Missing The Opportunity for Dialogue
Issue   |   Tue, 01/27/2015 - 23:30

Academics are a big deal at Amherst. The school does everything in its power to make sure the academic calendar suits faculty needs so that they can squeeze in every single reading, lecture and essay they see fit to assign. Last semester, a student wrote an opinion article in this very newspaper testifying to how the administration’s high and potentially unhealthy emphasis on schoolwork left other parts of our lives — intellectual, social, emotional — unsatisfied.

This norm of prioritizing academics above student life or even well-being is why the Day of Dialogue was such an important opportunity for our campus community. The cancelling of Friday classes demonstrated that the administration was ready to take issues of race and racism seriously and address them with the whole student body. All in all, more than a thousand people — students, faculty and staff — woke up early and packed into LeFrak gymnasium last Friday morning to engage in a dialogue about pressing issues within our community.

After Biddy’s opening remarks and expression of gratitude for showing up, students were ready to make good on the mutual promise to participate in dialogue. Unfortunately, the very structure of the Day of Dialogue actually hindered real dialogue within the community and instead placed its priority on the type of academic-ized lecture that one might see in the classroom. For the first two hours of the event, a panel of five lecturers — scholars from a mix of disciplines across the country — spoke at length about the broad historical and cultural context of race in America today. Several of the panelists exceeded their allotted time, speaking for so long that the time when they were to discuss race at Amherst specifically was cut off. Although many students lined up at the microphones provided to ask questions of the panelists, only one lengthy question was answered. The Q&A session was shut down just as a student brought up the contentious issue of the mascot, and although Biddy nervously joked that that wasn’t purposeful, there is a cruel irony to the fact that our community didn’t have time to discuss one of the most relevant racial issues on campus today.

The planning behind the Day of Dialogue either struggled to know its audience or simply didn’t care to. Many students left after lunch having learned nothing about their fellow students’ struggles on this campus or simply frustrated at being talked down to by a panel of experts. A historical and cultural understanding of racial issues in America is certainly important, but what’s crucial about such an understanding is that it be actually applied to real, concrete issues present on campus today. While there were certainly some great experiences during the subsequent small group discussions, we really missed out on a fantastic opportunity to collectively hear the voices of the whole community — students, faculty and staff.

Staff Person (not verified) says:
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 14:17

I don't always agree with the editorial staff of The Student but I feel you've really hit the nail on the head here. Although I stayed for the whole program and felt personally that I had a good experience, this was despite the events structure not because of it. The entire structure was a case study in how not to run an event that has promised to be a day of dialogue. The morning session was indeed especially disheartening and the afternoon session ending abruptly with the news that we needed to vacate for a basketball game later that evening was just an amazing example of how poorly people thought about the day. It was a real symbol of everything that is wrong and needs discussing on this campus.
I know that some people's questions were brought up during the morning session from a 'question box' but I didn't even know such a thing existed. When I arrived I was given a ticket with a group number and nothing more-I had to find the materials later on that others were walking around with. I'd also volunteered my time as soon as the event was announced and was never contacted. I wish that this day could have been something we all walked away from feeling that we'd had our voices heard, but I fear this was not the case.
I do want, however, to thank everyone who participated and made it through the whole day. I was so heartened to see the crowd that gathered that morning because they were interested to share their experiences and to hear the experiences of others. I especially had a wonderful small group and felt that everyone in the group was really trying to care about each other's experiences and voices. So again, thank you to those who came prepared to share, even if you weren't given the opportunity.

Ariel Hernandez '15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 20:51

...maybe you should transfer to Arizona State. Believe it or not, racism extends far beyond the boundaries of Amherst College, both in space and time. Just because the conversation isn't about the discrete lived experience of someone in the room doesn't mean it's not worth listening. The real issue is that the panelists universally delivered flaccid speeches that amounted to "racism is bad and sometimes uncomfortable" and "we should pat white people on the back for being 'aware' that racism exists."

Calling something a "dialogue" presupposes that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, but you're delusional if you think that the spaces that exist at Amherst do not, by and large, privilege the voices of white, male, straight, cisgendered, etc. students. Sometimes it's OK to shut up and listen. Just as long as the person speaking has something valuable to say.

Jayson Paul (not verified) says:
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 22:43

I think the last statement exactly puts into words the problem with this article. Rather than focusing on the aspect of the day where we could really learn and share- the small groups, we get upset that we didn't get a chance to stand and say our peice to the whole assembly.

I'm not defending the organizers of the event, there were definitely mistakes in planning and execution. I also however, have very little pity for people who didn't stick it out.

If the reason you left was that you felt you weren't being heard then - oh irony, I think you sabotaged the very process you wanted.

'16 (not verified) says:
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 18:32

The editorial board also fails to appreciate the enormous logistical challenge of organizing an event of this size. Maybe if they tried their hand at organizing even a small event for 100 people, or maybe even 30 people, they'd recognize how unbelievably well-coordinated the day was (given the circumstances and time constraints). I would agree, certainly, that there were many flaws. But flawed is not a criticism. But I cannot recall ever hearing of any such event ("dialogue") of this magnitude or nature taking place, and I can hardly even imagine a better way to go about having a conversation with 1200 people, though I'm sure suggestions could be offered. Perhaps you could suggest some?

It is way too easy to criticize; easy to grandly announce that we "missed out on a opportunity to hear the collective voices of the whole community." Enough of this posture of cynicism.