The Colgate Scene
January 2005

Total immersion
To understand a community, says Meika Loe, you have to build connections

Meika Loe, assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and women's studies (kneeling), works with seniors (from left) Sara Pastel, Heather Schwartz, Leidy Springsted, and Shailer Barron on a final project assessment of their time spent at AIDS Community Resource Center in Utica in spring 2004. The project was part of Loe's service learning course, Women, Health, and Medicine. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Students enrolled in assistant professor Meika Loe's sociology or women's studies classes are likely to be told to get out of the classroom. It's for their own good, really.

A member of the faculty since 2002, Loe integrates community work into her classes to help students learn about their own communities and those around Hamilton and beyond.

"I spend the whole semester being jealous of their experiences," she said. "I want to be out there."

"Meika has an innovative approach to her classes," said Jill Tiefenthaler, associate dean of the faculty and director of Colgate's Upstate Institute. "She has a talent for integrating place-based education into many of her courses, which benefits both her students and the community."

Loe's knack for bringing course material to life is well known among students. Katie Konrad '04 took her Women, Medicine, and Health course as a senior, and it turned out to be her favorite class at Colgate.

"She has a good way of connecting with her students," said Konrad, noting that the experience opened her eyes to the nonprofit world. She is now working with high school students as a college counselor in Orange County, Calif. "Hopefully I can open them up to the kind of experience I had at Colgate."

Loe got her own taste of community work as a volunteer after college.

"I knew that I was going to spend the next many years of my life as an academic nerd, so I took a year to do Americorps," said Loe. "It was one of the best experiences I've ever had. We traveled all over responding to community needs. We built houses, started an after-school program, worked with the California condors, built trails in a state park, and cleaned up and helped families affected by floods in Oregon."

The experience shaped Loe's belief that learning goes beyond books and caused her to grapple with how she could go into academia and still contribute to communities. She said that her job at Colgate has allowed her to do both.

"What I do in my classes is try to meld the two -- experience in the field and book learning -- and it has proven to be quite successful," said Loe.

It's in the blood
The foundation for her interests was laid while she was growing up in Ventura, Calif.

"Both of my parents were building community in some way," said Loe. "My mom was doing it as a teacher, and my dad, a local radio talk show host, was doing it among his listeners."

She was naturally drawn to sociology, which she studied as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, and as a graduate student at UC, Santa Barbara.

"I've always been fascinated by social rules, social expectations, definitions of normality, deviance," said Loe. "What makes people come together, and how do groups contribute to social change?"

Loe's first experience with field research came as an undergraduate. A popular sports bar chain known for its scantily uniformed waitresses, to which Loe refers in her work as "Bazooms," was met with protest as it prepared to open its first California location in San Diego. Loe decided that to understand this business, she needed to look at it from the inside. She applied for a job and spent six months working in the restaurant, interviewing the other workers and customers.

Her research papers won Loe two "best paper awards," one of which was published in Sociological Inquiry.

"It's what launched me into sociology," said Loe. "I became very interested in how a business like this communicates and constructs womanhood and manhood. The theme of how corporations and organizations create gendered beings has followed me through to today." Indeed it has.

The book
This fall, Loe published The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, a sociological perspective on the Viagra phenomenon.

"It was like a tour of America with the Viagra phenomenon in mind," said Loe of her book-related travels.

She spent five years, from the debut of Viagra in 1998 through 2003, finding places where she could study the effect of the pill and how it was affecting American culture.

"The journey took me from men's support groups to senior citizen organizations to medical conferences on sexual medicine to doctor's offices and male enhancement clinics to protest meetings around reducing health to problems within the body," said Loe.

The project gave her an opportunity to talk with people about masculinity in America, health, aging, and sexuality.

"The pill itself became this very rich site for understanding our culture and, for many people, an excuse to talk about things that were previously stigmatized," said Loe. "It revealed a lot about our cultural anxieties and our denial about the aging process and the emerging `pill for everything' phenomenon."

Overall reaction to the book, which has been reviewed by or included in articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones, has been positive. Her recent book signing at the Colgate Bookstore drew a crowd. One fan brought books for Loe to sign for some of his friends.

Promotion of the book has kept Loe busy -- and has surfaced some unexpected challenges. She received a call from a prominent sociologist who was interested in endorsing it but was frustrated with a lack of responsiveness from the publisher. It turned out that e-mails sent with the term "Viagra" in the subject line were automatically being deleted by diligent spam filters. Lesson learned.

Loe will continue her work on Viagra with an eye on what she calls "phase two" --- the search for the female Viagra. She'll also begin investigating pharmaceuticals abuse on college campuses and how the "Ritalin Generation" is navigating these issues.

On a larger scale, Loe will begin looking at the pharmacology of aging -- how mainstream prescription drugs and medicalization affect college-age people on one end and baby boomers on the other.

An ideal setting
Loe will also continue her work with Colgate's Upstate Institute, through which she is advising student research around women's lives and community building.

"I don't know how you can teach social inequality without drawing on the history of the region," said Loe. "It becomes very relevant to students when they realize that Harriet Tubman lived an hour from here. With all of my courses, there is no better place to teach than central New York. It's amazing, the history we have around people coming together historically to build alternative religious communities, to create union around women's rights and abolitionism."

Loe's work with student groups, particularly those out of the mainstream, keeps her engaged outside of the classroom.

"Those voices that we don't hear are the ones that I'm dedicated to empowering. That's what I do in my research and on campus," said Loe. "If I can inspire groups or catalyze social change, that makes me very happy."

She believes that sociology is about connecting your own life to a bigger picture -- putting yourself in the middle of an onion and looking at all of the layers around you -- and Loe sees now as a great time for students to do this at Colgate. She is encouraged, for example, by the amount of energy she sees coming out of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning) supporters group, which is now composed of more than 250 students, professors, and staff members.

"Being at the margins helps you see the bigger picture," said Loe. "I'm privileged to be part of many groups that are attempting to redefine `normal.'"

Loe said that she believes that the Colgate administration is supportive of healthy dialogue and community building, and sees communities around campus that are starting to find their voices.

"I'm heartened by what I see," said Loe. "At a larger institution it would be hard to measure impact, but we can do it here, and that makes this a really exciting place to be right now."

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