A response to “Swarthmore as a college”

8 mins read

I begin this counter-response to Zac Arestad’s op-ed response “Swarthmore as a college” to my op-ed “Swarthmore as a nation state” with my gratitude for the time and thought Arestad put into critiquing my arguments. I would like to thank him for his considerations of alternative perspectives that I would like to draw in to make this conversation richer and to elucidate some of my initial points. Due to of the brief nature of op-ed pieces, I was compelled to simplify my arguments; this may have led to the misinterpretation of portions of my piece.

I agree with Arestad that students are consumers but I reject the notion that the roles of consumer, producer, and product are mutually exclusive. Arestad asks, “ … in what ways are we exchanged? How precisely does the college circulate us as capital?” Swarthmore is like every other college or graduate school. Its ultimate product can be expressed by the equation “graduates – dropouts = product.” Don’t colleges boast about how many successful graduates they produce? Therefore, every Swattie is a potential product. When graduates approve of their experience at Swarthmore, this enhances the college’s reputation and improves its ability to attract high quality applicants. If, however, the system is so onerous it produces significant dropouts, numerous graduates with complaints, or even anxiety disorders, it loses credibility as an elite institution. Think of it this way: learning in the current Swarthmore system is a bit like learning basketball from an abusive coach. Despite their yelling at you, you might learn something about the game. It is not, however, the ideal way to learn basketball, nor is it likely to produce the best results for the most players.

Every Swattie is also a consumer, as Arestad points out, but what we are buying is not only an education, but access to the workspace and resources of the college. While students are consumers of these beneficial resources, if we were consumers in the common sense of the word, wouldn’t we be able to demand a refund if the product or service did not meet our needs?

Every Swattie must also work within the system to produce the ultimate product. No, we are not manufacturing sweaters to be sold in the bookstore and Swarthmore is certainly not “turning a profit on our seminar papers” but this does not mean that students are not producers of capital for the institution. This capital includes the reputation and prestige current students and graduates (as previously explained) produce for the college which can be then be traded for more qualified students to continue the production of capital for the institution. Think of the college as a machine shop: The corporation provides and maintains the space and the equipment but the worker fashions the product from the raw materials at hand. In the case of a college, the space is the campus (maintained by staff), the resources are the professors, and the raw material is the student.

In these three ways I argue that students can be products, consumers, and workers simultaneously. These three roles we fulfill however, all work to perpetuate the capitalist institutional model of production that neglects the humanity of so many of our community members.

This brings me to Arestad’s critique of my exclusionary conception of the Swarthmore community. In my op-ed, nowhere do I restrict the “Swarthmore community” to students and I was not referring exclusively to students when I make the statement “we are the ones who make this college operate.” My original words were, “Each member of this community has earned his/her/their spot and we are what makes this institution operate so we ought to be the ones in charge,” meaning each member including students, faculty, and staff which I define as students (that’s us), faculty (professors), and staff (ITS, library and other college service workers, EVS, office workers, and the administration).

At one point, Arestad asks me, “When was the last time an administrator timed a student nap?” Nowhere in my initial piece do I conflate the administration with the institution. Administrators are as integral a part of this community of workers as any other group. When I cited an example of a student needing an extension to prioritize personal care, I did not say the faculty do not permit this. That would be to conflate the faculty with the institution which I explicitly differentiate. Swarthmore faculty are often the most supportive of students taking measures of self-care. By “institution” I refer to the structure and system constituted by the conventions, norms, and values that are currently in place, which actually do limit our ‘nap time.’ I have encountered many members of our community who have expressed feelings of exclusion and invisibility as a result of these structures. The Campus Climate Survey corroborates the presence of these feelings on campus. These are the structures that I hope our community will question and challenge. The restructuring I suggest in my op-ed will result from conversations within the community, inclusive of all members.

My op-ed was constructed from sentiments I collected from numerous conversations throughout my time at Swarthmore with students, faculty, and staff, all from a diversity of backgrounds and roles within the college. The conversations I have had were consistent with the desire for a more inclusive, autonomous community, as recently revealed by the Campus Climate Survey.

I do not attempt to bring us together under a “national banner” but rather to catalyze conversations among community members about the type of community we want to build. We have all chosen to be here and I hope that by restructuring our institution to best reflect the identities of its people and meet our collective needs, we can engender solidarity, tolerance, and love for one another.

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