A Rough Semester

Friday, December 19, 2014 | Jeff Olick

Jefferson Statue

The last weeks of the Fall semester are always busy and stressful ones.  But what a whopper these past ones have been.  The semester began with terrible distress about the disappearance of one of our students. The capture of a suspect and subsequent discovery of the victim’s body then fulfilled, even exceeded, our worst horror-film imaginations.  And then only a few weeks later, the Rolling Stone article about “Jackie” shocked us anew.  

When an athlete suffers a concussion, it is bad.  But the most significant risk of a concussion is the possibility of a second injury, the effect of which is multiplicative, not merely additive. Our community has suffered two severe blows in short order. Things were made initially worse by a feckless administrative response, followed by a somewhat better, but still problematic, second statement touting Thomas Jefferson as a guide for our reaction to sexual violence.  And this with no sense of irony! I don’t know about you, but I’m positively reeling.  

Since these events, however, our community has come together in a way not seen since the debacle over President Sullivan’s attempted removal three years ago. 

For me personally, the summer of Sullivan was a particularly proud moment in which I finally, perhaps for the first time in my life, felt part of an inspired and unified community of like-minded souls.  The silver lining of the past few weeks, following the Rolling Stone article, has been the way in which our community has come together again.  I’ve never seen the University more galvanized, and more ready for serious change.  So perhaps there is a multiplicative upside as well: just as the second concussion of Rolling Stone multiplied the first of Hannah Graham’s murder (which itself rekindled the horror of Morgan Harrington’s, even more so since the cases might be connected), perhaps our response to the Rolling Stone article has been multiplied by the memory of what we as a community were able to do three years ago in reaction to the BOV.  

And then came that Friday afternoon, when the Washington Post cast enough doubts not only on the journalistic procedures Rolling Stone employed, but on the facts of the case, compellingly enough that Rolling Stone backed away from key aspects of its devastating report, at first seeming to blame “Jackie” for their shoddy journalism. We were reeling already.  What now?  

To be sure, it matters what happened.  The facts of the case will matter legally, reputationally, and sociologically.  But even if key elements of the allegations turn out to be inaccurate (which of course does not mean nothing execrable happened to “Jackie”), President Sullivan’s statement on that Friday was, I believe, correct that we cannot be distracted from the opportunities for inquiry and transformation our galvanized attention have enabled: “Over the past two weeks,” she wrote, “our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.” I too hope we will all remain committed to President Sullivan’s earlier assertion that we will not return to business as usual in January.

What can we sociologists—faculty, staff, alumni, graduate and undergraduate students— contribute as we go forward in this highly complex and uncertain moment?  Recently, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/How-Sociologists-Made/150249/) called “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.”  While there are serious questions—and many different answers— about the connections between sociology and activism, it is clear to many members of the department that sociology has a great deal to offer the community as it works through the complex issues we have faced this Fall.  We are aware, for instance, that significant empirical and conceptual work on the issues of college rape, as well as on sexual violence generally, is available, and can guide discussion.  It has been gratifying, for instance, to see so many colleagues, not just in sociology but across grounds, turning to University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and colleagues’ work, especially Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.  Several members of the department brought an article from this book to their classes for discussion in the last weeks of the semester (indeed, it was already on the syllabus in one class).  As we move forward, many of us will draw on, present, and discuss such work in our classes.  Many of us also stand ready to help our colleagues in other departments and in the community find relevant research as well as to think through different aspects of the issues.

For my part, since I am mostly a conceptual thinker, as well as a cultural sociologist, I have been particularly struck by the frequently invoked notion of a “culture of rape.” I find much value in this phrase, particularly because it implies something that is at the core of the sociological imagination—namely the insight that disparate ideas and structures might in fact be connected.  For instance, it is highly plausible, in my view, that the prevalence of internet pornography has shaped both our sexual discourse and practices.  It is also highly plausible, in my view, that structures, processes, and practices not obviously related to sexuality—for instance welfare policy, workplace organization, or urban form—are part of a social totality that includes sexual violence.  Exploring such connections is the job of social theory.  Determining their reality and power, and specifying the mechanisms involved, is the job of sociological research. 

One concern I have about “culture of rape” arguments, however, is whether such claims might distract from an exploration of structural factors. For sociologists, the question of how culture relates to structure, and which might be more important in particular cases or in general, is never far in the background. The notion of a “culture of” something has a long and troubled history in sociology, most prominently in debates about whether there is a “culture of poverty.”  One challenge to culture of poverty positions was that they distract from structural (mainly economic) factors and blame poor people.  Of course, I am more comfortable blaming rapists than poor people. But do challenges about that other invocation of a culture apply here?  If so, how?  If not, why not?  

In another version, the “culture of rape” construct uses an older notion of culture that comes from agriculture, the cultivation of a crop, or from biology, in which we culture cells on agar plates—namely, referring to a nurturing environment or substratum that enables something.  It may indeed be that there is a wider substratum that encourages violence against women (though of course we need to be precise about what we mean by “encourages,” “enables,” “causes,” etc.).  Yet another concept of culture refers to the ways in which different ideas and practices are intertwined: most generally, is there a “patriarchy” or sets of patriarchal practices or beliefs that discourage outrage over sexual violence or even lower the bar to such violence? Not only for sociological theorists, but for public discourse, I believe, theoretical clarification is helpful.  There are times when lumping is more important than splitting (now might be one) and times when splitting might be more important than lumping.  Analyzing the criteria of distinction between such situations is important too.   

My main point here is that I think the events of the past months (though also of the past decades, centuries, millennia…) give us good reason to engage in these kinds of theoretical and empirical inquiries, and I hope sociology will be a part of them and that sociology will thus show itself, contra Patterson, not to be irrelevant.  I look forward to teaching about these issues and to learning from my students and colleagues, both within sociology and beyond, as the conversation develops, which, like President Sullivan and others, I hope very much the retreat from the Rolling Stone article will not discourage.

There is a further issue I want to address here at the end of this Semesterus Horribilis (to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth).  And this is our collective responsibility for our community.  To the students of the sociology department, and especially to those who have been affected by sexual violence directly or indirectly: Please know how much the department as a collectivity cares about your experiences and your well-being, and not just intellectually.  Though there are diverse opinions in the department about the issues involved and about appropriate courses of action, I believe I can speak for the unanimity of the department in our opposition to sexual violence and the seriousness with which we take it.  We are not counselors or psychologists, but as advisors we can certainly help you get help if you need it.  For my part, again, I am committed to not letting attention to these issues wane, whatever the complexities of Rolling Stone’s “Jackie,” and I know most of my colleagues share this view.  Many of us are vigorously engaged with the discussions on Grounds, and will continue to be.  We hope you will join us, and that the department will be an important locus for such discussion. 

I welcome feedback and suggestions, public or private, from the entire community for how we can help and what we can and should be doing as a department and community.  Different views are always welcome, as long as they are offered in a spirit of good will and civility.  But let’s seize the day and all take active responsibility for our collective future.