Class Inequality and Seminar Breaks

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

We must admit we were somewhat surprised by some of the responses offered to our first column. Not the angry responses, mind you, since we imagined we might ruffle a few feathers by writing a column that complains about the way students here do journalism. Instead, what surprised us was the fact that some students who commented offered ideas for future columns they would like to see written. These ideas included such topics as the Clery Act, which governs the release of information related to assaults taking place on a college campus, as well as funding challenges faced by IC and BCC groups. We’re excited to hear these ideas, because by simply existing, they testify to something we’ve always believed: there are indeed issues worth discussing here at Swarthmore, and those issues relate to the empowerment of students.

We’d like to respond to some commenters who expressed hope that our column would provide some of the coverage that we identify as lacking in journalism here at Swarthmore. Indeed, it is our intention to do that, and future columns will treat specific student issues that we care about, and specifically issues that relate to funding and how student money is spent and distributed at Swarthmore. To us, these issues are not simply worth considering from the point of view of accountability and sound judgment in the distribution of funds, but demand consideration from a political perspective. Allow us to illustrate with an example.

From time to time, Student Council considers establishing a fund to provide money for students to provide refreshments at seminar breaks. Such a fund would conceivably allow students charged with “bringing seminar break” to present receipts from food stores and receive reimbursements from the College. This fund is a good idea: it’s a very small step to take to address manifestations of class inequality within student life.

Of course, some students can afford to spend the money to provide food for their seminar. But many factors have an effect on the price of providing food at seminar, including (but not limited to): the size of seminar, the time when seminar meets, and the precedent that has already been set by previous breaks. Those of us who have been in seminars know how central seminar break is to maintaining stamina and intellectual rigor for the duration of the class; it’s quite literally no joke. When all is said and done, it’s not difficult to spend a decent amount of money bringing food for seminar, and it’s impossible to do for less than twenty dollars (and that’s only if you’re planning on making something from scratch).

Swarthmore students already attend school here at considerable expense, and seminar breaks are a lurking expenditure that isn’t technically required, but can’t be avoided for students taking a seminar. A student already struggling financially with Swarthmore’s price tag can’t avoid spending for seminar breaks, and resorts to saving money in other ways. Naturally, the extent to which a student is capable of paying for seminar break has a lot to do with that students’ class background.

We should also consider that many seminars that ask students to bring food for breaks are honors seminars. Students currently attending Swarthmore probably do not identify the honors program with a sense of social and intellectual elitism, but at Swarthmore, that association is sadly a dominant feature of the not-so-distant past. We are lucky enough to attend a Swarthmore whose honors program has undergone significant democratization in terms of students’ access to its benefits, but we ought to remain vigilant in gutting from its structure and practice any vestiges of the exclusivity that was once the rule in Honors.

Inevitably, students will disagree with the idea of setting aside money to help pay for seminar breaks. While we cannot predict exactly what arguments will be used, we imagine people will feel that providing snacks in class is not the College’s or Student Council’s responsibility, or else that the fund is a nice idea, but is too easily abused, or won’t be taken advantage of. We imagine that these students are not the same students who have to ask themselves if they can really afford to bring snacks to class when it is their turn to do so. If this is the case, would it be fair to say that their class background has influenced their opinion on this Student Council policy matter?

We believe that it would be fair to come to this conclusion, since we form our opinions based on our past experiences. A student for whom providing seminar snacks poses no financial difficulty wouldn’t immediately recognize the need for a seminar break fund, or understand the way in which such a fund fits into a political vision shared by those students who would lay claim to Swarthmore’s politically progressive legacy. We need to question our idea of the typical Swarthmore student: currently, if we allow students to pay for their own seminar breaks, it is because we assume the typical Swarthmore student can afford to do so.

In many ways, it is a question of norms and normativity: what do we expect, consciously and unconsciously, of a “normal” Swarthmore student, and how do those expectations foster an atmosphere that excludes many students? To combat this exclusivity, we must develop the awareness for which we strive in our best moments as Swarthmore students: an awareness of the relevance of social injustice to our daily lives. This awareness ought to encompass an idea of social justice not as something to realize outside what some have called the “bubble”, but as something for which we must aggressively fight within our community.

We hope these examples better illustrate what we mean when we ask Swarthmore journalists to consider the political implications of the stories they write. We see something like the establishment of a seminar break fund as a political issue, since it engages with the ways in which social class—a politically charged concept—affects a student’s experience of attending Swarthmore. Seminar breaks are just one of the many insidious and often (at least to the privileged) hidden factors that reproduce the distinctions and divisions of capitalist society within the school. We could name many more, but like we’re trying to tell you, journalists, that’s your job now.

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