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«Students’ Social Life at Dartmouth College: Reflections in Their Looking Glass 2/15/05 Like almost every other university in the United States, ...»

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Hoyt Alverson

Students’ Social Life at Dartmouth College: Reflections in Their

Looking Glass


Like almost every other university in the United States, Dartmouth College, where I have taught

anthropology for the past 38 years, has been wrestling with the problem of binge drinking by

students. Dartmouth’s efforts (indeed those of most institutions) to understand why students’

frequently engage in this potentially dangerous behavior and what to do about it have consumed

enormous time, effort, and money. Policies and programs implemented at Dartmouth and on many other campuses to reduce heavy drinking have proven pathetically inefficacious. This outcome perplexes concerned administrators, who implement more programs, which devour still more resources. News headlines and reporting over the past decade suggest the larger public (especially parents) have become very worried about bingeing on campus. In a pile of recent news clippings on my desk, one sees laments such as these: “College presidents agree binge drinking is the most serious problem on campus” (Alcohol Policies Project, Center for Science in the Public Interest, fact sheet, March 2000); “College Binge Drinking Tops Parents’ Fears” (CNN. Come/Education, 8/29/01)”; “Drinking Deaths Draw Attention to Old Campus Problem” (NYT 11/9/2004; “Five Binge Drinking Deaths’ ‘just the tip of the iceberg’” (USA Today, 10/7/2004)“— to highlight just a few. During this past year the major bulge of bingeing news comes from The Denver Post, (September, 2004) which could barely keep up, as it combed through appalling details of three students’ deaths, each of which followed heavy drinking on Colorado campuses. Novels and memoirs dramatizing this topic are now sensational fare.

Soon after coming to Dartmouth, I learned about its regional fame as a work hard, carouse hard place, which in ten years would be recognized as an ideal virtual setting for the 1978 film, Animal House. This depiction has prevailed for many, who don’t otherwise know Dartmouth, as the College’s national image. To clear up at the outset some possible animal house-engendered misperceptions, Dartmouth is not in fact the drinking, partying school, which it is fabled to be.

Over the past decade we have ranked near the median of 3300 institutions of higher education as regards reported per capita consumption of alcohol. Dartmouth annually conducts a “Risk Behavior Survey” which suggests that when Dartmouth Students party, they either don’t drink, drink moderately, drink heavily, or binge at about the same rates as averages reported in the data collected by the Harvard School of Public Health in its recent nationwide surveys.

Students’ alcohol fueled high jinks raised little concern for the faculty in the 60’s and 70’s, as the heavy carnival was and still is leavened with uplifting learning and many beneficial co-curricular activities. There was then and remains in place today an ever-growing staff of deans who deal with, and to some (decreasing) extent, shelter the faculty from students’ bibulous exuberance.

Despite all the deans, alcohol policies, and programs however, students’ drinking at Dartmouth became steadily greater and more palpable, reaching an asymptote in the 1990’s. We notice hangovers in addition to the normal somnolence in morning classes, and the very sparse enrollment of students in courses, which hold class on Thursday mornings, after what are called “Wednesday Night Meetings”. (Read on for elucidation).

1 Hoyt Alverson

In response to the conspicuousness which the problem had attained in the 1990’s, the Dartmouth faculty voted unanimously in 1999 to urge the administration to abolish the fraternity/sorority system, thought then to be an epicenter of heavy drinking. For various “political reasons” the Administration did not adopt the faculty’s recommendation, but it did agree excessive, indecorous drinking and its attendant risks of harm were a real problem, about which something should be done.

The following spring, the Board of Trustees set up a select Student Life Committee to draft new policies, to be called the “student life initiative” (SLI). In January 2000, the Committee issued its report (Dartmouth College Board of Trustees, SLI Report Summary, January 10, 2000), which called for: (1) an enhanced system of residential clusters, (2) creation of new programs and spaces for general use, (3) major changes in the coed, fraternity, and sorority organizations, and (4) introduction of “new guidelines for alcohol and other drugs”. The College implemented this program, Fall Term, 2000, at an annual cost -- net of previous student-life expenses – of over eight figures.

By a coincidence in 2002, the Department of Anthropology asked me to take over our principal research course for majors, Methods of Ethnographic Field Research. The core of ethnographic method is observation, conversation, and informal interviewing of people in whose community one becomes an accepted participant. To learn this research method students must not only read or hear about it, but also undertake it themselves.

In light of lively and heated discussions on campus regarding drinking behavior and the recently implemented “Student Life Initiative”, I landed on the idea of assigning my students research projects concerning undergraduate student social life. Each student was to choose one specific social setting or organization on campus to study. Each year since 2002, the students’ research in this course has added pieces and shape to the mosaic. Now stacked high on my desk are the results of their efforts – some 35 rich descriptions of many different kinds of activities carried out in numerous arenas: dorms, dining halls, fraternity basements, corridors, locker rooms, rehearsals, and off-campus pubs where students hang out, talk, bond, compete, party, and binge.

Students’ research findings were initially of secondary importance to me, to them, and to the purposes of the course. But because I had thoroughly reviewed the research literature to discover how the social and behavioral sciences were weighing in on this vexing matter, I realized immediately that their ethnographies are very insightful, revealing, and highly relevant both to the current “scientific” research and to popular discussion about alcohol consumption and binge drinking on college campuses. I sketch here some important aspects of this scientific literature to set the stage for the students’ work.

Henry Wechsler notes in his widely read and controversial book, Dying to Drink, 2002, that campus drinking has remained stable over recent years with no significant trends up or down, likewise for its harmful consequences, which include: death, injury, assault, sexual abuse, unsafe sex, academic problems, health problems/suicide attempts, drunk driving, vandalism, property damage, and police involvement. The National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in its “A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at US Colleges”, April 2002, summarizes nationwide surveys which report that 44% of college students engage in

2 Hoyt Alverson

“binge” drinking (defined by Wechsler and others) as four or five or more drinks in a row over the past two weeks), and that since the 1980’s estimates of the number of heavy drinkers have remained stable between 40 – 45 percent of college students. Interestingly, Dartmouth students find utterly ludicrous the criterion for bingeing of “four or five drinks in a sitting”, insisting instead that one must consume at least ten drinks in a single sitting to be bingeing. According to surveys conducted at Dartmouth over the past decade, about one half the students here state they drink alcohol either regularly, heavily or both. About one seventh of them claim to be “abstainers”.

The NIAAA (2002, pp. 16 – 24) expresses a growing consensus, emphatically asserting the need to change the culture of college student drinking by targeting: (a) the college -- its surrounding community, and the student population as a whole, providing alcohol free options, restricting alcohol availability, making students aware of the “actual rates” of student drinking, and rigorously enforcing campus, local, state and federal laws restricting drinking; and (b) individuals’ “expectancies” (i.e. the good things they “erroneously” think will happen when they drink while providing brief motivational interventions -- pep-talks, counseling, warnings, stroking, training, to help them to control drinking in social occasions.

As the NIAAA states in the preamble of its 2002 report (pg. 1):

College drinking is a culture... beliefs and customs entrenched in every level of college students’ environments. Customs handed down through generations of college drinkers reinforce students’ expectation that alcohol is a necessary ingredient for social success.

These beliefs and the expectations they engender exert a powerful influence over students’ behavior toward alcohol.... Students derive their expectations of alcohol from their environment and from each other, as they face the insecurity of establishing themselves in a new social milieu. Environmental and peer influences combine to create a culture of drinking.

The NIAAA diagnosis and prescription seem to make a lot of intuitive sense and their recommendations have been in large measure adopted by Dartmouth and hundreds of other schools. But there are in fact serious problems in both its understanding and its call to action, which my students’ research identifies and critiques. These problems are made explicit in the end, but I prefigure them here to help frame the students’ work. First, the NIAAA and others shift from an invocation of “culture” as culprit, to focus instead on the behavior of “heavy drinking”, defined and studied simply as “X ethanol consumed over Y time” and its statistical correlates. (NIAAA, 2002, pg. 6). Such an “operational definition” does not identify anything, which is “cultural” (i.e., experientially meaningful) in students’ drinking. The “culture” in question includes a host of other actions and ideas, with which the drinking is indissolubly bound up -- the forming of friendships, competing, blowing off steam, chilling, partying, clowning, raging, “hooking up”, fitting in and getting ahead amongst one’s peers. Second, missing from “scientific” studies of students’ alcohol consumption is students’ own discourse. Any study, which fails to place students’ voices at the center of inquiry, ignores culture. In their own work students speak copiously, candidly, and with ease, about the numerous settings and occasions of campus social life, which entail, but are not simply about, heavy drinking. As their reports and notes together originally totaled over 300,000 words, I have chosen a very few representative

–  –  –

selections to characterize their overall findings. My comments are in italics; students’ words, which I have edited, are in plain text.

From High School to College: Freshman For most students entering Dartmouth directly from high school, interests and activities including alcohol and drug use are well-established aspects of social life. The big new difference in college is that their activities are practically unsupervised. Finding and fitting into groups is a powerful motive for first-year students, who more than anything, fear being alone in this new, strange and daunting environment. For many first-year students the most numerous, obvious, and pleasurable channels to groups and “comfort zones” run with alcohol.

High school kids will drink, smoke, and do drugs no matter what adults say. The pressure to drink at high school seems to come from a natural teenage desire to break rules and a generally accepted stereotype that kids drink and do drugs behind their teachers' backs.

Connections between high school and college drug and alcohol use are suggested by the terms “over it” and “making up for lost time”. Students with an “over it” attitude are “over” the novelty of getting drunk or high and feel more experienced than, or even superior to, their more naïve classmates. Those “making up for lost time” had little or no experience with drugs and alcohol in high school and use these substances in college to “make up” for what they’ve missed out on.

“I didn't start drinking until sophomore year [of high school]. The group of "top level" students all started drinking about the same time. Before that, me and my friends did "crazy" things like make "weird" videos...I didn't have any girlfriends in high school. I only kissed girls in the summer who weren't from my high school. I drank heavily at times in high school, and the summer before I came to Dartmouth I drank a lot at my job.” “My high school drinking was a combination of what I was allowed at home with my parents and what I did without them knowing, which was drink with my community theater friends. Alcohol was never kept from me, and I think this is why I’m better about it here.. I feel in control of my drinking. When I'm getting hammered, that's my purpose.

I know where the "line" is. I feel this way about recreational drugs. I’ve seen a lot more people here than in high school who don't have control over themselves when it comes to drinking and drugs, and that’s scary and funny to watch.” “I smoked pot in 8th grade at the local skateboard park. Someone had some shake left and gave it to me. I didn't get high or anything. The first time I got high was that winter, when me and my friend went up to a cave by the local ski mountain and smoked a lot. I ate a lot of food and then went home and stared at his math book, unable to do any work.

I partied with my core group of friends heavily in junior year, tapering off a bit as a senior. The summer before coming to Dartmouth, I drank with my friends from work.”

4 Hoyt Alverson

Drinking influences freshman year friendships. At the same time, freshmen seem to have the least control over the consumption of alcohol and are often unsure of campus social etiquette.

They travel in groups to fraternities, trying to fit in. Since none are members of houses, and they usually do not know members yet, it is difficult for them to tell when they are welcome and how they should behave, especially since at Dartmouth, all doors are open.

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