Exploding the Circle Jerk: After Advocacy

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The gap between what is being heard and what is being felt by the student body is growing.

AC Voice received an unprecedented amount of negative feedback from the Amherst community over the past week. As a co-founder of this site, I feel compelled to offer my thoughts on the role we and other ‘representative’ student groups play in facilitating dialogue on campus.

Amherst College is a small school. True to the College’s promotional literature, members of faculty continue to be easy to access and genuinely interested in the success of undergraduates. Students have the opportunity to speak with President Martin directly in “office hours”—this intimacy with institutional governance would be impossible at larger colleges.

The notably high staff to student ratio calls into question the role of ‘representative’ organizations on campus. In this category is any group that constitutes a part and claims to speak for a whole subset of the student body. This includes affinity groups (e.g., not all gay people join Pride), the Resident Counselors (as liaisons between students and Res Life), the editorial section of The Student, the AAS, and, yes, AC Voice.

The preamble to the constitution of the Association of Amherst Students declares its “commitment to articulating student voices for advancing action and change. We shall use our collective voice to take an active role in affecting the College’s policies and priorities. In affirmation of these principles and to ensure fair representation for all Students we hereby establish the [AAS].” The About Us page for AC Voice contains a similar phrase: that when we write, we create “one, multivocal Amherst College Voice.”

The efficacy of these representative ‘voices’ was thrown into stark relief at the quasi-closed meeting between President Martin and interested students regarding Dean Larimore’s resignation. One student explained that she felt exhausted after repeatedly trying to make herself heard on aspects of sexual assault that were left out of discussions on the subject last year. It became clear that it was a communication issue—the channels through which she was communicating such grievances never actually reached Biddy. Shortly thereafter, an AAS senator listed a problem she had with Suzanne Coffey’s new position, citing her ‘duty’ to the students by whom she was elected to voice such concerns. Both felt that they were speaking on behalf of the interests of other students; one felt more entitled to her floor-time.

Most students would be hard-pressed to list more than a couple ways they’ve directly benefited from the AAS. This is not to discount our student government’s substantial good work: senators work tirelessly on a variety of committees, Budgetary Council generously funds all kinds of student initiatives, etc. But that such efforts largely escape the purview of many students, who often don’t care anyway, is indicative of a bigger phenomenon at the College.

In a recent article on this site, Siraj Sindhu lists the reasons that “town-hall meetings must go,” citing the chaotic lack of focus at open meetings and arguing instead for an increased emphasis on “more intimate conversations” with administrators. These discussions allow for more honest dialogue and a greater sense of ‘transparency’; they’re more “cordial.” But the ‘transparent’ interactions that closed meetings supposedly foster are equally opaque when only a select group of students can access them. Such rhetoric suggests that our senators should use these opportunities to make decisions on student life and then—only afterward—may the student body at large join the conversation.

It’s precisely this ‘conversation’ on campus culture, student life, and social change that the editors of AC Voice have made our mission to document and encourage. But who is actually participating in this conversation? And who cares? The tone of recent feedback has suggested that, in order to best serve the student body, we should reconsider the position we occupy within the community. To address this, I think it’s helpful to first specify the difference between agitation, activism, and advocacy. According to basic dictionary definitions (that more scholarly work corroborates), an agitator is defined as “one who stirs up public feeling on controversial issues.” An activist is “one who uses vigorous campaigning to bring about social or political change,” while an advocate is “one who supports or promotes the interests of another.

Agitation is the necessary first step in realizing change. I think that even our biggest critics will agree that, according to these definitions, we’re successful agitators—we make a lot of noise. But how often that noise crystalizes to the ‘vigorous campaigning’ inherent to activism is debatable. More importantly, recent criticism shows that we may be failing as advocates.

“Failure,” though—implying an opposing potential of “success”—may not be the most accurate way to characterize the present state of advocacy at Amherst. It may be instead that ‘advocates,’ as such, are becoming increasingly superfluous in addressing issues in the Amherst community in actionable and impactful ways.

In moving toward more privately-made decisions and exclusively-discussed conversations on student life, the student body becomes stratified along degrees of access, and a hierarchy of representative leadership emerges. At the top lies a designated class of ‘advocates,’ an exclusive group with notable barriers to entry. These individuals—who include senators, writers for merit-based student publications, and other superlatively interested students—create a space for opaque (if well-intentioned) activity that mirrors the lack of transparency the same people are all too eager to accuse of the administration. Rather than genuinely give “voice” to the student body, this group widens the gap between students and administrators. When members of the Amherst community don’t feel effectively engaged by their representative ‘leaders,’ they are less likely to participate in public life at the school.

I realize that one of the reasons people take issue with this site (as articulated by a number of recent alumni) is that we take ourselves too seriously and lose real-world perspective by inflating ‘problems’ at Amherst. This article, it would seem, is doing the same thing. The issue of ‘exclusive advocacy’ I’m addressing here is not severe—no one is exceptionally disenfranchised. Rather, I want to challenge the ‘echo chamber’ or ‘circle jerk’ that arises as a result of this phenomenon, and to call on students who identify as leaders to interrogate their motivations and to genuinely ask of themselves, ‘who am I really advocating for?’

The agitation, activism, and advocacy among students over the past two years has demanded and fostered much change in deconstructive spirit. A lot of effort has been made to deconstruct rape culture, deconstruct social space, deconstruct a variety of privileged institutions—we’ve spent a lot of time and even more energy identifying problems with all kinds of structures at this school. As a result, we’ve seen substantial change. But while deconstruction is necessary, it’s necessarily toxic. And students are getting weary. According to surveys conducted by Institutional Research at Amherst, student satisfaction with ‘social life’ and ‘sense of community’ has been, in recent years, plummeting.

The next step is not reconstruction—which, as we’ve seen at this college, can be hasty and incomprehensive—but rather a move toward generosity. The sense of competition among those seeking change—what some call the “Oppression Olympics”—pits students against one another, throwing apples and oranges at each other in an entirely nonproductive way. The patriarchy hurts men, too. Racism creates a toxic environment for everyone. This isn’t to excuse those who occupy or abuse their positions of privilege—but, as readers have pointed out, ‘privilege’ itself is a loaded and often overused term. Generosity implies genuine inclusivity, a non-infantilizing notion of representation, and the assumption of best intentions for people trying to work together.

Explode the Amherst College circle-jerk. Activism and engagement in campus life need not be masturbatory.