Cleaning Our Stuff: Thoughts on the AAS Crossett Christmas Letter
Issue   |   Tue, 01/23/2018 - 22:33

Following the Amherst administration’s uncharacteristically stringent presence at parties during the last weekend before finals period, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) wrote an open letter to President “Biddy” Martin, Dean Dean Gendron, and Dean Suzanne Coffey. The letter condemned the school’s “heavy-handed monitoring of select dormitories”:

“As students, we recognize that the administration wants to promote a safe campus environment by eradicating instances of sexual misconduct and vandalism. We want that too. However, there is a difference between trying to create a cohesive, respectful campus, and policing all facets of student social life. Sending administrators, including Dean Coffey, to conduct walkthroughs of residential buildings demonstrates that Amherst views itself as a boarding school rather than a college. This creates an environment in which students feel as though they are being babysat rather than treated as equal members of the community. These walkthroughs, as well as those conducted by ACPD and a contracted security service, worked to discourage students from gathering in so-designated public spaces, and hence, however inadvertently, promoted closeted underage alcohol consumption.”

The letter proved to be wildly popular. It turns out that “not being treated like an infant” is a political stance that most Amherst students can get behind. Furthermore, there is much to laud in the letter. Dean Coffey’s presence at Hitchcock on Saturday was, indeed, inappropriate and ridiculous. Though I have no clue whether it’s actually true that Amherst College Police Department supervision of parties does little to eradicate “instances of sexual misconduct and vandalism,” this seems like a very plausible hypothesis. I was also interested by the letter’s implication that an adult community should require less policing. The notion that adult humans can live peaceably together without the domination of police officers is near and dear to my heart. The letter doesn’t quite say this, but it comes tantalizingly close.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the idea that we can leverage our power as students to reimagine the common areas owned by the college as genuinely “public spaces.” I remain perhaps a bit too impressed by Jedediah Purdy’s argument in ‘For Common Things’ that tending to and caring for shared places could be “among the great sources of inspiration and purpose, giving shape to many lives.” Our spaces may be owned by the college (and thus vulnerable to police presence), but there could be tremendous value in learning to care for them collectively — running, as Purdy puts it, “cohesive, respectful” and clean social gatherings, no cops necessary.

I read the AAS letter while standing on the sticky, beer-covered floor of my suite’s common room in Jenkins. The 10 of us who live together have done a patently terrible job cleaning our space for the past four months. Frequently, beer cans sit out on pong tables for close to a week. Though our custodian is not required to mop our floor for us, he’s done so at least once because of our negligence. At the beginning of the year, a brand-new carpet was installed. That carpet is now infested with a massive ant colony. Looking down, I saw what appeared to be a half-used cigarillo beside me on the floor. I picked it up, and hundreds of ants flew off and scurried toward the corner of the room. The cigarillo, it turns out, was actually a half-eaten fry.

Scrolling through Snapchat on Sunday, I watched a chain of videos detailing the damage done to Hitchcock the night before. Predictably, the building was filled with trash. As Brian Zayatz ’18 pointed out in 2016 on the Amherst Disorientation Guide, Amherst frequently hires groundskeepers and custodians to work overtime hours on Sunday morning cleaning up parties. I can only hope that students resent this form of infantilization as greatly as they detested the slightly enhanced police presence the night before.

To put it bluntly: the AAS’ letter is commendable insofar as it clearly and directly affirms that many Amherst students desire not to be treated as infants. However, it is hard to think of a more infantile behavior than making a mess in a room and expecting someone else to clean up. No doubt, a large number of administrative decisions contribute to this infantile behavior (the difficulty of acquiring permission for off-campus housing, the lack of adequate party spaces, the college’s extraordinary willingness to clean up after its students and so on). However, those of us who live in party spaces at Amherst should recognize that we have at least some agency with regard to infantilization. We can refuse to be coddled by cleaning our spaces, self-regulating our parties and looking out for our fellow students without the unwanted aid of police. Lobbying the administration certainly isn’t a bad idea. However, if we desire to live in adult community with one another, we’d do well to tend to our common spaces and to one another in a truly adult way.