Monday, July 18, 2005

Of Course, Once I Pledged Public Radio

Somewhat like everyone else, I spent the weekend reading. Where we differ was in which book: I read Pledged, a journalistic (read: not scholarly) account of life in sororities at a large southern state university campus with a very active Greek system, by Alexandra Robbins.

Wow. The women portrayed in the book have values and priorities entirely unlike my own. They value ritual and tradition. I refuse to attend ceremonies -- from commencement exercises to family weddings -- unless I'm dragged kicking and screaming. (They even have a secret knock! A secret knock! HA!) They always make sure to wear the right outfit every time they're seen. My fashion idol is Steve Jobs.* I'm not claiming that this makes me a better person, as my over-developed sense of contrariness and nonconformity together with my complete lack of patience for the pledging/hazing mentality might go a ways towards explaining why I quit one tenure-track job and turned down another.

But what interested me most about this book is that sororities are all about optimizing.

The most straightforward example of this is the system of matching new members with houses. The house makes a ranked list of who they want to admit, and the potential new members make a ranked list of the houses. Then some mysterious "computer" generates the bids. And I wondered what algorithm they used. (Couldn't you just see me having a student do some undergraduate research on voting theory and the optimization of sorority bids?)

For the women in the book, popularity was important -- both them as individuals but the popularity of their house overall. I wasn't surprised to read about the blatant sucking up that was done by women who wanted to join the "best" house on campus. What did surprise me was how the best sororities but a ginormous amount of effort into making the recruits want to join them. Popularity was a lot of work! And it wasn't seen as some sort of move of desperation when it was done by the houses -- the house was viewed as very desirable.

These perceptions were important to all the houses because of the numbers game. Because of the desire of women to join popular sororities (and to avoid unpopular ones), the sororities were under a lot of pressure to keep their membership numbers up. This somewhat concrete measure of popularity was very important to the houses -- houses with somewhat lower membership than the "top houses" were seen as less popular, making it harder for them to get new members. (A sort of rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer phenomenon.) This was such a big deal that one of the serious penalties that the university could use to punish a sorority was to reduce the allowable number of new members. Why this mattered in a practical sense was that pressure came down from the national organizations; a chapter whose membership got too low could be shut down.

(This even happens with local sororities. When I was at Dartmouth, Xi Kappa Chi was viewed as "uncool" and regulary got very few new members. There was much complaining by students that the campus needed a new sorority because lots of women -- women who were unwilling to join Xi Kappa Chi -- were coming out of the rush process without a bid. So the College closed Xi Kappa Chi and opened, Kappa Delta Epsilon -- in the SAME HOUSE -- which immediately became cool.)

The last problem, which is closely tied to the membership problem, was how to get the members to participate in house activities. Not only does this remind me of some of the stuff I read in Freakonomics about incentives and penalties, but I also have been known to wonder how to get sorority sisters to do the things that they are supposed to do.** What it comes down to is that members are sometimes reluctant to attend things like house meetings, so a rather strict system of points and penalties has been enacted. Miss a meeting? Be fined $50 or more. Not participate in enough house activities? Then you can't go to the Formal. The book contrasted this with other campus social organizations with a more open structure and where the women went to meetings not because they were mandatory but because they wanted to.

*If you don't understand what I mean, a google search of steve jobs wardrobe should probably clear things up. Oh, if only eccentric billionaires dictated style. Of course, the man can't get the masses to buy his (superior) COMPUTERS, so I'm not holding my breath.

**If the sororities on my campus are like those described in the book, the only way that I'd make serious progress on getting the sisters to put a lot of time and effort into their math homework is if I could convince them that guys from the right fraternity think that being good at math is hot.