Thursday, February 15, 2007

An Interesting Observation

About a year ago, a literary journal asked me to write a piece on a period of student activism on my campus that was characterized by a struggle over whether Zenith, by enacting rules preventing certain kinds of expression by students, had violated the principle of academic freedom. It was a particularly ugly and jejeune form of student activism, produced by a kind of identity politics that is hard to identify with if you are older and then hard not to identify with, because you know they are right and you just hate the crudity of the organizing style.

The administration was supported in their suppression of this activism by many faculty; as it so happens, your Dr. Radical was on the famous "other side" (surprise!). I was far from alone: there were a great many faculty of all political, racial and sexual persuasions who saw in this moment the potential for repression of dissent among faculty on campus as well. It was one of those instances where the left and the right find a single issue over which they can bond, leaving the centrists growling at everyone. I supported the students past a point at which I now recognized I should have stopped, although I don't think that they were affected much by my participation or lack thereof. The political protests they staged got so out of control, and began to pervade the campus so completely as to produce vile classroom behaviors, at least one truly frightening demonstration in which an administrator was taken hostage for several hours in a stairwell by about a hundred enraged students, and hideous opinion pieces in the student newspaper in which students ripped each other and a variety of faculty and administrators to shreds in the kind of language you really don't want to see in a university. I would still stand by my original decision to support the students in the face of the powers that be suppressing their dissent, but at a certain point I recognized my responsibility to withdraw that support because I thought the ethical turn things had taken was very wrong.

OK, I felt a little like Richard Hofstadter and Hannah Arendt after the Columbia sit-in, but hey. Every moment you can channel the consciousness of a dead person is a moment to cherish if you are a historian.

So anyway. I accepted the assignment from the journal, not to keep the controversy going, but to attempt to re-think what the students had been trying to express, and to try to make sense of what I thought of the position(s) I had taken at various points in the conflict. It has gone through a couple revisions, and as part of the final one, I sent it to several administrators who had been on the front lines of policymaking and enforcement. I wanted to get their perspectives on my argument and make sure I was representing fairly what they had done and said. Yesterday, because of the snow day, I sat down to make sense of their comments, many of which were quite useful. I also found that there were several facts of local history that are taken for granted at Zenith that are not true at all. So this raised an old, but always interesting question: how do certain "histories" get written when something else actually happened? Why do people get invested in this untrue story, to the extent that it is retold and acquires the status of truth? This is particularly intriguing at a college or university, I think, where part of what students, faculty, and administrators do is tell stories about the past constantly, making all of us a kind of living archive of truths, half-truths, and narratives that are fictional but which express some kind of "truth" about the institution and its past.

I was well absorbed in re-writing this article when all of a sudden I realized something. One of my chosen readers had sent the piece to the university's lawyers.

Oh yuck.

I would like to attribute this discovery to my archival skills, thank you very much. One of the things that you cannot teach in graduate school, and that you only learn through endless hours reading the mail of dead people, is to look for something I can only describe as "tone." In other words, a writer has a certain voice, a handwriting, a grammatical style that you get used to, a voice that changes sometimes with different correspondents, but that is also pretty recognizable over time. If the writer's tone or even handwriting shifts, you have to ask two questions: is the authorial provenance of this document correct? and/or, What happened? Why has this person become curt, or uncertain, or huffy, or rude? What's going on here? This also becomes important if you are doing political history, as I do, since before Xeroxing, and even after in the case of secure or confidential materials, memos circulated to government bureaucrats, rather than a new copy being sent to everyone concerned. People would jot down comments on the document as they read it, without necessarily signing or initialing them. Being able to decipher the "conversations" in the margins, and matching handwriting to the names in the copy line, is critical to figuring out what became of the ideas and information articulated in the document. This "conversation" is often as much the story as the outcome of whatever process you are studying.

What clued me in to a second, "mystery reader" of my article was not handwriting, since the document was circulated electronically: it was the use of the Track Comments function in Word. The administrator in question had included chatty little asides in those bubbles in the margin that Track Commments creates, all of which bore a name, date, and time. These comments basically continued the conversation about a topic about which we had disagreed in the past, but offered no serious correction to what I was representing, and sometimes praised me for a reflection or point of analysis that the reader thought was insightful. Sometimes these were accompanied by a phrase inserted in the text in a color identical to the bubble's color. They were all written in the first person, and often addressed to me by name. It was also clear to me that this administrator does not know how to use Track Changes since bubbles were sometimes inserted with nothing in them, a sure sign that something had been written that was removed at a later point when the question or issue was answered elsewhere (or by someone else.) Then, in the same color type, I would find these short, curt comments -- no bubbles that would identify the author -- that said things like "the university has never made this claim" and "there is no guarantee of this in any university document" and "the rule on this is clearly written on page 13 of the regulations, no representation to the contrary could be made."

Wow. Now, I want to be clear that no one has suggested that I not publish this piece, nor was I told to make any specific changes of any kind. But I think two things. First, we were exactly right that suppressing student speech had implications for the faculty (and the students let us down by losing control of what they said and did: this relieved me of any lingering worry that I had let them down.) And second, I understood that I was taking a risk by delivering this article into the hands of my employers that something like this, or worse, might happen. But I saw it a gesture of colleagueship, professionalism and respect, not to mention a desire for accuracy. Because you could say that I invited scrutiny in the first place, I have mixed feelings about the fact that this was sent to lawyers (to check for what, precisely?) but I have no mixed feelings about not being told straightforwardly that this was done.

I think it was wrong, and dishonest, and I find it worrisome. I am also annoyed that a gesture I conceived partly as a way of putting the whole episode to rest, at least among the adults concerned, has ended in creating grounds for further distrust. How pointless.

Coming up: by request of a reader, a post on the Hunger Strike at MIT. Stay Tuned.


anthony grafton said...

Fascinating. You might look at John Boyer's history of the Chicago sit-in of 1968-69--itself a remarkable document in many ways, but one that doesn't fully correspond to my own (no doubt imperfectly remembered) take on the situation, as an undergraduate in the miserable liberal middle.

I have had the same though reading historical works on the Chicago convention of '68--none of them seems to me to correspond well with what I myself saw and experienced in the crowds outside the Hilton, night after night. Yet these are now the narrative, and mine and those of other participants will die with us.

Zach said...

I remember a lecture you gave about how no matter how much we tried to do truly queer histories, to upend the notion of history by involving our subjects at every stage in the process, that in the end, we were the one who wrote the story, printed it out, and turned it in. That's stuck with me.
I'm glad to hear that administrators had useful comments, and not terribly surprised that they sent it to legal.
A question, that hopefully does not seem too presumptuous: Have you also circulated the article draft to any of the students involved? Your article seems to focus more on the administration's reactions, so it could be the case that students' actions are less of an issue. I was not on campus the semester of the takeover, but would be happy to offer at least one (former) student's perspective on some of the activism of those years.
I look forward to reading the published article, if not before!

Sisyphus said...

Love it --- it's like a detective story! The description of how to maneuver through the archives is just as interesting as these intriguing comments about student protests (that, of course, I now want to know more about, and where they happened).

I actually don't know anything about the Columbia sit-in, either. Feeling a bit sheepish and ignorant here. I've only recently read stuff about the Paris student takeovers in May '68.

What you describe about students, staff, faculty and administration constantly telling stories about the past reminds me of fellow grad students' calls for better "institutional memory" amongst our cohort, reminding us that we graduate and leave every few years, leaving administrators in a better position to control what information, memories, even the sense of what's "normal" or "inevitable," gets passed down.

Lesboprof said...

This is indeed fascinating and very familiar to me as well. I have done some regional and institutional histories and find I have encountered some of the same issues.

One issue you raise, though, about the "fables" we create that are not true are still very interesting and useful, if understood as cultural clues and not so much historical facts. What these kinds of stories tell me is that there is something present in the culture and the history that causes people to feel like these things are true. That gives me insights into the tensions and problems in which the histories are unfolding.

And, I never underestimate the instinct of administrators to think about the legal issues. Someday, I am sure that will be me. Hopefully, it won't be soon.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be very interesting for students to have some sort of insight into the faculty's perspective on that period of activism. Is it at all possible to access that article?

-a student at Zenith

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