There will be a collection on Friday, September 16th at the Friends Meetinghouse as part of the college’s effort to hold more collections throughout the school year. The goal of the collections is to sustain a sense of community, and for that reason will be held as often as two to three times a semester. They will be spaces where students, faculty, and staff can come together to share their thoughts.
The history of collection is rooted in Quakerism. Collection was a time aside for a variety of activities, which could be anything from reading the Bible to listening to a speaker. When the school was first founded by the Quakers in 1864, all students were required to attend Collection.
A collection, however, is distinct from a Quaker Meeting for Worship. Chris Densmore, the curator of the Friends Historical Library, specified the difference between the two. “Collection was never like a church service,” he explained. “There wasn’t a minister there telling you what to think. It was a time for collecting — collecting your thoughts, getting some information.”
As the school became larger and more secularized, it continued to reduce the number of collections held until only two remained: First Collection, for when new students first entered the college, and Last Collection, for when students graduated. However, a time for collection from 1:00pm to 2:00pm on Friday afternoons was always reserved in the official college calendar.
Former President of Swarthmore College Rebecca Chop’s administration expressed interest in bringing back some of the school’s old Quaker values and traditions, one of which was collections. Action on this interest was never taken up during her tenure, though. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins explained the renewed interest in collections.
“We certainly understood why we weren’t saying ‘Everyone must come every week [to collection]’ because it would be very hard to do that today,” she said. “But we thought that the idea of bringing the community together, at least sometimes, was a good idea because it builds community. It gives us the sense of coming together around a particular issue, or sometimes not any particular issue at all. It’s really just an opportunity for people to raise things about what they’re feeling and thinking.”
While collections were never consistent, they have regained a presence on campus in recent years, functioning as a space for students to express their thoughts and feelings in the wake of campus-wide, local or global events. One was in the spring of 2013 when issues such as the reporting of sexual assault and fossil fuel divestment were being discussed. The most recent collection was on September 2nd in response to the swastika graffiti in McCabe Library. Densmore noted the way in which this type of collection is conducted.
“It’s not supposed to be an argument,” he said. “You don’t need to come in with pre-arranged thoughts in response to the issue. You’re supposed to be listening to one another, not try to grandstand, and address this issue in the spirit of ‘we’re all together, even if we’re divided by a lot of things.’”
The Self-Study Action Committee’s spring 2016 report also brought up interest in collections. The committee conducted the Study on Learning, Working, & Living at Swarthmore. After vetting the results, members suggested holding regular collections to promote community engagement.
These regularly scheduled collections will be voluntary, all-campus events, and, in contrast to the ones held in recent years, will not be organized in response to a specific issue. They will follow the format of First and Last Collection, in which everyone is welcome to speak their thoughts at any time.
President Valerie Smith articulated the administration’s hopes in implementing these changes in an email statement.
“Hosting regularly-scheduled Collections throughout the year cultivates a habit of reflection and contemplation, providing members of the community with a time to share their ideas and feelings or to share a time of silence,” she explained over email. “Collections can also serve as a meaningful way to bring the community together and draw strength from one another during times of crisis or struggle.”
However, Director Tompkins emphasized that the policy change was not an iron-clad directive.
“We’re suggesting [collections] as something to try this year, and we want to see how it goes. Do people like it? What suggestions do they have?”
Emma Walker ’20 thinks more collections will have a positive effect on the college. “I think Swarthmore is already a tight-knit community and having these collections would build an even stronger sense of community, which can only be a good thing,” she said.
Taha Onal ’17 offered his perspective as a student who has observed the student-body change over his time here. “I think it’s changed a little bit throughout the years because I am a senior now, so when I got here it was a lot smaller and full of pretty disparate types of people,” he said. “In some ways it’s homogenized, and I think that there’s community in ways we haven’t seen before. But there are also things people get outraged by, so there’s a lot of tension on campus sometimes. I think an initiative like this could be a good way to get people to stop resenting each other as much, if issues are addressed in a way that’s healthy.”
The next collection will be on October 28th, and it is open to all members of the Swarthmore community.