INSIDE Chico State
0 April 6, 2000
Volume 30 Number 16
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Provost's Corner

Death Rockers, Geeks, and Drama Freaks:
The Culture of a Modern University

In a study of four California high schools, W. Wooden (1995) found that the students identified twenty-five different subcultural groups according to their ethnic backgrounds, their musical preferences, their interest in computers, cars, theatre, and so forth. Among them were the Death Rockers, Punks, Jocks, Drama Freaks, Preppies, Cholos, Nerds, and Geeks. This tendency to organize oneself into groups that differ from the dominant culture -- based on a groupšs shared values, beliefs, symbols, technology, and material goods -- is visible in virtually ever modern society and large organization.

The term subculture was originally employed to describe American ethnic groups, such as the Old Order Amish or urban Orthodox Jews, who were territorially isolated and maintained distinctive ways of life. The term is used now to refer to groups of people who interact intensively with one another, who distinguish themselves from others based on some social characteristic (e.g., gender, social class, occupation, religion), and who feel that adjusting to the larger culture is problematic for them. Subcultures can be as wide ranging as a group of convicts, members of a street gang, or members of a work group, like software engineers at Intel.

For students of American immigration, it was long assumed that there was a natural and inevitable progression of assimilation to American society. This idea, best known as the melting pot theory, assumed that eventually the new groups would take on the language, attitudes, and customs of the dominant society. For many ethnic groups this was true; for others, because of racism and discrimination, it was not. Since the 1980s, it has become clear that many groups have not and do not necessarily wish to achieve full assimilation. Instead, because they wish to maintain their own cultures, they accommodate. Accommodation was seen as one of the original steps in the process of assimilation; it represented a period of reduced conflict and tolerance. Now, accommodation -- among ethnic groups and subcultures -- seems to be a dominant type.

Universities function like a society with a dominant culture, but they are also made up of separate subcultures who temporarily accommodate, and other groups who seek to maintain the distinct subcultures they have evolved. Different subcultures may hold different views of what a university is, and what peoplešs roles and responsibilities are. Each year we are faced with a new wave of "immigrants" -- students, faculty, and staff. We need to give some thought to the processes by which we acculturate people, and how accommodation may be an appropriate response to a new social context.

What do we know about the students we seek to socialize? We know that many report they come to college in order to get a good job when they graduate; some also report they want to learn more about themselves. We know from studies of adolescents in America that before they get here they have been spending equal time (seven hours each) sleeping and watching TV. We know that California high-school students average less than one hour a day studying (Rumbaut, 1999). We know they belong to subcultures that are focused on non-academic issues. So is it surprising that, even though our students graduated from high school in the upper one-third of their class, a number come to us each year with expectations that differ considerably from those of their professors? We have developed many programs (Freshman Orientation, Getting Connected) and courses (UNIV 001) which are designed to help students adjust to a new set of cultural expectations. We will develop more. Next fall, our incoming freshman students will all read the same text, Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman (1991 New York: Random House), to help introduce them to the life of the mind and to build learning communities. It must be noted that both faculty and staff play a key role in helping to socialize new students, but most students are introduced to the university and learn the life of the university from other students.

How are the faculty socialized? A new faculty member comes to town and asks colleagues: Where do you shop? How can I get ready for my classes? What do I need to know about these students? How can I get tenure? What does it mean when the president and the provost say this is a student-centered university? The people to whom she turns for answers are usually members of her department; they socialize her to the university; they become her friends and members of her trust network; they are the people to whom she turns when confronted with uncertainty. Let me pose two questions. When we work to acculturate new colleagues, to which culture are we introducing them? Do we provide opportunities for integration into the larger university or into a subculture?

What about the staff? Staff, too, form strong trust networks; they, too, are interested in what is necessary for success; and they, too, work to recruit, retain, and socialize our students. There is a culture of service that predominates in some units; there is a deep commitment to retaining minority students in others. My question: How do we socialize the new staff who join us? Do we emphasize the values and culture of the larger university or the work unit?

Let me end with an assertion: The culture of departments differs significantly across campus, sometimes even within the same college. Some departments operate as ensembles; others as a confederation of individuals. The cultures of colleges is different. Some colleges are heavily focused on the need to generate grants and contracts; others are focused more deeply on service to the larger community. Some professional units protect our health and safety, while others assure the campus maintains its beauty.

Here, then, is what I would like us to do about the fact that people -- students, staff, and faculty -- understand their jobs and responsibilities differently. I propose that we form two or three reading groups in fall 2000 composed of diverse faculty, staff, and students to explore such questions as: What is the culture of our university? How do we socialize students, faculty, and staff to the culture of this institution? I would ask the reading groups to report back to all of us about their observations and about their ideas for acculturating new faculty and staff to the university, welcoming students to the culture of the university, and respecting cultural differences. I will send out a call late in the spring and hope you will join with me and your colleagues in what I think will be an intriguing and important discussion. I will seek your suggestions for what we should read. -- Scott G. McNall, Provost


Wooden, W. (1995). Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Rumbaut, R. (1999). "Assimilation and Its Discontents: Ironies and Paradoxes," The Handbook of International Migration: the American Experience. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.

 

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