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institutional memory

A dive into the archives

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

In light of recent events on campus, the editorial board figured it would be worth digging into past issues of the Phoenix printed decades ago to see what students back then had been writing about the college. Surprisingly, some of the headlines were just as fitting then as they are now. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, change has come to Swarthmore much slower than previously thought.

 

“Student Council endorses Black studies major, supports revival of ad hoc committee”

February 29, 1972

 

“Islamic cultural studies program lags”

April 24, 2003

 

“Student Council to explore course requirements”

March 25, 1975

 

“Freeze thaws for tuition; Bookstore sets price hike”

September 21, 1971

 

“Social Committee plans fall calendar; administration quashes concert ideas”

October 1, 1971

 

“SAGA food service proposes new design to reduce overcrowding”

September 25, 1981

 

“Bike thefts reported”

October 16, 1981

 

“The time to divest is now”

February 26, 1982

 

“Racial slur found carved into table”

March 20, 2003

 

“Students in dire need of space, events”

September 24, 1999

 

“Comm members, Student Council, activists charge inertia of student input”

February 20, 1973

Institutional memory, or a lack thereof

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Remember when the first floor of Cornell didn’t look a think tank, or when points only worked on campus? Remember waiting outside of your friend’s dorm before and after 2 a.m. on party nights? What about the “DJ fund?” First-years won’t remember any of the above, and as time passes, fewer and fewer of the future students will hear about any of these once-common occurrences. These are just a few examples of how a lack of institutional memory can allow campus life to slowly change at the Swarthmore students have come to know. If students want to effect widespread and lasting change on campus, one obstacle that we must face is our very limited institutional memory.

Let’s take as a case study the 2013 Spring of Discontent. This semester marks the fourth year since then, and few students remember the entire story. What’s more, none of the current student body was here when it happened. During the Spring of Discontent, students protested Swarthmore’s inadequate response to sexual assault, a lack of institutional support for marginalized students, a series of urinations on the Intercultural Center door, and the college’s continued investments in fossil fuels among many other issues. It was a time when students of various identities and campus groups came together to hold the college, as an institution, accountable. Yet, it’s quite difficult to know how to bring about better college policies if we don’t remember what circumstances were like before.

Students here only really have an institutional memory of four years, and only four years (give or take a few) to make an impact on campus. Of course, a lot can be done in four years, but many things can’t. We must come to terms with that. If students, for example, want to change the fact that there are so few Writing courses in the social sciences or natural sciences compared to the humanities, tackling that issue must go through multiple committees, faculty members, and administrators. The same can be said for recent efforts to enact some sort of diversity or social justice requirement for incoming students. The same can still be said for striking the right balance of how much trust the administration gives students through its party policies. While a bureaucracy can be beneficial in preventing too much change from happening too fast, students still must bear the consequences of the issue to begin with. Our short institutional memory is a major roadblock that we frankly cannot overcome but must deal with and recognize when students want to make a change on campus.

However, the same cannot be said for an administration that has an institutional memory much greater than our own. In just four years, the administration has the power to incrementally enact widespread change without incoming students noticing the difference. At the risk of sounding too conspiratorial, we must be cognizant of the power administration has to change student culture. When put into policy, the administration has the luxury of taking its time in forming various ad hoc committees and selectively incorporating student input only when it sees fit. When taking steps to improve student life on campus, the administration must realize that students only spend a short time here. It’s possible to enact policies that will at least marginally improve the lives of students currently on campus, while still remaining thoughtful of the implications of policies long after the current student body is gone.

Acknowledging the extent of our institutional memory as a community is key to recognizing what policies can reasonably be enacted at a fast pace and what policies will take years or decades to achieve. Regardless, the administration should still recognize the fact that incremental change benefits them more than it benefits current students.

Of course, there are complex problems that need to be addressed on campus that will require thoughtful dialogue between students and administration. That takes time. What we shouldn’t forget, however,  is that students have a much smaller institutional memory than the administration. There is an incentive for the administration to keep the status quo or change policies while ruffling the least amount of feathers possible at the expense of current students’ satisfaction with the campus life. Bringing about widespread, beneficial change is slow. Let’s not make it slower than it needs to be.

 

Interrogating how we party in the post-save-pub-nite era

in Campus Journal/Columns/Swassip Girl by

From what I can tell, institutional memory at Swarthmore lasts like, four seconds. Unless you really drill the upperclassmen or do some hardcore Phoenix digging, the most you will probably pick up about Swarthmore’s recent history by passively existing here is that the Administration does Bad Stuff and should really Listen To Us and Something Something Alcohol Policy Changes. But for a few buzzphrases (“Crunkfest,” “funnels,” “Did you know Childish Gambino played Upper Tarble in 2012?”), the Swarthmore College that existed prior to my arrival here is mostly lost to me. This, I assume, is the nature of limited access to institutional memory — things get lost.

Pub Nite, as it currently exists, is a free weekly event:  part dance party, part standing near that cute girl from seminar while holding a cup. In contrast to frat parties, it has a reputation for fluorescent lights, goofiness, and a casual, communal atmosphere. Though most of that description has been true for years, the “free” part has not. Pub Nite — here’s a recent institutional history lesson — used to be a fundraiser. Every Thursday, students forked over a four-dollar entry fee that went toward financing senior week activities and, crucially, the night’s kegs and cups. With the 2014 changes to the alcohol policy, the fundraising function of Pub Nite was banned, and with it the usual means of purchasing the watery beer the women’s rugby team seems to like so much. Online donations became the only available source of Pub Nite income and the future of weeknight pong games hung on the balance. Pub Nite’s survival began (and continues) to solely depend on a collective remembered love for a thing — a big enough collective remembered love to inspire regular student contributions of money, time, and energy.

As previously noted, our track record for institutional memory is grim. At first glance, however, that does not seem to be the case. When Pub Nite was announced to be at risk for dissolution last year, the campus was up in arms. The thought of a world sans hungover Friday morning lectures appeared to traumatize the student body. In the online comments section of the Phoenix exposé of the Pub Nite problem, an inspired cohort of alumni sang undying praises for this tried and true Swarthmore institution and threatened to stop donating to the college as a result of such an ignoble fallout. My favorite gem of passive-aggressive anger in the thread: “my double-legacy children can now look forward to a lifetime of being subtly pressured to attend Oberlin. Lucky them!” I was newly arrived on campus at the time and had never attended Pub Nite, but impassioned posts flooded my Facebook feed, encouraging me to support the cause if I wanted my future to include singing American Pie with drunken pseudo-strangers (which I totally did and still do).

As such, I anticipated a cure-all student uprising. All I got, however, was an increasingly slow-going GoFundMe site. Though Pub Nite has been “saved” for three semesters now, Swatties have mustered up less and less enthusiasm with each round of donations and I’ve heard no rumblings of a more permanent solution. I’m not holding my breath, but a small part of me hopes that desperate times will rouse people to act. In my favorite movie, “Empire Records” (a shitty but entirely endearing 90’s teen dramedy), a group of employees “save” their independent record store from being sold by hosting a late night benefit party and a rooftop rock performance. Kids on skateboards storm the storefront, shout, “Damn the man! Save the empire!” and fill plastic jugs with the requisite nine thousand dollars. I realize that “Empire Records” is fiction, but given how much love everyone advertises they had for Pub Nite (and, I admit, given my ever-present desire for my life to look like a teen movie), I really did expect a little bit more than a GoFundMe by now: an Olde Club show, an OSE sit-in, a hashtag, a telethon, a devoted senior standing outside Paces with a clipboard and a dream. I wanted a protest, a petition, a strongly worded letter! Where was the Parrish rooftop benefit rock concert? Damn the Man! Save Pub Nite!

Already, though, the GoFundMe for this semester did not reach its five thousand dollar goal. Unless some extra measures are taken, I don’t see how the GoFundMe could reach that same goal next semester, or any semester after that. Is Pub Nite going to die? And if it is dying, should we keep trying to rescue it? In a world hell-bent on rapid change, to try to keep things as they are is, in a great many cases, a noble, if futile, act. I think of museums and my middle school diaries and colonial reenactment towns and baby pictures. I fully support those passionate and stupid enough to throw themselves into “saving” something from the natural entropic tendency to disappear with passing time, but the payoff of those efforts is never the continued existence of the saved thing, but rather a memory of that thing — it will never again be the 18th century in colonial Williamsburg and baby pictures don’t stop anyone from aging. No amount of money will preserve Pub Nite in amber forever. To “save” something is relative and temporary, but, arguably, not useless.

As is, only half of the current student body has ever known a pre-Save-Pub-Nite! Pub Nite. Those in the 2016 and 2017 class years did, but soon they will graduate and if nothing is done, the memory of that Pub Nite will leave with them. Assuming the donation decrease stays its course, Pub Nite will eventually sputter to a halt, and it will make a lot of people, myself included, very sad. The Pub Nite that I know, though, is not, and could never have been, the Pub Nite that existed to fund senior week. I only know a Pub Nite that was kept alive for its own sake by the sheer strength of memory (and the donations that memory warranted). “Remembering,” it seems, is not only an action verb, but a community effort and a ticking clock. Soon, maybe, memories of Pub Nite will be exclusively secondhand.

Do not be confused when the kegs run dry for good. The final Pub Nite, whenever it may come, will be devastating, but should probably not surprise you. That being said, it could be prevented, or at least delayed. There’s enough money in the pockets of Swatties to support Pub Nite semester after semester, but our collective remembered love for it will naturally dwindle. Maybe it’s worth the energy to convince incoming class ater incoming class of the urgent need to save something that started dying before they got here, but if not, we can’t maintain a collective remembered love for Pub Nite when no one is left on campus to do the remembering. Even if someone were to swoop in with a million dollars dedicated to the infinite perpetuation of the event, even if something called Pub Nite happened in Paces every Thursday with boundless quantities of Natty Lite and a playlist of sing-a-long favorites, would that be Pub Nite “saved” once and for all, or would it be a nostalgic mimicry — Pub Nite a la colonial reenactment town? It might be sadder if the collective remembered love for Pub Nite were to die out before Pub Nite did. My endorsement is this: At Pub Nites past, I have had moments of such complete stupid joy that I cannot fully comprehend a life at Swarthmore without it. Pub Nite is special and weird and sweaty and wonderful. For the short time that I’ve known it, I love Pub Nite a heck of a lot. I hope that we don’t let it go without a good fight. I’m not prepared for a permanent Closing Time.

A response to ‘Students voice need for further discussion of Black Lives Matter’

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The aforementioned article discussed some initiatives on campus last year in response to Black Lives Matter. However, it failed to include other forms of engagement, specifically one poignant to me and three others involved. For the sake of preserving institutional memory and not promoting erasure, I want to highlight this particular student-initiated engagement with Black Lives Matter on campus last year.

Last semester, I embarked on a senior project for my special major in Dance and Black Studies. Compelled by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and countless other black people at the hands of the state, my project consisted of three works. The first work addressed the systemic violence and killing of black people and aimed to raise awareness of this issue. The second work was about self-care and how black people can practice self-care in community with one another in the face of oppression to affirm our worth. Finally, the third work was about celebrating black lives.

Imagine four black women dancing in the middle of Parrish, unexpectedly performing. Imagine witnessing a symbolic representation of one of the black women killed by the police. Imagine seeing the black women use their bodies to cry, scream, freeze, move angrily, and stare at passers by. But, also imagine observing them hold one another and lift each other up. Imagine viewing these events unfold over and over and over again — cyclically and seemingly never-endingly.

This is what my fellow performers ShaKea Alston ’17, Briani George ’15, Summer Johnson ’17, and I labored on numerous occasions over the course of the spring semester of the 2014-2015 academic year. Our goal was to interrupt the monotony of Swarthmore and compel people of the community to see and engage with issues surrounding Black Lives Matter. These issues do not just affect black people but everyone. We found that people’s reactions to the performances were to some extent indicative of their willingness to engage with issues of race. The fact that some people could not take but a moment to stop to see what we were doing and why it was important implied their lack of care and concern.

Despite those not willing to acknowledge us, these performances were also for us. They gave us the time and space to process in whatever way we so chose with our bodies. To speak our truths with questions and statements such as “Am I threatening to you?”, “Does this make you uncomfortable?”, “I’m scared.”, “I’m tired.”, and “My Swarthmore education won’t save me.” We claimed these truths as we stood on the steps in the middle of Parrish. Though we were up high, confidently addressing those who were around, performing in public spaces did make us vulnerable. On one occasion, though there were people surrounding us watching us perform, a group of white men walked right in the middle of us as we were dancing, as if they didn’t see us. It reminded us of the familiar experience of being seen yet invisible at the same time, appreciated on the surface but denied personhood.

I write this not to commend myself on a job well done. I write this to remember the experiences of performing in these public spaces (Parrish, Science Center, McCabe Library, and in front of Sharples) on different occasions — most times for hours on end. Though the performances took a physical, emotional, and mental toll on our bodies, in some ways, we were empowered. I write this to remember how we changed the spaces where we performed, but that we were also changed in the process. The performances have left an imprint on my body, and when I hear songs used for the project such as “What is Love (feat. V. Bozeman)” by the Empire Cast, I am taken back. I write this so the people who experienced our performances remember how they were moved and take action. Pertaining to Black Lives Matter, the voices and experiences of black people should be at the center. I write this because Black Lives Matter is still relevant, and the work continues. I believe that dance, and the arts in general, is one powerful way to spur not only dialogue but also social change.

To recognize those who helped with my senior project in some way and engaged in discussion and action around Black Lives Matter, I’d also like to thank Xavier Lee ’17 and Indigo Sage ’16 for using my senior project as the focus of their linguistics final video project, Kara Bledsoe ’16 for capturing the performances on different occasions, and Jumatatu Poe and Sharon Friedler for supporting and mentoring me throughout the process. To the black people who have been killed due to systemic violence waged against you, rest in peace and power.

 

Link to Xavier and Indigo’s final video project can be found here.

Link to the video of our final performance in Science Center can be found here.

 

Students seek to recover lost history at Bryn Mawr

in Around Higher Education/News by

Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey, two seniors at Bryn Mawr College, have created a project entitled “Black at Bryn Mawr” in order to highlight the history of Black students, faculty, and staff at the college. As part of an independent study, the two have created a campus walking tour and a digital archive focusing on Black experiences at Bryn Mawr.

In September of this year, two Bryn Mawr students hung a Confederate flag out of the window of their dormitory. Nearly 600 students, staff, and faculty gathered at the college in order to protest the flag. A series of community conversations touched upon the history of Bryn Mawr’s marginalized groups and led Kioko and Pusey collaborate on what would become Black at Bryn Mawr.

Kioko and Pusey utilized the Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, which contain the historical records of the college and have also digitized much of the college’s archives. They are looking both at the actual history of racism at the college as well as the way in which Bryn Mawr has chosen to remember this history.

The inspiration for the walking tour came from Kioko’s experience on the Black and Blue tour at the University of North Carolina. The Black and Blue tour explores Black life at UNC, beginning with slavery and moving through Jim Crow laws, the desegregation of the campus, and the racial tension that accompanied the shifting student body. Pusey, who works at the South Asian American Digital Archive in Philadelphia, offered to help with creating a digital archive to go along with the tour.

The two hoped that the walking tour would “prompt community members to look at the campus and experience the place we inhabit in new ways, and that the digital historical record will function as a complementary space of deepened historical consciousness,” they wrote on the project website in mid-February. In order to create the tour, Kioko and Pusey analyzed the college’s archives in order to locate places on campus which served as spaces of racial conflict or conversation.

Kioko and Pusey intend for the project to create lasting institutional memory of the ways in which Bryn Mawr has engaged with racism.

“One thing that becomes clear from even a cursory overview of the College Archives is that incidents like the one that occurred in September are not exceptional in Bryn Mawr’s history; in fact, they are deeply embedded in it,” Pusey wrote on the project website at the beginning of the spring semester. “We see the same kinds of problems recurring over and over again. A major contributing factor to this recycling of traumas is that the College community is constantly in flux: as students graduate every few years, institutional memory is wiped clean. Fruits borne of past conversations and reconciliations gather dust, or disappear.”

The two also hope that future students will be able to utilize this history in order to make themselves and the wider Bryn Mawr community attentive to racial power dynamics at the college. “We hope … that the community can use our work as a resource to address this cycle of trauma, to promote dialogue that brings the community to deeper levels of understanding, and to foster sustainable collective growth,” Pusey wrote. The project is also geared towards raising greater awareness of Black experiences at the college, centering these perspectives in the ways in which Bryn Mawr sees and represents itself, and creating a way for Bryn Mawr to measure its progress over time.

Kioko and Pusey have engaged with a number of different topics so far in the course of their research. Pusey, for instance, explored the history of Black labor at Bryn Mawr. Utilizing census records, Pusey began with the story of the sixty-eight Black people living on Bryn Mawr’s campus in 1900, most of whom were women and all of whom were servants, in order to create a fuller history of Black experiences at Bryn Mawr.

“What happens when we look at Bryn Mawr not just as a premier educational institution for women where women were groomed for elite social, intellectual, and cultural leadership, but as a premier educational institution for women that relied intensively on White supremacist rhetoric and the entrenchment of a racial hierarchy that ensured a steady supply of Black labor to secure its elite status?” Pusey wrote on the project website.

She also noted that Black history tends to be thought of separately from the history of the college, and that when it is considered as part of this larger history, its origin points are with the first Black women who studied at the college. Yet Black history has been inextricable from the history of Bryn Mawr since the college’s founding.

“Looking at the history of Black labor at Bryn Mawr opens doors to the sorts of deep, pressing questions about Bryn Mawr’s relationship to racial inequality that we, as members of the College community, must address,” Pusey wrote.

A close look at this history raises a number of questions about not only the college’s past but its present. “Ancillary to Bryn Mawr’s promise of a first-class education was its ability to market a first-class lifestyle, which it continues to rely on in its marketing today … What sorts of values and expectations has Bryn Mawr’s long history of Black labor inculcated in the institution?” Pusey wrote. In other words, how is this history still with us today?

Kioko, meanwhile, explored the climate of racial activism on campus between 1970 and 1972. Black women in 1970 at the college, attempting to carve out a space for themselves and Black women to come, called for Black faculty, Black studies courses, respect for Black staff members, and a cultural center of their own. Elements of these concerns are still relevant today, Kioko believes — hiring faculty of color and encouraging diversity of academic thought, she wrote, are still issues with which Bryn Mawr struggles today. Additionally, “a lot of the Bryn Mawr experience as a person of color has not changed,” despite the fact that the Black women at Bryn Mawr in 1970, in refusing to accepting marginalization, created a legacy which still affects the college to this day.

Pusey also looked at institutional attempts at interracial understanding and change between 1988 and 1989, when, though years of institutional reforms were in the works, racial tensions exploded after a student was repeatedly harassed. Driven by this student’s experience, others demanded change, and the college hosted a series of workshops on race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, power, and privilege. A number of reforms took place, including mandatory diversity training for students, a diversification of course curricula, and the addition of a diversity clause to the Honor Code that aimed to help marginalized students address discriminatory acts.

Pusey pointed out troubling similarities between 1988-1989 and the Confederate flag instance and resulting community conversations during this academic year. “The usefulness of the term ‘progress’ to describe Bryn Mawr’s momentum toward racial equity may seem suspect,” Pusey wrote. “‘Why are Bryn Mawr students still fighting the same kinds of issues that students rallied against 25 years ago?’ is not so much an argument as it is an expression of frustration and disbelief.”

However, Pusey believes, there are many lessons to be learned from the past, primarily that campus-wide conversations and actions driven by students of color can create meaningful institutional change.

“Above all, a study of Black history at Bryn Mawr reveals that students — especially students of color — have consistently driven the changes that have made the College what it is today,” Pusey wrote. This isn’t the way it should be, though: “College should be a time for personal growth, not a time when students of color are saddled with the burden of confronting ignorance.” Pusey hopes that Bryn Mawr students can honor the legacy of the students who came before by attempting to make the college a respectful space for the experiences and contributions of their peers.

Kioko and Pusey underwent a number of challenges in crafting their project and conducting their research, which pointed to some of the larger issues which their research seeks to engage with and highlight. Pusey’s census search began because of the paucity of archived materials on the college’s Black labor history in the Bryn Mawr Special Collections.

“Most of the materials that do exist are recent attempts to fill archival silences on the history of Black staff experiences at Bryn Mawr,” Pusey explained on the blog. “The fact that I had to go beyond materials archived at Special Collections in order to research Black labor history at Bryn Mawr at all gestures to one of the major pitfalls of this project: the uneven power dynamics of the College Archives.”

Special Collections maintains a “diversity box,” but Kioko and Pusey say that this is essentially the Collections’ “junk drawer.”

“In comparison to the neatly organized boxes of Presidents’ papers, the Diversity box overflows with marginalia from various student groups, diversity trainings, and college publications. The materials themselves lack structure; news articles about the 2014 Confederate flag hanging and response, for example, are stuffed in a folder labeled ‘1990.’ There are no archived materials from Black faculty members … Black staff are discussed in the archive, but they rarely represent themselves,” Pusey wrote. She noted that Black students began in the 1990s to conduct oral histories with college staff, in order to correct this archival oversight, but that accumulating historical materials in the past two decades or so has been extremely slow.

All of these issues, Pusey believes, point at one of the larger questions of the research project: who exactly gets to write the history of Black experiences at Bryn Mawr, which power dynamics structure these narratives, and how can a lost, disorganized history be recovered, reconstructed, and corrected for accuracy?

“It is in the best interest of elite academic institutions … to erase, obscure, or trivialize discourses and histories of racism and racial intolerance on administrative, social, and academic levels,” Kioko wrote, reflecting on a conversation with the UNC Black and Blue Tour creator. “This erasure, whether or not it is intentional, makes projects such as ours incredibly important.” Students at Swarthmore sought to correct a similar erasure or obfuscation of the historical record of Black experiences at the college in their projects for the Black Liberation 1969 class in the fall.

As of this month, Kioko and Pusey have given tours to more than sixty community members,  including students, staff, faculty, alumnae, trustees, and local residents. The tours have been so popular that Kioko and Pusey scheduled two more in addition to the six planned tours. Pusey will give an additional tour during the Women’s History in the Digital World conference to be hosted at Bryn Mawr at the end of May.

Kioko reflected that she hoped the histories of Black students at the college would be remembered continuously, rather than simply when it is convenient. “It is too easy to only focus on these histories in times of institutional and social distress. I realized just how easily the experiences of people of color can be forgotten and erased,” she explained.

While Black at Bryn Mawr began as a result of the Confederate flag incident in the fall, Kioko hopes that the conversations begun by the project and its attempt to re-remember Black histories at Bryn Mawr will continue past this semester. “Black voices, particularly Black women’s voices at elite institutions, deserve to be heard and remembered.”

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