I’ve been thinking recently about what distinguishes small residential colleges and universities from vast research institutions. My first thoughts always turn to curriculum, teaching, scholarship, the practices that are a part of my training and work. That’s what I write about a lot here. The other obvious place to turn, however, is the residential as a defining feature of these places.
The problem with that move is that faculty don’t see themselves as responsible for and engaged with residential or community life at small institutions. We recognize that a lot of learning, in the broadest sense, happens outside of classrooms. We are within community ourselves as activists, speakers, mentors, participant, colleagues, friends. However, relatively few faculty see community life as part of their work or as a domain of intentional, professional practices. For one, we’re already busy enough. For another, we have colleagues on staff whose primary job is to work with residential life and community.
The deeper obstacle is that I’m not sure contemporary students would welcome the transformation of the entirety of the community’s life into an intentionally educational experience. That would make community life subject to some of the same responsibility for balancing commitment and skepticism, breadth and depth, control by teachers and self-directed agency of students, intellectualism and pragmatism that at least notionally attends on students’ work within the curriculum. A curriculum may not always succeed in directing students to set a balance between each of those pairs, but we try at least.
Perhaps some of the same balance gets struck in community experience simply through experience. In life, after all, most of us are constantly adjusting where we want to be in these kinds of ranges. But college is four years in a pressurized, intensified and very expensive environment. We may aim to enable students to learn for themselves by the time they graduate, but we do a lot of work intended to secure that objective. Approaching community in the same spirit should mean doing more than just hoping that everyone learns a bit here and there about how to deal with life and do what they want to do.
Doing more at the present moment would mean untangling a frustrating and potent contradiction in residential higher education. Even if we don’t want to make community life a platform for some kind of intentional facilitation or learning, we might want to do a bit of untangling anyway. What I think we’re dealing with at the moment is a slow-motion collision between the comprehensive rejection of in loco parentis after 1968 and the increasingly comprehensive demand for managerial governance of community life within colleges after 1980. Where this leaves us is the contradictory demand, often from students themselves, that we should be everywhere and nowhere in the life of our community, that community life should be both totally controlled and completely free, that administrators should know everything about the lives of students and nothing at all about them.
At Swarthmore this semester, for example, some students were deeply annoyed that the administration attempted to enforce a rule against parties between midnight and 2am on Thursday nights (or Friday mornings, to be more precise). Other students are this very minute angry that the administration has not acted more forcefully, rapidly or directly against incidents in the past week of homophobic graffiti being scrawled at the edge of campus and a visitor brandishing a Confederate symbol during a party Friday night. More rapid or direct action in the vision of some students, considering that the Dean of Students sent an email Monday morning about an incident that happened Friday night, seems to involve more mandated training about diversity, speech, discrimination and similar issues. Or even in some views, more surveillance, proactive control and policing of the community.
I don’t feel this is the only time I’ve seen these contradictions in the community life of the college, or at other colleges: a split between resenting the authority of the college over community affairs and desiring that this authority be used more assertively, capaciously, comprehensively to remake the community into a more perfected or ideal reflection of the aspirations of some of its members. Students often complain that they feel managed, placated, diverted by administrators or ignored by faculty in the making of these simultaneous demands for less and more control. Some of them want both comprehensive inclusion in deliberative practices within the community and comprehensive use of centralized executive authority over community. Some students want one or the other, not both. Some want neither, seeing their ‘community’ as something largely separate from the college or as something almost entirely integrated into their program of study.
I’d like students to understand that if they feel managed or ignored that’s partly a consequence of the unmanageability of these aspirations, both individually and in their contradictory combinations. The easier thing to do for faculty and staff by far is to go underground, hide, avoid, at some of these moments and leave it to the deans to absorb the charge. As a junior faculty member, one of the most unnerving things I ever did was to accept an invitation to be one of several faculty who went to listen to a large group of students who were profoundly, deeply upset about the perception that the college’s Intercultural Center had been vandalized by smeared feces and vomit. I completely understood (and still understand) why these students were upset: this Center was a safe space in an unsafe world, a world that often seems to be getting no more accepting or just, and they felt violated that someone here had done something so ugly and aggressive. But many of the students wanted the police on campus, or the FBI: they wanted the perpetrators of a hate crime found, expelled and prosecuted. I nervously felt it was important to point out that they really didn’t want that, that they wouldn’t want an aggressive police presence on campus as a general practice, that they were asking for something that would set a precedent that we’d all regret and that contradicted most of their own deepest political convictions. It wasn’t long afterwards that we all found out that the feces were cake batter, that maybe there wasn’t vomit, and that it was hard to tell what the intent had been–to deface? a drunken attempt at making cake?
Inside the curriculum, my first and last commitment as an academic is to create a safe space for unsafe thoughts, to explore different sides of difficult issues, to let heresies and orthodoxies walk hand in hand, to open up conversations wherever possible, to problematize and perturb. And to try, however I can, to make room at the table for all sorts of identities, all sorts of ways of seeing and being, while trying to make sure that everyone has to deal with their share of challenges and doubts. I think that’s how I add value as a teacher. If I were to expand or extend that ethos into community, I feel as if it would be unwelcome. I also think that’s the only way to move beyond students being “managed” or deferred in their demands or complaints.
It makes me nervous to consider that move. I tried a bit earlier this semester by sending a quite critical email to a group posting anonymous fliers in my building about compensation and other administrative policies and immediately doubted that I had done the right thing. I think some of my students would laugh to hear that I find this extension into community life an intimidating prospect, but I do. Intimidating partly because I hate to disappoint or criticize students that I like and admire. The group back in 1998 that was upset about the Intercultural Center included some students who are among the people I’ve felt most fortunate to teach and know in my whole career. Intimidating too because I can’t decide if it helps or hurts to play the role of a teacher in this context. Older people are cautious for good reasons and bad reasons, but maybe it never helps (right or wrong) to try and tell someone younger that they they’re making a mistake. Maybe that’s what’s educational: try a campaign, make a demand, create a project and then try to figure out why it didn’t work out as you’d hoped it would. Maybe faculty should just stay away for that reason.
But that leaves our administration having to carry the weight of community as an intentional project. And that can lead to long-term institutional changes that everyone with an interest in the long-term will regret. Case in point from this week’s fallout: some students want the Dean’s Office to insist on officially mandated “Bystander Training” that will instruct students (and others perhaps: these things have a way of spreading) how to act if you’re a bystander when an incident of racism, hatred or discrimination happens in your presence. The whole idea bothers me enormously. First, because I think there’s not much evidence that extensive drills or rehearsals of what to do in the case of emergencies or incidents that are by their very nature idiosyncratic when we actually experience or witness them does much to produce optimal or ideal responses. Secondly because I find the idea of optimal or ideal responses in this case severely troubling. “Bystander Training” takes a profound, ancient ethical problem: am I my brother’s keeper? and tries to turn it into a cleanly technical matter, the province of a technocratic system and a command hierarchy. If there’s anything that we should be debating, making messy, exploring, it’s “what are my obligations to other people, and how should I live up to them?”. Equally and relatedly, “what do some words and symbols and acts mean to other people, and how should we come to know that?”
All this alone is reason to be involved: because we’re stakeholders in community too. Maybe we shouldn’t be teachers, but we can certainly be participants. The problem, of course, is that in a college, the first, best way for faculty to participate as stakeholders is in the roles that they’re best accustomed to, with the responsibilities that they’re most inclined to carry on their shoulders.