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Give us belonging, hold the culture

What makes the Duke Social Relationships Project report different from the long line of official (and unofficial, ahem) commentaries on the lives of Duke undergraduates? DSRP refuses to play the culture game, a stance that is both refreshing and overdue.

I’m far from a trained psychologist, so I can’t offer a technical commentary on the report itself, which is illuminating and often surprising. Read it yourself at sites.duke.edu/dsrp/.

Among other insights, DSRP provides us with a good starting point for thinking about the classic problem that vexes attempts to examine and critique the lives of Duke students: How do we talk about students in general without giving the individual student a raw deal?

This is the question begged any time someone—administrator or student or columnist—makes a cultural generalization about Duke students. Yes, you’re compelled to respond, there is such a thing as culture (even campus culture, if you like), but what does that have to do with me? By definition, you can’t be a culture of one, which means that you can’t fix a culture even if you fix your own behavior/thoughts/Nasty Natty intake.

Generalizations about culture have a way of falling on deaf ears, because they seem so paternalistic. When we’re told what our culture is like, we’re being told stories about a vague-but-mighty force that floats above us and dictates what we do even when we have the illusion that we’re acting independently. The message too often seems to be that we’re victims of culture. We’re also somehow the perpetrators, because it’s our culture, after all. We’re supposed to be both wrong and wronged, a dizzying double whammy.

Without getting into an academic debate about what it means to talk about “culture,” it’s easy to see that the double-bind described above makes so many accounts of Duke student life come across as preachy, inaccurate and alienating. This is where grandiose gestures—like the granddaddy of campus culture assessments, Reynolds Price’s 1993 Founder’s Day speech—fall short. Anything that sounds like a blanket indictment of student life will immediately raise justifiable objections from students who feel talked down to and stereotyped. Which brings us back to DSRP.

DSRP focuses on the feeling of “belongingness” (as opposed to loneliness) that students experience. To measure this, the researchers used self-reported data gathered over a four-year period to build a rubric for what factors—e.g., “alcohol use,” “feelings about the self” and “academics”—in various areas of a college student’s life feed into a general sense of belonging. This is all mapped out in detail in the report—but the upshot is that DSRP takes a complex, multi-pronged, data-driven approach to measuring how satisfied students feel with their lives at Duke. DSRP is interested in how the things we do together, like drinking and hooking up and taking classes, feed into how we feel as individuals.

What DSRP does not do is agonize over Duke’s culture and the attendant norms. Instead, DSRP focuses on measuring how happy and healthy students believe themselves to be. In a 54-page report, the word “culture” appears only twice. Prof. Steven Asher, lead researcher on DSRP, told The Chronicle this: “There’s no one dominant Duke culture, and we encourage students to celebrate that part of Duke that’s their Duke.”

The language used in the report’s conclusion echoes Asher, saying, “Over the life of this study, we have come to more fully appreciate that there is not one type of Duke student or one representation of Duke student culture that best fits. For example, there is no one pathway by which students come to develop a sense of place and connectedness at Duke. We encourage students who read this report to question the idea that there is a single dominant Duke culture and instead to celebrate and make stronger the parts of Duke that engage you intellectually, emotionally and in your relationships.”

Wise words.

Aside from the specific insights of the research, DSRP’s refusal to engage in culture-quibbling is, itself, innovative. Culture does matter, but we have to find other ways of talking about Duke students and our lives. It’s woefully imprecise, not to mention dull, to cast us as victim-perpetrators in the thrall of an abstract force.

One way to improve the conversation is by investigating what’s in the minds of Duke students, without assuming that any single factor is responsible for those thoughts and feelings being there. That kind of open-minded inquiry is what DSRP does. DSRP recognizes the importance of our social lives without treating us like slaves to social norms, and doing so has meant that their report might be the most clear-headed investigation of student life that Duke has ever seen.

DSRP proves that we can meaningfully talk about Duke students in general terms—something we have to do from time to time—without pontificating about culture. Let’s just hope this doesn’t put all of us columnists out of a job.

Connor Southard is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.

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