Friday, May 27, 2016

Oppressed Oberlin

I have gotten a bunch of emails, tweets, and facebook messages all pointing me at the same New Yorker story about Oberlin.  As an alum of Oberlin, I am very familiar with all the aspects of this story:
  • the holier than thou far left folks who see oppression and offense everywhere who then want to, um, oppress others
  • the real problems facing a place that tries to be diverse and tolerant
  • the smug media who love to generalize about all of academia from the selected samplings of some not entirely representative students who are at a school that is not at all representative
  • the basic "these kids" stuff that Dan Drezner delineates so well. [No, Dan, you do not have to fear about how Williams will be covered because the reporters know that they will always have Oberlin when they want to tell a story about those crazy kids]
I kept refusing to read the article because I knew it would be painful. Why?  First, I identify with Oberlin, so attacks upon it are attacks upon my self-esteem (I have read enough social psychology to understand this process).  Second, I knew that the article would take the most annoying stuff uttered by some young students and run with that, rather than put it into context.  There are plenty of Obies now as there were then in my time who were not far left.  Sure, the place is super-liberal, but many of those liberals have both real concerns about the existence of white supremacy and other challenges but also real concern that one can go too far.  Third, I knew that the discussion of this story would distract people from some of the legitimate concerns of the folks involved.

As an Obie, I am familiar with the salient events of the past year or so--the list of demands (which appall me as an academic--tenure to be granted or denied by the whims of some selection of mobilized students), the anti-semitic writings of a prof, and the responses of the administration and on and on.  I knew that this stuff would get played in the most annoying ways possible.

Let me take one example: the part of students wanting no sub-C grades.  There is so much wrong about this particular point.  First, the students were not demanding the end of sub-C grades forever--they just wanted these grades not to count during a particularly turbulent semester, and had an historical precedent (the spring of Kent State--which is not that far away from Oberlin) that suggested this is not an unrealistic policy.  Second, I have no clue why the students would demand this since Oberlin's grading system already wipes out an sub-C minus grades (maybe they just wanted to get rid of C-'s for the year?).  That's right--if you get a grade below C-, you get a "No Entry" which means it disappears from the transcript.  The point of this is to encourage students to take risks and experiment.  In my time, this was the system, and students tended not to bail on the final in hopes of turning a C into an NE--I wish I had done so for Micro-economics.  This one bit of the story thus illustrates why the students are so confusing--why are they seeking something they already have--and how the outsiders have no clue about Oberlin.
Update: In 2004, the school changed the grading system so that sub C-'s would remain as real grades.  Too bad.  I liked the old system as it was very Oberlin--encourage experimentation.  I guess pass/nopass still facilitates that somewhat.

I get that the students have real concerns--that students of color feel that they have less support than they should.  In my time, there was some racist graffiti that was found on campus, which led to a day or two of activities including much discussion by the non-white students about what they were experiencing and I learned a great deal.  This self-examination is not a bad thing--one reason places like Oberlin want diverse student bodies is that we can all learn from each other about our varied experiences and perspectives in ways that don't require individual students to be asked "so, what do you as an African-American student can tell us about everyone of your race?"  At Texas Tech, I had very white classes with only one or two Latinos and African-Americans.  Each day, they knew that whatever they said would be taken as what their entire ethnic group believes, which is quite a burden.

These students have grown up at a time of both an African-American president and a resurgence of racism (birthers and all that), so it is understandable that they are confused, challenged and outraged.  One of the two major parties is in the process of nominating someone who appeals to white supremacists, misogynists and xenophobes.  These students have observed that the justice system in the US is unjust--mass incarceration, the deaths of many unarmed people of color at the hands of the police, and on and on.  If they were not outraged, then I would think that there is a significant problem.

What to do with that passion, that frustration?  That is hard to figure out.  On the bright side, I have recently learned that the Obies of my time are achieving great things: winning Pulitzer Prizesrebuilding schools, etc.  As always, I blame Lena Dunham (joking!)


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