Dear Panama-Hat-sporting summerers,
Most of what I knew about fraternities I learned from watching Animal House and Old School. Until, that is, I read The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities by Nicholas Syrett, assistant professor of history at University of Northern Colorado . Published in 2009 by UNC Press, Syrett’s lucid, ambitious, and dizzyingly well-researched book follows the birth and growth of the American fraternity from the 1800s to the present, with anecdotes and evidence from chapters across the country. Casual readers will certainly walk away with plenty of fascinating facts to wow their friends (first fraternity: Kappa Alpha Society at Union College, founded in 1825; first residential frat house: Zeta Psi house at UC Berkeley, built in 1876; first instance of beer funneling: okay, no evidence on this one just yet). But the book truly excels in tracking the shifts in “manly” and “masculine” behavior among fraternity brothers over two centuries, as standards around scholarship, intimacy, sexuality, and aggression continually changed.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects at the moment. One, that will probably result in an article considers a male couple together from the 20s to the 60s in Illinois and Hawaii, who lived as father and son though they were not biologically related. The elder actually adopted the younger in the 1960s. The second is what I’m hoping will be a book about the history of child marriage and the regulation of child sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States. I’m interested in how the institution of marriage has been used to legitimize that which we otherwise prohibit (child sexuality) and also the ways that children themselves manipulated the law because they recognized this.
What digital resources do you rely on?
Given that the web existed by the time I got to college, I am remarkably un-savvy about matters technological. I use JSTOR religiously for academic articles and am a recent convert to the American Historical Newspapers database.
What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Someone once told me that if writing wasn’t going well, and if you were the type of person who could generally recognize when it was (as most of us probably are), then just take a break. As a result I saw many movies at the Angelika, Sunshine, and Paris (my very favorite) theatres in the middle of a weekday afternoon. And was much better able to return to writing the next morning.
What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I was really fascinated by the way that men (mis)behaved in groups and the history behind this sort of behavior. Why was it that I found myself scared when I walked down the street and noticed that a group of young men approached from the other direction? Why was this fear actually a rational response, given what sociologists and anthropologists have told us about young men’s behavior in groups? From there I just picked a group of men (white college fraternities) and started researching their history.
What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
I concur with Tania Modleski’s earlier advice that you should pick something that you truly love. To that I would add that you should envision your dissertation as the book that it will most likely become. I have seen many people postpone a crucial area of research while writing their dissertations, thinking that they will leave it “for the book.” Once you get a job, finding the time—in the midst of the rest of one’s life as well as that job—to do all the extra research and transform a dissertation into a book is hard. If it’s in a state of looking and reading like a book already, your first few years of teaching are a lot easier and a lot less stressful.
What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
I’m going to pick two, but they’re both by the same person. Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963). In both of them Goffman is really smart in talking about everyday behavior and the ways that we, as humans, are cognizant of how we behave and what it says about us as people.
What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You has little to do with my own academic interests but it still haunts me, as does most of his fiction.
What primary source do you dream of finding?
Of course the answer depends on the project, but right now: the diary of a child bride, circa 1850.
What website most often draws your attention away from work?
I am much more likely to be distracted by things non-web related—cleaning, food, the telephone—but I tend to check email obsessively (sort of a website?) and I do love the ladies of GoFugYourself.
What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
I get really irritated by self-conscious affectation in writing. When people invent new words to describe things for which words already exist, it just seems such a transparent attempt to link one’s name to something in hopes of securing a reputation. Claiming the invention of a new and innovative methodology that looks suspiciously similar to what many of us are already doing is also rather precious.