Monday, October 13, 2014

Suggested causes for underemployed student activists

There was perhaps a time in the idyllic past when the primary similarity between undergraduates and graduate students was their mutual engagement in study, or the pursuit of knowledge, or some other lofty and discreditable end. But that time has come and gone, and new times call for new practices. One thing I've noticed about undergrads is that they now resemble grad students in a new and more important way. Like grad students, they face a world of diminishing possibilities for new, self-aggrandizing ventures but increasing expectation for them. For us, the problem is that we must produce original research, but everything has already been published. For them, it's that they must burnish their activist credentials, but everything has already been protested.

Just as this pressure leads desperate grad students to write on the most obscure and inane stuff they can think of (I cannot, alas, link my own work here for evidence), it forces beleaguered undergrads hungry for recognition to demand justice for wrongs that have never even happened. For example, last week, someone emailed a barely literate death threat containing a dose of anti-Asian racism to lots of Harvard undergrads. The threat was forwarded to the police and the FBI and the CIA and the White House, etc., investigated, quickly found to have come from some stupid kids in Europe playing a prank, nothing at all happened on campus, and most of us moved on with our lives. But for some students, such an opportunity to call attention to gross injustice could not be squandered. Had the university administration, in communicating with students about the grave danger and offense they faced from these emails, been sufficiently sensitive to student...sensitivities? Perhaps not. For why had only the university police sent us email updates, and not all the administrators, with information about the resources available to the traumatized victims of mean pranks?
Some students at the event said that those emails were insufficient, with many adding that they had expected an email directly from the dean of the College regarding the threat. “All I ask for is a College-wide email...saying there has been a great loss, there has been a great tragedy in our community and in our midst, these are the resources, we feel for you,” said Shengxi Li ’15, who had received the emailed threat.
A great loss and a great tragedy has occurred in our midst with the sending of a fake death threat, and no one even feels for the undergrads and how they might be coping with this veritable war crime. But no, the college dean totally feels for them, and admits it's all his fault that he didn't get in touch sooner, and left all the touching to the other 25 administrative offices that touched us with updates about our unfolding campus tragedy of prank email but whose touching lacked his human touch. In the future, he promises, he will report to his clientele promptly about every matter that comes up.

While students less tenacious for justice might have accepted this mea culpa, our students will not rest until every human rights violation contained in this non-event has been brought to light. For yet more injustice was perpetrated by the university in their atrocious handling of this matter than we knew, because TAs were not "sufficiently informed" about the death threat. This does not mean they were not informed, since in fact all graduate students were informed, repeatedly, but not sufficiently so. For, lacking this all-important additional email from the college dean to complement the emails received from the university police about how nothing was happening, how could we TAs possibly provide appropriate consolation to our charges during this dark time of totally non-credible threats:
Several student attendees said all professors and teaching fellows, not just students, should have been notified of the threats through an official email from administrators in response to the incident...Teachers could then have been a source of emotional support for undergraduates affected by the threat, the students at the discussion said.
The dean agreed on this point too, and promised to flood our inboxes with redundant information from multiple university offices next time that nothing happens. Perhaps justice has finally been achieved, and students can rest easy with a new line for their cover letters about the time when they saved Harvard from the scourge of malicious spam email by ensuring that there would be more email to address the original email. If it were not for their brave stand, we might only hear about nothing happening before and after it didn't happen and only from one source. But for our vigilant undergrads, no crisis is too nonexistent to let pass without full investigation of the possibilities for protest and administrative concession, so I have faith that these stalwart guardians of democracy will uncover even more foul injustice contained in this scandal in the coming weeks. (UPDATE: I was right, there is more.)

In the meantime, I would like to call the attention of would-be student activists who didn't manage to notice the gaping holes in the sensitivity of university email protocol in time and are now looking for other causes with which they might make their names to some of the more shocking and inhumane practices going on right underneath their noses. Did you know, for example, that the university library closes at 7 PM on Fridays, 8 PM on Sundays, and 5 PM on Saturdays? 5 PM! People, that is a great loss and a great tragedy in our community! The Ed School library is little better, being open only until 7 for most of the weekend, and the Law School library is too far away from my apartment (consider the safety threats of walking alone at night!). Now, you may counter that the college library is open quite late during the weekend, but is that not like being told that you may receive an email from HUPD about a campus crisis that's is about to not happen but not from the college dean? What is the purpose of having the other libraries if they are not open? Where is the equality? The democracy? The justice? Graduate students do not want to work in the smelly college library, where they run the risk of being seen, indistinguishable in dignity and desperation, by their own students. How, truly, can we be a great institution of higher learning if we do not prioritize our libraries, which are almost the most important things at a university, after the student protests?