Maintaining Collective Memory
Issue   |   Tue, 10/25/2016 - 23:11

As a print publication with nearly 150 years of history, the Amherst Student has a substantial archive of student writing. The Student’s office and the College archives house stacks of aged books with every issue that came before this one and will grow to include each one that will come after. Though this routine does document our history, successfully navigating our records seems harder than one might imagine. For example, how does one approach finding all articles on Asian American identities, or all articles discussing sexual assault? There is not a clear-cut method in which a student can achieve this. The archiving of each issue acknowledges the presence of our history, but this does not necessarily make that history and tradition accessible to students. There does not seem to be a cohesive narrative of what stories are actually being told here at Amherst.

The Amherst Student has the support of this long-term commitment to archiving, but many other student-run organizations do not enjoy this privilege. If we struggle to understand narratives within piles of history, where does that leave organizations that do not actively maintain an archive of some kind? In the moment, this oversight may seem non-critical — after all, there are upperclassmen who pass on their knowledge to underclassmen and theoretically, this chain sustains linear growth. Yet failing to leave an official institutional record behind becomes a problem when groups fall off the map for a year or two, sometimes more. How do students return to a group, even just a few years later, and remember what has happened before them? This becomes particularly unfortunate when it comes to the history of student affinity groups and campus activism. By losing track of the lived experiences of those before us, we lose momentum in dismantling problematic systems of power that exist within the institution of Amherst. How can we move forward to create progress without a clear understanding of what has occurred in the past?

For an example of the large scale benefits to keeping a detailed archival record, we can turn to athletics. Most teams foster deep connections with their alumni base, largely a product of the strong presence of the athletes who came before them. Athletic teams do have the benefit of effectively guaranteed support from the College and the leadership of people who are not students, whose time with the team often spans more than four years. Each team’s homepage on the athletics website is equipped with years of statistics as well as rosters featuring the names of the players who participated across decades. It’s easy enough for athletes to see who came before them thus creating the perpetuation of certain standards that will likely linger beyond the bounds of a single athlete’s career. This built-in institutional memory associated with athletics is a critical reason for its hegemony at our institution. Perhaps other student-led organizations could become similarly influential forces, without the aid of the College, if current leaders begin to do this same intensive documentation work. Student-led collection and documentation of memory will ensure progress that has already been forged will be maintained while also providing the tools necessary for more change.

To maintain better institutional memory within our student-led organizations, we must be able to conceive of a time past our own at Amherst. Four years after our graduation, the last year of students we attended this College with, will graduate. How can we be sure that we will care for the students who come after, with whom we share very little tangible connection? We must leave something behind for these people, to reduce the chance of our hard work being erased. The Editorial Board believes part of the answer is physical archives, but also the digitizing of those archives. It’s crucial that this imagined archive be accessible and easily navigated. This is not to argue that we need to be over-active alumni eight years out of college. This is not an issue of how much money we do or do not donate when we are old. What we need to pay attention to is the work we do now, in our moment at Amherst, and doing it with the mindset that our actions can and will affect students long after us. We need to work while imagining the connection we share with future students, or we risk eventually becoming the same disconnected alumni we so often criticize.

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