Best Student Newspaper Column of Spring 2012: ‘Think Twice’, The Daily Pennsylvanian

The simple, effective reporting philosophy shared by Daily Pennsylvanian staffers Hayley Brooks and Ali Kokot: Think twice.

This past semester, the good friends encountered a myriad of trends that their student peers at the University of Pennsylvania didn’t give a second thought.  By contrast, in a shared column, Brooks and Kokot asked questions.

Among them: Why are so many students wearing pajamas around campus and to class?  Why do college partygoers always strive to become so drunk that they black out?  Why do Spring Breakers care so much about showing off their trip photos on social media?  In between classes, why can’t students talk about anything but academics and pre-professional plans?  Why have current young adults “become excessively needy and dependent upon socializing” and not missing out, to the point of sleeping next to their mobile phones and pitying a peer who chooses to eat alone?

“We’re just trying to really think twice about social norms and question them, as opposed to simply subscribing to them,” said Brooks, a rising junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  “We step back for a second and ask, ‘Why is this happening?  What is that about?’  It’s all about us trying to push the envelope about why social norms are the norm, and does it have to be that way, and why and why not.”

The first norm they tackled in their Daily Pennsylvanian column is also the most pervasive within the college clubbing and party scene: grinding.  As Brooks and Kokot confirm, “[B]ooty-shakin’ has overshadowed all other forms of dance on college campuses.  We’re saturated by images in popular culture, music videos and advertising campaigns.  Grinding is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t stop to question it.”

Brooks and Kokot did stop, however, asking in their piece, headlined “Get Low? Hell No,” “Why has doggy-style dancing become so public, so ubiquitous, and so nonchalant?

The questioning is in keeping with their reporting philosophy, and their column’s name: “Think Twice.”

In the Q&A below, the pair share their perspectives on grinding’s popularity, influences, and social impact.  But first, they discuss how their column came about and their shared creative process.

Q: What led you to start writing “Think Twice” together?

Kokot: Hayley and I had both been involved with the DP since freshman year.  We both had backgrounds in pretty heavy news reporting.  I did the crime beat for a semester.  She did the city and residences and facilities beat, which I did a semester later.  So we really liked investigative reporting of the news style.  We were sort of done with that, but wanted to keep our involvement with the Daily Pennsylvanian.  We really liked the idea of doing a column.  We had become very friendly working there together and we thought we could have a really good time working together as columnists.  It’s interesting because I believe the DP has never had two columnists doing one column together before.  It’s pretty revolutionary for them– and two girls, at that.

Q: How does the writing process work?

Brooks: We actually write the whole thing together.  We will literally sit in my apartment, both of us on our own computer screens, but we’ll write the whole thing on a Google doc.   So we’re constantly editing over each other’s work to make it synchronized and sort of the same style.  We’re at the point where we can basically finish each other’s sentences and we have a very similar writing style as it is.  But we really strive to keep a consistent narrative voice throughout all of our pieces. . . . I think it’s safe to say we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as writers and we’re definitely greater than the sum of our parts.  It’s really cool.  I’ll write something, and as I’m writing it Ali’s already fixing it.  So we’re always in this constant editing process.

Q: OK, let’s talk grinding, the focus of one of your more popular pieces.  How pervasive, influential is it within the college club and party scene?

Brooks: This is something I never really noticed in my stream of consciousness as an issue, but it really is.  We even cited in the column middle school dances and bar mitzvahs.  When my mom was emailing the DJ at my bat mitzvah, she wrote, “No rap, no grinding.”  This is very much a part of my sexual evolution, I guess, without really thinking about it.  It’s definitely ubiquitous and the norm but . . . people feel awkward saying the word or talking about it because it’s so strange.  But yet it’s so normal.

Kokot: It’s one of those things that’s become such a norm that it’s not questioned.  But if you step back for a second and survey the whole room and really look at this behavior, it’s one of the weirdest, most ridiculous-looking things ever.  In our column, we just tried to point out how ridiculous it actually is.  We’re laughing at ourselves a little, laughing at our peers, and just questioning why we are behaving this way, why we are dancing this way.

Q: How does grinding relate to the larger student social culture?

Brooks: We say pretty clearly in the column that it’s sort of perpetuating this anonymous hook-up culture that’s so prevalent on college campuses.  You don’t face your partner, so therefore you can conclude that it’s not necessarily consensual.

Kokot: Also, you don’t know their names unless you ask it at the end or something.

Brooks: It’s totally impersonal.  It’s totally selfishly motivated.

Kokot: You’re not looking to take the person out for coffee after.

Brooks: It just makes the woman a sexual vehicle in that moment.

Q: Talk to me more about that latter point.  What gender disparities are involved with this type of dancing?

Kokot: First of all, in grinding in a specific position, it’s really the male receiving all the pleasure.  Also, the way things are initiated, there will be a bunch of girls sort of dancing together and then men just approach from behind.  All of a sudden there’s this person behind you that you don’t know.  Girls have come to expect this behavior and this is what they feel they are supposed to do at parties and if they don’t do it all of a sudden they’re considered prude or looked down upon.  So it’s very much a male-dominated form of dancing.

Q: How do we get beyond the grinding peer pressure?

Kokot: We’re definitely all about female empowerment.  There are other ways to engage people that are more meaningful.  We can still enjoy this music, but it’s also perfectly OK to dance a different way that’s not quite as seedy.  And take the person off the dance floor and have a conversation with them.  There are just better ways that we can be relating to each other and I think both males and females need to take the initiative with that.

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