Sonic Sisters

If I didn’t like the enthusiastic talk and lively conversation of young people, I would not have chosen to be a college instructor. If I didn’t like the nervous energy, relentless vitality, and shimmering intensity of college students, I’d have chosen a livelihood more valued by today’s culture, such as horse racing or fire eating. (Horse racing and fire eating are considered more dignified, and usually offer better retirement benefits, than academic positions.)

I pride myself on enjoying my profession and my time in the classroom. And that’s only one reason I’ve rarely complained about over-ebullience of students.

I am particularly immodest about the way I deliberately encourage young women to find their voices both literally and metaphorically. My students have gone on to become scholars, teachers, journalists, writers, editors, attorneys, physicians, and politicians, so I know they’ve discovered how to make trouble effectively. They’re not a shy and retiring bunch. They’re out there, in the world, making themselves heard.  I help them do this, for example, by not permitting them to begin every statement with the caveat “I don’t know if this is OK but I think it might be but I’m not sure so …” and then launch into a perfectly reasonable response. If they must perform such rituals, I explain, they should do so silently and allow their spoken words to be loud, clear, persuasive, and erudite.

Why am I listing my efforts to help young women speak up? Because I need to provide some context for describing my efforts to get young women to pipe down.

I’m teaching an upper-division creative-writing seminar at 5 p.m. this semester, and there are literally hundreds of extremely noisy young women lining up outside my classroom beginning at 6 p.m. who are on their way to a sorority meeting in one of the building’s lecture halls. And I can’t get them to shut up. I am struck by the irony, if not the absurdity, of this situation.

For 25 years, I’ve been writing books about women’s need to express ourselves in public. For 25 years, I’ve been giving lectures on women’s repression and oppression, detailing the ways in which groups and gatherings of women have been suppressed by curmudgeonly authorities who want to throw dampers over their flair and put out their sizzle.

Now I’m the one in the hall yelling, “Ladies! Please! I’ve already asked you to keep it quiet. Can’t you show some respect?” All I need is a cane to brandish and maybe a monocle.

Those of you who teach smallish seminars know what it’s like to establish the kind of rapport that makes a group work. Mine is a very demanding class—each of the 15 students writes more than 20 pages of prose for every weekly class meeting, without exception—and it’s tricky to get the balance right. In an almost three-hour seminar that meets only once a week, you need to make sure everybody’s focused, engaged, and productive.

It’s much harder to make all that happen when, one hour into the session, 200 drum majorettes (that is how they appear to be dressed, although I fear I do a disservice to drum majorettes) start lining up, pressing themselves—or nearly—up against the window glass of our classroom door.

It’s more like they’re lining up to get into a nightclub—dressed in platform heels, tight skirts, and cosmetics applied by Sherwin-Williams—with voices to match. “OMG, OMG!” “Like, she said ‘REALLY?!’” “WTF?! Are you KIDDING ME?!” “OMG, OMG!” they shout, although some of the voices are so high-pitched that only bats can hear them.

Picture us, then, the members of my class in our writerly circle, trying to decide whether the section in Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead concerning doppelgangers can be applied with humorous effect to one student’s essay about her sister, as the sorority members raise a ruckus outside the windowed door.

Imagine me asking these young women to keep the noise down and then, after a brief period of giggling and theatrical shushing, their resumption of their incivility. Imagine them doing it the next week in precisely the same way.

Then imagine me writing to everybody I can think of—to the university president, to the offices of student affairs and student activities, and to the sorority’s national headquarters. (I heard nothing back from the national organization.)

The head of Greek life at UConn was immediately responsive. He met with the group and, apparently, told them to behave. For that I am grateful. It has been quieter, although members of this sorority have yet to learn the concept that sound carries, and this week   they seemed under the impression that if they gathered at the far end of a very short corridor and started yelling, no one would be able hear them.

The question of what constitutes civility on college campuses has been at the heart of many earnest discussions. I would like to suggest that while playing well with others is a big part of it, playing quietly when others are working is an even bigger part. The student in a classroom, the student who is studying, the student who is working to make his or her singular voice heard cannot be silenced by the mob—even if the mob is nicely dressed, well meaning, and giggling.

I love women’s laughter and women’s celebration of life. This wasn’t it. This was a bunch of spoiled kids who could not act like grown-ups even when they were asked, politely, to police themselves—so I had no problem calling in the grown-ups to do it for them.

Gina Barreca is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.

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