other parts of the university. Floor relations came to a head when the campus newspaper ran an expose of  the floor, titled "Sectional Tensions Plague Special Interest Dorm," detailing,
"'lack of communication' and 'limited interaction' between the black and white students on the floor. Members of both sections felt shunned when they tried to sit in the lounge of the opposite section, one white male resident had told the reporter. Females from the white side only visited the women's room on the Robeson side in groups of twos and threes, some black females had pointed out. 'What do they think we were going to do? Attack them?'."
Most floor residents are hurt by the article, and they (on their own accord) hold floor meetings and the first and only inter-racial party to try to address the article's criticisms.

What I love about Moffatt's book is that he is always sure to allow the students' voices to come through directly, instead of always summarizing and condensing. Hopefully he's working on follow-up research about students in the 90s and aughts, I would be fascinated to see what has changed and what continues to be embedded in the undergraduate psyche and experience.

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