NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Going off to college is for many an important coming-of-age experience. It's a first opportunity for young people to live independently from their families and family rules; a chance to find out who they are and learn about the world. Along the way, they may also learn how to think, how to work, how to develop the academic and social skills they're going to need after graduation. But college life these days is very different from when it was when their parents went to school: co-ed dorms, co-ed bathrooms, much greater sexual, ethnic and racial diversity, new freedoms for women, yes, but new pressures to compete as well. And parents worry that there's more drinking, more drugs, more sex, more cheating and more stress that can lead to emotional problems and eating disorders and other things.
What's college life really like today? What's college for? Later in the program, we'll go back to the main story of the day, the continuing crisis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But first, kids and college. If you're a parent, what do your kids tell you? If you're a student, what don't you tell your parents? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're going to talk with two adults who went back to school to try to learn more about life there today, a journalist and a cultural anthropologist. We begin with Barrett Seaman, a former Time magazine correspondent who spent time living at 12 highly regarded institutions around the country--one in Canada as well. His book is "Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You." And he joins us now from our bureau in New York.
And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. BARRETT SEAMAN (Author, "Binge"): Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: One of the things that you emphasize in your book was that point about greater opportunities for women and I wanted to ask you about a phrase that I found absolutely intriguing: `effortless perfection.'
Mr. SEAMAN: Effortless perfection is a phrase that was--that emerged in a study that was done at Duke University several years back where the Duke administration began to realize that women at the university, at all levels, whether they were students, graduate students or members of the administration or faculty, were under different pressures, living different lives and had different outcomes often from the males on campus. But the concentration of the study was on the undergraduate women and one of those women in the course of the interview said that the standard for women at Duke seemed to be one of effortless perfection. That is to say that they had to be excellent at everything they did, a perfect package, but at the same time do so appearing to do it effortlessly without a ruffled feather.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. It's a little tough to pull off, isn't it?
Mr. SEAMAN: It's impossible to pull off.
CONAN: And the pressures that particularly young women are under, interestingly, you describe that, yes, as I mentioned, more freedoms but much more pressure to compete as well.
Mr. SEAMAN: Women today and especially these elite institutions that I visited, are going for the same jobs that traditionally the males went after--the investment banking jobs, medical and law school positions, all of the things that used to be head-of-the-household things in a more traditional male hierarchy.
Mr. SEAMAN: Now those same women are, you know, applying for the internships at Goldman Sachs or trying to get into the best law school in the country. And that puts additional pressures on them.
CONAN: And to some degree, certainly academically, as you point out, they're certainly succeeding.
Mr. SEAMAN: Well, they are succeeding. If you look at the academic records of a lot of the women at these schools, the number of Phi Beta Kappa graduates, the valedictorians and salutatorians of the classes are often women and, in fact, women have become a majority of undergraduates in American colleges and universities today and that's going to continue to grow.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. You went to 12 different elite schools. Tell us a little bit about what you were doing there and what you were trying to find out.
Mr. SEAMAN: Well, what I did was spend roughly a week to 10 days and often returned back to these schools afterwards where possible and it wasn't possible at all 12 of the institutions. I asked for and received student housing assignments so that I lived in the dorms with the students. I followed roughly the same methodology at every place and that I talked to as many students as I could, night and day, and that was mostly at night when you could get them, 'cause that's their time.
Mr. SEAMAN: But I also spent a lot of time with administrators and faculty, especially the veterans who can make comparisons between life today and what it was like a generation or two generations ago. I thought that was an important thing to do. One of the other things I did on each campus, I made a point of riding around with campus security or police, usually late at night between 11 at night and 2 or 3 in the morning during a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night to see the kinds of social problems that they had to deal with on a regular basis.
CONAN: And you recall back in your days when you went to college in the '60s, there might have been a night watchman. Now a lot of schools that same size might have a considerable security staff. Your book is called "Binge." How bad are the problems?
Mr. SEAMAN: Well, `binge' is a broad term. I mean, obviously, the first thing one thinks of is binge drinking and that is clearly a point of reference here, but there's a sense of binge as an excess in almost every way. The stakes seem higher today in college life. It's kind of a tournament effect; an all-or-nothing thing that you have to achieve in every aspect of life or you've somehow failed miserably.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. And we'll talk with Sam. Sam calling from Tucson, Arizona.
SAM (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: What don't...
SAM: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: OK, Sam.
SAM: Well, I was just calling to comment on--I think binge is a great way to put it. That's definitely the way I lead my college life. I'm at the University of Arizona here and it does seem to be an all-or-nothing sort of thing and not only is that expected, if you don't do--if you're somewhere in between all or nothing, you're lost in college it seems.
CONAN: Really? It's one extreme or the other.
SAM: It's one extreme or the other, exactly. I mean, and that's characterized by--we have religious groups that are all--you know, the nothing side of everything. You know, you don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't go to parties, you go home by 10:00. And then you have the all which would be kind of represented or characterized by the sororities and fraternities that spend Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights drinking to the excess.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, Sam, which group would you find yourself in?
SAM: I guess that would be part of my point, is that I'm somewhere in the middle and it feels like I'm lost sometimes because I have friends that are on both sides and you feel pressure from both to conform to the all of sororities and fraternities or nothing of maybe religious or conservative groups.
CONAN: Barrett Seaman, did you meet people like Sam in your travels?
Mr. SEAMAN: Sure. Lots of Sams out there. One of the things that Sam points out, which is backed by some of the national statistics, especially on drinking, is this kind of barbell effect, statistically. You have a growing number of students on many campuses who don't drink alcohol at all, yet you have a growing number of students who drink to excess. And what's shrinking in the middle are the moderates, the Sams of the world.
Mr. SEAMAN: And that effect, I think, may reflect something in our larger society.
SAM: And also maybe--a lot of my friends argue the drinking age, also. Since you're going to break the law a little by drinking underage, you know, why not break it all the way and drink all night and whatever you can get your hands on?
CONAN: Sam, thanks for the call.
SAM: Thank you.
CONAN: Rebekah Nathan is the pen name for a cultural anthropologist who went undercover to pen the book "My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned By Becoming a Student." Her real name is Cathy Small. She teaches at Northern Arizona University. During her academic career, she grew increasingly curious as to why may of her students were so difficult to teach. They didn't participate in class or take advantage of office hours, except of course when a grade was in question and felt no embarrassment about napping during lectures. They seemed genuinely disengaged from the learning process. The professor decided to enroll as a student at her own school and her book is an account of that academic year as an undercover freshman. The professor asks that we use her pen name today. So author Rebekah Nathan joining us from our bureau in New York, also. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. REBEKAH NATHAN (Author, "My Freshman Year"): Thank you very much.
CONAN: So did you fit in? Obviously, you didn't look the same as many of the other students.
Ms. NATHAN: I sure didn't. And if you saw me, you would really know that. I'm in my 50s. I certainly don't fit in socially with students, but I did academically. And I did choose to live in the dorms, to eat on the meal plan, to take the bus, to take five classes, to go to tutoring, to really do many of the things that students did. And after a while, I truly felt like a student.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And how--as your perspective changed, your view of the whole campus changed.
Ms. NATHAN: Indeed, it did. It was much harder than I thought. I really expected being a professor that I would go in and kind of roll through this. I found that being in students' shoes really changed my idea about students. But it also changed my idea about the university experience. It was much harder and busier than I actually thought. I felt pulled in many directions, as I saw other students pulled. When you take five classes, there's more to student life now than classes. They're encouraged to go to interest clubs, to professional organizations, to have internships, to do volunteer work. And on my campus, being a public university, they also work.
Ms. NATHAN: More than half of the students are working and that's true nationwide.
CONAN: You mean in jobs to help pay for their school.
Ms. NATHAN: That's right. Or either pay for their school or their lifestyle.
Ms. NATHAN: Of having an iPod and a computer and other things that they want to have in school, including cars, which as I remember we didn't have too many of. And what you find is that they're fitting academic life into a smaller and smaller piece of the whole college experience. And this is stressful.
CONAN: It changed your view of students and of the institution. Did it change your view of your colleagues, the other professors?
Ms. NATHAN: Well, I--you know, certainly I came to appreciate my colleagues, being in their courses. I felt that they were very teaching-oriented as my university is and I did appreciate that. But I also had much more of an empathy and a sympathy for the student circumstances of `My paper's late.' And some of the other things I saw in class, like when a student would sleep in my class.
Ms. NATHAN: I could see, in terms of the pressure, that they were really eating ramen noodles in between--the 15 minutes in between one class and another. And so when a student slept or when a student came with a little meal in my class, I felt differently after the experience than I did before.
CONAN: Take it a little lighter...
Ms. NATHAN: Yeah.
CONAN: ...than you did before that.
Ms. NATHAN: I would say so.
CONAN: And maybe not so personally.
Ms. NATHAN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: We're going to continue talking with Barrett Seaman and Rebekah Nathan about their experiences as 50-somethings going back to school and finding out what college life is like today. If you're a student or a parent of a student, give us a call and tell us what your impressions are, even if you're a professor: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later in the program, we'll go back and follow more up on the story of the day, the continuing crisis on the Gulf Coast as the wake of Katrina continues to leave disaster.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
You remember what it was like in college: you went to class, listened to the professor, you studied, you ate, you slept a little. Well, some of you may have slept a little less than others. Some of you may have partied a little more heartily than others. Are college students today so different? Should you worry they may be going too far and learning more about the world? We're talking about what college students may not tell us and we want to hear your experiences: (800) 989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com.
Our guests are Barrett Seaman, he's the author of the new book, "Binge: Campus Life In An Age of Disconnection and Excess," and Rebekah Nathan, the pen name for Professor Cathy Small of Northern Arizona University. She's the author of "My Freshman Year."
Let's get a caller on the line. This is John calling from Okoboji, in Iowa.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. How you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
JOHN: I'm kind of--I'm sitting here thinking, you know, what do college kids think about their college life compared to maybe their parents or years past and I would just happen to say that I think the media, just in how they portray young people, movies and TV shows, I think how much Saturday morning the TV shows have changed since the days of "Saved by the Bell." Just portraying more, like--really an emphasis on beauty and having fun and having stuff. And I just recently graduated, and I'd have to say I'm pretty amazed by how there's--I think it's really split down the middle. I think you have half the students that really are focused and do their studies, have a good time but don't do it to excess. And then you have the half that really, you know, look at how things are portrayed in the media and the excess and think, `Hey, I can do that, drink. I can do drugs, I can do all that and still, you know, get through school, if I have to cheat a little bit or a lot.' And I just think the media probably in a lot of ways portrays, you know--gives this idea of, `You can have excess and then be entitled to a degree when it's all said and done.'
CONAN: Hmm. Barrett Seaman, does that sound right?
Mr. SEAMAN: Well, I'm not sure I'd pin the blame entirely on the media, having been--spent 30 years myself with Time magazine. I'm a little defensive on that point. I'm not sure we created this. I think the media does reflect what a larger culture is producing. Yes, there are aspects of the media, including advertising, which paint a portrait of people at all levels of life and all ages, as being able to have it all and do it all. And that probably has more impact on young people than it does on anybody else.
JOHN: Yeah, you know, I would totally--I guess I would agree with that. I think of the people I hung around with in college and obviously there were both groups and I did have my fun. And I think about how you're talking with--what parents know and what they don't know--I think that's something that lies in the relationship between parent and child. And, you know, honestly most kids would find that they would have it easier if they would be a little more open with their parents about the way they're probably spending their parents' money a lot of the--in a lot of the cases.
But I don't know what that--the whole media idea, you know, not to offend you, obviously, just--I think, you know, the "Animal House" mentality, it's so strange that movie came out--you know, it's been 30 years, I think, and, you know, kids still talk about it. And, you know, it's kind of moved from the fraternity-sorority life right straight to the dorms. I don't know if you noticed that yourself, but, man, in college for me, it was not the fraternities and sororities that were having the problems with the drugs and the alcohol. Really, it was the dorm life and the apartment life off campus.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Barrett Seaman, you report that the dorms are not necessarily dens of inequity.
Mr. SEAMAN: No, not in terms of the coeducation of dorms. I think many people assume that because dorms are coed there, therefore, these libertine sort of old Roman orgies are going on in there. That isn't the case. I think they tend to be more--develop a sibling kind of relationship. There's a term that they use--the students use called `dorm-cest.' Dorm-cest is having a romantic or sexual relationship with somebody living in your own corridor or entryway, and that's a no-no because when things go bad with that relationship, it can get ugly living down the hall.
Mr. SEAMAN: What I think is more applicable in this case--talking about the drinking, per se--that has moved into the dorms, and I think that is something that has taken place during the course of the last decade and a half since the passage of the 21-year-old drinking age on a national basis. It used to be that parties were open keggers with lots of beer. Now beer has moved to hard liquor and moved out of the open into the dorms and into off-campus apartments, and I think it's become much more dangerous.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. John, thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Words, interestingly, Rebekah Nathan, as an anthropologist, you were interested in the different language. Not only the different terminology, but you were writing about the different speed, the velocity at which people were talking.
Ms. NATHAN: I did. I actually almost found it like a dialect when I first started. Students talk to me all the time as a teacher, but it is not at the same speed or with the same language that they talk to me in the dorms. So I really did feel like an anthropologist, like I was changing cultures, you know.
And in terms of the alcohol, the values and behaviors, one of the things that I saw in dorm life, also as an anthropologist--and this does also have to do with words--is what was on students' doors. And there really is a proliferation of imagery about fun, alcohol and no limits that appears in various kinds of imagery, both visual and written on the doors.
Ms. NATHAN: And to some extent, the values are real, like Barrett was saying, and to some extent, they are just the outward expression of these things, of freedom and no responsibility, that is part of youth culture. And I actually found a surprising number--maybe we're talking about those halves...
Ms. NATHAN: ...but a surprising number of students who did not drink and a surprising--I would say it's about 20 percent at my university--and a surprising number who had introduced--they certainly drink, but they introduced more rules into drinking, like having someone to drive home...
Ms. NATHAN: ...which I don't remember having when I went to school. We didn't have a safe driver.
CONAN: Designated driver.
Ms. NATHAN: We didn't have a designated driver bringing us home, and they do often.
CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail we got. `I graduated from Reed College in 2002, and the mantra for most people there was to work hard and then to party hard. People took their schooling very seriously, but also took their extracurricular activities just as seriously. What better way to learn about physics than to build a bike from scraps and then ride down the hill under the influence. Monday morning would come with people ready for class and a couple of bumps and bruises.' That sounds like college to me.
Ms. NATHAN: Indeed.
CONAN: Here's another one. This--`When my son left for college three years ago, I told him that in his college experience, there would be things he could tell me about, things he'd need to wait five years to tell me about and things that he'll never want me to know, if I left it up to him to determine which events fell into which categories.'
Barrett Seaman, the chuckle of familiarity there.
Mr. SEAMAN: Well, sure. There are lots of things that go on in college that you don't want--there are things that I don't want to tell my father, and he's almost 93 years old, that happened in college and that's quite natural. I think it's important for parents to keep the dialogue going with their students. That isn't to say every day. In fact, one of the things that I advise is that once you send your child off to college at age 18 or 19, you should do so with the assumption that they're on their way to adulthood and let them grow up. Don't hover over them. Don't--as the administrators of many colleges referred to them--be a helicopter parent, who's 30 feet above the dormitory willing to step in at the slightest problem that their child is having. College is a place to grow up, but I think in order to do that, we need to treat them more as adults.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Lori, Lori calling from Ann Arbor, in Michigan.
LORI (Caller): Hi. As you know, this is a college town.
CONAN: Yes, indeed.
LORI: I live by campus and so--I moved here a year ago to this particular neighborhood, and it's parties all night till 3 in the morning. They start at 11 and go till 3 or 4, shouting, you know, the F-word and everything at the top of the lungs; for blocks you can hear it. What I'm wondering is, is I don't see the evidence of some kind of sense that they're preparing themselves for contribution to their communities or contributions somewhere out there. It all seems kind of narcissistic and pleasure-driven and kind of ephemeral pleasure and that there's no sense of--they've got a duty to prepare themselves and this is the time that they're supposed to be doing that. They've got a duty to prepare themselves for making a contribution. Please tell me that you saw evidence of this somewhere when you were in these studies.
CONAN: Rebekah Nathan, why don't we go to you first.
Ms. NATHAN: Well, I saw one evidence of that that might help, and that is that when I do interviews with students, it's very clear that the older students have narratives where they begin to talk about their stupid freshman year. And they have a way of looking at it that suggests that they are growing, that they no longer feel that they want to be drinking out all night or partying all night, that that was something that they did when they were younger. And so I think that what Barrett is saying, that this is some kind of a--it is a learning experience where people are learning their relationship to these things, like sex and drugs and alcohol. And I do see, in a sense, you know, from a teacher's point of view or an adult's point of view, progress. I do see changes in them from freshman to senior.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, Barrett Seaman, you wrote a lot about people who were quite serious; vocationals and collegiates you called them.
Mr. SEAMAN: Yes. Well, those weren't my terms; they've been thrown about by student affairs specialists for a long time. But you can certainly see the real students out there who not only do their homework and write the papers, they go way beyond that. They are--you can tell they're on their way to being another Rebekah Nathan or Cathy Small, to get a PhD and immerse themselves in the academic world, the life of the mind.
There are other students--and I say this is kind of the hard-core middle, if you will--who are the collegiate types, who want to get it all. And I would say to our caller in Ann Arbor, you're probably going to see some of that behavior you'd like to see during the day. But you're not going to see it at 2 in the morning, I guarantee you.
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Mr. SEAMAN: Although, I was surprised, actually, with the number of students who told me that they finally got around to doing their homework at around 11 or 12 at night, and they'll work from 11 or 12 until 2 or 3 in the morning. I don't know when they sleep, to be honest with you. It is remarkable how late they stay up at these campuses.
CONAN: Rebekah, when you were taking the five cla--did you keep up with the homework?
Ms. NATHAN: I did keep up with the homework, but I also had to extend my day the way other people did. So I was also up at midnight at least writing the last draft of the second paper.
CONAN: You wrote drafts. Boy, that's ambition there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NATHAN: Right. Right. Right.
CONAN: Lori, thanks very much for the call.
LORI: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: All right. Let's talk now with Michael. Michael is calling us from Northern Illinois University.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, there.
CONAN: Hi, Michael. You're on the air.
MICHAEL: Yes. I'm the director of the National Social Norm Research Center, and we make...
Ms. NATHAN: Oh, yeah.
MICHAEL: ...a business of studying the norms of college students. And what we find is that the vast majority of students are doing the right thing most of the time, and that's the best kept secret on campus; that, like the callers have stated earlier, there is a lot of attention to either end of the bell curve 'cause that's where the news media focuses, and the vast majority in the middle who are drinking moderately and responsibly or not at all who are putting in their time studying, who aren't having multiple partners or massive sex behavior or what have you, those are the unseen many. And that this misperception of what's going on on campus is pernicious in that it actually creates imaginary peer pressure to fit into these behaviors, and it suppresses the healthy, good behavior that the students have. They hide because they think they're abnormal for being good.
CONAN: Barrett Seaman, would you agree with that?
Mr. SEAMAN: Yes and no. I'm not sure that this group in the middle is a massive majority. I think they certainly are a majority and that's the way most students act on a day-in, day-out basis. I also am very familiar with the social norming technique, and I think it's a wonderful approach. It's kind of a cognitive dissonance approach where if you begin to challenge the perceptions that students have about the behavior on the campus, that their peers are drinking--they think they're drinking 10 drinks a night when in fact they're only drinking three drinks a week. Once they begin to face up to the reality of that, it will affect their own behavior and moderate it. However, I have to say that I do think that there is a lot of intensive drinking today that I don't recall in my college days. And the veteran administrators and professors I talk to would agree that those who drink are drinking with an intensity today that is quite unusual. And I measure that by the number of hospitalizations that have become routine on college campuses across the country.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.
MICHAEL: You're welcome. Take...
CONAN: We're talking about college life today. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an e-mail. `I'm a student and I can testify the truth about perfection. I was a music performance major. I would normally take between 20 and 23 credit-hours per quarter and would be expected to practice my instrument for three our four hours per day on top of that. You're expected to do all of those things and it is practically impossible. It really spawns sleep deprivation and other stress-related illnesses like eating disorders. Also, one thing I do not tell my parents, I am a nude model for figure drawing classes in order to help my budget. It's the only job that pays more than minimum wage.'
Well, let's get another caller on the line. This is David. David calling us from Vienna.
DAVID (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, David. You're on the line. You're on the air.
DAVID: Yeah, hi. I just dropped my only child off to college in a small liberal arts college near New York just this past Saturday, and already I'm getting telephone calls. The poor fellow is--he's an American who lived in Europe, and in Europe the drinking age is 16, and drinking is not a big deal. And of course he's shocked. And he was also shocked at the incredible freedom of sex in his own suite where the whole night two or three boys had sex the whole night, and my son was really in shock. He's very open to us and can tell us all that, which I'm very pleased about. But it's a subject for concern. And I want to jump in and do something, but I'm trying to show a little withstraint and--restraint, excuse me--and hopefully he'll deal with the problems himself.
CONAN: Well, earlier, Barrett Seaman was saying, you know, don't hover too closely. Rebekah Nathan, would you agree with that?
Ms. NATHAN: I would. You know, it's part of college life really to come to terms with some of these things. Unless he's coming to you asking you for the help, I would agree with Barrett on this. Don't hover.
DAVID: Yes. No, he just wanted to tell us. He wasn't asking for help. And at the orientation at the college, they warned the parents to try and let the students make their own decisions and fall on their face when need be and, I guess, learn.
Ms. NATHAN: Right.
DAVID: But it's certainly a different situation than...
Ms. NATHAN: Well...
DAVID: ...it was 30 years ago.
Ms. NATHAN: It's the same with the social norming. There are a lot of different kinds of people at school, and I think part of the challenge of the first year is to find the people who are like you.
DAVID: Exactly. That takes--it's only been a few days. I'm sure he will.
Ms. NATHAN: Right.
CONAN: David, good luck.
DAVID: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We appreciate it.
And we'd like to thank our guests today. You just heard from Rebekah Nathan, the author of "My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned By Becoming a Student." She was with us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.
Ms. NATHAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And Barrett Seaman is the author of the new book "Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You," and he joined us from our bureau in New York as well. I think they were sitting in the same studio, in fact, there in New York.
Ms. NATHAN: We were indeed.
Mr. SEAMAN: We're side by side, Neal.
CONAN: Side by side. Well, I hope you had a good time. Thanks very much, Barrett. Appreciate it.
Ms. NATHAN: Thank you.
Mr. SEAMAN: Enjoyed it very much.
CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we will turn again to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Officials fear the death toll may rise dramatically as emergency workers learn more about the destruction in New Orleans and further east along the Gulf Coast. Stay tuned for that.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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