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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.


What Is Most Valued on a College Campus? Look Around.

Clemson installs a new object of worship.

May 14, 2019

There is an exercise I used when teaching an advanced composition course during my time at Clemson University that was designed to get students thinking like ethnographers. 

I wanted them to learn to think like ethnographers because the course revolved around a semester-long project to produce a magazine feature length (6000+ words) article focused on a specific culture that incorporated primary (observations, interviews, etc…) and secondary research into one compelling stew of narrative nonfiction writing. 

Our models were New Yorkerarticles of the Susan Orlean/John McPhee school, immersive looks at interesting subjects that reveal previously unknown or unappreciated things. Students produced many memorable pieces, including one I recall especially well about the “stoner” subculture of a particular freshman dorm, in which students retrofitted a closet in one of the rooms into a hermetically sealed air purifying space in which pot could be smoked without emitting any telltale olfactory evidence, including on their clothes.[1]

Ethnographers are meant to tell the stories from the points of view of those inside the culture, and to practice the skills of observation as an outsider who will have to work their way in, I asked them to walk the campus looking at it through the eyes of an alien come to Earth. I wanted students to try to see things they took for granted through a different lens. I provided prompting questions like based on what can be observed: What is important or valued in this culture? What do they spend their days doing? How do they live? What do they do for leisure? What do they eat? And so on, and so on.

One of the general things students immediately noted about the campus is how many spaces are designed to be communal, particularly compared to the places most of them come from. This felt immediately meaningful to them and perhaps helped them better appreciate the full project of the university.

They also returned with a clear hierarchy when it came to departmental spaces and classrooms. English, I’m afraid, did not score well. 

One of the questions I would ask my students is, based on what they would be able to glean from examining the Clemson campus, what the aliens would believe we worshipped?

The unanimous answer was “football.” This was long before the construction of the $55 million football facility, and the two recent national championships, so my guess is this impression would only be deepened if I still worked there and gave this assignment. 

A new work of football-related iconography was recently revealed outside that $55 million football facility, a bronze statuary installation meant to represent the Clemson Football “Culture of Care.”

(I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright, so rather than clipping an image from the net, click through here to see a picture.)

The installation features two Clemson players and two children, one little girl and one little boy. The boy is modeled after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s son, Clay. One player kneels near the girl, apparently signing an autograph. The other is handing a football to the boy, presumably symbolic of passing on the legacy of Clemson football to the next generation.

Remarking on the installation, Coach Swinney said, “The philosophy of our program is so much about love, serve and care. We try to stress to our players to become men and to love, serve and care in their families and in their communities. And just being mindful that we’re always an example and to understand the platform that we have and what that represents.”

The installation was paid for in its entirety by a single alumni donor. Alumni are very generous to the Clemson athletics department (football). Their IPTAY booster club recorded $64.9 million in donations for the 2018 fiscal year. This amount equals more than half of the entire state appropriation to the university at large in 2017-18. 

Coach Swinney recently signed the richest contact in college football history, $93 million for 10 years. Coach Swinney, he of the ethic of Clemson Football “culture of care” is also strongly against compensating players, remarking when Northwestern’s football players tried to form a union, “We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities, take advantage of the platform and the brand and the marketing you have available to you. But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that's where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there's enough entitlement in this world as it is.”

There is no doubt that some non-trivial number of players in the Clemson football family will suffer from football-related brain trauma, their sacrifices having paved the way for that $55 million facility, that $93 million contract, which will almost certainly not be Dabo’s last.[2]

Top division college football teams like Clemson are allowed 85 scholarships per year. Taking half of Coach Swinney’s salary ($4.65 million) and disbursing it to the players would provide approximately $53k per player. Not a fortune, by any stretch, but as the laborers which play a significant role in generating almost $65 million a year in donations to IPTAY, it doesn’t seem unfair. Meanwhile, Coach Swinney at half salary still makes the equivalent of the wage for 150 or so full-time non-tenure-track English instructors.

There is no impropriety or wrongdoing in any of these things. These are choices that people are properly allowed to make.

But I would also argue that when we say we can’t afford something like, to use an example close to my heart - reducing the teaching load of NTT writing faculty to disciplinary maximums – this is not strictly true. 

There is more than enough money out there to be invested in the operation of higher education institutions to improve those things we claim to be important. We simply choose to put that money towards other things that are apparently more important, for example an installment of bronze statuary paying tribute to football.


[1]I didn’t quite understand the full science of it, but it was something about ionizing something or other. I’m not sure how well these students did in their courses, but they seem to have a pretty good grasp of science.

[2]Dabo has not yet turned 50. Nick Saban of Alabama has a current contract that takes him into his mid-70’s. Swinney could easily earn an additional $150 million in salary beyond the current contract.


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