Hello all! I am still in Santa Barbara. Recovering took longer than I thought it world and was not very interesting. It happened gradually, out of order, and sort of progressed and regressed, until I noticed I had been symptom free since January (yay!) As a skeptical one, I developed a rigorous routine of exercise, work, volunteer, work, and an online fMRI class to test this. I have been at that since February and where as, in the past I have not responded well to increased stress, now I seem stable. I have been keeping busy.
I also felt like I did not have much to say that kept with the location, travel, science, academic life, and personal experience based themes I have kept with on this blog. I have had broader topics than I originally intended, but I wanted to stick to things that my experience living, studying, and researching in different places allows me to discuss. Recently my Alma Matter (place I graduated from, Scripps College) started making the news. I think particular story is interesting, when examined through an international lens, and it just so happens to involve some of my favorite subtopics: social inequality and privilege.
Those of you not from the states may have heard something of our graduation ceremonies, which adhere to traditions that can dictate everything right down to what students graduating at each level may wear. One traditional part of the ceremony includes the “graduation speaker”. This is normally someone noteworthy, who typically makes comments on the transition from “college life” to “the real world”. This Saturday, former US secretary of state Madeline Albright will be the speaker at the Scripps graduation and this has been the source of some controversy.
This controversy intersects with recent public criticism of the sheltering of liberal college students in the United States. Here it is important to note that elite American institutions are inherently sheltered environments. In the US, research universities and liberal arts colleges exist on campuses, which are a bit like mini towns and cities. These campuses are where classes are held, labs are located, students eat in dining halls (called the “Mensa” in Freiburg), and where some students live for most or part of their academic careers. The Colleges and Universities govern these mini cities. Universities can even have their own transportation systems and police forces. Campuses also have clubs, sports teams, concerts, orchestras, choirs, gyms, and public social events. In these schools, it is possible for undergraduates’ academic, working, social, and personal lives to exist entirely “on campus”.
For me the sheltered nature of the campus system was both helpful and detrimental. First, it was helpful because it helped me escape sexist stereotypes and ultimately helped me pursue a science career. Scripps is an all women’s college and in that environment, surrounded by other confident, intellectual women, I escaped some sexist norms of American society. I never saw myself as a scientist, before I was surrounded by brilliant women, also pursuing science at Scripps. When I went home for the summer and after I graduated, I noticed I had lost the habit of deferring to men’s opinions and was more willing to stick to my own. Certainly not every woman needs to attend a women’s college to be successful, but it worked for me, Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and many other female leaders.
According to the open letter members of the Scripps faculty sent to protest Secretary Albright’s speech, their objections are tied to the recent movements for greater inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities on campus. This has become a national controversy as parts of the US media have claimed these movements are actually just codling students and suppressing “free speech”. This movement is intertwined with the concept of “safe spaces”, where “safe spaces” tend to mean very to those who support them and those who oppose them.
Those who oppose safe spaces might consider them part of the problems I had at Scripps. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ended up in a highly abusive friendship. Part of my “friend’s” abuse included accusations that things I had said were racist and homophobic. She distorted my words and used my disability to make me question my perceptions of reality. She would then repeat the distorted words to mutual friends, making me feel worthless and undeserving of real friendship. So yes, the language of “safe space” political correctness can be used in harmful ways. However, that does not mean it is always, mostly, or even often used that way. In fact, the creation of a discussion space for students with disabilities helped me find the confidence to escape my “friend”. So it’s not the existence of safe spaces or politically correct ideals that cause problems, but how students, faculty, and administration choose to use them.
In general, I think if university and college mini cities have propose it is to allow for “safe spaces” for these academic communities to imagine and experiment with social and civic rules. If “students” were homogenous bodies of people, who all had the same needs, the administration could just leave them to explore. However, this is not the case and unfortunately, university administrations have a history of prioritizing their reputations and suppressing the students who are harmed within these sheltered civic experiments.
Recently, I read an article attacking Scripps’ ally guidelines, which are linked to “safe space” concepts in that they ask would-be-allies to be introspective about their privileges, so as not to cause offense in their activism. The author Conor Friedersdorf, a Pomona alum, uses disability as an example and fails to note the many times well meaning people have done harm, while trying to help the disability community. However, he also makes some excellent points, particularly when he makes note of corporate culture and brand name protection at Scripps. In my experience, this corporate culture does not primarily affect (ever threatened) libertarians Friedersdor describes. In contrast, it harms the people the “ally guidelines” mean to protect more than anyone else.
At Scripps, certain people repeatedly made it clear to me that I needed to keep my disability quiet. I was told Scripps did not need to meet my needs as a student with disabilities, because it was “too prestigious” to have many of us. I remember asking a Scripps administrator (who no longer works at Scripps) about hiring someone to cover disability services, who actually had some experience or training in that area, and being told that there were not enough students with disabilities to justify that expense. [Please note now that the Claremont Colleges have since opened a center for students with disabilities and again the person who said this no longer works at Scripps].
Mr. Friedersdorf also points out that the “ally guidelines” come from the Scripps administration. He makes a good point about how encouraging too much reflection, before action, can discourage activism. In my experience, faculty and student run “safe space” movements do not practice politically correct puritanism, but rather protect students with genuine needs. However, it is my understanding that safe space politics has evolved since my time at Scripps to the point where students feel emboldened enough to critique the behavior of others outside designated clubs, groups, and centers. This seems like new territory for me and I am not sure how I feel about it. However, I cannot help feeling that it reminds me of how I felt more comfortable expressing my opinions and not accepting male opinions, by default, after spending time at Scripps.
Sheltered communities can give us the space to imagine realities that are currently untenable in the boarder world. “Safe spaces” not only provide opportunities for experimental changes and embolden socially marginalized students to stand up for themselves, they also provide opportunities for student growth. My involvement in the Dis/Differently –Abled Students Network led to my senior thesis and the research I did in Italy. It got me interested in social decision-making, as a neuroscientist and it is why you are reading this blog right now. For that group, I learned how to configure a website and I learned how to delegate and break up long-term projects among people with very different skills. This summer I am leading a disability ally workshop, during which I get to do a presentation on the neuroscience of bias and decision-making.’
Criticizing elite American colleges for sheltering their students is analogous to criticizing the pope for being too catholic: it is an inherit part of being pope. Most people making these criticisms are not suggesting we get rid elite colleges or the campus system. Rather they seem concerned with the expansion of ideas created in safe space communities and students who want to experiment with ways of assimilating them into a broader (but still sheltered) civic and social community. However, in my experience, this process can help make colleges better for vulnerable students and can give student activist involved confidence and skills that they can use later in life.
In response to the protest, Secretary Albright has agreed to meet with concerned students and faculty, which is (in my opinion) incredibly classy of her. However, I believe the protests were less about her and more about what she represented for Scripps. Scripps has a mixed, but improving record on its relations with students from minority and vulnerable groups. It has promised to adopt a process that encourages greater community participation in its future speaker choices. Given previous improvements, I look forward, with hope, to it honoring this promise.
Note: Joint Master in Neuroscience Applications are due May 22nd.