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Anthropology In A University Village

ISSUE:  Spring 1990
Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture. By Michael Moffat. Rutgers. $35.00 cloth, $12.95 paper.

This provocative book brings the reader inside the undergraduate residence halls, 24 hours a day, at a major public university. It will not be recommended, as readers will quickly discover, by admissions officers to the parents of prospective freshmen!

Coming of Age in New Jersey deserves a wide readership among those who wish to understand the life of undergraduates beyond their lecture halls, seminar rooms, and laboratories. Having read many, many reports over my 20 years as a professor in hope of gleaning some insight about campus life, I find this one is easily the most memorable.

Michael Moffat’s well-done ethnographic study, set in the years 1977 to 1988, focuses on youth culture, including dormitory life, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual values. His village is the main campus of Rutgers University, situated at New Brunswick, where the author holds a tenured appointment in anthropology.

This book is memorable in several ways, none more so than the opportunity to observe its author’s skill as a field investigator. He self-consciously conveys, with candor, the pitfalls and anxieties he endured while conducting his research in the university as village. (His previous village was in South India, where he focused on an untouchable caste.) For those concerned with this subtext, they will relish Moffat’s shrewd intramural insights about the writing of anthropology. Best classified as ethnographic experimentalism associated with the influential writings of James Clifford, Coming of Age in New Jersey is informed by the longstanding and hotly contested methodological questions which continue to shape the discipline.

At age 33, in 1977, Moffat had initially tried to pass as an entering freshman during orientation. Chuck, who lived on his floor in the residence hall, immediately found it odd that Mike regularly read the New York Times. Before long he was fully unmasked. Now he altered his stance to present himself as a Rutgers professor who was conducting anthropological research among the undergraduates. Remaining in the dormitory for a time and then visiting several times weekly over many years, he continued his observations. But simultaneously the anthropologist—as he refers to himself in his text—assumed another role, that of unofficial counselor to freshmen about course schedules as well as the merits of individual members of the faculty.

In the same spirit of reflexive ethnography, Moffat recounts the two gaffes he committed during 1983—84 that temporarily compromised his field work by tarnishing his reputation in the village. After an odious prank inflicted by a clique of male upper-class students aimed at harassing male freshmen, he betrayed a confidence when he reported information to a colleague in the university’s administration. As a result, he was rebuked by some of the students and scorned by others. The second instance involved the ritual of Secret Santa. Imbued with sexual overtones (“inappropriate things in inappropriate places” is the clinical description offered by the anthropologist), it was officially banned by the administration due to the excesses it had inspired in previous years. One of the less outrageous examples of the illicit frolic required a male to bathe in the women’s communal shower room while loudly singing “I’m a Virgin.” To the consternation of university officials responsible for dormitory life, Moffat justified the practice as an innocent and timely relief from end-of-the semester academic pressures.

Chapter 5 (Sex) and Chapter 6 (Sex in College) also contribute to making this book memorable. “An inevitable middle-aged fantasy about the coed dorms,” writes the anthropologist, “was that they were ongoing sex orgies.” (He quickly discovered otherwise.) How he gathered information in this instance is instructive. Discovering that he had learned next to nothing from direct observation or one-to-one interviews within the residence halls because students place a premium on their privacy, Moffat devised an alternative: voluntary and anonymous sexual self-reports, submitted by 237 students enrolled in the course he taught on the anthropology of sexuality during 1986:

The assignment was not highly directive. The students were encouraged to be as explicit as they felt comfortable being and to be honest. They could write sexual fantasy if they chose to, but they were asked to identify fantasy as fantasy. They were also asked to avoid the sexual conventions of their gender—women were to avoid undue discretion and men were asked to avoid braggadocio. In class, I had discussed what I considered the current American English “languages” of sexuality with rough genre-labels of my own devising: sex-manual technical, romantic, psychobabble, Penthouse, and locker-room. . . . Finally, the students were told that the information in their papers might, in a general summarized fashion, contribute to my research on student culture at Rutgers. Then, immediately before they handed their papers in, they were asked to think carefully about what they had written and to write across the top of their paper whether or not I had permission to quote directly from them in my own published research.

Sixty-one percent of the students, 100 women and 44 men, granted permission for quotation; 85 percent of all those enrolled had reached at least their junior year, and two-thirds of the class were women. Carefully evaluating the authenticity of these self-reports, Moffat reached a double-edged verdict. When concerned with “values, attitudes, and sexual ideation” he judged them as “unavoidably honest”; on matters of behavior, they were “relatively honest.”

Moffat judiciously unfolds his findings, illustrated with extensive quotations from the self-reports. A cultural consensus—that he deems “remarkable” and seems surprised to discover—exists about human sexuality. Sexual fun and satisfaction, regardless of gender, occupy the core of the undergraduate values. Affirming this ethic is the report of a sophomore female (that the publisher deploys on the end cover of the paperbound edition):

I’ve always been told that sex is like candy: once you’re introduced to it, you can never get enough. And boy, is that the truth.

Premarital chastity is deemed unimportant. The roots of sexual behavior are attributed by Moffat to several factors: college life, peers, parental values, and most of all to mass consumer culture. Yet a new sexual orthodoxy predominates, with specific emphasis on techniques of intercourse and orgasm. Although women placed a higher premium on sexual pleasure, males as well as females subscribed to the convention of romantic love.

I do not believe [good sex can happen] without love. Having intercourse with anyone, although fun to think about sometimes, doesn’t really have the same fulfillment as when it is with someone you really love, senior male

Oral sex, as reported upon by males and females alike, has become increasingly commonplace as an acceptable alternative to real sex. Disturbingly, however, the self-reports—in 1986 and again the next year when the project was repeated— mostly ignored AIDS or sexual violence. What Moffat did uncover is that ensconced within the realities of the new sexual orthodoxy, gender persists as the key distinction in the formation of attitudes. In fact, a pronounced male bias remains very much in evidence, although men as well as women attach a premium to ethical and moral issues.

Coming of Age in New Jersey also warrants scrutiny for what it reports on intellectual values. “The Life of the Mind” (Chapter 7) is again premised upon self-reports, in this instance written by 42 students during 1986. Between 10 and 20 percent of the university’s undergraduates, Moffat deduces, possess an ardent commitment to intellectual pursuits; students in this category recognized, with equivocation, that they existed as a statistical minority.

A handful of undergraduates—a woman whom he calls Charlotte is introduced as the prime example—relished the intellectual stimulation offered by the faculty at Rutgers:

I have encountered some truly outstanding professors at this University from a variety of departments. I regard a few of them as friends and can go to them with either intellectual or personal problems. A good professor also brings out the best in me. If a faculty member really impresses me I will overextend myself in order to earn his or her respect.

Then again, a junior woman despaired over her circumstances as she recounted her freshman year:

One thing surprised me very much, everyone was unintellectual. I discovered I couldn’t find anyone to have an intellectual conversation with, I had thought that was what college was all about. The most intellectual [my sophomore dorm at Douglass] ever got was during a game of Trivial Pursuit. . . .

By my junior year . . . I felt I was beginning to learn only for exams and then forgetting everything (except for art, which stays with me always). . . .

It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to that most Rutgers people are anti-intellectual. I’m learning many things that I can use later when I do meet people who share my interests.

More typical was the report of another junior woman:

I’ve made a dangerous discovery that I can do a various amount and even quality of work and maintain good grades. Thus it has become a matter of how little work I can get away with and keep my [B average] or better. The nature of my major (English) aids in maintaining my lax study habits. Since exams are totally subjective and paper topics are chosen by the students, one doesn’t need to read all of the books and attend all of the lectures. This year I have become amazed at just how little work is necessary.

Moffat, in the process of assaying academic life, discovered a deeply ingrained opposition to the excesses of mass education at the multi-university. Big classes constitute the key complaint. The average class size in 1987, according to his unofficial calculation, was 110; for sophomores the figure rose to 144, whereas for seniors it was 86. Other common criticisms had to do with administrative indifference to students and uninspired instruction by faculty. His conclusion about the undergraduate academic experience will come as no surprise to the American professoriate: “You could . . .take it very easy indeed in the Rutgers classroom in the 1980’s if you so desired.”

A successful book, as this one certainly is, invariably raises further questions. Several come to mind. For all of Moffat’s candor, there is scant discussion (aside from a hint in the acknowledgments) as to how his faculty colleagues, in anthropology and allied disciplines, assayed his research in progress. I also would have preferred, for sake of contrast, an in-depth analysis of students majoring in the sciences, whom the author treats at a distance because he has (artificially) rendered them beyond the bounds of his village. One cannot help speculating, as well, about the findings of such anthropological research in very different campus cultures, e.g., Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, Brooklyn College, Tulane University, Fisk University, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, the Air Force Academy, Reed College, or Cal Tech. And in the very last paragraph of the book, Moffat makes passing reference to New Jersey’s “historically uncentered, county-dominated political system” as a source of student provincialism at Rutgers, a topic that might have been usefully developed at an earlier point.

Something also needs to be said to the institutional credit of Rutgers University. Over the 11 years while Michael Moffat conducted this extraordinary ethnographic work, assorted deans as well as a review board on research with human subjects opened doors for the author. Had someone petitioned for such support not too many years earlier, I suspect that obstacles (possibly insurmountable ones) would have been erected by administrators who assume themselves to be the solitary guardians of the academy’s virtues. (The case of a renowned university administrator reacting very badly in the face of difficult and perplexing questions is reviewed in W.J. Rorabaugh’s Berkeley at War, The 1960’s [1989], a book that features a searing analysis of Clark Kerr’s stewardship over the University of California, Berkeley.)

In the annals of academic freedom, Rutgers University was not always a safe haven. In the recent past, two governors of New Jersey have been interjected into the university’s affairs because of controversies involving its faculty. Moses I. Finley, today venerated as an historian of antiquity at Cambridge University, found himself dismissed in 1953 over an uproar stemming from his invocation of the Fifth Amendment. Eugene D. Genovese, another historian, expressed a very unpopular opinion during the statewide election of 1965. At a Rutgers teach-in, he welcomed the prospect of a Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. A gubernatorial candidate preyed upon his words, assailing the state’s university for harboring this dangerous professor; the university’s trustees, as well as the incumbent who was a successful candidate for reelection, deftly affirmed the canon of academic freedom. But Genovese’s status, indisputably, was clouded, and he subsequently departed from Rutgers in 1967; over the years he, too, has attained high recognition for luminous scholarship, in this instance on African American slavery, and today he sits in an endowed chair at the University of Rochester.

Where will tomorrow’s professors proceed unencumbered and where will they suffer for breaching the conventions of the moment? Moffat’s research, with its explicit treatment of human sexuality and its pointed criticisms of undergraduate education, offers a useful yardstick. In the present-day political environment, with intensified pressures which chill artistic expressions and scholarship, we should measure the commitment of our academic leaders (including faculty) to unfettered inquiry within the nation’s colleges and universities. (The same must be said for their kith in the private foundations as well as at the national institutes and endowments.) Rutgers University, by way of enabling Professor Moffat to conduct sensitive research undeterred within the interior reaches of its village, has fostered an admirably high standard.


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