On the Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living

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.

You may have already seen the link to this survey, sitting at the top of the Dashboard, promising that it’ll only use up half an hour of your time. I was not expecting a survey, especially not one that was about improving our “campus climate” to be so woefully, breathtakingly bad. Setting aside the absurd demographics questions, I want to focus on one specific dimension of this survey: the questions regarding “exclusionary conduct” that both the survey-taker has experienced firsthand and that which the survey-taker has “observed.”

One more thing before we start: I think it is important to recognize that including a write-in option does not mean that these questions manage to cover all the bases. It is important to note which options the survey-makers assumed would be significant enough to warrant their own category, rather than leaving them to be written in.

So let’s kick off.

1. “the conduct” and “the target” 

This is the first problem: both sets of questions assume a single instance, or at least, a single identifiable vein of exclusionary conduct, performed against a single target, once in the entirety of the past year. This is laughable. It is a clear sign that the survey-makers have not accounted, in their model, for people who regularly undergo harassment, or who regularly see “exclusionary conduct” happen. The belief that hostility, disruptive hostility, is a rare occurrence, is an expression of privilege. It is a sign of one’s inability to recognize that, for marginalized people, exclusionary conduct is a constant in our lives, and is always interfering with our ability to work or learn or live.

This is even more apparent when we move on to further questions about supposed motives (questions 13 and 66). Firstly: even though it says “mark all that apply,” how are we supposed to be able to tell? Sure, some cases may be more clear-cut than others; but on any given day, how am I meant to know if it’s my “gender,” “gender identity,” “gender expression,” or “sexual identity” that’s the cause of hostility? Which is it, my “immigrant/citizen status,” my “international status,” my “physical characteristics,” my “ethnicity,” or my “racial identity”? What about “physical disability/condition” versus “Mental Health/Psychological disability/condition” versus “Medical disability/condition” versus “Physical characteristics”? And over the past year? I should just check off anything that deviates from the norm to be absolutely sure. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if I did so, I’d be telling the truth.

The fact of the matter is, hostility is rarely directed at just one (visible or known) facet of one’s identity. One of my many, many identities might be the particular sticking point in one particular instance, but my multiple identities will inevitably affect how I live, and the hostility I receive, even if neither I nor the person attacking me are conscious of this. See: intersectionality, standpoint epistemology.

2. “Where did this occur?”

Again—this is kind of silly. There is a lot of weighting towards physical spaces, meaning that if—say—you experienced vitriol on the comments page of the DG, you’re out of luck, unless you consider The Daily Gazette a social networking site. Others are so broad they’re useless: “In campus housing,” “Off-campus,” “In off-campus housing”? As someone who lives off-campus, yeah, of course I’m going to experience something there, given the aforementioned constancy and regularity with which incidents occur. The same is true for when I lived on-campus. Off-campus is literally the rest of the world. And what’s the difference between “in other public spaces at Swarthmore” and “while walking on campus?” Is it meaningfully different if I was riding a shuttle to campus versus walking within its confines? Or if I was standing still versus walking to class?

3. “Who/what was the source?” and “Who was the target?”


Okay, survey makers: Social networking sites, unless the code has gained sentience, cannot be the “source” of the conduct. Anonymous users working via the site, sure. But do not confuse the medium with those who use it: there are real people behind those keyboards and screens typing away. And the same reasoning applies for the target: social networking sites cannot be the target of hostile conduct. This is just lazy. As was having both “stranger” and “Don’t know source” as answers.

However, there’s another source they’re missing out, and here lies another problem with their underlying assumptions. The question, “What was the source?” implies a direct agent, with intent to harm or at least to exclude. It cannot encompass structural inequalities that do not necessarily harm out of malice, but out of ignorance. Where is the place to point at the cocoon of structures and bureaucracy that harms us? Once more, this question assumes the presence of a single source and a single target, with a one-to-one correlation. It ain’t that simple.

4a. “Which of the following did you observe?”

I simply find it amusing that “chalking” is an option all on its own. Setting that aside, because this survey has taken the baseline position of “all harassment is equal, context and society be damned,” it is hard to read the inclusion of “chalking” as anything other than a direct attack on those groups that have explicit, outspoken chalkings as a yearly tradition. Also, what’s the difference between “workplace incivility” and “hostile work environment”? Why is there one selection for “Person/I was stalked,” and four for different ways of delivering derogatory remarks? Why is there such selective detail for some consequences and a comparatively broad brush for others?

Plus, given the question highlighted in part 1… identity, singular? Really? And this is the question that comes after acknowledging that there could be multiple identities at play in any given scenario of “hostile conduct.”

4b. “How would you describe what happened?”

Here we’re getting into the meat of things (I know).

There are four different ways of saying “I was excluded or intimidated.” There are six ways of saying “I was disadvantaged in my work, through intimidation or discrimination.” Three or four ways of saying “my academic abilities were hampered.” Why?

Again, four different responses for four ways of receiving derogatory comments, but one for stalking or ethnic/racial profiling; one for being the target of physical violence. Where’s one for “continual low-level harassment”? The self-doubt and worry and anxiety? The trauma and the consequences of this “exclusionary conduct?” I appreciate “I was singled out as the spokesperson for my identity group,” but what about “I feel like I’m a teaching tool or a marketing aid?” This survey is so quick to try and imagine that discrimination is an Event, one that sticks in the mind for everyone, something that you can recount clearly, every time it happens, for an entire year. What the survey does not know is that as a matter of course, I have built up layers of apathy and indifference to shield myself. I cannot answer any of these questions with certainty, not because I am unsure that they have happened, but because they all blur together.

And, finally, the whoppers.

5a. “What was your response to observing the conduct?”

I will broadly categorize these as:

  • Emotional responses: “I felt embarrassed, I was afraid, I was angry”

  • Contacting authority: “I contacted law enforcement/public safety”

  • Using close relationships: “I told a friend/family member”

  • Seeking official support: seeking support from “advocacy services,” College resources, staff, TA, senior administrator, spiritual advisor, faculty member, or student staff

  • Reporting outcomes: reported and was satisfied with outcome; reported, dissatisfied with outcome but “feel as though my complaint was taken seriously,” did not report for fear of not being taken seriously, did report but did not feel “I” would be taken seriously.

  • Ignored/did not know what to do

  • And one left-over, “I sought information online.”

What an appalling mess.

What on earth is this question trying to achieve? Is it trying to ask me what my immediate emotional response is? It is asking me if I trust official support/reporting structures? Is it asking me whether or not I feel satisfied with the outcome of reporting, if I did so? Or is it asking if I think that reports are taken seriously? Does it want to know where I go to for support? That’s five separate questions, by the way, all different with different answers. No wonder this damn thing is so incoherent.

But what is more worrying and insidious is the way it frames all the potential responses as ones that align perfectly with stereotypical victimhood. Where are the options that say, “I did something about it”? Where’s the affirmative response that recognizes the survey-taker’s ability to organize to help out each other? Where’s “I sought to support the ‘target’ of this conduct”? Or are we all meant to wallow in pointless anger, self-pity, and then go to the very structures that have failed us over and over again? Because it’s quite clear that the survey thinks that all friends can do is act as a passive listening object. We can only “tell” our friends about what we saw. We cannot tell them, and then organize and do.

5b. “What was your response to experiencing the conduct?”

In addition to the broad categories I set up in 5b, we can add another category: “reacting to the harasser.” I get to “avoid,” “confront,” or “confront later.” I can also feel “somehow responsible” or “embarrassed.”

In doing so, anything “I” do is framed as a mere reaction to harassment (what a way to downplay the severity of this “exclusionary conduct”). I can say that I was angry, afraid, or somehow ashamed of being on the receiving end of this hostility. This is not to say that these emotions are never felt by people who face discrimination. However, my problem is that they are presented as the most common, most obvious responses.

I typed in my (actual) answer: “mocked it vigorously.” Because it actually is what I do. I was angry; I was afraid; but I am not only capable of lying there passively. I make fun of it. I take the sting out of it. And hell yes, I tell my friends—and then sometimes I organize in order to stop it from happening and to help the people I love with the same issues. Where is “I became motivated to make change,” or “I became radicalized and politically aware?” Where can we talk about the outpourings of solidarity and love, when we support one another in response to crises? Or were we meant to just report it, and pick “I did not feel my complaint was taken seriously” for this survey? We learn about the possibilities for change, and are encouraged to act upon them. Yet where in this survey can we show that we have done so?

This entire survey is a farce. I have not even started to criticize the wording and the construction of its questions on demographics. What is the kind of information that one can hope to receive from this survey? It begins by already assuming its respondents are helpless, isolated victims, who only ever suffer “exclusionary conduct” as opposed to real people with the ability to make meaningful choices and enact meaningful change. By acting as if this does not exist, the survey (and any information that results from it) produces the justification for continued bureaucratic overcomplication, of the sort that bemoans the lack of campus activism or positions itself as a panacea to the problems faced by marginalized communities on campus. This is a position that is only tenable by selectively ignoring the ways in which change is already happening, has been happening, and will continue to happen. It also downplays its own complicit status in being part of the structures that preserve an imbalance of power, and distance resources from those who need them. By implying that discrimination happens as singular events, it plays right into the elevation of individual experience over structural understandings. If this survey was designed to make us reflect on what makes us a community, forget about it. It is engineered to make us miss the forest for the trees.


  1. I have to agree. As soon as I started the survey I was sorry I had started it. The wording and construction of the questions were very frustrating. The survey seems to just pick parts of the picture to deal with. Answering the questions made me feel like someone had put words in my mouth that didn’t really begin to express what I was feeling or thinking. I didn’t answer many of the questions because they just didn’t make sense. I can’t imagine that any of this survey will produce anything useful for the “climate” of Swarthmore. Which brings to mind that my ideas about the “climate of Swarthmore” are not at all what all of these questions implied. A totally frustrating experience for me that I wish I had just avoided.

  2. Agreed 100%. This survey was incredibly triggering for me, and I can’t believe they had the gall to phrase the questions in the manner that they did. Fucking disgusting.

  3. This is a small point, but worth mentioning: chalking was likely included as its own category not to single out groups that engage in provocative and meaningful chalking as a form of activism, but in response to hate chalkings that occurred a few years ago. There may not be many students left at Swarthmore who are able to remember this happening, but for students who were on campus when this chalking was found (especially those who lived in the “queer dorms” mentioned in the chalking) it was really upsetting, and chances are that the question was written so as to make it possible for students to include additional events similar to that one, should others have taken place.


  4. I wonder if public safety was involved. I wrote to Michael Hill almost exactly a year ago in response to the PubSaftety survey. I never received a response.

    “Dear Mr. Hill,
    I would love to see the raw data. The graphs do not distinguish students from faculty and staff. This makes it difficult to differentiate the opinions of students.This could highly inflate perceptions of safety since faculty and staff are (most likely) to feel the most safe on campus. Right now I feel that the data are not useful. I’m sure that there are students who would be happy to analyze the statistical significance of the different answers. I’d recommend posting the raw data so that everyone can examine them and the method used to make graphs.
    -Maria Rogers”

    Thank you for writing this. It’s very important.

  5. The Swarthmore Survey on Learning, Working, and Living is intended to be one method of identifying how members perceive our community, the relationships between people and groups, and the sense of belonging each member experiences. We are aware that some in our community have concerns about the survey instrument and we want to address those concerns.

    Last spring, members of the Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee recommended that the campus engage in an in-depth study of our campus culture—often referred to as a campus climate self-study. The college contracted with the well-respected research group Rankin and Associates. College leadership also convened a representative committee of 19 community members to manage the process.

    Rankin and Associates shared a large battery of questions that have been used successfully in their projects with more than 100 other colleges and universities. From those we chose, edited, and created others from scratch. This survey, like any other, cannot possibly capture everything. And trying to construct a survey that works well for all members of the community—students, faculty, and staff, each group with a diversity of backgrounds and community experiences—is a very difficult challenge. We recognize that some of our choices may not feel right for everyone. But it is important to take this step to systematically gather information from everyone that, when taken together with other input, will inform the complex work we have ahead of us: rebuilding trust in our community after several turbulent years.

    This survey is just one part of a larger effort. For example, we had the help of more than 165 students, faculty, and staff members who participated in focus groups where they shared their experiences, which helped us get a better understanding of perspectives beyond our own. We know from feedback that these discussions were at times difficult, and at other times, cathartic. The themes that focus group participants discussed informed the topics we addressed in the survey.

    What we learn from the collective experiences of all survey participants will be shared with the entire community next academic year. Through community-wide conversations, we will all set meaningful goals toward making Swarthmore what want it to be. This is the baseline, not the finish line.

    We care about this community and believe that we can do better by and for one another. Use the text boxes in the survey, your concerns and critiques can be as long as needed. If there is a question we didn’t ask, pose it yourself. Share your experiences and concerns by taking the survey at https://rankinsurveys2.com/swarthmore.

    Please feel free to reach out to any member of the committee with questions or concerns.

    Ailya Vajid ‘09
    Alejandra Barajas ‘15
    Liliana Rodriguez
    Kaaren Williamsen
    Meghan Kelly ‘18
    Mohammed Lotif

    • Also, in the sections asking for your experience of a particular event, it is perfectly okay to share perspectives on multiple events. That is why you can mark all that apply. Some people have only experienced one such event, or none at all, while others have experienced multiple. You can interpret questions based on your own experiences.

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