The recent drinking-related death of a freshman at California State University at Fresno should alert college administrators, students, and parents to the seriousness of student alcohol abuse as it occurs in and around campus settings. This unnecessary tragedy should also motivate students to use every precaution available when engaging with alcohol, a popular – and dangerous – hobby.
When I read of these incidents, and there are far too many, I wonder why student alcohol misuse continues to be a problem. It seems that every tragedy sparks a renewed campus interest in curbing alcohol abuse, whether in the form of community vigils to raise awareness, student activism aimed at changing the college culture, or policy reforms that promise safer campus environments. However, just as soon as we take a step forward to make a campus environment safer, popular culture pushes us two steps backward.
College students are targeted with messages that promote drinking as a part of the college experience. Students see images from mega-beer advertising in everything from sports to popular reality TV shows. In this year of the presidential election, drinking beer has even played a role in making President Obama appear more likable to voters. In this environment, I find myself resigned to the belief that notwithstanding the risks, students are going to consume alcohol, sometimes in unhealthy ways, while in college. It is a part of the college experience, just as much as the freshman 15 and the sophomore slump are rites of passage.
Campus administrators have responded to student alcohol misuse with education, policy and advocacy outreach. Campuses have grown their arsenal of websites, policies, pamphlets, posters, videos, training sessions, peer educators, themed housing, community coalitions, online assessments, and other tools to combat the issue and help students make safer choices with alcohol. The research suggests that the use of these various tools does curb alcohol misuse and risky drinking behavior. In my research, I have found that students frequently engage with alcohol in risky ways while attending off-campus parties. The bottom line is simply this: students are better off with the intervention than without it.
But are these interventions sufficient? And conversely, if we add one more program to our strategy, will it make a difference? My research leads me to believe that a focus on off-campus party hosts could make a difference. It is clear that those who organize or host parties are underprepared and ill-educated to do so. I advocate for targeted education of party hosts so that they can work to create and manage parties in safe and responsible ways. I focus on students who host parties, because I believe they are the best individuals to make decisions that can save the lives of others. In the same way that they bring groups of students together for parties, both on- and off-campus, they also stay at campus parties long after administrators have gone home or to sleep.
Focusing on hosts leads to some important policy and programmatic strategies. Policies that encourage hosts to take protective actions when promoting alcohol use are likely to be more effective than banning alcohol from parties. However, most party hosts are not ready for this responsibility. Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments. For example, when I asked hosts about their preparations for and actions during a party, they said they are unlikely to provide any snacks, heavier food, water, or non-alcoholic beverages. By not making these common protective items available, they are missing an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of intoxication among party guests.
In addition, hosts are unlikely to use basic party management techniques, such as adherence to state alcohol laws; preventing minors from drinking at their party; having a sober team or keeping sober themselves; calling police if the party gets out of control; verifying that the smoke detectors and fire extinguisher work before a party; and contacting neighbors in advance of a party. Party hosts seem unaware that each of these proactive measures could greatly reduce personal liability and risk to students.
Party hosts are a weak link in the chain of strategies to manage the campus environment. There is a need to be more aggressive as we extend alcohol education programs to those who host or plan to host off-campus parties. It is a safe assumption that on-campus and off-campus party hosts behave similarly. In our collective effort to curb student alcohol-related incidents, campus administrators should continue their work along the environmental management approach by intentionally targeting student party hosts. Because this is a challenging group to reach, hosts would benefit from a curriculum that promotes safe party management, practical online resources for event planning, messages from campus and community leaders that reinforce healthy drinking behaviors, and policies that give students the incentive to do the right thing, like good Samaritan and medical amnesty policies.
But is curbing student alcohol misuse the ultimate goal? No, we need to push beyond curbing alcohol misuse to stop senseless and preventable alcohol-related deaths. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural shift in the way in which the campus community values alcohol and alcohol-related activities, especially as they occur on or near college campuses. Common practices that send unintended messages to students include limited late night or weekend student activity programming; few Friday or weekend classes or exams; sporting events that sell alcohol and promote a tradition of pre- and post-game tailgate parties; open bar events for university donors, faculty, and alumni; vague student alcohol policies that are often not applied equally to all student groups; and area restaurants and bars that give significant discounts for happy hour, pitcher, and bottomless cup promotions. Until we seriously address the issue of campus drinking, including a campus dialogue between and among campus members, campus administrators will remain handcuffed to strategies that are additive in nature but that do not adequately address the problem.
Designing and implementing a comprehensive party host curriculum and training is additive – but significant. I urge scholar practitioners to rethink, research, and discuss new and integrative approaches to alcohol education. Students who are new to college campuses, such as the case at Fresno State, deserve a better environment in which to learn and develop. They deserve an environment and a campus administration that strives for more than curbing student alcohol misuse. The goal of an environmental management approach is to influence behavioral changes within campus and community environments; the challenge is to do so with campus-specific interventions, limited resources, and narrowly tailored campus committees responsible for risk management.
Rick C. Jakeman is assistant professor of higher education within the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.
College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.
Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.
If not for the recent online buzz about whether or not President Bush has resumed drinking, most of us never would have heard the allegations. The story was, after all, broken by The National Enquirer – a paper not taken in this household, you may be sure. We are loyal to the Weekly World News instead.
The cover of the Enquirer is always full of the faces and first names of celebrities, very few of which I recognize -- while the reporters at the News do the kind of hard journalistic digging needed to reveal, for example, Saddam Hussein’s efforts to clone dinosaurs for use as weapons of mass destruction. Some years ago, there was an off-Broadway musical inspired by WWN coverage of the amazing saga of the half-human Bat Boy. I’m always keen to read updates about that brave little guy.
But a scoop is a scoop. More interesting than the Enquirer story itself has been the response to it -- not just its prime spot in Slate’s roundup of trash news, but the loud blog feedback, followed by the metacommentary by Jonathan Dresner at Cliopatria, which was remarkably sober. (Didn't see that one coming, did you?)
A decade has passed since the earliest syllabus was prepared for a course called “Tabloid Culture.” Now it’s a regular area of scholarly specialization ( with conferences), so it’s hard to know how anybody keeps up with all the secondary literature, let alone the two-headed alien babies.
As it happens, the first paper on cultural studies by an American academic I ever came across -- more than 20 years ago, in fact -- was a pioneering study in the field of tabloid hermeneutics. Stephanie Greenhill presented “ The National Enquirer: A Secret Method for the Mastery of Life” at the Southwest Graduate Student Conference in Comparative Literature, held in March 1982 at the University of Texas at Austin. The proceedings were published the following year by UT’s Comp Lit program -- using what appears to have been a very, very early desktop publishing program. The volume provides no information about the contributors. Nor is there any trace of Stephanie Greenhill’s subsequent career as a scholar available online. [See update below.]
But a vague memory of her argument has been at the back of my mind ever since the current Enquirer story began pinging around the blogosphere. It took some digging, but I’ve located my copy of the proceedings and reread Greenhill’s paper. And so, in the spirit of honoring a forgotten pioneer, here is a precis of her work, and an application of it to interpreting “Bush’s Booze Crisis.”
My recollection had it that Greenhill must have been one of the first American academics to draw on the first generation of cultural-studies scholars – the early theoretical work of Stuart Hall and others at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England. (The center closed three years ago.) But in fact, rereading her paper now, I see that Greenhill was actually looking at the tabloid from within a completely different framework: that of folklore.
An interesting rewriting of things, given the subsequent fate of each discipline over the following two decades. By the 1990s, the American version of cultural studies was on the rise, while folklore programs were shutting down. If the stereotype had it that someone with a background in cultural studies wore hipster eyeglasses and a complicated haircut, the other field had a much less flattering icon: namely, the Comic Book Store Guy on "The Simpsons," responding to one of Bart’s pranks by saying, “I do not deserve this! I have a Ph.D. in folklore and mythology!”
With understandable frustration, some folklorists have insisted for years that they were doing cultural studies long before anybody thought to call it that. And rereading Greenhill’s paper after all these years, I’m inclined to think they have a case. Her analysis stresses how the Enquirer -- which is, arguably, as debased a piece of mass-produced junk as ever issued by a printing press -- actually replicates some features we associate with oral or traditional forms of culture.
Not that you’d notice it right away, of course. “It can be a very disturbing experience to read the Enquirer,” she writes. “The physical layout encourages the feeling of alienation. One’s eyes are forced to search up and down in order to find everything on the page. One cannot even look only at headline-sized materials to get an overview; there are a number of single-line quotations which force the eye constantly to refocus. Perhaps it is this format, rather than the content, which is the source of the subjective sense that the Enquirer is a fragmenting rather than a communal force.”
But the ads, and perhaps especially the articles, recycle many of the basic themes found in folklore. “Collections such as Flanders and Brown’s Folk-Songs from Vermont,” notes Greenhill, “deal with many of the subjects equally beloved of the Enquirer: illicit love, the bizarre, violence, death, satire, and religion.”
Furthermore, many of the stories in the tabloid’s pages lend themselves to exactly the kind of structuralist analysis that Claude Levi-Strauss performed on myths gathered by anthropologists. In short, they are efforts to resolve binary oppositions such as that between nature and culture, male and female, life and death.
Consider, if you will, “Miracle Baby: Love Overcomes Incredible Odds for Paralyzed Wife and Her Gentle Giant” -- recounting how a very tall bodybuilder and his very small, paralyzed wife created their happy family. Their small child is, as Greenhill puts it, “obviously the symbolic synthesis of the two.... By creating a balance between these opposites, a state of normalcy will result.”
The classical balance typical of the Enquirer may explain my own preference for the rather more surreal landscape of the Weekly World News, in which normality is constantly menaced by (for example) self-replacing androids who “breed like flies.” And it was WWN that revealed that undergraduates aren’t the only ones spending all semester on drinking binges. So do 8 out of 10 of their professors!
And now our Commander in Chief is staggering down the same path. Or so we are told by the Levi-Straussian structuralists at the Enquirer. I think Greenhill’s paper helps clarify some things about the response to this news (if that’s what it is) -- and, in fact, elucidates some things happening between the lines of the story itself.
Her analysis emphasizes that a folkloric work (song, legend, tabloid) serves to help hold a community together. And it can play that role whether or not everyone in the community quite believes it to be literally true. That point has been made more recently, with great force, by the Pennsylvania State University-Hazleton folklorist Bill Ellis, whose papers in the book Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) deserves to be better known.
To sum up the point as Ellis makes it: The important thing to understand about any form of contemporary folklore (for example, the urban legends constantly making the rounds of e-mail and conversation) is that the debate over its truth or falsity is part of how it circulates. Such folklore helps define the limits of what a community believes. Or rather, what it hopes or fears might be believable.
That certainly applies to the online conversation over “Bush’s Booze Crisis” – in which some very fine hairs have been split over the epistemological question of whether something might be true even if it’s in the Enquirer.
That story can be read as a criticism of the President, in keeping with a populist distrust of power that Greenhill finds operating throughout the tabloid. But it is also, at the same, time, a negation of the image of him that has emerged in recent months as someone utterly out of touch with the news about Iraq and Katrina. It shows him, rather, as wounded to the core. What might look like ignorance and indifference are actually the signs that awesome responsibility has left him in unimaginable pain. He is human, all too human.
Does this have any political consequence at all, in the real world? I don’t know. But it does tend to confirm the basic insightfulness of Greenhill’s paper – tucked away in a scholarly publication now forgotten, probably, by everyone except the contributors. And maybe even by them. The final line of her essay sums it up nicely: “The attractiveness of the Enquirer could be that its readers can pick and choose both their tales and their morals from a certain range of possibilities, and know that others are doing the same thing.”
UPDATE: The mystery regarding the fate of the author of the 1982 paper has now been cleared up -- for it turns out that her name was actually Pauline (not Stephanie) Greenhill. I regret the error, without being quite responsible for it. As luck would have it, a glitch from 23 years ago has come back to haunt us.
In an e-mail note, Ms. Greenhill explains that she was indeed the folklore grad student at the University of Texas at Austin "who wrote the article on the National Enquirer, published in the student conference proceedings so many years ago." But she wasn't actually there to present her paper. "My friend STEPHANIE Kane gave it on my behalf, and somehow the editors mixed up our two names.... The conference organisers did put in an errata sheet correcting the mistake, but we all know what happens to those sorts of things."
Today "the not very mysterious" Pauline Greenhill, as she signs herself, is a professor of women's studies at the University of Winnipeg. A list of her scholarly publications since 1993 is available at this Web page.
The café, located one block west of the University of Texas at Austin, was called Les Amis. Which, when pronounced with a certain drawl, or after a few Shiner Bocks, sounded like “Lazy Me.” It was just around the corner from the house where, as legend has it, Janis Joplin had lived during her student days. It would be nice to imagine that she might have visited Les Amis, but that is a stretch: It only opened its doors in 1970, about the time she died. In principle, though, yes, it was her kind of place. The café was the definitive landmark of the area known as West Campus.
Like any real neighborhood, West Campus was not just a place but a state of mind. It was a pole of attraction for people who endured living in Texas only by going into a kind of internal emigration. And Les Amis was a vital part of the cultural infrastructure. For one thing, the food was cheap. Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra). And because the entire wait staff seemed to be on perpetual cigarette break, it never felt like you were being rushed out the door. You could read a book without being hassled. Or write one, for that matter.
It was not, strictly speaking, a part of UT. But in no sense did it exist apart from the university. Les Amis was, so to speak, a non-academic outcropping of what Pierre Bourdieu called skhole -- that is, the open-ended space-time of scholastic life, in which questions can be raised and explored in a free discussion that evades any outside demands.
It's not that Les Amis was a unique outpost of this. On the contrary, any decent campus must have such pockets of creative impracticality -- places where people mingle, where loitering is permitted, even encouraged. They are the laboratories where conversation becomes a kind of experiment, and where you can opt out of normality for a while. (Maybe forever.)
Many a dissertation got drafted at Les Amis, or at least studiously procrastinated over. In the corner sat Rock Savage (at any given time, the drummer for five different bands) having breakfast at two in the afternoon, inscrutable behind his shades. At a table facing the sidewalk -- a few feet from the skinheads with skateboards -- you might find a Habermasian and a Derridean making an elaborate show of tolerating one another’s pathetically inadequate arguments. Meanwhile, inside, the ambience was forever that of an unwashed ashtray. In the booth near the door was a young couple that had recently broken up, doing a post-postmortem on their relationship, in lieu of burying it and moving on.
Such a life has its own tempo, its own logic. It can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. You might leave it with a sense of relief -- only to find, years later, that a moment of nostalgia will blindside you.
I left Austin in 1988. Ten years later, meeting a fellow Les Amis alum at a party in Washington, D.C., I learned that the café had gone out of business in 1997. It was a shock to hear this: In some vague way, I always expected to return one day for a visit. There had been something sustaining about the fantasy of once again ordering the rice and beans with cheese, and the pot of coffee they brought to your table -- then spending the afternoon trying to get the bill from the waiter.
Now that was impossible. I felt grief, but also disgust and anger. There was no imaginary escape route from a life of ambition, responsibility, and deadlines.
And things got worse. The spot where Les Amis had once stood, my friend reported, was now occupied by a Starbucks. Fate was really laying it on thick.
But thanks to the efforts of Nancy Higgins, a young filmmaker in Austin, some of the memories have been preserved in a documentary, "Viva Les Amis." For now, the film doesn’t have a distributor, though it is available for purchase on DVD through a Web site. Higgins also indicates, in an e-mail note, that she is selling it “out of the trunk of my car.”
I can well believe she means that literally: "Viva Les Amis" has the feel of a labor of love – something made without much thought for whether it could be marketed. Higgins spent four years and something close to $40,000 making it. “No one ever got paid for their time,” she says, “including me and the people who helped me shoot it.”
Breaking even on the project would be nice, but it may take a while. “I have debt from the movie,” Higgins told me. “But I’ll pay it off someday.”
For now, though, she has earned the glory that goes with retrieving something valuable from the wreckage of progress, so called. Drawing on interviews with staff and customers, video footage shot during the 1980s, and a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by Alan Pogue across the café’s three decades, Higgins evokes the feeling of community that, for many people around the university, made Les Amis a home away from home.
Almost literally so, in some cases. One of its denizens indicates that his record for hanging out there was 12 hours. Another interview subject recalls sleeping on the floor after it had closed for the night. The inner mysteries of Les Amis are revealed to outsiders. There was, for example, a walled-in area behind the café where the staff enjoyed beer, various smokable substances, and the occasional moment of fornication. (That would certainly tend to explain some things about the service.)
Higgins clearly has a feel for the place, so I asked her how she came to make the film. As a philosophy major at UT, she says, she spent a lot of time at the café, whether studying or otherwise. After graduating in 1994, she faced the perennial question of what you do with a liberal arts degree. You can probably see where this is going: For the next three years, she waited tables at Les Amis.
“My parents were so pleased,” she recalls (sarcasm mode on). “I took history and theory film classes at U.T., and read and did yoga and lived the relaxed Austin life. I stopped thinking about the future and just lived for awhile.”
She then headed to Emory University to do graduate work on avant garde and documentary film -- returning to Austin in 1999 with a master’s degree. After two years of watching other people’s films, she wanted to make one of her own.
“So,” she says, "I began working on a documentary about Les Amis -- a place that I missed terribly upon returning to Austin. Sometimes it's just the perfect night to go there, and you can't. That makes me really sad. I just wanted to preserve some of Les Amis before it disappeared from everyone's collective memory. I knew I wasn't the only one who grieved the loss.”
While various still photographs and home videos helped document the history of the café, nothing really captures the mood of the place like Richard Linklater’s " Slacker," which was a breakthrough independent film when it was released in 1991. That film had the misfortune to get swept up in the whole “Generation X” phenomenon, which had the effect of making the quiet and idiosyncratic enclave of West Campus seem like some kind of prefabricated lifestyle.
A few of the most memorable scenes in "Slacker" were shot at Les Amis -- and Linklater gave Higgins permission to use those clips in her documentary. “He knows how hard it is to secure rights,” she says. “At the time I asked him, he owned the rights to "Slacker," so we signed the paperwork and he let me use the scenes.” Linklater also included an extensive promotional spot for "Viva Les Amis" when the DVD edition of "Slacker" was released.
Higgins has done more than put together a video scrapbook. "Viva Les Amis" is also an essay on development -- on how the texture of life changes when a small business disappears, replaced by a corporate chain.
She interviews employees who work at the Starbucks that now occupies the block. They’ve heard rumors that another coffee shop once existed in the area, but don’t know anything about it. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course -- no surprise there. But it is certainly striking to listen to the young baristas as they describe what it is like to work there: the exacting dress code, the precisely formulated rules for interacting with customers, the system of corporate spying that makes sure each drink is served at the same temperature.
You can’t imagine a poetry reading taking place in such an environment. No doubt it is more efficient and profitable than Les Amis ever was. But the drive to uniformity and perfect top-down control seems joyless, no matter how much Bob Marley they play over the loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a scene from "Slacker" in which a local eminence named Doug the Slug stared into a video camera, announcing: “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”
I haven’t been back to Austin, and wondered about the changes reflected in "Viva Les Amis." It seemed like a good time to reconnect with Michael King, who was an assistant professor of English at UT when I met him in the early 1980s. Today King is the news editor for The Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly.
He remembers long lunches and late nights at the café, “drinking and talking with students and friends or other faculty, talking in the way that only a college community can do. I miss it.” But the city has grown, and the university helped drive the transformation.
“Austin and UT were simply much smaller then,” he says. “Although 30,000 students were plenty, they did not overwhelm the UT area in the way that 50,000 do.... It meant that sidewalk life around the university was a little sleepier, a little friendlier.... West Campus in particular has just been overwhelmed by numbers. The high-rise private dorms pour out students, night and day, and the street crowds can seem like Manhattan, without any of the amenities.”
He points out that there are new venues with something of the old Les Amis feel, such as Ruta Maya or Café Mundi -- the latter, for example, being the scene of a recent literary reading/oil-wrestling contest. But such places have, he says, “been physically pushed away from the campus, which, close in, is very much a crowded, rushed, gritty place.” In "Viva Les Amis," Nancy Higgins interviews the proprietor of Café Mundi, who says she worries that Starbucks will decide to open a shop down the street.
So far, the documentary has not been screened at film festivals -- and Higgins says she can’t afford to apply to any more, because doing so is expensive. It seems like a film that will find its audience, over time. “I like the idea of taking it on a tour of campuses,” she told me, “mainly to college towns like Austin that may be experiencing similar growing pains. But I haven't had a chance to try that yet.”