Collection, in which the entire college community is invited to gather for special events, was a staple of Swarthmore life for over a century — until four decades ago when it was discontinued. But now, the college’s recently published Strategic Plan includes a provision for Collection’s reinstatement.
The recommendation appears in Section 2 (“Traditions and Community”) and reads as follows:
“By re-imagining Collection as a time to bring the community together informally to participate in civil discourse, we should emphasize our values of listening, respect for others, and peaceful settlements of disputes — combined with our academic commitments to evidence, clarity of arguments, and collaboration — as key components of that discourse. We should work closely with student groups to create opportunities for such gatherings to occur.”
It is time to start the discussion about what Collection will look like. There are a lot of different forms that Collection could take, and this is our chance to shape a Swarthmore tradition that could very well run for another hundred years.
How often should Collection happen? Should it be mandatory? Where should it be held? Who should be on the committee that runs it? What should the content be? These are the questions that we need to answer. The process should be collaborative, and in the spirit of Collection, should draw on student consensus.
To give a brief history, Collection was originally instated with the founding of the college in 1864. At the time, Swarthmore was still an officially Quaker institution, and students gathered daily in Parrish Hall to read and discuss the Bible. Over the years, the meaning and scope of Collection expanded to include outside speakers, and to serve as a time for students and panels to debate important changes at the college.
Collection was discontinued around 1970 because of the Vietnam-era vibrancy of student groups and campus activism, which the administration felt was an adequate replacement for Collection. But Swarthmore was a smaller place back then, and as the college has grown, maintaining a cohesive community has been correspondingly difficult. It is high time to bring Collection back.
Collection serves two important purposes for Swarthmore:
First, it brings everyone together and fosters a sense of community. That’s what a small liberal arts college like Swarthmore is all about. Right now, the only regular gathering place for all students is Paces from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends, and as cool as that is, it’s not exactly the best forum for speakers and debates.
Second, Collection would generally improve student life and our overall experience at Swarthmore. The Collection-type events we already have — for example First Collection and watching The Graduate — are some of the best traditions we have at Swarthmore. What if we did that every month?
There are a number of similarly sized colleges which currently practice Collection. Haverford, Earlham, and Goshen are all examples. I am best acquainted with Collection at Bethel College in Kansas. There, Collection is held twice a week, and always features a different speaker, panel, concert, or performance. Students are required to attend two thirds of the events, so they can pick and choose the ones they’re interested in. Bethel students love Collection; it’s a chance for them to see all their friends, take a study break, and hear interesting speakers on topics outside their majors.
We can do something similar at Swarthmore. It doesn’t have to be every week, and it doesn’t have to be mandatory. But it should be cool enough that everyone wantsto come. This might be a good forum for our Large Scale Events, or for hosting high-profile speakers. Last semester, some Swarthmore students asked, “Why can’t Judith Butler come to Swat?” Maybe this is a good way to make that happen.
Student groups could also use Collection as a way to show what they’ve been up to, or to raise concerns in front of the entire college community. Substantial student interest in the Sharples General Assembly this fall shows that students want a place to discuss issues like sustainability, responsible investment, LGBTQ life on campus, and even (dare I say?) sororities.
Collection is back. It’s up to us to decide what that means.