Suggestions for the Campus Activist

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.

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9 Responses to Suggestions for the Campus Activist

  1. G. Weaire says:

    There a couple of other things that argue in favor of professorial reluctance to be too involved.

    1) There’s the question of what role we’re playing. Depending on exactly what the students are protesting, we are interacting with them in this context either as fellow-citizens, or as fellow-members of the campus community. It may not be a good idea to get that mixed up with our role as teachers.

    2) Some of us would have to keep in mind what we’re really qualified and able to teach. You, from what you’ve said on this blog, have substantial personal experience with activism at the undergraduate level, and really would know what you were talking about.

    I, on the other hand, wouldn’t – what little experience I’ve had was in very different contexts, some of it in another country. My first response to a student who asked me about how to be an effective activist would be that they would probably be better off asking someone else. N.B. students, like many other members of the general public, are quite capable of attributing vast general knowledge on any subject under the sun to anyone called a “professor”, without realizing just how specialized we are, so there is a danger here.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, absolutely. Professors have a tendency to speak professorially or to conflate that citizen/teacher role. To some extent, I’m doing that even here–saying, “I have experience specific to this case”, “I have knowledge in general about the history of effective and political ineffective movements” and “As a fellow citizen in this community, here’s my slightly condescending elder-statesman advice to you”.

    But, on the other hand, most good teaching involves some conflation of those roles: you’re always speaking simultaneously as a person who has lived life, acquired expertise *and* as citizen of the institution.

  3. Western Dave says:

    This model works well for something like the Divestment movement, but less well for something like the Free Speech Movement. The latter situation, essentially was “I Call Shenaningans” on the whole establishment (thank you South Park), and therefore transferring to an institution that was more ideologically suitable wasn’t really an option. Berkeley was saying it was for all the things that students were advocating for, just not as they applied to students when it made others (donors?) uncomfortable. It never was really clear to me why Berkeley decided to ban student political activity in the first place.

  4. jpool says:

    Good discussion. A couple of thoughts:

    There is probably no way to give student activists advice without sounding condescending, but that’s no reason not to do it. While I was an undergrad at Macalester College in the early 1990s, there was a faculty fight over the future of the January term. Students were generally in favor of keeping it and editorials in the student paper began to angrily criticize those faculty who were identified with ending it. One of the identified faculty advocates for keeping the J-term took the time to write a letter to the paper pointing out that there were elements of the debate that students might be unaware of, and defending their colleagues and ability of professors to argue in good faith without becoming The Enemy. The tone of the letter was perceived by many students to be chiding and snippy, but its point was respected and the general tenor of student debate changed afterward.

    There are also different kind of advice that faculty can give. Tactical advice might be useful in a few situations, though in general I would agree that students should be allowed to make their own mistakes and that a college campus is one of the safest places to learn by doing. The more useful but more difficult piece of advice would be of the “Here, from my perspective, is what you may not know or understand about this particular situation” variety. This is usually impossible to give because of privacy concerns and conflicting professional responsibilities. It’s also why most campus activism, particularly around issues most immediate to students, like hiring and tenure decisions, are doomed from the start.

    Which brings me to the part where I strongly disagree with your #6: Questions of process pretty much always arise in the course of responding to specific issues. Asking student groups to go back and start over separately on the process front is both unreasonable and asking them to jettison any momentum that they’ve built up. More than this, students are in the unfortunate position of being encouraged to think of themselves as citizens of a particular community, while remaining politically rightless. This is a tension that never resolves well (even for youth, who are generally willing to tolerate more of this than most citizens). Student governments generally have no formal power. How many institutions have even non-voting student representation in their board of governors/trustees meetings? In such a situation it is entirely predictable that mundane issues of institutional policy will escalate into student occupations, because they don’t have any formal access to institutional authority.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s fine to discover a question of process in the course of waging struggle on behalf of a specific issue. But at the point at which you decide that it’s really a process issue, then it’s a process issue, not about reconstructing deliberative process so that you get a victory on your specific issue. Juryrigging a reform of procedure to guarantee you your specific issue is a disaster.

    Let’s say you decide that the problem is that you need a partially or all-elected board of trustees, that it’s wrong that a non-representative body serve as the final arbiter of decisions. Then it’s equally wrong to be sure in advance that an elected body will back whatever the position is that you came into the fight with. When the specific issue remains first and foremost in your thoughts, it’s too tempting to arrange a procedural reform so as to guarantee you a substantive victory. Not to mention that shifting to process is often just a b.s. move, an attempt to keep the flame burning when people disagree with you in a sustained way.

  6. moldbug says:

    Shorter tburke: don’t be an activist.

    I mean, really. What would Saul Alinsky think of this list? “Rules for Moderates?” Has history ever recorded such a thing as a moderate, reasonable radical, whose first priority is to be fair and intellectually honest? In individual cases, surely – but as a herd? Isn’t this a case of attempting to produce salt-free salt?

    Professor Burke’s goal, to put it bluntly, is to design an activism which is not evil. Surely he has known many activists, among them of course himself, who are decent, fair and reasonable people. But I fear he is mistaking a passive ingredient for the active one.

    Activism succeeds because activists – in service, of course, to the greater good – are willing to do evil deeds. Activism attracts new recruits because activism succeeds. Activism without evil, therefore, is dead and ceases to exist, or at best will be replaced by a hilarious, institutionalized, bureaucratic parody of itself. (Everyone should watch that NYU clip. It’s funny as hell. Don’t taze me, bro! I got rights!)

    And surely the good Professor has read Halifax’s Character of a Trimmer – perhaps the earliest statement in the English language of the great principle of moderation. The modern observer notes, however, that Halifax’s vital center isn’t exactly the same vital center as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s. It’s not exactly to the left of it, either. Halifax was a great man and a great writer – but I think I know what Roger L’Estrange would make of the matter.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I would take you seriously if I thought you were an ironist who had no dogs in any fight. Or if I thought you read the stuff you google with such facility.

  8. moldbug says:

    Professor Burke,

    Why shouldn’t I have a dog in the fight? Don’t you? Surely you have the talent and temperament to converse civilly with those who have bet on the opposite dog. Or to put it differently: if you don’t, who does?

    Believe what you will – though I can assure you, without even Googling, that the word ‘activist’ is not found in the collected works of George Savile, Marquess of Halifax.

    I appreciate the anguish of those who, trained in the carefully manicured version of history that the official information services force-feed the intelligent but unwary youth who spend $200K on an education, suddenly discover that all of actual history (before 1922) is free and a click away.

    That said, Google’s indexing of these old books is truly wonderful. It’s almost as if they have applied their PageRank algorithm to historical citations, though that would be a technical challenge of insane proportions. And in fact, I did find Halifax’s Character in exactly that way – I was googling “trimmer” to find a period description of this now-lost term of political abuse. (Sadly, we have long since forgotten that a statesman could be anything other than a trimmer.)

    But although I am by no means an expert on 17th-century English politics, the essay is so famous that even I had heard of it – I forget where. I am pretty sure it is his most famous work. And, unlike Barack Obama, Halifax was a writer of real talent.

    Still, it would be a pity if the mere fact that I brought it up were to keep you from an essay which is (a) one of the classics of political writing in English, and (b) I have every confidence will speak directly to you. Try it.

    And while I’m recommending books, let me put in a vote for Beveridge’s tragically unfinished Lincoln biography, which I’m currently reading for the second time. It is one of the only two Lincoln biographies I know which is neither hagiography nor demonology – the other being Edgar Lee Masters’ Lincoln the Man. Sadly, both of these just missed the 1922 cutoff, and so are available only in your local library. But they, too, will not disappoint.

    I do need to find out more about L’Estrange, who is also mentioned (as Google will tell you) in Defoe’s Shortest-Way with the Dissenters. You’d probably enjoy reading that, as well, although you are unlikely to find yourself agreeing with it as do I. It turns out that people have had dogs in this particular fight for quite some time.

  9. jpool says:


    If that’s all your saying then, sure — if one is calling for a completely democratic process then you shouldn’t presume that you get to determine the outcome of that process (though of course you can continue to lobby for a particular outcome). As far as I can tell, though, the TBNYU folks aren’t calling for democracy or even something formally resembling it, simply for increased representation (a single elected student representative, even with voting rights, couldn’t determine anything on their own). I agree that it is unwieldy to yoke demands for amity with Gaza institutions and students, to demands about tuition and financial aid, to demands for formal student representation to the board of trustees, etc. It’s also understandable given the necessity of coalition politics and the absence of systems of formal representation. It’s not philosophically inconsistent to say, “We want to have a formal voice in decision making” and also say “We want you to make these decisions.”

    My guess is that part of your discomfort with TBNYU’s approach comes down to the frame of “demands,” and the nature of the authority they claim to make such demands. I sympathize with this while at the same time not being entirely sure how else they’re supposed to do it. There are good reasons why transient undergrad students should not get to determine long-term policy at their institution, but minimal student representation and increased transparency from a quasi-public institution seem like very little to ask. I suspect that NYU will not grant the student representative under the “give em an inch” principle, but doing so would at least give the administration a reasonable answer to the “what are we supposed to do” question. And of course, as you suggest, the elected student rep would then have the opportunity to turn around and vote against amity with Gaza or contract negotiations with TAs.

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