Universities are Institutions Worth Fighting For: Colonial Logic of Institutional Gatekeeping & Student Activism from Within

Photo Courtesy of @shartmoree: Instagram (@shartmoree)

A few days ago, I received the most puzzling rejection from Swarthmore College’s sociology and anthropology department: 

“We are thrilled that you are interested in our Political Sociology major however acceptance requires two courses completed in the dept. We will revisit our decision once this requirement is complete.”

Yes. The course catalog explicitly states that “acceptance to the SOAN course major requires completion of at least two courses in the department with at least a B average, and at least a C average overall.” I was fully aware. I was also absolutely cognizant of the fact that I have taken three SOAN/SOCI courses with A or A+ grades. Are you really “thrilled” that I am interested in your program — question mark — was apparently not the first question that came up in my mind. Still, I asked one of the professors in the department the reason behind this decision just to hear back an even more jaw-dropping answer:

“You have to take a course that is taught by one of the professors in the department.”

Appalling. That meant courses that were cross-listed as sociology/anthropology (SOAN) were technically not considered to be SOAN enough. Bluntly speaking, that meant professors without a degree in sociology or anthropology lacked the qualities to impart sociological/anthropological knowledge and nurture prospective sociologists and/or anthropologists. Indignant, I asked back:

“That sounds to me like a bureaucratic decision and an undervaluing of interdisciplinary studies?”

The professor replied: “Well, that’s the rule.”

Albeit not a rejection from unrequited love, the sociology and anthropology department’s rejection of my major request and the reasons behind its decision were a great shock to me. First, because the department denied the impact cross-listed SOAN courses had on me to shift from STEM to a SOAN political sociology major. Second, because I used to think that our sociology and anthropology department was the most thoughtful and caring department on campus that is deeply concerned with the idea that “matters that are often perceived as ‘personal problems’ are actually consequences of social structures” as the first page of their department website clearly affirms. It was only after a series of self-questioning and self-answering that I began to realize how my “personal problem” was speaking to a border wall of institutional gatekeeping under the name of higher education that I’ve been recurrently beating myself against throughout my sophomore year. 

Who gets to teach? Who gets to learn? What gets to be taught? And who gets to decide all that? My encounter with the sociology and anthropology department was not the first time I asked myself these questions. When I was having a conversation with some environmental services (EVS) technicians, my heart crumbled with the news that they learned how to use a computer for the first time many many years ago through Learning4Life. A program that is now reduced into a knitting circle for “all” — an “all” that fails to recognize that it needs more than a passive invite for EVS technicians to participate during their strict work hours. The college’s first-ever union failed to meet an agreement on most of their proposals after four prolonged series of negotiations with the administration bargaining in bad faith. We not only lost contract clauses but also the educational value of finally having a say in the distribution of the $3 billion endowment of our community. When the Oct. 7 attack broke out, my peers taught me more than my years of past schooling through social media and teach-ins about what is happening in Gaza, how my study at Swarthmore College is funding the genocide of civilians, and what I can do to salvage my complicity. Borrowing Naomi Klein’s words, I felt “stuck” between these myriads of whens, as if “time has collapsed.” Was it the “miseducation trying to keep me in trauma” — the trauma of losing faith in the education system I have grown up in for most of my life — like how the trauma of the holocaust was reinscribed through the miseducation of the anti-Israel uprising? Similarly to her rhetorical question — “How is it possible that Gaza is decimated and our universities have nothing to say about it?” — is that why it is possible for you to decide who and what is worthy of teaching or getting taught because you also get to decide who and what is worthy of committing a genocide from the river to the see?

Institutional gatekeeping of disciplines is a legacy of colonial thinking that lays a hierarchy in knowledge. Invoking “academic rigor” and “rational,” “objective” thinking, our education system still holds onto the colonial structure of categories of knowledge. In an environment that validates who is allowed to teach one discipline solely based on the criterion of a Ph.D (also known as Piled high and Deep) in the same discipline, “interdisciplinary study” is a mere piecemeal liberal reform. No matter how many innovative ethnographic research papers are assigned in classes to internalize the significance of lived experience and participatory observers, higher education still wards off knowledge outside the “proper” academic track. To them, interdisciplinary studies are too amorphous and cross-pollinating to be foundational enough. 

Swarthmore College is not an exception. To keep up with the standards of Ivy League universities, Swarthmore College believes in the elitist notion that bodies of literature and expertise shouldn’t mix as it continues to support strong majors and then tolerates interdisciplinary programs. A Phoenix article published in 2012, for example, points out the following: 

“Under the current system, tenure and promotion decisions are handled with respect to the department that a faculty member is associated with. Interdisciplinary departments have no independent tenure track faculty positions of their own; any tenured faculty in them have joint appointments in another department. What this means is that it is the obligations and standards of the “home” department that are used when making decisions about tenure. For faculty that have interdisciplinary interests, that could have significant limitations on what kind of research and academic investigation they undertake and, correspondingly, on the types of courses that they offer.”

Things have improved since then. The peace and conflict studies program became a department last year. Now, they can hire two full-time faculty and get more staff, funding, and assistance from the administration. Still, the college can do more. Other interdisciplinary programs like gender and sexuality studies don’t have any faculty directly related to their program and environmental studies still hasn’t become a department (contrary to how the school brands its environmental consciousness by constructing geo-exchange wells). Perhaps, under-supporting interdisciplinary programs is Swarthmore College’s way of keeping things fluid. 

Schools are sites of social reproduction that reinstates the worldview of the dominant system. Louis Althusser, in his book Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971), delineates that the school is one of those Ideological State Apparatuses that “ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the mastery of its ‘practice.’” Although universities use the rhetoric of “new knowledge,” learners who crack through new ideas and stand outside the box get shut down by the strong, stable gatekeeping that denies you a grade, degree, job, or tenure promotion. If military forces stand at the tip of the spear of this oppressive system, educational institutions grip the handle of this spear. Sounds bleak, but it also means that “universities are important institutions worth fighting for,” as Professor Giovanna Di Chiro argued in my ENVS 035 Environmental Justice course (which is cross-listed as Sociology and Anthropology 035).

The rise of interdisciplinary programs demonstrates the instrumental role of student activism in transforming higher education. At the quake of social activism in the 1960s and 1970s, interdisciplinary studies started flourishing. According to the chapter “The Rise of the Modern Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity” in Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies (2019), “civil tensions over the issue of race, political tensions over the Vietnam War, and social tensions over marginalized groups” served as a catalyst of “radical university reforms,” that pushed for the “elimination of the traditional academic disciplines in favor of more holistic notions of training that were closer to the practical problems of life” as the existing disciplines and scholarship “had failed to explain, or had ignored, the great social movements and ideological struggles that characterized the period.” Swarthmore College also shares an institutional history of the 1969 Black Student Protest Movement spearheaded by the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS). After meeting their demand for increased black enrollment through the sit-in, the students “worked through the college process to establish a Black studies program and led their own courses while they fought for formalized curricula.” Student activism has never ceased to voice how college education should reflect our own communities, and it seems that the universities are responding by resisting demands for change. Recently, colleges and universities such as Columbia started cracking down on students for free speech

Change is often revolutionary. In my history course with Assistant Professor Vivian Truong, “Cities and Social Movements, and environmental studies course with Professor Di Chiro, “Race, Gender, Class and Environment” (also cross-listed with Sociology and Anthropology as SOAN 20M), we are reading Grace Lee Boggs’ book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2011). In this book, Grace Lee Boggs expounds on her idea that “revolution is evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.” We need to evolve something new rather than simply “[transfer] power from the top to the bottom or of simple binary oppositions — us versus them, victims versus villains, good versus evil” because “radical social change [has] to be viewed as a two-sided transformational process, of ourselves and of our institutions, a process requiring protracted struggle and not just a D-day replacement of one set of rulers with another.” Revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries have often failed or reproduced former power structures with new people at the head. On a similar note, reformist reforms like special majors are not enough to break down the institutional gatekeeping of disciplines. We need to ask bold questions such as aren’t the terms major and minor inherently hierarchical? and whose ideas are going to be valued? Change is a journey of evolving our ways of thinking, imagining, and contemplating who we are as human beings. Of course, as Boggs puts it, “This kind of organizing takes a lot of patience because changing people and people changing themselves requires time. Because it usually involves only small groups of people, it lacks the drama and visibility of angry masses making demands on the power structure. So it doesn’t seem practical to those who think of change only in terms of quick fixes, huge masses, and charismatic leaders.” 

We are in a precarious time. It is not easy to be a student of yet another state apparatus that arms us with weapons of knowledge to compete with others when we are capable of living together with one another. At the same time, we recognize the gravity of our positionality in these difficult times. From within, we will fight back: have student groups teach amongst themselves, engage with community partners both inside and outside the campus, and push structures of universities along the borders of the system until there is enough pressure to say no to the universities’ entrenchment of their obsolete ideologies. Borrowing and twisting from Vladimir Lenin’s article, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (1913), “The [student] is becoming enlightened and educated by waging its [struggle]; it is ridding itself of the prejudices of [educational institutions]; … it is steeling its forces and is growing irresistibly.”

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