The Uneasy Balance of Residential Academia

I mentioned this in the Links Dump this morning, but Timothy Burke’s post on the inherent tensions in the residential part of small college life is really excellent stuff, and deserves more than the 1000 characters I can quote in Delicious:

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.

He does a great job of articulating things that I’ve been uneasy about since I was a student at a small liberal arts college, and haven’t found more resolution to on the faculty side. It’s particularly interesting to me because I’m involved in a program at Union which has the explicit goal of more tightly integrating the social and academic spheres of college life, so I keep struggling with these questions, though I haven’t been able to lay out exactly what bothers me quite as clearly as Burke does.

(It’s also reassuring to me to hear some of the things I’ve been thinking echoed by someone with a drastically different academic background than mine (Burke is a historian studying Africa). At least my uneasiness with the whole thing isn’t just a matter of being a scientist with poor social skills.)

The one thing that I would add is a more explicit statement that we need to be careful not to think of “the students” as an undifferentiated mass. The students who are outraged over the exercise of executive power to crush weeknight parties are not necessarily the same students who are outraged over the reluctance to use that power to enforce sensitivity training or whatever. Just like any other large group of humans– faculty, voters, etc.– the student body is a mass of constantly shifting and partially overlapping interest groups who want different things at different times.

Given the way that inherently contradictory statements like “We don’t want a government health care program interfering with our Medicare!” and the generalized discontent of the Occupy movement have come to dominate the adult political landscape, we shouldn’t really be surprised when the collective demands of students turn out to be just as incoherent. Which doesn’t make it any less maddening to be in a position of nominal authority (to copy a phrase from a colleague, most faculty and even administrators have responsibility but very little power– the blame attached to college faculty and administrators is way out of proportion to their real ability to effect change) having to field complaints from all of the many constituencies, of course.

Which is yet another reminder that I never want to go into academic administration…