There’s an old idea in historical research that the material we find in archives often make their authors into “witnesses in spite of themselves”, that what people meant to record or note is often quite at odds with what they end up revealing.
This video from the end of the recent student protests at New York University is a pretty good example of that same idea. Some of the negative reaction to it at various sites is cruel or excessive, but the video doesn’t exactly put the protesters in a very good light, with their bad mix of naivety and grandiosity. (The person holding the camera and speaking most prominently is apparently not an NYU student, however.)
I’ve written about this question before, but I never know what my teaching responsibility is when I see student activists blundering strategically or making what seem to me to be weakly documented or poorly thought-out claims. This applies whether I’m thinking about conservative groups, leftist groups, or single-issue groups that aren’t particularly ideological. There’s a very good pedagogical case to be made that one just ought to let students learn through experience about what doesn’t work, or about the need to think carefully before acting, let them make mistakes and blunders.
I remember one broad protest at Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate that was directed at the faculty’s pedagogy and curriculum, called “Free University”. I went into the tents that the organizers pitched on the front lawn feeling loosely supportive of the event and left it reeling with the intensity of my distaste for the most strident voices and for the conception of the whole event. It wasn’t about thinking through the choices being made in the curriculum, but about an absolutist, thoughtless rejection of almost everything the university had to offer, without taking the next responsible step of advocating that we all just leave the university. I don’t think that it would have helped at all to have a professor come there and tell the conveners that, or to push back on the uncritical mood that prevailed under the tent. I’m not sure you can ever tell people about the lessons you’ve learned in your own life in a way that isn’t patronizing. Making mistakes is important, too. I suspect that even the organizers back in the 1980s may have gotten it out of their system, realizing after saying all that aloud to thirty or forty listeners, it sounded pretty weak. Maybe the NYU students will realize, if they watch that footage, that the camera does more to indict them than it does to insure against “brutality”.
There’s also a more cynical managerial case to be made for a hands-off strategy, because student activists are often hoping and waiting for faculty or administration to criticize them or discourage them. There’s some reason to think that the professors or administrators (or fellow students) who actually engage activists critically (again, whatever the ideology) are likely to end up in the crosshairs. At least in some cases, activists are hoping to engage some very distant, difficult or amorphous problem and using the campus as a proxy target, a stand-in for some remote enemy. Stepping in as a critical interlocutor is like volunteering to play the part of Snidley Whiplash.
There’s an argument that when you just leave student activists to say and do whatever they want, and maybe throw them a mock concession or two if they get to be too much of a hassle, you’re being far more contemptuous and condescending to them than you would be if you disagreed with them, that the really respectful (and professorial) thing to do is to share some criticisms, set some challenges, give some advice, to treat student activists as responsible adults who are culpable and creditable for their action. Conversely, if you’re an activist, that kind of critical response should be what you’re craving in the best way. Not just because it means that it’s a sign of respect, but because that’s what will make you better at critically engaging political and social issues in the future. Too many students with activist concerns (again, across the political spectrum) leave campuses completely unprepared for participation in the wider public sphere or to deal with legal and institutional systems which are not predisposed to treat them relatively gently.
Without getting too attached to any specific case, here’s a few general bits of advice derived from my own experience as an undergraduate and that I’ve seen as a faculty member, as well as observations of doings on other campuses. I honestly think these apply to some conservative as well as left-wing campaigns of action I’ve observed on campuses.
1) Do your homework. If it’s worth taking the time of other people in your community, it’s worth taking your time to seriously and independently understand the issues you’re focused on. This includes understanding some of the lines of possible opposition or criticism, and I mean really understanding them and engaging them. You need to have some degree of confident ownership over an issue before you catalyze activism around it. If you’re still exploring the issue, stick to exploration first. Ask questions. Be curious.
2) Keep your rhetoric under control. Don’t self-aggrandize. Recognize the seriousness of questioning the personal or institutional integrity of your opponents. Be very careful not to misrepresent a meeting or a process you’ve participated in. I’ve seen student activists make unbelievably harsh accusations about perceived or real opponents and then be stunned or surprised when that produces an intensely negative reaction. If you’re going to accuse someone of being dishonest or lying or concealing facts or behaving unethically, be damned sure you’ve got some serious evidence to that effect.
3) Think through what you’re asking people or institutions to do, and try to be plausible in your demands in terms of what an institution can actually accomplish, the time frame it can accomplish it in, and how it might accomplish it. This is especially important if what you’re asking for involves some shift in resource allocation. It’s not up to other people to tell you how to afford what you’re asking for: that’s your job. If you don’t want the institution to give up anything it’s already doing, talk about how to raise new revenues. If you can’t do that, talk about what the institution needs to give up. Know something about the comparability of costs within institutions: don’t argue that a $10 million obligation can be paid for with $50,000 in trivial savings. If you’re at a point where you’re arguing that the institution must become something completely different from what it presently is, understand the magnitude of that demand. Don’t whistle past the graveyard: when you’re asking for a hard choice, own up to it.
3a) Be willing at some point to accept that it’s not the institution that has the problem, it’s you, that your convictions necessitate that you go somewhere else, that you reject what’s on offer where you are and find something that fits your principles elsewhere. If you really can’t stand the liberal, godless professoriate at your current institution, there are places better suited to your values. If you reject the hegemony of science and the military-industrial complex, there are other institutions closer to your philosophy. At some point you have to ask, “Why does this place urgently need to be what I want it to be? Why do I still believe in it, if I reject almost the totality of what it now is and has been?”
4) Don’t claim to represent the will of the community or the people or real Americans or whatever the common construction is in your ideological neck-of-the-woods unless you’ve got rock-solid evidence that you do, which means not just polls or guesses or overheard conversations. Maybe not even a conventional plebiscite. If you think you’ve got a good argument about something that should be done, then that’s good enough: stand on the argument. If you think it’s important that what you’re asking for represent the consensus values or majoritarian sentiment of your community then find an independent, serious way to verify that. In any event, however, understand the seriousness of asking for something that may have an enormous impact on your community or institution, and the responsibility you’re taking on by doing so. If there are going to be long-term consequences, keep in mind if you’re a student that you likely won’t be around when those unfold (good or bad). It’s too easy to talk yourself into believing that you’re crusading on behalf of everyone, and that leads to rhetorical problems, as noted previously. If you’ve got a principled case, make the case, and worry later about how strong your base of support is. (If it’s weak, you’ll find out.)
5) When you make a mistake or errors of judgment, don’t blame other people. Learn from mistakes by owning them. Blaming other people is something that students sometimes do fairly blithely at times, again without seeming to understand why this can really piss people off.
6) Don’t answer to concrete objections about your program of action with metaconcerns about discourse or frameworks or processes. If process models are your issue, start with process models. Substituting a concern for process only after you’ve come up against substantial opposition to a concrete program of action is bait-and-switch. If you become convinced after a fight over some concrete problem that process really is the issue, then back up some and start over. Don’t use process as a Trojan horse to get what you were really after in the first place. If you’re serious about changing the way an institution deliberates or decides, you can’t be sure in advance that those changes will produce a particular decision or course of action that you favor. (Unless your proposed change is to make you and your compatriots the final and absolute dictators of the community.) Plus, honestly, when you change suddenly into talk about discourse or metaknowledge or frameworks after having been quite concrete, it usually looks like you’re evading the issues that are on the table.