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Divestment dialogue leads to sit-in

in Around Campus/News by

On Friday, Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization hosted a forum on divestment in the Friends Meeting House that included President Valerie Smith, Mountain Justice Coordinator, Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, Professor and Chair of the History Department Timothy Burke, Associate Professor and Acting Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department Lee Smithey, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, Chair of the Environmental Impact Committee Tiffany Yu, ’18, and President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19. The panelists sat in a semi-circle and the discussion was moderated by Duke Fisher, a professional mediator, who asked questions that were emailed by students to SGO.

Mountain Justice expressed frustration after the event, releasing a video and an official statement on their Facebook page in the days following the event. The group felt that their questions were not properly answered, and have since responded with a sit-in that is taking place in President Smith’s office and the surrounding hallway. Aru Shiney-Ajay expressed that she feels she did not hear an adequate answer about the 1991 ban, whether or not divesment and on-campus sustainability are an either- choice, and a response about financial concerns of partial divestment versus full divestment.

“I hope to hear the questions that we’re asking answered. We outlined three questions that we posed at the forum that the administration sidestepped, I would hope to hear some type of response, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. ” she said.

President Smith had a different opinion about the event, and felt that it facilitated dialogue about the issue of divestment. She also noted that there is a lot more work to be done outside of divestment in order to protect the climate.

“I don’t believe that any of the speakers dodged questions or refused dialogue.​ If we don’t agree with one another, it doesn’t mean there’s been no dialogue. Dialogue in my definition means listening to another point of view, sticking scrupulously to the facts, and being open to discussing them… We have so much work to do to combat climate change, especially in the current political environment. For example, we can work to retain the effectiveness of the EPA, to uphold environmental regulations, and to keep true sustainability advocates in advocacy roles. There is a march in Washington this coming weekend for the People’s Climate Movement, ​and​ MJ, other student groups, and the Office of Sustainability are sponsoring buses from campus​. There are any number of ways for us to come together in common purpose,” said Smith.

During the forum, President Smith expressed that the college’s central mission was to educate students and that the college may not be as able to fund as fully if MJ’s potential changes to the endowment were made.

“The decision not to divest emerged from about four years from about four years of extensive conversation, debate, reading, discussion, on the part of the managers with both members of the campus community as well as external advocates and activists […] at the end of that four year period of consultation the board decided that they would not divest, and I think they made this decision for a variety of reasons that are consistent with our core mission, one of which is that to do so would jeopardize our endowment returns that would then have the potential to negatively impact our ability to support students and to support the core educational mission. They were unwilling to do that, to threaten the endowment returns and to threaten the core mission to support a mission that at the end of the day would not have a demonstrable effect on corporations or on our energy consumption,” she said that the forum

Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown was skeptical of the effectiveness of divestment and focused on the consumption side of the issue. He also said that the Board of Managers considers climate change in its decision making.

“Just looking at the producers doesn’t deal with the problem […] We survey [managers] asking them a very simple question for which we want to see a real answer: how does climate […] affect your decision making in how you make investments. .. if you’re not thinking about climate change it’s probable that we may not think about keeping you as a manager,” he said during the forum.

A divide exists between Mountain Justice and the administration, highlighted by their sit-in in the President’s office, on the topic of divestment. Whether or not the Board of Managers will divest is yet to be seen, but Mountain Justice has put an increasing amount of pressure on the administration in the last week. The sit-in began on Monday and is still ongoing.

A farewell to arms

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

This semester, the Phoenix named as co-Editors in Chief two people who, it could be reasonably assumed, held some suspicions of each other. One was an Econ major, the other studied Education; one a man, the other, a woman; one a fraternity president, the other, a leader in the 2013 referendum against Greek life. In choosing this leadership combination, the Phoenix took a risk — even though these people were each qualified and deserving of the position, they appeared to be at opposite ends of what can at times feel like an unbridgeable divide at Swarthmore.

As co-Editors, we were excited by the prospect of working together to create a strong product, even as we were aware of these differences. We built a strong working relationship, but, perhaps out of fear of igniting between us the divisiveness that has pervaded this campus, we mostly avoided talking about them. In order to confront a particularly polarizing issue in the middle of the semester, however, the identities that we had been trying to leave out of the newsroom were brought to the fore as a certain article appeared to pit our distinctive interests against each other. The trust we had built quickly dissipated, and we stereotyped each other as uncompromising straw men that could not be reasoned with. As our communication broke down, we risked becoming proof that Swatties cannot, in fact, overcome their differences, or even discuss them.

Thankfully, we were given the chance to communicate — to be honest and confront our differences, rather than avoid them. We realized that neither of us had a lurking agenda, that we were wrong to presuppose each others’ character or intentions based on the organizations we belonged to. Our conversation brought nuance to a situation that both of us had looked at from opposite, and often inflexible, extremes. Acknowledging this nuance bridged our divide, for — we realized — we were not actually on opposite ends of the spectrum. Just as importantly, it allowed us to understand and respect the differences that remained between us. Ultimately, we each had good intentions, and were striving to achieve the same things.

As outgoing seniors reflecting on our time at Swarthmore, we hope that the groups that we represent, as well as the college as a whole, can learn from our mistakes and our subsequent successes. We need to be more generous when we bring up concerns about our community.

Criticism is a valid and important aspect of any conversation — but on its own, it will not build. It will only tear apart. Being critical is most effective when it assumes good intentions — when there is a shared goal to work for. As we found out, this kind of generous communication can open doors to a type of mutual understanding that Swarthmore currently lacks. It’s time we stop polarizing the campus and acknowledge that in each organization there are individuals with which we can communicate if we try. Rather than setting aside differences, it is important to acknowledge and learn from them.

We know that some things are non-negotiable — that not every Swattie has pure intentions. Likewise, this does not mean that every campus group belongs here, or that inexcusable behavior should not be met with outrage. What it does mean is that we should strive to give each other the benefit of the doubt a little more liberally. Though our actions may be misguided, only open, honest communication will allow us to be less defensive and therefore learn. We all deserve to be communicated with under the assumption that we are good people and that the groups we represent want the best for Swarthmore. Once we are able to acknowledge this, perhaps calling Swarthmore a “community” won’t ring quite so hollow.

The dissonant muse of academic writing

in Columns/Opinions/Periscope by

My recent consumption of deficient print media inspired the following opinion, which will address the verbose nature of contemporary stylistic tendencies in academic literature. Perhaps I’ll start again: after reading some awful prose, I’ve decided to talk about wordy academic writing.

We’ve all encountered this type of writing. History students like me have it bad, although my literary friends are uniquely victimized. Every reading assignment, it seems, is replete with convoluted text. I’m sure most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another, “Why does it have to be so thick? Why can’t these writers just say what they mean?” First of all, complexity might be the author’s only choice. In the sciences, philosophy, and linguistics, jargon is unavoidable. Even in cultural analysis, thorny topics need thorny terms. But the poor writing I’m referring to is totally avoidable and totally widespread. The disciplines it has most damaged reside, sadly, in the humanities. The rich traditions of literary and cultural theory have been almost incurably corrupted.

The offending authors exhaust every possible variation of “conception,” “tendency,” “empirical,” “framework,” “objective,” “phenomenon,” “hegemonic,” “relative,” “structure,” “social,” “culture,” and the words whose absurd overuse makes me cringe every time, “contemporary” and “institution.” What’s most frustrating is that these aren’t bad words at all. “Hegemonic” is one of my favorites. But in academia they usually muddle rather than clarify.

Why is the situation so dire? Here are some possibilities: it’s a habit academics have been taught and can’t break; they’re not thinking clearly (but want to sound smart), so they hide behind indecipherable verbal sorcery; and they want to make unscientific disciplines sound scientific.

First let’s look at two examples. When I open my comparative politics textbook at random, here’s what I find: “While we are sympathetic to the arguments that students of democratization have been biased as a result of their selective attention to indicators of democratic development and their pronounced tendency to ignore alternative interpretations, we think that the decision to counter these problems by focusing on the many ways authoritarian leaders are strong, creative, resilient and the like suffers from serious biases as well.” This is one of many mouthfuls on that page. The author could easily have written: “Some are too quick to interpret as a seed of democracy what could be another sign. However, we think that the response to this problem — studying dictators’ strength, creativity and resilience—is also biased.” Still, the original isn’t horrendous. It’s about average — comprehensible, if you read it two or three times, but boring and thick.

The most gelatinous swamps of academic writing ooze from the fields of literary and cultural theory. Consider, for instance, the following passage from a 1997 article by Judith Butler: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” I’m not going to try to translate this into a decent sentence, because frankly I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. I’ve studied structuralism; I’ve studied social relations; I’ve read some of Althusser’s work on structural Marxism, but no amount of background or education can rescue this morass from itself. Incidentally, this same specimen won Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest in 1998.

Not everyone who writes badly has bad ideas. Often behind the mangled sentences lies real quality. But academics are taught by other academics, and thick prose is an old tradition. When I write essays, I find myself slipping into this style because professors react well to it. Unless you actively stop yourself, the vague phrases keep coming back, a “packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow” as Orwell called it. These writers have succumbed to the aspirins, overdosing every time they produce a sentence. For professors at Swarthmore as elsewhere, direct writing betrays a simple mind.

But sometimes writers don’t know exactly what they want to say, so they resort to complication. If you want your reader to understand your thoughts, you should try to express yourself as clearly and coherently as possible. A reader is not entitled to an immediate understanding of an idea, but he or she is entitled to a sincere effort from the author in conveying it. I’m no admirer of The Communist Manifesto, but it’s a masterful piece of prose. It’s written in a sharp manner that lucidly condenses difficult ideas. A single reading of the document is enough to provoke lively debate. People can easily with engage the Manifesto’s arguments because Marx and Engels don’t hide behind rhetorical smokescreens. On the other hand, take someone like Derrida, who has a special reputation for density. I don’t think that deconstruction is any more complicated a theory than historical materialism, but Derrida articulates the former so opaquely that even now it’s still shrouded in a nebulous mist shielding it from a really gritty debate.

On another note, I have a feeling dense writers in the humanities harbor a secret inferiority complex about the natural sciences. Culture, literature, and even sociology do not have iron laws like those of physics, but treatises in these fields habitually imitate scientific writing. Butler’s “structural totalities as theoretical objects” tries to compete with “resonance structures as part of valence bond theory.” Such phrases hope to equate the humanities with the sciences, not in essence but in appearance. I think this is a foolish effort. It’s arguable that history and linguistics are technical disciplines, but I find it unnatural and wrong to view culture and literature in such terms. The humanities aren’t inferior to the sciences, but they just aren’t the sciences. There’s no need to pretend otherwise. Everyone would laugh at a dog that meows.

Denis Dutton argues that readers have “natural humility” when reading: that is, if they don’t understand a text, they’ll assume it’s because they aren’t intelligent enough. So when you’re forced to sludge through some academic magician’s dissonant incantations — as we all do every day—don’t think that if you don’t understand, you’re stupid. You’re not stupid; you just want the writer to show a little gratitude for the time and energy you’ve spent wading through his or her thoughts. And just as you groan when you meet a particularly dull gem like “subjective considerations of institutional hegemony,” try your best not to inflict this suffering onto others. When we think in our minds “If a country wants to change for the better, its government and people have to work together,” we should resist the urge to write, “If a country wishes to fundamentally transform its social order, it must necessarily include both its citizenry and administrative institutions in the transformational process.”

English is beautiful and alluring. Borges thought that the English language is one of the world’s finest because of its euphony and rich vocabulary. I don’t object to long words or complicated sentences; these can be put to good use. But the aim of academic study is to discover truth and express it. If we put the “verbose nature of contemporary stylistic tendencies” on trial, we’ll see that it’s just wordy writing.


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