A Case Against the Collection Committee

Wharton EF First RA Jeewon Kim '13 at First Collection with her Class of 2016 hallmatesPhoto submitted by Jeewon Kim '13
Wharton EF First RA Jeewon Kim '13 at First Collection with her Class of 2016 hallmates
Photo submitted by Jeewon Kim '13

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.

Let me take you back to your First Collection.

Even as darkness creeps into the amphitheater, you listen intently to your peers as they share pieces of their hearts. Whether it is an understanding nod towards an expressed common fear or a momentary contemplation on an interesting idea, you catch yourself subtly reacting to the words of your classmates. And just for this little slice of your life, you exist solely in this conversation. As the need for catharsis wanes, the candle lighting ceremony begins. You step back and realize how cheesy yet sentimental this whole ceremony is: individually, you have your unique flame but together, we make one hell of a Kodak moment. The ceremony draws to a close. After exchanging embraces, fist-bumps, and cheery laughter, you slowly climb up the steps, thinking: “Wow. I can’t believe I’m spending the next four years with these great people.”

There’s something undeniably magical about collections. As transcendentalist as this may sound, the beautiful arboretum accentuates a feeling of human togetherness; it almost seems like an excursion away from the real world. This vacuum illuminates and validates all socially constructed dichotomies and identities, and creates a wonderful masterpiece by fitting together all our unique, jagged edges. It’s a place where an individual’s vulnerability and interdependence are valued and not disparaged.

On September 28th, at the Race to Action collection, I experienced a similar togetherness, but the feelings I had then were of compassion, outrage, and empowerment. Sitting with other Swarthmore Asian Organization members, we understood police brutality to be a problem of all people of color—Asian-Americans definitely aren’t excluded when it comes having our Fourth Amendment violated. At the same time, we were ultimately there to sympathize by lending a listening ear to our brothers and sisters. While the overall tone of the collection was not the same as that of the First Collection, the purpose, function, and effect have evident parallels.

Recently, the Task Force for Sexual Misconduct released a report. (A summary can be found here) Some suggested solutions mentioned are noteworthy: the instatement of an honor code, sexual education classes, and a clear definition of “sexual abuse.” One solution that seems to be underdeveloped is the idea of having more collections. To quote the report, it asks for “the reinstatement of a regular Collection,” or even “a weekly Collection” for the purpose of “look[ing] out for each other” and perhaps even “modeling of [a] behavior to inspire us.” Furthermore, it asks for the establishment of a Collection Committee that will help plan these regular Collections. The kicker is an internally-debated mandatory Collection, an idea that even the authors of the report acknowledge has flaws.

When I first read this, I was not too distraught by this idea. In fact, I was more taken aback by an Honor Code. Did I sign up to go to Brigham Young? Or worse, Haverford? After careful reflection, however, I want to leave some advice for the administration: do not make Collections a regular occurrence.

One argument that immediately comes to mind is that Collections are revered. A ritual becomes routine when it’s trite and overdone; to make Collection a commonplace occurrence is to do flagrant injustice towards a long-held Swarthmore tradition. Some immediate effects might also include lower rates of future participation, quickly running out of germane issues to talk about, and possible degeneration of Collections to weekly rant sessions. I argue that Collections should only occur as responses to momentous incidents. First Collection occurs after a group of four hundred individuals meet for the first time. To the same effect, the Race to Action Collection came as a response to the continually exacerbating events at Ferguson. The emergency collection from two years ago occurred due to an intersection of the IC defamation, an influx of sexual abuse reports, and the divestment issue.

This then beckons the question: how will our campus decide which events are “momentous” enough to have a Collection instigated? Here’s my vague response: they should occur when our community needs them. If our community is slowly dividing due to discord between the administration and student body, or if students need solace before reaching a melting point in the pressure cooker we endearingly call Swarthmore, or if an identity group is afflicted by some international, domestic, or local issue that requires communal release and reflection, then a Collection should take place.

It then follows that I am against a Collection Committee that sets the topic and agenda under a temporal obligation and, consequently, creates a “Grievances Club.” The frightening scenario that replays in my head is one in which Collections are no longer about community education or unification, but about disgruntled students directly blaming others about their bad experiences at Swarthmore. Especially if Collections become mandatory, students may feel unnecessarily uncomfortable or victimized. Education is a two-way street: one side must be willing to teach and the other must be willing to listen. Poor education will lead to a more disjointed and cliquey Swarthmore rather than a unified college community with students from all walks of life treating each other with respect. Also, mandatory Collections will indubitably pool in nonchalant students who may become even more jaded towards campus issues. If our purpose is to educate, the want for education should come willingly.

I do believe, however, that the report is on the right track. While the methodology may be questionable, the report emphasizes a mutually respecting community. It shouldn’t take a catastrophe for us to care about one another—rather, practices of respect and kindness should be firmly ingrained in our school’s culture. Swarthmore can only do so much when it comes to building a healthy environment; the Taskforce’s mandate of Collections comes as a last resort to try to reignite our love for community that was created at our First Collection. But what other solutions do we have to sustain this romanticized community? With my pop psychology knowledge, I contend that Allport’s Contact Hypothesis is useful here: interacting with out-groups regularly will increase mutual understanding and lessen stereotyping. Identity groups,  create more open discussion forums. Students, actually lean into discomfort and participate in more of these campus discussion. Don’t sit next to your same group of friends in Sharples. Explore! Diversity isn’t just some quota that the school fills so that you can one day say at a cocktail party that you went to school with someone from Ghana, it’s there to heighten your understanding. Spending time and talking to one another is just one simple way to increase the feeling of community drastically on campus.

As an aside, I will concede that a part of me wishes that our entire school can collect just once at the end of the school year for the purpose of debriefing. In my opinion, going through a year of Swarthmore without losing your sanity merits a Collection. It’s a time when seniors can impart their words of wisdom, Swatties can celebrate their successes, freshmen can thank their wonderful RAs, and students can say goodbyes parting ways for summer.

Overall, the taskforce has done an excellent job with research and problem solving, but the bit on more Collections is off-putting to say the least. I hope that the administration will critically weigh the cost and benefits of having more Collections, and agree with my conclusion.

1 Comment

  1. I went to a nominally Quaker high school. Meeting for Worship (which is roughly kind of sort of equivalent to a Collection, though not quite) is robbed of its substance when it is a mandatory activity; it becomes a place for theatrics and gossip, not so much a place for quiet reflection and communal togetherness. If regular mandatory Collections were instituted, Collection, I think, would quickly lose its character.

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