Not Oprah’s Book Club: College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year

College 101 book coverJulie Zeilinger’s College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year is the book I wish I read four years ago when I started college. The guide advises incoming freshman on how to navigate the confusing new experiences that come with being a freshman and a woman in college — namely, the ways in which tricky roommates, demanding academics, rising debt, insufficient mental health resources, and unfamiliar social pressures interact and intersect with sexism. But even as a soon-to-be-graduate entering the Adult World, the guide gave me tips I wish I had known three months ago, when I entered the second semester of my senior year. It also kindly reminded me, in a chatty voice, of the many lessons I technically know but still am learning––i.e. “when it comes to taking care of yourself and functioning in a basic way, you’re on your own” as well as “don’t greet people like you know them if you’re only acquainted with them by surreptitiously viewing their [Facebook] profile without any real contact.”

College 101 is the latest of Zeilinger’s projects to address the experiences of high school and college students using a feminist framework. Currently a junior at Barnard College, Zeilinger is the founding editor of The FBomb, a website for teenagers to discuss the issues they face with each other, as well as the author of A Little F’d: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word. Her writing has been widely published and written about and her impact as a feminist blogger has been noted in many top-X lists (see her Feministing Five interview here). As with all of her projects, College 101 narrates wise advice in lively prose. 

The goal of the guide is to empower readers to talk openly about things we don’t often talk about. Zeilinger’s brave and sensitive discussion strategies are especially helpful at raising consciousness and the level of conversation around disordered eating, financial literacy, sexual assault, and rape culture. With so many of these issues, we just as often don’t even know where to begin talking — this guide provides one excellent start for combating the culture of silence on so many of these feminist fronts. Zeilinger’s interventions into popular discussions around female sexuality and “hook-up culture” remind us that when we reinforce slut-shaming clichés, virgin-whore dichotomies, and the language of “having it all,” we reify the oppressive double standards routinely spread by popular media. Zeilinger challenges us to think against these sensationalized trend pieces, and against the cultural image of college as happy-go-lucky best four years of your life. Because once we all start to recognize that we’re not alone in struggling with the less-than-dreamy, and often super upsetting and sexist, aspects of student life we can change campus culture together.

As the guide treats many issues thoughtfully and thoroughly, I would have given it to freshman-year me, and I will gift it to my soon-to-be-freshman younger sister, but it’s also worth pointing out to her, and to any curious reader, the parts of sexist culture to which the book is less attentive. Of course, this game of pointing to things missing from any book or intellectual movement is easy to play; intellectual entities cohere by excluding their own internal contradictions. But College 101’s failure to adequately address the oppressive structures and stereotypes that circulate in discussions of race, religion, queerness, and mental health is disappointing, given that these are many of the same issues that the feminist movement has historically neglected. The queer woman’s perspective, for example, is turned into a literal aside, as the parenthetical: “(It’s worth noting gay/or queer women’s sex lives are rarely if ever included in this conversation).” Noting this history of exclusion is not the same as practicing a politics of inclusion.

While Zeilinger includes supplemental resources and links to outside experts for dealing with some of the issues outside her scope (such as the trauma of sexual assault), she does not direct readers to supplemental resources for others. In her short section on “Being A Minority,” she vaguely states that readers should look to a cultural center to “maintain your ethnic/religious/cultural identity within the context of a campus on which that identity qualifies you as a minority.” These absences structure the kind of reader being addressed. Zeilinger’s assumed reader, a white heterosexual woman who attended an above average high school, proves again our suspicion that the general reader is never general. By encouraging readers to look elsewhere for discussions of “ethnic/religious/cultural identity”, Zeilinger’s additive model of difference (one is first born a woman, and then some) misses the opportunity to speak to the powerful intersectional experiences of incoming freshmen.

No book can — or should — solve everything or speak to everyone, yet a greater acknowledgement of her partial position and perspective as an author would have marked the guide’s scope and limitations more explicitly from the outset. Which, in turn, could have led to a more consistent practice of directing readers to other feminists for topics outside of her expertise. The elision of these questions of accountability (who gets to speak? who gets to give advice? and on behalf of whom?) is a widespread habit across the genre of popular advice books. Indeed, many of the tensions I raise with this particular guide are inherent to the not-so-feminist structural logic of the self-help/advice guide as a mass-produced form.

The advice book, as a genre, is normative and instructive. By folding personal anecdotes and/or research into recognizable narratives, it transforms the particulars of events and individual cases into case studies. These case studies express what is or has been as what ought to be generally understood. Generally speaking then, advice books do not hide the role that expert knowledge plays in shaping the cases they tell us to study. To the contrary: the genre celebrates its expert-authors, who interpret the field so that we don’t have to. All of these generic conventions, of course, would usually go without saying. Especially by the reviewer of such a book. But in the case — that is, in my case — of reviewing an advice manual for young college-aged feminists as a young college-aged feminist, the formal conventions of advice-giving cannot — and I think, should not — go unmentioned.

Where popular advice and self-help books say it’s all about you, the tried and true scripts of feminism remind us it’s not all about you, it’s also about structure. We can see, then, how giving popular advice as an activist and feminist quickly gets tricky. The intimately singular dimensions of the genre, with its recourse to the neoliberal rhetoric of personal responsibility, can curtail efforts to address women as a pluralist collective, full of feminisms. The interventions of self-help unfold at the level of the individual, who uses his/her resources (like this book) to change herself — but this space of intervention may be too narrow.

As the advice book puts knowledge into a form susceptible to the normalizing dynamics of the market, we as feminists must be alert to the need to supplement statistical and sociological analyses with other critical tools for thinking and acting change. These stakes and tensions underwrite any feminist undertaking. But the form of the feminist guidebook raises them to an insistently contradictory pitch; contradictory, because even when the advice being given is really good, as it is in Zeilinger’s case, the presentist focus of this advice (do what you can, where you are, with what you have) runs the risk of normalizing oppression. The writer of a feminist guidebook to college is faced with the challenge: teaching readers how to live with a sexist campus culture without numbing them to this sexism.

While College 101 certainly empowers us to speak about the status-quo, it may leave us still more powerless than we’d like to deal with the ways in which this everyday reality, structurally, sucks. Sometimes the advice borders on Just Ignore It; a recommendation that, in addition to being easier said than done, can make us complacent to unjust and systemic oppression. And when Zelinger does address this oppression, she often names it rather than explains it, abandoning an intersectional analysis of race, sexuality, and class in favor of parentheticals like “(that’s a whole other rant)”. Understandably the book’s scope is to debunk these myths, not to explain why these myths circulate. But in many cases, such as in her discussion of how the empire of beauty images oppresses women’s self-worth, drawing more explicit connections between how the energy one expends paying attention to appearances (and/or worrying sick over gaining weight) negatively affects academic competency would have better situated the personal within these larger political scripts.

Just as the contents of Zeilinger’s advice are inseparable from their form, the communication of knowledge — in this book, in the classroom, in your dorm — is likewise never separate from its production. For this reason I would have liked to see her lens turned back onto the University itself, as a field of knowledge and power that produces and proliferates gender-based oppression.

Speaking and living differently can help us begin to transform this field of power. But understanding how facts and sociological statistics are themselves forms, subject to change, can help us start to envision and engineer playing fields that look entirely different. As we continue to give and share advice with each other about college and its futures, how can we make our advice practical and visionary? How might we share desires through forms of knowledge that do not reinforce the normative thinking of the University and trade book marketplace?

How do we speak to the present realities of freshman year without foreclosing possibilities for how college could look otherwise? That is, and I think will always be, our (exciting) challenge.

Ava Kofman is a soon-to-be graduate of college and freelance journalist. She is a guest contributor to Feministing. 

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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