Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Fraternal Community

In a previous post on 3/18/07 I mentioned The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids by Mara Adelman and Lawrence R. Frey, a book about community formation under the direst of circumstances. This post is about a very different kind of community.

A series of coincidences that occurred during my visit to Colorado make me think back to my undergraduate days at Cornell University, when I joined a fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. To begin with, as I was driven from the Colorado Springs Bed and Breakfast where I was staying to the nearby campus of Colorado College, I noticed a sign above a storefront that said, "Wooglin's Deli"! I remarked that Wooglin was a name associated with my college fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. My host, Lian Sifuentes, told me that she had actually planned for us to have lunch there, and that the Deli was started by some of the brothers after the Colorado College chapter of Beta Theta Pi was thrown off campus. Talk about the persistence and adaptability of culture, or in this case, subculture.

Later, when we went to Wooglin's Deli for lunch, it was clear that they had incorporated Beta symbolism into the décor, notably in the form of Beta dragon art that served as decoration. My understanding is that people mistakenly think that the Wooglin is the dragon, rather than the trickster figure I learned about while studying Beta lore as a pledge (I wonder if the character of Woogie from the movie There's Something About Mary has any connection to Beta, maybe through one of the screenwriters?). The people working there were not Betas, obviously, and I was not able to find out whether the place was still owned by Betas. But the Beta presence survives.

Then, that evening I gave a public lecture at Colorado College, "Eight Bits About Digital Culture," and after it was over, various members of the audience came over to speak to me individually. One fellow who looked vaguely familiar asked if I remember him, but I couldn't place the face (I'm not all that good with faces and names). "It's Jordan," he said, but I was still not making the connection. Then he said, "from Beta Theta Pi," and the light went off. Jordan Strub had joined during my senior year, and in fact had been my "little brother," that is, I was the one directly responsible for his transition from fraternity pledge to full membership as a brother. I hadn't seen him in almost 30 years.

In my lecture, I had briefly mentioned the fact that some high functioning autistics argue that being autistic is not a disease to be cured, or a disability to be overcome, but rather a different mode of consciousness. I mention this in the context of arguing that our current digital age requires and in certain ways causes changes in our form of consciousness. So, of all things, Jordan tells me that he has discovered that he has Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism; not surprisingly, he was enrolled in the Engineering School at Cornell, and has pursued a career in computer programming. I explained that I have a daughter who has been diagnosed with moderate autism, and that I consider myself to be on the spectrum myself, although I have not seen the need to obtain a formal diagnosis.

It must be more than coincidence that I wound up being his big brother at Beta, but who knew back then about such things?

I had not yet turned 17 when I came to Cornell as a freshman in the fall of 1974. I expected there to be hippies, and was disappointed to find out that there were none, and that most of the other guys in my dorm were rushing fraternities. I knew nothing from fraternities myself, certainly never thought that I would join one, but I received many invitations to attend rush dinners and parties, and figured, what the hell. The fraternity system was just getting back on its feet after almost going under at the end of the 1960s and early 70s, and I wound up pledging Beta Theta Pi, which at that time was a very laid back fraternity, more individualistic, less about conformity and peer pressure than the others. It was kind of like the movie National Lampoon's Animal House, which came out the year I graduated, and which I adored, the difference being that the movie was set over two decades earlier, and was exaggerated of course. Actually, in National Lampoon's Animal House, the "bad" frat, the one that is elitist and conforming, was based on the Dartmouth chapter of Beta, which just goes to show that the character of a chapter differs from place to place, and over different time periods. Anyway, the year I joined, we pledges experienced very little hazing. Interestingly enough, a number of my fellows felt that this was a problem, that it made it seem like membership in the fraternity was of little value, and reinstated hazing the next year; I should add that psychological research does support their argument. But bringing hazing back did not change the fact that our chapter of Beta was far from recovered, and in fact was danger of going under. There were about 10 of us in my rush class, which was one of the best years they had had in a long time, but the next two years we only took in 3-4 new members. So by the time we reached senior year, the future of the fraternity was pretty much on the line. I held the office of Social Chairman, the main responsibility being organizing parties, and fraternity parties were one of the most important criteria freshmen used in making their decision to join. And I take pride in the fact that I was able to analyze what made parties successful, and threw one of the best open parties of the season by signing the most popular band at that time (their name was Zoltan, and they played a lot of progressive rock, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and the like). It didn't hurt that I made sure that the beer was plentiful (drinking age was 18 then, so no carding and free beer was the rule), and that I had drawn on a Visual Communication class that I was taking to design really eye-catching posters. And I also saw an unexpected opportunity when visiting my friend Marty Friedman at SUNY Cortland, and organized an extra private party that we had not planned on holding by hiring a new (and phenomenal) band that a friend of Marty's, Frank Agnello, who is now a member of the highly successful Beatles tribute band, The Fab Faux, had started up, and got a sorority from Cortland to charter a bus and come on over (in part motivated by the fact that the band from their school would be playing). These two events, along with throwing a good homecoming party (a formal affair), made us seem as if we were not a fraternity on the edge, or a bunch of misfits, but rather a really happening bunch, and we wound up pledging another big class (in the teens, if I remember correctly), and in the years that followed, the fraternity more than doubled in size and became, for a time, one of the more successful ones on campus.

Looking back on it all, I think what I found most appealing about fraternity life was the sense of community that was fostered. The creation of maintenance of community is one of the main functions of community, and the study of communication and community goes to the heart of the scholarship of the late media ecologist, James W. Carey, who I very much admire, not to mention my friend Larry Frey. And it is definitely true that the experience I gained with Beta Theta Pi came in handy when the time came to start up the Media Ecology Association, otherwise known as Mu Epsilon Alpha. May the spirit of Wooglin watch over media ecologists everywhere. And to all of you Betas out there, "Oh, you and I can ne'er grow old while this fair cup is nigh, Here's life and strength, here's health and wealth, Here's all in phi kai phi."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


_Kai_ brother