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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.

 

You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

in Columns/Opinions by

I don’t know how you tear a building down. Maybe it involves explosives, charges shaped in such a way that the whole structure collapses nicely in on itself. Or perhaps it has something to do with wrecking balls and bulldozers. Or could it really be tearing, a giant hand from the sky ripping it in half like a sheet of paper? I really couldn’t say. And then, afterwards, what happens to the pile of rubble? Is it thrown out? Repurposed? Sold for scrap? My ignorance is as vast as a landfill.

It’s Saturday. Thomas and I climb the stairwell to the third floor of Papazian Hall. The building, I remark, is one of the last on campus that feels classically collegiate. Its exterior is unpretentiously imposing, pale brown pillars against grayish brick, with a large brown, unfriendly wooden door guarding its main entrance. Inside it is plain, also largely wooden, both in its walls and its furnishing. It is indifferent to its occupants’ feelings; it does not shine; there is no brightly lit imposition of happiness. Thomas agrees with me, mock-lamenting the lack of chrome paint crusting the walls. The air in the hallway, I further note, is thick, musty, and humid, and, I add, with a characteristically pretentious turn of phrase, it tastes like philosophy. Thomas, mercifully, does not comment.

We set up in the seminar room. Our books, secondary commentaries on Wittgenstein, Hegel, and Kant, are spread out across the table like so much discarded laundry. The table, long and wooden and boring, has been the subject of many obnoxious philosophical thought experiments in the three honors seminars Thomas and I have taken together – what is the nature of the table? we’ve asked; does it have real existence in of itself?; is its presence just a very useful linguistic convention upon which we’ve all agreed? These questions are of only minute interest now, as we kvetch about the imminent honor and struggle in vain against the urge to check Facebook. 

(The summer before freshman year, I went to my eye doctor to get a new lens prescription. The doctor, after he had finished shooting air at my pupils, asked me about my plans for college. Three years later, I will have read Noam Chomsky, who, in his less political moments, marvels at the human brain’s ability to generate an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences. If I’d been aware of Chomsky’s work then, in that For Eyes basement, I’d have had good reason to doubt his thesis; the scope of adult-late adolescent conversation had seemed for the last several months to be decidedly finite, focused more or less exclusively on the question of The Future. “Swarthmore,” I tell him, after a significant pause. “I’ll be going to Swarthmore.” He looked as if in pain for a moment, and then began to smirk. “The old Kremlin on the Crum, is that right?” he asked. Here was the rare Philadelphia Republican, in all his glory. I muttered a laugh, which failed to placate him. “At least tell me you’re not going to major in philosophy,” he said, without a hint of humor.

Philosophy AND economics, I insisted. The econ would make it okay. The econ would get me a job. The econ would make me not just another cloyingly annoying liberal arts majors pursuing a worthless degree at a worthless institution. Never mind that deciphering a demand curve makes my brain feel as if it’s bleeding lightly.)

I’m listening to “Once in a Lifetime” while reading about Wittgenstein, who claims that all meaning is in use. If we want to understand what a sentence means, we shouldn’t look for what’s happening in the mind of the people who say it or hear it; we should just describe in what contexts people use it, what it accomplishes. This idea scared me when I first encountered it; it seemed to suck every thought out of the human brain, leaving the body just a chattering husk. But now it begins to seem sensible, obvious even. Wittgenstein, perhaps, was right: philosophy builds up deep-sounding explanations for why things are this way or that, when really all we need are descriptions of the different ways the world hangs together. God, I hope he wasn’t right.

“It’s funny,” Thomas says, looking up from his notebook. “You could just write one very long paper for all three of the honors prompts. It’s like there’s one big narrative connecting everything we’ve read.”

I agree with Thomas. I often suspect that he’s got some secret insight into the world that I lack; I base this suspicion on the fact that he’s read Deleuze. That’s what I thought I would get from philosophy, when I started studying it as a freshman—some insight into how the world is. Okay, I expected more than “some”; I expected Truth, to be able to find a certain and final ground for everything. It wasn’t until junior year that more practically minded professor—Richard Eldridge, Tamsin Lorraine—disabused me of this metaphysical dreaming. So what has four years of studying left me with, if not a blueprint of the nature of existence? I am, I hope, a clearer and more persuasive writer (though I suspect this particular column belies that claim); I can speak somewhat articulately about how human self-consciousness works, and how we use language; I have more thoughts, still scrambled, on justice, ethics, and morality; I can claim, with the requisite smugness, that Derrida is, occasionally, quite readable. But mostly, I have become more acutely aware of my own insufficiencies as a thinker, and, more broadly, the insufficiencies of thought with which our entire species is damned.

Thomas and I leave the seminar room after a few hours, both having made less progress than we had hoped we would. As we gather our things, I take one last look around the room, in its uninteresting brownness. For all I know, I might never come back to this spot. There’s something terribly, cloyingly poetic about the fact that this room, in a year, will not exist anymore. That Papazian, which helped birth the atom bomb in its basement, will be itself pulverized into nothingness. It must mean something. But for the life of me, I can’t figure it out.

As is probably abundantly clear, I am trying to say goodbye, very badly, very incoherently, to a time in my life. I am trying to say goodbye to Papazian Hall, a building that I’ve never particularly liked, but which, like any patient on his deathbed, deserves consolation. I am trying to say goodbye to philosophy, a discipline that I will almost certainly never again formally study, a discipline that Wittgenstein, mistakenly, thought he had killed. But more than that, I am trying to say goodbye to moments, which are dotted across the time-space geography of the whole college. Moments: discovering that the Crum Henge at 2am feels like the site of an imminent UFO landing; standing up to leave a seminar dinner at a professor’s house only to realize that I am wine-drunk; watching another professor’s face contort in weird shapes as she tries to conceal her annoyance at the fact that there are three students dressed as ninjas fighting a lightsaber duel in her classroom; in the moonlight walking the path from Mertz to Clothier hand in hand with my freshman year girlfriend, wanting, wanting, wanting to say, with freshman year earnestness, “I love you,” but not yet finding the words. There are more— there will always be more—exploding into mind like shells across the sky, for that one moment real and terrible and immediate, and then fading just as quickly, not even fading, just instant dissipation into the night. I want to make sense of them, I want to steal them from the night sky and trap them all in memory, but memory is a broken hourglass, sand sprinkling the floor around it. No goodbye, however poorly put, can change that.

In memoriam: where has all the Crunk gone?

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

As many nostalgic seniors reminisce about the good ol’ days when Pub Nite was a necessity and the DJ fund was limitless, one tradition that seems to fade into the background is possibly the craziest tradition of them all. A tradition that involved public nudity, hallucinogenic drugs, and public sex all taking place on Swarthmore’s campus. The annual spring tradition of Crunkfest encompassed everything daring and out the ordinary.

Most people have heard of the crazy traditions that took place on Swarthmore’s campus back in the day, such as the rugby teams’ “Dash for Cash,” a fundraising event where both women’s and men’s rugby teams ran naked through Parrish while people threw money at them. But the most recently disbanded tradition of Crunkfest has caught attention of current students and alumni. For all us young people who have only heard rumors, the question really is, what the hell was Crunkfest?

“Crunkfest was actually one of the reasons I decided to go to Swarthmore,” commented Swat alum Rebecca Contreras ’13, whose team won Crunkfest when she was a senior.  “It was a much bigger event in those days than it was by the time I competed as a senior. It seemed like the entire school was in Worth courtyard, playing games, laughing, having fun.”

At its core, Crunkfest was a competition about pushing boundaries. People split up into teams and received a list from the Crunkfest judges — the winners of Crunkfest from the year before — and have 24 hours to complete challenges on the list, passed down from previous Crunkfests. The challenges included everything from folding laundry in Renato’s, to dropping acid, to orgies in academic buildings. Each challenge was allotted an amount of points for completion, and completion of the challenges had to be documented or proven in some way to get full credit. The team with the most points at the end of the 24 hours was named the winner, and got to add challenges and serve as judges for next year’s Crunkfest. Thus the cycle continued into generations and generations of Crunk.

Each spring a mysterious looking email would be sent out to all of campus in strange, confusing font calling for Crunk participants. Students would sign up and submit 10 dollars for Crunk judges to buy any supplies needed for the event — spices to snort, laxatives to help dislodge objects up people’s butts — all things completely necessary. The day would come and Worth courtyard would be transformed.

“The courtyard was littered with homemade tents and forts of every size and color, with fairy lights and lanterns lighting the scene. It was magical,” Contreras described. Crunkfest would officially begin with an opening ceremony in which each team would create a flag and present it in the most Crunk way they could think of, such as using the flag as bondage or pulling it out of their butts. Then the challenges would begin. Perhaps your team would start by having a member lose their virginity in the courtyard under a mattress, whatever kind of virginity that may be, or doing improv theater in front of the Springfield mall and maybe later in the day your team would roll down Swarthmore’s hill naked. Group competitions took place during the day as well, where all the teams would gather and compete in things like naked yoga, a naked dance off, joint-rolling competitions, lip synching competitions, or skinny dipping in the Crum.

“The initial gut reaction to Crunkfest, it may not seem like it’s a space for queer people or a space for people who don’t want to do drugs and alcohol or be involved in the challenges,” commented Doriana Thornton ’16, one of the only participants in Crunkfest still on campus, “but I soon came to learn Crunkfest was a very, very consent-oriented space.” Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can be terrifying, especially when it involves being naked or on hard drugs, but the people involved in the activities set the space for that to happen safely.”

“For the most part I think there is a huge misconception about Crunkfest,” Contreras commented. “One of my teammates was completely sober the entire time. I never did anything that made me remotely uncomfortable yet I still pushed the boundaries of my creative thinking.”  A space fueled by adrenaline, a few drugs, and radical consent, Crunkfest served as a small haven for the creatively adventurous.

The competition was, for obvious reasons, somewhat controversial. Many students never chose to participate in Crunkfest and simply continued their everyday lives at Swarthmore, allowing both Crunk-ers and non-Crunkers to live in harmony on one campus. Some people on campus are comfortable with dropping acid or having sex publicly, and others aren’t, and both preferences were completely heard and respected. To Crunk or not to Crunk, either way was totally cool.

Obviously, Crunkfest no longer exists. Whether it was the questionably legal nature of some of the challenges or the administration’s general fear of something going wrong, Crunkfest was canceled in 2014. The few the decision affected felt it was a great loss to the environment of the Swarthmore campus.

“It was the best time I’ve had at Swarthmore, ever,” commented Thornton.

The canceling of a beloved tradition, as well as the lack of institutional memory of this tradition, may symbolize the shift in Swarthmore’s campus to a more tame, controlled version of its former self.

“Many of my close friends participated in Crunkfest at Swarthmore. Most of them came away from the experience with a deepened love for their minds and bodies,” commented Contreras. “Crunkfest helped me build confidence in myself,” she added.

Especially in the midst of a dying Pub Nite, it’s hard to see a bright future for student traditions — traditions that make Swarthmore more than just a large endowment and rigorous classes, but rather a place with some dirt on it, not completely polished and pristine, but where all students are accepted and respected regardless. Hearing the stories of what Swarthmore used to be could leave some students wishing they had arrived on campus a few years earlier.

 

Remembering and rewriting: fashion and narrative

in Campus Journal/Columns/Hi! Fashion by

 

Photo by Ian Holloway
Photo by Ian Holloway

Leila Selchaif ’18 made a comment to our fiction class a few days ago about how plot can sometimes be structured around objects. In reference to some of the stories we had read, she explained that “it seems to me like these stories are told like our memories: we are triggered by an object.” This idea that an object holds memories has always been one I am intimately aware of with regard to clothes. There are certain items of clothing — a dress, a bra, a hat and coat — that are inextricably linked to certain memories.

But Selchaif brings up something I think is really exciting and interesting: those objects we associate with a particular memory can actually build up their own narrative. What Selchaif was noting in those short stories is applicable to the narrative potential behind an item of clothing. A pair of shoes associated with a specific memory brings that memory into each day you wear those shoes. This repeated contact with the memory changes it with time.

Michaela Krauser ’17 explained to me that whenever she puts on an item of clothing tied to a painful memory, she feels a little defiant, as if she is reclaiming a part of herself that seemed alienated by the memories associated with the item.

“It’s funny, I actually usually really liked whatever outfit it was that something horrible happened in,” she said. And so she wears the outfit again, and it accrues a new narrative.

You both acknowledge the memory-meaning of the object and allow its primary meaning to be the way it looks on your body; that, after all, is the only way anyone else will see it. This is where Selchaif’s narrative comes in: the object becomes a sign of your memory, your ability to remember that memory from the present, and your ability to ignore that memory for the greater part of the day even as it is rubbed in your face by the object. As time passes, all the days you wore the object in recognition and defiance of the memory become a part of the memory object, and slowly a narrative shaped by your own willingness to wear your memories is created.

The possibility that feels so exciting to me here is that in wearing that potentially painful item of clothing, we have an opportunity to face the events associated with it and potentially rewrite its meaning, even just as something you can live with. Being able to say, “this is a great outfit that looks good on me” and choosing to wear it because of that gives you a certain kind of agency over the memories you cannot disassociate from the item. You get to choose which meaning to privilege.

For an item associated with a positive memory or period of time, wearing the item can allow that positive time to seep into the present, and can allow you to interact with that past in a way changed by the present — the item accrues its own narrative as it weaves in and out of the present. Positive or negative though the associations may be, clothes nonetheless can hold their living narratives in our present.

For example, there is a particular grey wool dress I wore on my favorite birthday of all time, a day where everything occurred just as I had hoped and planned that it should. I wore that dress for my Econ final. I wasn’t very good at Econ. It didn’t interest me and it didn’t stick in my head. When I woke up the morning of my exam, early so I wouldn’t stress with rushing, I pulled the grey wool over my head and looked in the mirror and remembered that perfect fifteenth birthday.

I accessed that memory through my dress and the positive associations I had with it — of planning well, of knowing what I wanted and how to achieve it — became part of my narrative that day. But overlaying my acknowledgement of the memories of that dress was my anticipation and the primary importance of my econ exam that day. Now, the dress is as much a sign of that econ exam as it is of my birthday. The object has built a narrative around itself, a narrative defined by my ability both to access the meaning of the dress and to rewrite it. Every day I re-wear it, normal days where I try to arrive to classes on time and listen to the stories of my friends, those events are present as narratives in my day. Their meaning changes each time I wear it, as the way I think about them and the way I think about the present change. Ultimately, the dress becomes a collection of memories and feelings and vacillating states of subjectivity.

Out of curiosity of other people’s narratives surrounding items of clothing they own, and in celebration of those narratives, I asked for anyone with an item of clothing and an associated story to share to do so. So on this page are stories from Swatties, told through clothes.

Photo by Ian Holloway
Ian Holloway/ The Phoenix

Hazlett Henderson ’17: I wanted to choose some piece of clothing inherited from my parents, but I think I’m actually happier with these shoes than anything else I own. I bought them in tenth grade? eleventh grade? and they sat in a trunk in my room in Kansas until last summer, when I took them to France and they blossomed into the practical and durable and comfortable shoes of my dreams. I mostly wore them on my farm so they were like sturdy farm shoes but also could fit into my backpack when I needed them to. And it wasn’t my parents who found them; it was me!

Jesse Bossingham ’16: This shirt was given to me originally by my mom, and it has significance both in that I associate myself with the “underdog” — even if I’m not the underdog, associating with that group over anyone who happens to have any power whatsoever — and then secondly, it has a beagle, and my first dog was a beagle. He passed away, so it has a lot of meaning based off that. Finally, it’s just sort of a nice gift from my mom, very thoughtful, like “this is the sort of goofy thing that Jesse would like” and it’s nice when you’re a distance away from home that you have this connection, and you can wear something that looks nice and reminds you of home.

Raisa Reyes ’15: During my year abroad at Oxford I began to appreciate the typically British collegiate aesthetic of wearing plaid skirts, crew neck sweaters, and Oxford shoes. These oxfords that I wore on my year abroad never fail to remind me of what it was like to walk along the wet, cobble stone streets on my way to the Radcliffe Camera or the sound my feet made as I walked through the 17th century courtyard that belongs to Wadham, the college I studied at in University.

Photo by Ian Holloway
Photo by Ian Holloway
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