Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on October 27, 2008


typewriter10          So I toyed with the idea over the weekend of throwing the readership a curveball, and writing a post about the merits of the standard four-year college program versus the benefits of following the Van Wilder 7-year plan (“You can’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out alive.”), but, as expected, today’s lesson will instead be the definitive Dr. Wizard Guide to Greek Life.  (“Toga! Toga! Toga!”)  Curveballs aside, let me start with this: Greek Life on America’s college campuses can be as diverse as the various lives lived by the Spartans and the Athenians, and the results for individual participants going through Rush can be as bloody as the Iliad or as beautiful as Helen of Troy.  The secret is to know what you’re getting into, and what it is that you’re looking for, before you get started.  Write that down.

          Now, in this instance, I should be clear about my own personal bias.  I grew up in a family with two parents who strongly championed their own Greek experiences; I spent four years as an active member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the nation’s largest fraternity; and I still participate in fraternal alumni networking.  My memories of undergraduate life tend to highly romanticize the four years I spent wearing paraphernalia with Greek letters attached, and tend to include very little that is not associated with my own Greek indoctrination.  But, among the many jobs I have had as I’ve worked my way through academia, I’ve also spent two years as the Assistant Greek Advisor at Truman State University, and during that time I was at least partially responsible for removing one fraternity from campus for blatant disregard of anti-hazing rules.  Greek life at its best offers friendship, a lifelong network of people you can call on for favors, and massive philanthropic enterprises that spread community good-will.  Greek life at its worst fosters elitism, exclusivity, meat-headedness, date-rape, homophobia, and…for lack of a more accurate descriptor…bitchiness.  In this lesson I will attempt to give you an overview of the widely variant ways you might be able to use Greek life to your advantage, a survey of the different organizations that approximate Greek participation, and a template for finding a group of people with whom you would like to associate and whose friendship will not embarrass you in the future.

          Contrary to popular opinion, not every social fraternity is an Animal House, and not every sorority circles the fat on their new members with red magic marker in some archaic, belittling hazing ritual.  While nearly every social Greek organization sponsors parties where alcohol is served, most also sponsor responsible sober-driving programs – and, more importantly, the social function is only one aspect of the modern American Greek city-state.  In fact, the most important benefit to be derived from Greek affiliation is the ability of the fraternity and sorority to make the transition from home life to college life smoother by offering a sense of community, enforced study hall, academic mentoring, and an active faculty advocate to help address problems.  During my freshman year, not only did I learn valuable lessons in time management during pledge season, but when I came down with a terrible case of strep-throat, 500 miles from home, Dr. Roger Festa, our fraternity’s advisor, was able to contact my professors, arrange for other students to take notes for me in my classes, and deliver three cases of Gatorade to my dorm room.  Students without these resources are often left to fend for themselves.

          It is for this reason that, over the course of the last 15 years, Greek students have begun to outperform non-Greek students academically on many college campuses and have tended to matriculate in much higher percentages than their non-Greek counterparts.  Furthermore, the advantages to be gained from Greek affiliation do not stop at graduation.  In a country where most jobs are attained with the help of a friend on the inside, it’s beneficial to have hundreds of alumni looking out for their younger “brothers” and “sisters.”  For instance, for years there has been a direct pipeline from my fraternity to the bond trading department at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis.  In a job-market where things are tight, it’s nice to have that advantage.

          Still, I’d like to stress in this lesson that it is not only the social Greek organization that is able to provide these benefits, but also a number of professional fraternities, co-ed service fraternities, and campus religious houses.  While alternate options are limited at some smaller schools, like Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri – where over 90 percent of the student body is Greek in the traditional fashion, most larger schools offer a number of these specialized fraternal organizations that approximate traditional Greek Life but cater to a more individualized student population.  From what I’ve seen, and from what I’ve learned while talking with students, the experience of being actively involved in Delta Sigma Pi (the nation’s largest business fraternity), Alpha Phi Omega (the nation’s largest service organization), or a house similar to the University of Illinois’s Koinonia (which literally translates to “communion by intimate participation” – a great descriptor of fraternity life) is much the same as being involved in the type of Greek organizations that are mentally associated with the Toga.  The idea is to have someone behind you who cares about whether you make it successfully through college or not, and who will intervene on your behalf if your life begins to implode.  So much of the advice here at Dr. Wizard is about following your own path through life, and it is advice in which I firmly believe, but that doesn’t mean that you should always have to go it alone.  If life is about finding your own country road to drive down with the windows cranked down and The Raconteurs cranked up, think of your fraternity or sorority as being the Verizon network.  No matter how far from civilization’s beaten path you travel, they’ll always have your back.

          So, if the driving question of this lesson is the Hamlet-inspired “To Rush, or Not to Rush,” I’d advocate that you give it a shot.  Worst case scenario, you visit with the members of all of the different houses, and decide it’s not for you.  (And please do not commit to joining a group with whom you are uncomfortable – this never ends well.)  Perhaps the better question is this: How do you find the group with which you’d like to be associated?  Well, the first thing you must do is worry very little about what is perceived to be cool, and common sense should dictate that you steer clear of fraternities where the brothers pump you full of alcohol and talk about “all of the bitches you’ll get to fuck.”  Rather, as you go from house to house, get to know the graduating seniors and ask yourself whether or not these are the types of people who you want to be like when you graduate.  If they are, you can be pretty certain that the Greek organization to which they belong has done a good job of selecting people who came to college with potential like you and of offering them a quality environment in which to grow.  The bottom line is that if you feel comfortable with the people who have gone before you, it only makes sense that you’ll most likely feel comfortable with the person you will someday become.  Among my closest friends, I still count three members of my pledge class.  One graduated at the top of his class from Duke Law, one is a high school football coach in California, and one is the Controller of a Fortune 500 company.  More importantly, they are all the type of people who I would trust to be the Godfather of my children – and that says a lot.  Did we do some things that were stupid during college?  Of course.  Could we have found the same support network in another venue.  It’s certainly possible.  But don’t write off the Greek system just because you’ve heard stories of its checkered past, or just because you’ve seen Animal House.  If you’re open to its many possibilities, you will find your college experience greatly enriched.

         Toga! Toga! Toga!


Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on October 24, 2008


typewriter9          While some cultural purists argue that works of true artistic genius should never be tampered with, I’m of the opinion that adding your own personal, modern touch to the classics is a great way to make them more relevant and idiosyncratically memorable.  As such, I happen to be a huge fan of Ten Things I Hate about You, The Grey Album, and pictures of the Last Supper where the Wu-Tang Clan has been photo-shopped in to kick it like Jesus and the twelve apostles.  I mean, it’s not as if Julia Stiles has destroyed the original Folio copy of Taming of the Shrew, Danger Mouse has permanently dubbed over The Beatles’ master-tapes with Jay-Z lyrics, or Ghostface Killah has broken into the Santa Maria delle Grazie and pasted pictures of Method Man and Rza onto Leonardo da Vinci’s frescoed masterpiece.  So, to all you modern-day Matthew Arnolds out there, I say chill the fuck out and let a Philistine player play.

          Whatever your stance on the issue, let me hammer home the fact that the practical extension of this philosophy is doubly true for the Penguin and Oxford Classics versions of your literature textbooks (and also for your Organic Chemistry book – if you consider that a work of true artistic genius).  Students who are successful in college have learned the following trick when they sit down to do their course reading: they say “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da,” brush the dirt off their shoulders, and use a highlighter and a pen to mark their textbooks all to hell.

          “Now, Dr. Wizard,” you might find yourself asking at this point, “why is this the case?”  Well, since it’s my job to do so, I’ll just tell you.  You see, at some point in the semester, whether it is for class discussion, your final exam, or your final paper (see Lesson #20), you’re going to have to go back to the material you studied at an earlier date for information.  If you’ve highlighted the author’s major points and the important quotes, and if you’ve taken the time to note while reading Sin in the Second City that Protestant Chicago’s reactions to massive immigration in the early twentieth-century mirror current legislative attempts to remove illegal immigrants from Chicago, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

          “But what if,” you might again find yourself asking, “I go to a school with one of those extremely stupid textbook rental systems, where I’m required to turn my books back in at the end of the semester?”  Well, just like Socrates, I’ll respond to your question with a few of my own.

          Have you ever noticed how busy the textbook rental facility is at the end of the semester?  Have you ever watched how carelessly the student workers check to see whether or not the books you’ve returned are in mint condition?  Do they ever look beyond the condition of the cover in a half-hearted attempt to simply make sure you haven’t spilled six cups of coffee on the book?  And if so, do they just do that cursory flip through the pages where the only possibilities of malfeasance they could detect are blatant, enormous pen scratches on the very tips of the pages?  Of course not; textbook rental answers these questions just like Amy Winehouse responds to Rehab – No, No, No.  But if you happen to go to a school where the answer to one of these questions is Yes, the solution is simply to make your comments on the book’s inside margins.  Not only will your cleverness never be detected, the student who borrows the book from the University the following semester will be thankful for the work you have already done.  And if you happen to run into some Book Nazi who insists on perusing every page, just yell and scream that “those notes were already in the book when I started reading it.”  Trust me, this works.  Ultimately, the workers in the textbook rental system are cognizant enough of their own general carelessness and incompetence to believe your argument if you’re forceful enough in your protest.

          So, the bottom line of today’s lesson is simple: writing in your textbooks equals better grades.  As a college student in the modern world, trying to balance academic, social, and personal responsibilities, you may find that you’ve got 99 problems – but if you follow this guideline, your books ain’t one of ‘em.