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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Academic Hazing?

Similarities between earning a PhD and enduring a fraternity "hell week."

August 6, 2017

I was brought short by a tweet from Tressie McMillan Cottom about the “trauma” of completing the Ph.D.





The replies in the thread demonstrate how common it is to experience the PhD as literally “traumatic.” Prof. Cottom herself, as successful an early career academic imaginable, says she still has years to go until she is fully recovered.

I don’t have a PhD, and while my MFA thesis was book length, in terms of intensity and dedication, it pales in comparison to a dissertation. However, reading the responses to Prof. Cottom’s tweet reminded me something I did do: Survive a fraternity “hell week.”

By contemporary standards, what I experienced was relatively tame. I was never told to do anything illegal or even unsafe beyond being subjected to a fair amount of sleep deprivation. We were not given a drop of alcohol.

“Initiation week” was an extension and intensification of the pledgeship period of the semester prior. As pledges, we had to set up before and clean up after parties, organize the philanthropy, and in general be of use to do things that needed doing. It wasn’t particularly fun, but it at least had the veneer of sweat equity for joining the organization. For a semester, hungover on a Sunday morning you mop beer off the floor, so for three more years you never have to do that again. And of course, even as pledges we were welcome at all fraternity events. In some ways we were more than welcome, as you wanted to be careful not to alienate anyone lest they drop out and make your yield unacceptable.[1]

But “initiation week” was different. For those six days we were subject to demands capricious and arbitrary. We performed a kind of servitude, cleaning and repairing our aged (since demolished and replaced) fraternity house, responding to the orders and whims of the “actives” with “sir, yes, sir” and executing those commands with all due haste. Yes, the kitchen floor needed a good scrubbing, but we also had to do it while singing “Like a Virgin,” and if we forgot the lyrics, we had to do pushups. If we were slow, were yelled at, and given more pushups. If an active demanded you do something, you did it.[2]

One of the tropes of “I-Week” was that in theory, it could go on forever, you could only initiate once you’d passed all important criteria, criteria which you were not privy to because in reality it didn’t exist. In reality, I-Week had to end on time to have the big back to school party, no matter what. As the week wore on, the necessary work dwindled and was replaced by tasks for the sake of tasks, like moving sand from one spot to another. You were going to be hazed for six days, even if they ran out of things to haze you for.

(Is this reminding anyone of their dissertation?)

You are dirty, unshowered, physically exhausted, and sleep deprived, but you are also constantly reminded how close it is to being over, provided you just keep doing exactly what you are commanded to do. Each moment of relative misery makes you more committed to following through because to put up with all this crap and then get nothing out of it is simply unacceptable.

This is the kind of situation that allows for individuals’ inner assholes to come out. Twenty to twenty-two year old males on a power trip can do stupid things.

I remember a moment, no more than 40 minutes before the end of initiation week when I was flailing away with an axe at a small stump in the front yard, trying to cleave it into sawdust. An active stood over me, lamenting my slowness, calling me names, declaring that if I couldn’t move faster, I would never become a “brother.”

He rested his foot one stump over from the one I was working on. Visions of swinging the axe high and bringing it down on his foot swam through my head. I hated him with every fiber of my being.

In less than two hours, he and I would be brothers in the bonds.

In the same tweet thread Prof. Cottom said, “Generally, I think it’s bizarre how we celebrate finishing a thesis or dissertation, forcing frivolity on someone who probably feels like crying. I tell them it’s the final traumatic act of education [and they] make you smile at the end.”

I did not feel relief when Hell week ended. I certainly didn’t feel joy or excitement. I was too exhausted to feel much in the immediate aftermath as we were officially initiated and then fêted, our tormenters once again our friends.

Despite now being an “active” and moving into the house, I remember feeling profoundly alienated from this thing I thought I’d wanted. If I hadn’t committed to living in the house for year, and it wasn’t my only option for a roof over my head, I easily could’ve drifted away.

With time, that faded, and I ended up living in the house the rest of my time in college and working with a number of like-minded members to try to bring the way we treated our pledges more in line with what we claimed pledgeship was supposed to achieve.

It should be challenging to achieve big things like a PhD. But it is disturbing to see so much testimony that makes the process seem no different from fraternity hazing.

The idea that school should be a kind of gauntlet that only the “strong”[3] survive seems pervasive. We see it in undergraduate education as well where the psychological damage being done to students by this gauntlet becomes more apparent every year:

The incidences of depression and anxiety increasing significantly. 

Demand for campus mental health services “soaring.” 

Either we are plagued with a lot of “weak” people or there is something systematically messed up when it comes to certain aspects of our educational experiences.

I know which I believe.

How do we make education the most challenging and important thing someone can do without destroying their spirit in the process?





[1] At the University of Illinois at the time, fraternities worked a lot like admissions offices at universities. There was an oversupply of fraternities, and because we all had these large physical houses that needed sufficient numbers to be financially sustainable, pledgeship always involved a certain amount of wooing mixed with the additional duties. A small pledge class was an existential threat.

[2] I’m thankful that the culture of my fraternity did not include demanding illegal or dangerous acts because while I like to think I would’ve resisted such a command, I’m not sure I would have or could have.

[3] Of course, the “strong” often end up being those with the resources and privileges that protect them from the worst of the experiences. Some of the “strongest” don’t survive because they’ve been given a significantly more difficult path.


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