Why Bigger Isn’t Always Better When It Comes to Having Important Conversations
Issue   |   Tue, 02/17/2015 - 22:55

College administrators seem caught in the idealized pursuit of a pan-Amherst conversation. To that end, there have been sweeping initiatives like the Day of Dialogue and the Ask Big Questions program. These attempts at a college-wide conversation focus on broad abstractions like “race” and “thoughtfulness” that everyone can read into because they are so ubiquitous. The effect, however, is that it is difficult for individuals to personalize and invest themselves in these generalizations. In the process of trying to draw everyone in, broad initiatives fail to interest individual students because they are designed to generically interest everyone.

The false assumption behind every “campus-wide conversation” is that everyone cares enough to have a conversation. However, rarely is an issue so crucial that every student will clear his or her schedule and hop aboard to talk about it in a structured setting. The reality is that we’re disinterested about vital issues all the time and that there is a limited number of issues toward which we can devote our energy. To propose that the entire college does not spend enough time talking about sexual assault is just as absurd as the claim that we don’t spend enough time talking about the limited availability of clean drinking water in Tanzania. The distribution of interest for any given cause is such that there are pockets of advocacy interspersed among a much broader apathy. It should not be a source of concern that students don’t want to talk about something, even when it concerns issues that are of particular priority to the college like race, sexuality and sexual assault.

The structure of a college “dialogue” is symptomatic of the impracticality of the endeavor. One of the biggest problems of engaging a large group is that some students don’t know anything about the topic and therefore have trouble engaging in the conversation. To remedy this, we bring in speakers to help bring everyone up to a baseline understanding of the topics before students are set loose to dialogue. Armed with the premise, students then break off and “dialogue” about the topics before reaching a common conclusion that is more or less inevitable given the starting point of common ground. Facilitators are necessary for large college-wide dialogues because it is difficult for everyone to be respectful of others when the only guardrail against unintentionally caustic remarks is an hour-long presentation that preceded the discussion.

All this is contrasted with conversations that are started by students. The divestment movement led by the Green Amherst Project is a perfect example of student ability to take the initiative and create a dialogue on campus surrounding the issues that they consider important. The fact that the Green Amherst Project exists as an organization despite the fact that the college has no official position on divestment is a reminder that students will always be passionate about something, whatever it might be, and that they will act on their passions and spread it without any initiative on the part of the college. Although the Green Amherst Project may not command the same number of participants as the Day of Dialogue did, the people that it does draw in are absolutely committed to their issue. A passionate group of individuals, as small though the group may be, is a more powerful force for igniting meaningful college conversations because members of group have the potential incorporate their passion for the issue into their everyday interactions.

Conversations instigated by small-scale student activism are also less susceptible to cynicism. Whereas college-led initiatives are impersonal and easy to disregard, often announced by way of college email, student initiatives have faces and names attached to them and often are announced by way of social media or a personal invitation to get involved. It is easy for students to write off the most recent Day of Dialogue as an abstruse intellectual discussion that is a lecture you can listen to later. But there are no substitutes for having small-group conversations about racial inequity with peers who are passionate about the issue.There is validity to the idea that the college bears partial responsibility for uniting a student body that it purposely engineers to be diverse through the admissions process. I think that providing opportunities for students to interact that do not focus on differences will be the best way to help students overcome the divides on campus. The knowledge that a particular activity is meant to foster a sense of understanding for their peers often introduces a sense of artificiality and self-awareness to the experience that may actually be counterproductive. But if the activity has another goal in mind besides merely pushing a diverse group of people together, it has the potential to be more successful. The college should increase its efforts in supporting activities like the recently announced backpacking trip to Zion National Park, activities that will demonstrate that on the individual level that the meaningful differences between us are small compared to our shared experiences.

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