One of the more frustrating struggles threading through the protests has been about who is entitled to be “an ally”. What this often amounts to is well-meaning white kids begging for a gold star, an affirmation of their goodness. Sometimes accompanied by asking for that gold star despite some dissent from some goal or another of the protesters.
The word “ally” has no meaning independent of a strategic objective. It doesn’t mean “friend”: you want to know if someone’s your friend, ask them when you’re sitting down together over a beer. It doesn’t mean “colleague” or “peer”. Someone’s my colleague if they work with me: it’s not a choice that I can withhold, and whatever obligations I have to a colleague or peer are dictated by a professional culture that’s bigger than me.
So if we take the list of objectives that the student activists offered this week, the only time “ally” is a relevant word is whether they need allies to accomplish them. Considering that almost all of them not only involve changes in the structure of the institution but also the working labor of its employees, I would say yes, yes they do need allies, willing allies, unless they’re willing to embrace a highly centralized and corporatized university where the President is a CEO who can hire and fire and discipline and dictate at will. (Which some of the students seem to skirt dangerously close to embracing in fact.) But this is the point: if you’re working towards an objective you can’t accomplish on your own, you don’t get to choose your allies. It’s not your privilege to anoint them. You need whomever you need.
You can make choices about how you treat your allies, about the terms of your alliance, about how long your alliance will continue. You can think about that in terms of instrumentality (as little or as long as necessary, no longer) or in terms of philosophy (as long as possible, in the view that alliances are spiritually and politically a good thing in and of themselves, a sign of the achievement of pluralism and democracy and peace). You can even decide that some alliances are so distasteful that you will defer realizing your goals until you can find some other way to get there.
And you generally need to have a realistic view of your position in the alliance, of your degree of dependency. The students at Swarthmore and elsewhere who hope to forge significantly new institutional processes for dealing with charges of harassment, assault and rape have an external ally with considerable power that they reasonably hope will assist them in reaching their goals.
The students who want a shift in the curriculum and in the content and philosophy of teaching at the college do not. But at some disorienting moments in the process of the last week, trying to talk about those action items directly has been rather like talking with an unsympathetic boss.
“I want those items on my desk by MONDAY!!!” (pounding fist on desk).
“But, boss, you know, there’s a problem with…”
“I don’t want to hear it! MONDAY!”
One of the supreme frustrations of the last week has been hearing some students report that for four years they’ve been “working on faculty diversity, with nothing to show for it”. Have they been working with faculty who are experienced with those issues, who have been working on the same issue, in the committees and structures that engage those issues? Are they aware of what faculty and administrators have been doing, saying, struggling with? Not from what I’ve seen and heard. In some cases, students have said that’s not their brief, not their problem, and that they can’t be expected to do that work or know those things: that they want to tell us what they want and expect us to do it for them.
Sometimes the question is not “Can we be your allies?” but “Can you be ours?” To be our allies in relationship to that strategic goal, you have to be willing to understand the landscape of faculty training, hiring and retention. There are constraints that are bigger than us, problems beyond us, that we can work with and think through but that we don’t control. There are really basic considerations, too, where you can do more harm than good in making demands if you’re not aware of them at the outset. If, for example, you ask that there be more GLBTQ faculty, you have to recognize that there are practical and philosophical problems with designing a position that is about sexuality or identity or gender (etc.) and thinking that this will get you diversity. The ways that faculty find their disciplines and subjects has mapping onto identity and subjectivity but it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. There is a bigger problem with imagining that in the process of a search you can identify and prefer GLBTQ faculty. You’re not allowed to ask someone in interviews nor should you be nor would most GLBTQ faculty want that you should. You sure as hell shouldn’t be sitting around in a meeting trying to make a decision based on your gaydar.
There is no way to get around the fact that students are here (I hope) because they believe that trained and skilled teaching and academic professionals know some things that the students don’t know, have training the students don’t have even by the time they graduate, and that some kinds of authority and hierarchy have to flow out from that disparity. The only reason to stay here if you don’t believe that is out of a cynical desire to collect the credential of the degree as a precondition of middle-class life, a goal that many of the activist students have disparaged. So on at least some of those action items, there is no way out but through: if you want them, you’ll have to listen to and respect what we know about the practical and philosophical limits and difficulties with them as proposals.
I’m not directly involved in this fight (thank goodness) and am not close enough to the events to have much insight. Mostly I just wish more good interactions and wisdom to all.
But… You do make one statement in this post that I’m sure is mistaken, and possibly in a way that indicates some significant underlying issues. You say:
There is an important third reason that’s being demonstrated by the very events. Students greatly value their association with other students, the time and space to work out life issues with others, and if they are lucky the projects they are engaged in (mostly with other students) which may last far beyond college. Faculty, facilities, etc. may help with these, but most of the energy, knowledge, choices, etc. come from the students themselves, and much of the knowledge and skill that is acquired in the process is generated by student effort, not faculty guidance or other contributions.
I don’t know how this plays into your construal of events or options going forward, but it seems very likely that if you really don’t see this third motivation for being a Swarthmore student, that not-seeing makes constructive outcomes more difficult.
I think that “a cynical desire to collect the credential of the degree as a precondition of middle-class life” is actually far more prevalent than you let on. It may be a matter of differences in student bodies — I would imagine that the kind of students who seek out and are accepted by Swarthmore are going to be much more likely to buy into the idea of learning from the masters (or at least more willing to say they are) than the students at a lower-level public institution. But given the state of the current job market and the lack of realistic opportunities for students especially in certain areas of the country, I can hardly fault the cynical degree-collecting mindset.
Jed: Yes–at least some of the issues now are about students relating to students. But that still involves us in two ways: first, in the (somewhat contradictory) ways they want us to be involved in regulating or controlling those interactions and second in the question of what is the value we add as an institution to those interactions. (If we didn’t add any value, then presumably young people could simply go live where there are lots of young people without paying tuition and attending classes and so on.)
Stentor: Absolutely there are folks just here (or any other college/university) who want the credential and could care less about the content. But that is, if you take them seriously, not this group of activist students. Moreover, even for the credential-collecting set, I’d just as soon spend some effort convincing them that there is genuine value in what the faculty have to offer them rather than reaffirming their sense that the curriculum is a bunch of useless obstacles that are being sadistically placed in the way of people who are already capable of doing the jobs and living the lives that they have mapped out for themselves.
Thanks for the reply. I’m on somewhat thin ice because my own participation in academic “revolution” were decades ago — though in many ways apparently similar — and my (mostly second hand) views of academic life more recently have been disturbingly lacking in revolutionary zeal. So my understanding is questionable.
Of course student age young people do often live in clumps outside of the academic environment and sometimes engage in the same sort of protests etc. In many ways this seems healthier because their concerns are not focused on a single enclosing institutional structure — and that focus seems to me to distort their engagement with the actual situation. We may be making similar points in this respect.
I guess from your other posts we agree that the institutional norms of college are going to change and we should be working to guide that change in positive directions. One change I increasingly see (mostly second hand) is the “flipped classroom” in which faculty can almost entirely reject the role of providing content, and instead focus on structuring, mentoring, critiquing, provoking, etc. Of course in elite institutions like Swarthmore this isn’t so revolutionary, but it is at least a shift in emphasis.
It is interesting to think about a similar “flip” in the institution as a whole. What if the students were required to run the place, with administrators in the role of organizers, mentors, critics, provocateurs, etc. This would rather change the nature of the discussion, I believe in a good way. It would be hard on the students but again I think in a good way. I guess — but cannot prove at this point — that it would be much less hard on the administration or faculty than they might imagine — except for those who like the feeling of being “in charge” and being hard on them would be a good thing.
Of course it would take iteration to get this right. Any new institutional arrangement of any size is subject to all the usual problems of corruption, authoritarianism, petty politics, and so on. But in some sense that is exactly the point. It would be very good for students (at least it would have been good for me and the students I knew) to have to own these problems rather than be able to (somewhat legitimately) demand that they be fixed by “the authorities”.
Perhaps the people with the most legitimate beef against this kind of arrangement would be apolitical students who find these responsibilities an unjustified distraction from the reasons they came to college. This indicates another dimension of the students’ responsibility — to let everyone get on with their work as much as possible, to minimize the disruption of academic life. This is obviously a responsibility that is not felt by some of the current protestors! But again it is not one they could avoid if they were in charge. And the complementary responsibility — to kick some butt if unnecessary disruption is interfering with legitimate institutional activity — is one that even the most apolitical students would have to accept.
I could go on but this is enough. I’ll just summarize: The administration and faculty do add a lot of value, but the nature of this value has shifted over time, and the institutional arrangements have not kept up. These protests offer an opportunity to figure out what that value is now, why some groups of activist students don’t appear to perceive / respect it, and to rework the institutional relationships to fix that.