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Community-building, post-community

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“What does it mean to be a Swattie?” my professor asked towards the beginning of the semester. Are we able to claim a common title just by going to the same college? Her tone implied that it is somewhat ridiculous to think that we can be a “community” by just living in a shared environment. Quick to its defense, another professor auditing the course remarked that “a Swattie is a lover of ideas. Someone who thinks rigorously and passionately about ideas. And loves learning.” Trying to push back a little, the first professor asked if that means that Swatties always do their work — of course they don’t. “No,” responded the second, “but they often stay up late not doing work and instead thinking about ~ideas~. At the very least, they’re passionate about learning.” Throughout this whole interaction I was tempted to raise my hand and remind them that I only ever get called a Swattie when I’m being typically Swawkward™. Of course, I’ve loved staying up late and talking about issues as broad as gender & sexuality and absurdly specific as Maya Steele. “Neoliberal individualism” is a buzzword in my friend group. But is this unique to Swarthmore? Are there Swatties that stay up late watching “90 Day Fiancé,” an A+ reality show on TLC, instead? Can I enjoy quasi-problematic (another swattie-ism?) reality TV instead of thinking about poststructural feminism and still consider myself a Swattie? The idea that Swatties need to be constantly inspired to discuss ~ideas~ sounds exhausting to me. Yet, in some way, it fits.

There are four new signs posted around campus asking questions about campus community. “Have your experiences matched your expectations?”, “How do you intersect/interact with other groups at Swarthmore?”, “What Swarthmore initiatives are working/needed?”, “Is Swarthmore a ‘community’? Can we be?” The signs posted outside of Science Center have some graffitied responses (“better food plz”) to the one about Swat initiatives. And “no” to the question about Swarthmore being a community. Sadly, some part of me agrees with this second, not so carefully posed response.

Dean Lili Rodriguez and the office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development designed and placed the signs as a part of coordinating the Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living. The study itself came as a recommendation of the Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee and was prompted by the administration’s desire to improve the experience for all community members: students, faculty, and staff.

According to Rodriguez, the signs are part of a larger campaign to make the study “as visible as possible to increase participation.” They accompany a poster campaign, a social media campaign, and a community email, sent on Wednesday, from the President to announce the opening of the survey.

“This type of study focuses on individual experiences as well as the experiences of individuals as members of particular social groups, such as race and gender,” Rodriguez said. “We want to be the type of community where everyone feels welcomed and included, as well as having the support systems necessary for everyone to thrive.”

The survey findings will be made public during the 2015-2016 academic year, at which point campus-wide discussions will take place to process the results and identify 2-3 priorities to tackle moving forward.

I asked Rodriguez what it means to be a Swattie.

“There shouldn’t be a standard answer for this question … too narrow a definition is what can cause individuals to feel like they don’t belong,” she said. “The only common factor that Swatties should share is a deep passion for learning.” The term “Swattie” seems inherently problematic to me. Just as any attempt to generalize an experience is rife with contradictions, assuming that students at Swarthmore inherently share some characteristic is dangerous. Rodriguez’s definition reminds me that any community is made up of vastly different individuals; that a “Swattie” isn’t something static.

As of now, a second semester sophomore, I feel I agree with both professors about what a Swattie is. The idea that we are automatically a community just by going to Swarthmore College is ridiculous to me; creating an intentional community requires work. We can’t expect to be Swatties just because our classes inspire us. School spirit shouldn’t — can’t — come from the fact that we are always doing schoolwork. Yet, I feel from discussions with other students, with professors, and with administrators, this, something, this… energy that makes me proud to be at Swarthmore. I feel it when a professor remembers that students — humans — are intellectual and emotional beings and emphasizes the importance of mental health days. I feel it when I can stop by an administrator’s office and complain about That One Professor who was especially irritating today. I feel it when I walk Swakwardly around Sharples to find someone to sit with because I arrived alone and then actually find someone.

I imagine there are Swatties who feel good about being at Swarthmore because Pub Nite rocks! There are Swatties who feel good about being at Swarthmore because they get to avoid Pub Nite. There are Swatties who simply don’t feel good about being at Swarthmore, and we need to listen to their reasons and respect them. All of these “Swatties” can exist in one person. I am able to go a day and just plain hate learning and still be a Swattie. The campus needs to work to remind itself that students need more than just academics to sustain themselves. The administration’s work with the Climate Survey and especially with the expanding Office of Student Engagement makes me hopeful that that work is being done.

3 Comments

  1. You forgot to mention the follow-up question, which asked “Can we be [a community]?,” under which was written “let’s not and say we did.” I actually feel like this graffito truly represents how Swarthmore treats its community-building attempts. That is, the administration tries all sorts of stupid gimmicks, like posting these signs in the first place – as though merely asking questions about the community constitutes a community-building exercise. It’s all talk and no action. How about for starters, we get some better food. That would go a long way towards improving the community…

  2. Swattie to me has always meant being an intellectual. Intellectual means thinker of ideas.
    That being said:
    Better food at Sharples = happier students
    Better facilities
    Better dorms
    Better non-academic experience

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