During my first two years, I thought my job at Swarthmore was to be a diligent student. And it was. That is why I chose Swarthmore. But there was more to my “Why Swarthmore?” than merely wanting academic rigor, and I wish I had understood that earlier. The other skills that I wanted to learn here were how to think about and argue complicated societal issues with people who are not afraid to be challenged. I wanted to use what I learned in these arguments to help make decisions and influence policy.
There is a class you can take at Swarthmore that will give you those skills. You might already be enrolled without even knowing it.
This class is being an engaged Swattie: You have to do the “readings” (The Daily Gazette and Phoenix articles) and have “discussion seminars” (Sharples meals) about campus issues. You have to be aware of the kind of campus debates going on so that you can think aloud with others and look for solutions together. You need to do research and find precedents in Swat’s history and at other schools to support the viability of your ideas. Ideally, you find semester and year-long projects to contribute to.
This takes a lot of time. I know that not all of you will sign up for this class, and you have every right to focus on what you care about more. However, for those of you who did come to Swat with a desire to learn how to productively criticize and improve society, this is a class you want to take seriously. Learn how to lead and how to listen so that your ideas are thrown into the mix. Once they are in there, let them go — your ideas are just ideas.
Take a page out of the book that I used during my time at Swat: I like being right. I like it so much that if someone argues well against a position that I hold, I jump ship and switch to their position. And the next time someone argues with me I jump to their position if it is better supported. The long-term goal is never-ending improvement and reinforcement of a well thought out position.
This class is not an honors seminar: no pre-reqs are required. You can sign up for this class starting your first day at Swarthmore. Don’t wait, like I did, until you are a senior because you think you need to be more experienced with Swattiness. Of course, a first semester freshman will have many ideas and questions that have already been analyzed and answered many times in the past. That’s fine. What is important is that you seek out answers with open minds and help contribute solutions where you see them.
I failed to get as much out of this class as I could have. I hesitated and erred on the side of believing the narrative of Swarthmore exceptionalism (of course they’ve already considered X, and if they didn’t implement it, they had a good reason for it — this is Swarthmore!). It wasn’t until I returned from studying abroad that I realized how little time I had left and how much there still is to improve at Swarthmore.
Since I waited so long to take the class, I never got to dig into all of my questions about Swarthmore and our future as an institution: How can we solve the adjunct professor problem? How should Swarthmore support first generation students? Rape survivors? Are there fair compensation and working conditions for EVS and Sharples staff? Does Swarthmore live up to the social justice messages it promotes in recruitment of new students?
I also didn’t get to implement any of my ideas for Swarthmore: the development of an effective method of polling student opinion, audio and/or visual interviews with students that could be posted online to put faces and voices to student comments (not just anonymous DG comments), collections with members of the Board of Managers and many more.
And the idea I am most confident would have an impact, and yet never had the chance to push for, is the creation of a semesterly report to alumni (perhaps organized by The Daily Gazette and Phoenix staff). This report, which would summarize the most hotly debated campus issues along with survey results for how the student body breaks down, would focus on students’ perspective to complement the administration’s Alumni Magazine. I think it would be useful as a way to keep alumni connected with the campus and to galvanize the power of alumni.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a Swattie is setting priorities. By reframing time spent “wasted” reading The Daily Gazette as time on an extra class on engagement and activism, I felt more focused and justified in spending time thinking and talking through how to make Swarthmore a better place. In Sharples, I asked to sit with people I’d never met before and tried to find out what they were thinking about campus issues and what they cared about the most. I talked to professors and Sharples staff members about issues they were concerned about and met with Provost Tom Stephenson to explain why I think there needs to be more transparency in administrative decisions. Unfortunately, I only began to do this in my senior year. I regret waiting so long to take the Extra Class. All students interested in honing these skills should think about reframing how they approach campus issues.
Being an engaged Swattie does not have to be your sole purpose at Swarthmore. It can’t be. But I found that it wasn’t until I became fully engaged in campus politics and policy that I began to get everything I wanted out of my education at Swarthmore.