If someone were to tell you about “Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men” the newest book by investigative journalist Alexandra Robbins, they may explain it the way a friend described it to me: “It’s from the author of ‘Pledged’ but this one is apparently pro-fraternity.”
Whatever media has been generated around the book has often taken the same approach of comparing “Fraternity” to “Pledged,” a 2004 publication in which Robbins provides a fly-on-the-wall observation of the sorority membership process, exposing that sororities don’t necessarily do everything right (something anyone aware of double-secret probation knows).
But to compare “Fraternity” to another of Robbins’ works takes away from what it is, and to describe it as a “pro-fraternity” book probably enables we who care and work for the fraternity experience to avoid taking seriously the critiques buried within Robbin’s first/third-person non/fiction novel.
That is not to say that the book or Robbins herself are anything but “pro-fraternity,” but as the author writes in op-eds for CNN and The Atlantic, the endorsement is more about what the fraternity experience could offer than its current state of affairs.
I had an unexpected but welcomed opportunity to chat with Alexandra about “Fraternity,” and wanted to learn more about her thought process, as she more than anyone can explain what she hoped to convey to a public audience when writing the book.
Quotes are provided based on notes and a recording, and have been edited for clarity. I tried to avoid a typical Q&A format, feel free to share your constructive thoughts via message here, on Twitter or Facebook :).
“The intimacy and tenderness of the relationships between fraternity brothers was something I did not expect to be as present as it was. Many of these guys stay in touch for year and years – or decades, even – and meet up throughout the year or attend one another’s weddings (among other milestone events).
“One student put it as his family away from home, and we know that brotherhood is a part of fraternities, but to see how long those bonds lasted was something that stuck out to me”Alexandra Robbins
In “Fraternity,” Robbins provides a brief explanation of the establishment, growth, and longevity behind the fraternity system. She shares early in the book how fraternities were established as a means to rebel against university administrations, as a way to establish a local support system among college students, and to pursue whatever members at the time considered to be elite – their adoption of Greek letters (something students of higher education were taught), the establishment of supportive alumni structures and the subsequent search for wealth in members to fund such structures.
In another of her’ books, “The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth,” (she emphasized that she did not choose the title), Robbins introduces quirk theory – the idea that those offbeat qualities which may result in some being bullied early on in life may later be the drivers of their being embraced and supported by the world once they’ve moved past the social constructs of high school and college.
How can fraternity chapters take quirk theory into account when planning for their own success?
“In one of the stories, and I don’t want to give too much away, you can see how a chapter can go in the wrong direction by trying to play into whatever they perceive to be the ideal fraternity experience, so being a place where people can be themselves is important.
“Different chapters also set different priorities. So to be a place where men can express themselves and be accepted and where a healthier approach to masculinity can be established were some of the qualities of the better fraternity experiences I observed.”A. Robbins
One of the fraternity chapters described in Robbins’ book is led by a sophomore chapter president named Oliver. Their motto is, adorably, “Keep [fictional fraternity name] weird,” which means to find a variety of men to ensure that they never grow stale – certainly embraces the concept of quirk theory and their chapter is better for it.
FM Thought: Oliver’s chapter is not perfect – nor is it presented as such in the book – and it’s important to note that Oliver’s primary goal was to win the top award on campus. When we drill down into what Robbins says about how students classify “masculine,” “good,” or “top tier,” take a moment to consider the universal expectations we set as fraternity|sorority leaders and professionals. Are they limiting the possibilities of how others can perceive the fraternity experience?
FM: What – if any – differences have you noticed in how fraternity professionals or members have responded to “Fraternity” when compared to “Pledged”
“Oh it’s a night and day difference. (laughs) I think many people created perceptions or opinions about me as a person or the type of work I do when I wrote “Pledged,” but it was never about attacking sororities. I try to tell untold, real life stories of students, and what’s interesting is that there are women who emailed me years after that book came out, after they had graduated from college, to express how reading the book changed their perspective and that they understood what I was trying to do at the time. Many of those women emailed me when the book first came out while they were in college to rebut what I had said, but having time to reflect on it affected their opinion.
“Fraternity has been well received and supported once people learned that it has a friendlier approach to fraternity organizations, but my mission has always been to share the experiences and the perspectives of students and particularly those who are not at the top of the public consciousness.”
I found Robbins’ style of writing particularly interesting. She operates as a narrator with an inside, personal connection to the characters of her story – it’s as if Harry Potter were written with occasional asides by J.K. Rowling to provide context and quotes from separate interviews with the characters.
The stories of two fraternity men – Oliver and Jake – and their chapters make up the meat of the book, and shorter stories of other fraternity members – a transfer student who experienced membership in two very different chapters of the same fraternity, for example – are spliced in to keep it entertaining. Robbins also provides personal observations and opinions throughout the book, and particularly at the end, where she offers advice to students and parents directly.
In fact, and in my opinion, Robbins offers the most compelling, pro-student approach to the future of fraternities being presented through mainstream media at this point in time. More than any representative of any fraternity, any umbrella association, or any association president, Robbins is our most articulate, informed and capable advocate in 2019 (as is demonstrated by the two aforementioned op-ed articles).
“Some of the chapters I learned about have a very strong alumni presence and support system who would step in at any sign of trouble and who basically helped run the organization. That seems to be critical, because it helps students feel connected and supported.
“There needs to be an intermediary between a chapter and its national organization. Alumni chapters or boards can fill that role. They help students feel as if they are supported”A. Robbins
One story which stuck out to me was that of Ben, whose chapter expelled a member who put new members at risk with his taste for hazing and authority. In the book, Ben is quoted as saying that calling their alumni for help could easily solve the problem, but that may result in their national organization learning about the situation and “taking it too far” by holding a membership review – something he saw another chapter go through.
We know that national fraternities and campus administrations are not “bad,” and that they are often doing what they believe is right or in the best interest of their liability, but think about it: how many fraternities actually lay out what triggers a membership review to provide clarity and eliminate the unknown from students’ minds?
How many chapters face the dilemma of inexperienced leaders handling serious issues because asking for help is too great a risk to their chapter’s future? Ben ultimately did the right thing, and acknowledges that he is responsible for the well-being of roughly 70 men, but perhaps he could provide even better care for those 70 men if he was more confident in the help he would be offered had he asked for it.
So, what does Robbins want you to get out of reading her book? If a chapter were to create a study group around “Fraternity,” what should those who organize such a group emphasize?
“How to be more like Oliver’s chapter and less like Jake’s chapter. Honestly, just read the book (laughs). I think it would be good for a chapter to discuss how to represent masculinity in the modern world, how they could establish a worthy alternative to pledging – which many still believe should be a difficult experience, and how they can better connect with parents.
“I think they could discuss what their perceptions are of what a good fraternity is, or their ideas about masculinity and manhood, and talk about the difference between how students act compared to what they believe to be typical behavior.”A. Robbins
In an interview with Esquire, Robbins is asked how fraternities can rehab their image. She suggests that they can turn the narrative around, even if it takes a while, by focusing on presenting students with a place to develop their communication skills and a safe space among other guys – “I think that can be valuable on campus and to members,” she says.
With that in mind, I finished our time together asking for two to three ideas for fraternities to live up that suggested re-branding effort. If we were to become organizations looked at to develop interpersonal skills and to provide a safe space for men among men, how could our actions live up to our talking points? Here are her suggestions:
1. “Replace hazing with another difficult challenge”
“Hazing has outmaneuvered outright prohibition, and many people – whether it is right or wrong – feel as if they need to “earn something to be considered a true member. Now, I (Alexandra) met many men from chapters who did not want to make their pledging process difficult, and who wanted to spend that time getting to know one another and they seemed to have as strong a brotherhood as any other chapter, but if a fraternity could create an alternative to hazing – something community service driven which is a challenge to accomplish – it could fill that need.”
2. “Teach guys healthy ways to be masculine”
“It could incorporate that alternative model to hazing, but may also include just promoting more openness among members, connecting with parents, or creating a sort of ‘Healthy Masculinity’ membership program.
“So many fraternity members come to college with this understanding of masculinity established by ‘Animal House.’ In surveys, most students say they think that others at college drink and have sex more than others actually do, and if they were more aware of the fact that they are not different, they may not create those environments which pull chapters down a wrong path.”
3. “Emphasize Diversity”
“Fraternities, and specifically historically white fraternities, need to find a way to encourage greater diversity in their membership, whether that’s through greater access or publicity or celebrating those chapters which demonstrate diversity, because diversity helps break down the stereotypes and impressions students hold of others and help fraternity chapters connect with more students on campus. That may also include greater collaborations with other organizations.”
(She notes that the members of multicultural organizations she met seemed to have better, or even strong, relationships with those chapters which embraced diversity, and I certainly find it hard to avoid noticing the resentment between historically white fraternities, historically black fraternities, and cultural organizations at student or professional leadership conferences).
Reading “Fraternity,” by Alexandra Robbins
Beyond my initial appreciation for her op-eds and her interesting way of presenting her case, much of what Robbins shared in her book and through our brief conversation were things which, were it not for her, may otherwise be unthinkable to consider among current fraternity leadership – which is often far removed from the student or local volunteer experience.
The idea of “replacing” hazing in a “zero-tolerance” world, for example, would require that we accept the potential value of a challenging membership experience (whether that be for all members or just the new ones) and create something which may suffer from occasional abuse – but it is far more in line with reality than an edict handed down from the NIC or a university administration – something the students she interviewed mention hold little weight in their decision-making processes.
I hope that those of you who read “Fraternity” don’t limit your understanding of her work just to “something more pro-fraternity than ‘Pledged,'” and that you consider and discuss with friends the creative ideas shared by Robbins to improve the fraternity world.
OH WOW! A GIVEAWAY!
There is a Fraternity Man email newsletter. It is sent to subscribers every 4-6 weeks, includes a brief letter, insight into new developments, and links to my and other posts related to the fraternity experience.
If you subscribe to it by April 15th with an email address, you’ll be entered to win a copy of Robbins’ book, “Fraternity.” But, Get this! I’m also giving out a digital copy (no audio books, ever, sorry). Every email+address subscriber gets a Fraternity Man sticker. . . so there’s no way to lose.