Saturday, September 5, 2015

Comments on Colgate Conversations

Alice Nakhimovsky

As part of the FSEM program this fall, all first year students, grouped by seminar, were given a booklet called “Colgate Conversations.” It comes from the University of Michigan, but the copy our students received bears Colgate’s name and must be considered an authorized guide to how we see ourselves. This booklet was used as a guideline for a protracted discussion about issues of race, gender, and sex. I don’t teach an FSEM, but a copy of the booklet was passed on to me. You can read the booklet here. (Access restricted to Colgate University accounts.)

I find “Colgate Conversations” to be very disturbing. Not to mince words, I think it is coercive and anti-intellectual. It is obsessed with sexual behavior, ethnicity, and (in an era when I would hope the agenda would be to bring people together), asks students to self-categorize as members of finely-tuned, if occasionally absurd, groups and sub-groups.

Here are some specific objections, in no particular order:
  • Students are directed to categorize themselves sexually. Do the compilers of this booklet not realize that some students are reserved and might find outing themselves a mortifying exercise? What about a student who has not had any sexual experience? What about a student who doesn’t feel attractive? What about a student who feels that he or she is being called upon to self-present in a particular way, because the booklet and Colgate are encouraging it? Isn’t there such a thing as privacy?

  •     Racial categories. Race is a social construct, and certainly a slippery one. But the booklet’s definition—that is to say, Colgate’s—was news to me. So: Latin@ (I’m copying the spelling) is a race. So, apparently, is Arab-American, although Jewish is an ethnicity. Chinese is an ethnicity. European-American is an ethnicity with a large catch-zone, unlike Guatemalan and Lebanese, which are stand-alone. Guatemalan and Lebanese? Is this shorthand for nation-state? Can’t be: if you look at the booklet, you’ll see that nation of origin is a different category. This is not the work of a first-year student, though it sure sounds like it. This is the voice of an academic institution. The same problems come up with the booklet’s definition of socioeconomic classes—for example, “ruling class.”

  •     “Preferred Gender Pronouns.” Since that’s the header, I guess these are the gender pronouns that Colgate prefers. As a humanities professor, I teach writing in every course, and after some coaching, I take off points for grammar errors. So I note with some consternation that Colgate prefers the third-person-singular construction “They like themself,” as in, I suppose, “Achilles likes themself.” Colgate also prefers, apparently, the pronouns “ze” and “hir,” as in: “I could tell that Socrates likes themself by the way ze agreed to drink hir hemlock.”

  •     Finally the section on “intergroup dialog” sounds to me like the hijacking of a reading and response section of a religious service. I quote, preserving the italics of the original: “Dialog calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs/Debate calls for investing whole-heartedly in one’s beliefs.” This is one of thirteen starkly contrasting pairs. Bad, bad, debate, and bad, bad professors who set up debates in their classes as a learning tool. But is this booklet really promoting dialog, or is it promoting a particular way of thinking? There is no place within the booklet that considers starting a dialog with the booklet itself.
At this point I feel obliged to say that I try in every way to promote a cosmopolitan campus that operates on the principles of tolerance and respect. But that’s not what I see here. I don’t even want to think of what we paid for it.

The above post does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the AAUP membership or that of its officers, nor does inclusion of the post on this website constitute an endorsement by the Colgate chapter of the AAUP.


Anonymous said...

Maybe a little bit of context would help here? I am not trying to defend the content or the enterprise, but to make sure some points are clarified in a spirit of constructive exchange:

As the title and the cover attest, the "Orientation Booklet" was intended for first-year orientation, and more specifically the discussions that took place between 12 and 2:30 on Tuesday. Not as a pedagogical guide for classes. That is why it was not widely distributed outside of the context of FY orientation.

It is in that context only that inter-group dialogue and the difference between dialogue and debate are presented. Nothing to do with the merits or pedagogical uses of debate in other contexts.

"Preferred gender pronouns" refers to the pronouns that individuals may prefer be used when they are referred to in the third person. Not what any institution or Colgate prefers. So Socrates can remain he/him/his, and Alice she/her/hers, while some others may prefer ze/hir/hirs.

Anonymous said...

From the faculty meeting agenda we were emailed today, it seems "preferred gender pronouns" may soon be official university policy. It wasn't clear from the attachment whether their use by professors would be mandatory. Would those of us who prefer communicating in standard English face disciplinary action for saying "he" rather than "ze"?