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Unfinished Business

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Shanghai was our last stop in China, and I was unable to post a blog about our experiences before we flew home. As the largest city in China, Shanghai (the city) is home to as many people as Florida (the state).  Not only do about 20 million people call the city home, but Shanghai is currently hosting World Expo 2010, which is averaging about 500,000 visitors A DAY. Needless-to-say, Shanghai was crowded, particularly in the places which tourists frequent. We made our pilgrimages to The Bund, gazing across the river at the high-rise extravaganza of Pudong; to Nanjing Road with its historic and contemporary department stores and shopping malls, neon lights, and throngs; and to People’s Park with its gardens and museums. Warning:  do not take the subway in Shanghai between 5:00 and 7:00 pm if you are claustrophobic.

But there are areas where we got away from the crowds and discovered a less frenetic side of Shanghai. In the early 20th century, Shanghai was controlled by European countries, each of which had their own “concession” or area under their governmental control.  The French Concession is still an historic district within the Shanghai master plan and retains a quieter pace, with few high rises and a European feel to the streets and shops. We took the metro to the French Concession one evening for dinner, and to another part the next morning to stroll the streets.

When we visited the Urban Planning Institute, we learned more about the parts of the city that the Chinese will preserve in the future.  The third floor of the Urban Planning Institute has an enormous scale model of the city, which really drives home the size of the urban landscape.  Without a preservation plan, it’s clear that Shanghai would likely lose most of its historic treasures in the mad march to modernize and provide for its millions of inhabitants.  Luckily they are working to protect the past as they create the future.

The Shanghai Museum is an amazing institution—one of the premier museums of Chinese art and culture. Like the Nanjing Museum, it has galleries devoted to ceramics, jade, bronzes, lacquerware, but it also has extensive galleries of Chinese painting and calligraphy. We knew we couldn’t see it all, so we concentrated on the paintings, ceramics and bronzes.  We had not had the chance to really look at an extensive collection of historic Chinese painting and we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the scrolls.  The collection is installed chronologically, which is typical in Chinese museums, so we could see stylistic evolutions.  The labels, however, were quite connoisseurial, relating each artist to his predecessors and noting the age of the artist at the time he created the scroll. The labels were not very helpful in pointing out stylistic details or information about the subject.

The huge bronze collection at the Shanghai Museum was a revelation. The pieces, again chronological, were beautifully presented in special cases with good labels.  We were amazed by the intricacy and workmanship of the bronze vessels, which were as much as 5,000 years old.  The galleries finished with a section showing, step by step, how bronzes were cast, which was very informative.

Across the park is MOCA Shanghai.  The curator, Victoria Lu, visited Grinnell a few years ago and I was interested to see her museum. The structure is contemporary and dramatic in design.  The day we visited an Italian motor scooter manufacturer was rolling out three new bikes and the entrance was taken up with promoters and fans of the product.  Inside was a most peculiar show called “Stay Real Forever,” which purported to be a view of the 21st-century generation’s sensibilities. It featured work by KEA, an appropriation artist, No2Good, a creator of popular culture figures (a sort of Chinese Hello Kitty), and Ashin, a rock musician who also fancies himself an artist. The work all tried to critique culture in fairly heavy handed and obvious ways.  The cartoony quality of the pieces had a nice commercial sheen and the “mousy” figures were wildly popular with the camera-wielding teens visiting MOCA. I was not convinced.  C

I may have been unfairly prejudiced against the exhibition since we went straight there from the MoGanShan art district, where we saw a lot of galleries and some really remarkable shows.  But I’ll save that story for another blog. 

What we don't know about Sun Yat-sen

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

This week, our host department, the Office of International Cooperation and Exchanges at Nanjing University, provide a full-day tour of Nanjing, complete with driver and guide.  Our guide was a Nanjing native, a 25 year-old masters degree candidate in Linguistics named Yuan Yuan, but who asked us to call her Vivian.  Most Chinese students whom we have met have an English name, which Vivian says they typically adopt in middle school as they are learning English.  So one of the students in my class, Wang Li, is Lily, another of our assistants, Jia Shi, is Cici, and our very capable program assistant, staff to our host department, Jiang Peiye, is Sophie. 

Our day began with a trip up Zijin shan, the Purple Mountain on the east side of Nanjing, to the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.  Dr. Sun is referred to here as Dr. Sun Zhong-shan, and I'm still a little unclear if the difference is one of dialect, or if one of his names is a pen name.  The trip to the complex was beautiful.  Purple Mountain has been preserved as a green space, covered in woods, broken by ponds, gardens and bamboo groves.  There are walking paths all the way up the mountain.  At times, we could see that they included elaborate elevated walkways.  We've heard that people hike to the top in the early morning to see the sun rise.  There are a number of sites on the mountain, but in between it's wild and natural.  Dr. Sun's memorial starts with an area of tourist shops preceding the turnstile into the site. A large gate announces the entrance and from it stretches a long gradually climbing path followed by a series of 392 stairs, broken at intervals by terraces and a series of buildings.  The stairs become steeper towards the top and culminates in the tomb of the leader.  All the structures are topped with blue tiles, as blue and white were the colors of Dr. Sun's Nationalist party.

Vivian told us that Dr. Sun is greatly honored in China, and in Nanjing especially.  He established the short-lived Nationalist government in Nanjing, and is seen as the father of modern China. His Nationalists helped bring about the end of the Qing Dynasty, and competed with and at times worked with the Communists in the troubled years from 1911 to 1949.  While Dr. Sun is seen as a great man, there is far less love for Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist who took his party (and many treasures from the mainland) to Taiwan once the Communists came fully to power. 

The Mausoleum complex was swarming with tourists who stopped to read every inscription and have their picture snapped by friends and relatives. As far as I can tell, Chinese never take a picture without someone they know in it.  No straight scenery shots for them!  Later in the day, we also toured the former Presidential Palace, seat of the Nationalist government set on the site of a former Ming and Qing era palace.  Here we toured room after room detailing Dr. Sun's every movement for many years and keenly felt our lack of knowledge about this man and this period in Chinese history.  Only some of the labels were in English and it was hard to piece together the entire, complicated story.  We have resolved to find a book about these times and learn more about Dr. Sun.  The Presidential Palace was over run with even more tourists, many in tour groups who were literally running through one another as they passed from one place to another. Luckily, we found our way to a quiet garden and had a wonderful long talk with Vivian about her life.

We ended our day again at Fuzi Miao, toured the Confucian temple of the same name--a weird mix of traditional temple and kitschy statuary, very un-Confucian, and the Examination Hall.  In earlier times, to obtain a position as an official, a man would travel to Nanjing (or other large cities) to sit for a 9-day examination.  Locked into a tiny room, he would write essay after essay, eating and sleeping in his tiny space.  They have recreated a series of the rooms with figures and vignettes detailing some of who might compete for the positions and the rigors they endured which might include heat, cold, fire (and they were locked in!), snakes, and accusations of cheating.  As the evening wore on, the crowds seemed to swell in Fuzi Miao, and from a second floor restaurant, we watched the lights come up on the river (really, a canal) and the boats carrying tourists up and down.

Thoughts on the Rankings Season

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


Posted by:  Raynard S. Kington

Alas, the ranking season is upon us once again. Colleges and universities across the country are ranked on everything from food to politics, from sustainability to hipster-ness, from rigor to partying. Newspapers, magazines, online postings, and blogs follow each release noting which colleges rank where and which has gone up or down to the delight or horror or, rarely, the indifference of those of us with vested interests — administrators, board members, students, alumni — across the nation and, increasingly, around the world.

For many, U.S. News & World Report is ranked among the most important of the rankings. Over the 25 years of the U.S. News rankings, Grinnell has been as high as ninth and volleyed through the top 20 (14, 11, 18), along with many of our peer colleges that have also experienced fluctuations in the rankings — especially as data points such as alumni giving have risen and fallen with the economic times and as the methods for ranking have changed.

Many of you may have read the insightful article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker last year, “What College Rankings Really Tell Us” about the use and misuse of college rankings. I encourage you to read it if you haven't. While I acknowledge that the rankings serve as one source of information for prospective students and families, Grinnell College does not make institutional, academic, or administrative decisions based on U.S. News or other rating agencies. In 2007, Grinnell President Russell Osgood and 18 other national college presidents signed a statement committing to make institutional data available on college websites, instead of relying on the rankings to distribute the comparative information. Grinnell continues to follow this practice by providing the Common Data Set on our website and welcoming inquiries at any time.

As many in the Grinnell community read and talk about the various rankings in this season of rankings, it is important to remind everyone that whether we go up or down on any list, the public rankings are not the standard by which Grinnell College judges itself. We judge ourselves against the best Grinnell College we can possibly be. Our goal should always be to provide the best possible Grinnell education to a diverse and talented group of students who are best suited to be transformed by that education. This means we must continually look for ways to improve our support of our faculty, enrich the learning experiences of our students, and provide the resources and opportunities that set our students up to succeed as active and contributing citizens of a global community.

The College is in the midst of a strategic planning process, seeking input and ideas from a broad range of stakeholders. This plan will guide Grinnell’s future while remaining true to our heritage and mission that values undergraduate teaching and research, diversity, and innovation in programs such as the First-Year Tutorial, study abroad, the Grinnell Science Project, and Writing Across the Curriculum.

We can all take the opportunity prompted by the release of ratings to think deeply about what we are as an institution and community and what we aspire to be. Most importantly, let us commit ourselves to engaging in a lively deliberation during the coming year that will lead to a concrete plan to become the best Grinnell College that we can be.


Your Friendly, Local, Brazilian Dance Fighting Club

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


Issue:  Winter 2011
Author: Kenji Yoshino '11

Is it a game? A martial art? Or a dance?

Capoeira is all of those things! It originated as a fusion of the cultures of the indigenous Brazilians and enslaved Africans in colonial Brazil.Their newly synthesized culture helped them resist the oppression of their Portuguese slave masters and develop a sense of identity and community. The movements of this martial art are fluid and performed to music. For these reasons capoeira has often been wrongly interpreted as only a dance.

Our club was hatched the day I heard the familiar buzzes and chings of the berimbau, the iconic steel-strung instrument of capoeira, in the JRC. It’s like the horn of Gondor; play a berimbau and any capoeiristas within earshot magically appear. Charlie Kessner ’12 was playing the instrument in the Spencer Grill when I followed the familiar sound. Excited to find other capoiera enthusiasts, Charlie, Tessa Cheek ’12 and I decided to form a club and teach others. A week later we were a registered club.

Since then, our group has grown. Dozens of students show up at our classes each week. Classes consist of warm-ups, review of old techniques, some new material, and sometimes a music lesson from Charlie. We learn how to play various percussion instruments, such as the berimbau, and to sing traditional capoeira songs in Portuguese. At the end of the class we always have a roda. You don’t fight in the roda, you play, because the object of capoeira is not to do harm to your opponent. The object is to play chess with your body; you use kicks and sweeps to guide and trap your opponents into positions in which you set them up for a takedown. At Grinnell, we practice capoeira because it is fun and an excellent workout and because we have developed a community through the art. 

We are in the process of connecting with capoeira clubs at other colleges and universities. We hope to purchase our own instruments and travel to capoeira schools for professional instruction.

Kenji Yoshino '11 is a Chemistry Major from Hamilton, NY.


Stargazing Amid the Cornfields

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Author:  Kat Atcheson '12

Do you know what’s really cool? Seeing the stripes on Jupiter. The craters on the moon. The Andromeda Galaxy, which is approximately 2 million light years away.

I got to see all of them last semester when I took Professor Cadmus’ astronomy class, The Universe and Its Structure. The class is aimed mostly at nonscience majors who are still interested in astronomy, so if you only have basic math skills but an interest in space, it’s a good class to take. And, oh my gosh, I never knew there was so much going on in our solar system, let alone in the entire universe!

Each session started with picking up the day’s class outline on the front table, with lecture notes, homework deadlines, and observation sessions. Next, Professor Cadmus opened the class with “Show and Tell,” which was usually a brief little lesson about a physics concept, astronomy news, or another tidbit of interesting knowledge.

Then it was time to get down to business: galaxies, planets, stars, formations, deaths, light-years, gravity, and moon phases! Not in that particular order, of course. Most lectures involved video clips and slides to help us understand how the universe looks and how its laws behave. And don’t forget to ask lots of questions and take notes, because yes, it will be on the exam! Homework could end up being very hands on, involving things like astronomical calculations, predicting moon phases and positions, or observing various celestial phenomena on your own.

Thankfully, the astronomy class met during the day, even though the stars are only out at night. But the best parts of the whole course were undoubtedly the nighttime observation sessions throughout the semester. Grinnell has its own observatory, just beyond the track and about a 10-minute walk from the dorms.

Experiencing a session in the observatory might just have been the most awesome science-related thing I’ve done on campus. Bundled snugly in my favorite hoodie and holding my trusty flashlight, I would walk the path around 9 p.m. to meet my classmates at the observatory. A dozen or so of us stood around the telescope, listening to Professor Cadmus explain what we were about to view. Then each of us took our turn looking at the sky. This is not exaggeration — it was awe-inspiring. Seeing the moon’s craters up close, or a binary star, things I had only read about or seen pictures of in books, with my own eyes was incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time.

I’m not really much of a science nut, but The Universe and Its Structure really did click with me. Maybe it was the fact that for the first time in my life, I could actually understand the laws of physics. Maybe it was the fact that astronomy appeals to my nocturnal tendencies. Maybe it was the resources Grinnell has to make a class like that not only possible, but also truly excellent. But really, I think it was simply that after taking the class I can look up at the heavens and think, “…You know, I kinda get that.”

Kat Atcheson '12 is an Anthropology Major from Overland Park, KS.


Think Locally (But Bring a Sweatshirt)

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)
Author:  Colette Boilini ’08

It’s a balmy summer morning in San Francisco, and I can feel the sun cascading across my shoulders as I stroll down the sidewalk. As I gently flip my hair off of my shoulders, a figure in the distance catches my attention. He moves with unbridled confidence and even from a distance I can feel the connect — BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Ahh! I’m awake, I’m awake!

Cut to reality: it’s a cold, dark San Francisco morning and I’m cold.

Like many a San Francisco newcomer, I foolishly assumed that the great state of California had a lot of DE-lightful weather in store for me. True, I had been warned to pack as though I were getting ready for an Indiana (my home state) winter. But, as I had just finished a semester with the Urban Studies Program in Chicago, where I had survived my harshest winter yet, I wasn’t exactly feeling intimidated by a California summer.

So, off I went with my tank-top filled suitcase and my Midwestern swagger (oh, just go with it), leaving my “I” states existence behind for the land of chilly summers, big hills, and cool green compost containers. So why, besides the (false) promise of warm weather, did this Indianan-Iowan trek cross country for a two month adventure in California?

Well, my friends, I found love. Not the you-smell-good-I-feel-good-let’s-slowdance-and-change-our-facebook-status love. No, more like the oh-my-gosh-you-are-the-coolest-nonprofit-ever-I’m-totally-inspired kind of love. Oh, come on — stay with me, I’ll explain.

Last semester, thanks to my then-internship supervisor, Ellen, I was introduced to an organization I could have sworn had walked straight out of my dreams: the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). BALLE connects local business networks from all over the United States and Canada, and believes that strong local living economies are crucial in creating healthy and happy communities. Their member networks, of all different sizes and locations, work tirelessly to educate their communities and business owners on the economic, environmental, and social benefits of thinking and acting locally. Their member businesses, all independent and locally owned, span the economic spectrum and range from retailers to zero-waste manufacturers to green builders. Together, the BALLE staff, networks, and member businesses represent a body of individuals who believe there is more to life than the (traditional) bottom line.

So there it was, my dream organization — enlightened, committed to local businesses, and, oh baby, it had 501(c)(3) status! Well, that was it for me. I had to make it mine (so to speak). With as persistent an effort as I’ve ever mustered, I e-mailed, faxed, e-mailed some more, and interviewed my way into an internship with BALLE. And, because Grinnell has an awesome summer grants program, I also applied for and received a grant through the Wilson Program to fund my (unpaid) internship.

Combined, these processes required a great deal of time and committed effort. But, as I sit here (sweatshirt-clad) in San Francisco, sipping coffee and mulling over everything I have already learned, I can say with great confidence — it was all totally worth it.

Colette Boilini ’08 is a Sociology major from Bloomington, Indiana.


Having Due Fun with Fondue

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Issue:  Spring 2007

Author:  Elizabeth Bologna ’08

“There’s nothing to do!” It’s the mantra of young adults everywhere, the perennial complaint of high schoolers and college kids alike. It was something I was worried about when I was thinking of coming to Grinnell. It’s a small college in a small town … what if I was bored every weekend? What if the only thing there was to do was drink? I didn’t like the idea of that.

My mother laughed at my worries. “What do you do now? Go to the movies, hang out in coffee shops with your friends. Grinnell has movies and coffee shops, you’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t convinced. And even though the brochures listed all of the free concerts, dances, plays, and lectures, I remained skeptical. The thing I didn’t count on as a senior in high school was the people. It’s been said that the people who decide to come to Grinnell are a unique breed, that we’re all a little crazy in our own way. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I will say that I’ve never met so many people who are so good at creating fun out of nothing.

Last year, a friend of mine was given a miniature fondue set for Christmas, and we thought we’d make a chocolate fondue. We bought chocolate and pretzels for dipping and sent out an e-mail letting people know where we were hanging out and that we’d have food. Having food is key to luring a college student anywhere.

We thought a few people would come, but we didn’t have very high hopes, because it was a Friday night, after all. Boy, were we surprised. Not only did people come, but they also brought good stuff for dipping in the fondue. We had kiwis, strawberries, bananas, and Nilla wafers. Eventually we ran out of chocolate and started melting chocolate chips my friend had stashed in her room.

It was an incredibly fun night, and not only because there was chocolate. We invited all our friends, so we ended up with a mixed bunch of people who hadn’t known each other before that night. My friend Danny ended up giving someone impromptu ballet lessons in the hallway. Leda and Emily got into a fencing match with the fondue forks (which were, I might add, only four inches long). A whole bunch of us played cards, using Life cereal instead of poker chips.

It was a great night, mostly because it was so spontaneous. We didn’t have anything planned except fondue, but the night took on a flavor all its own. So while concerts and movies are great, sometimes just hanging out can be even better.

Elizabeth Bologna '08 is an English and History major from Fairfield, Connecticut.


Today’s the Day the College Kids Have their Picnic!

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)
Author:  Erin Sindewald ’08

It is a clear blue day, the flowers are in bloom, and the birds are chirping songs of grandeur. Smiling students of all races, genders, and socioeconomic levels are sprawled out on the lawn eating lunch, presumably loving life and everything around them. Scenes like these often adorn college admission brochures and used to make my high-school-self roll her eyes. These smiley lunch-eaters couldn’t possibly represent real  people, I thought. They must be the handiwork of some photographer trying to lure students in with a gimmicky hook that doesn’t truly represent the school in question.

But all skepticism aside, I am here to tell you that at Grinnell, such an experience is real, it’s anything but cheesy, and it’s called Grab and Go.*

Grab and Go is a meal replacement program that allows students to pick up a bagged lunch rather than make a trip to the dining hall. Students swipe their Pcards and in exchange receive a paper bag filled with an apple, chips, two cookies, a bag of carrots, and either a vegetarian or meat sandwich, depending on their dietary preferences. A fountain drink of one’s own choosing completes the ensemble. What happens from there depends on the student in question.

Many take their meal back to their dorm rooms or into the library to munch while they finish homework before class. This practice is a very legitimate use of the system, but others have different plans for lunch. As opposed to using Grab and Go as a means to increase homework efficiency, these students use it as a way to expand upon and enhance the lunching hour, a way to take the already social experience of the dining hall and enjoy it on their own terms.

Monday through Friday afternoons, weather permitting, I take my bagged lunch outdoors and gather with a group of friends on one of Grinnell’s many lawns. The sky really is beautiful. The grass feels nice beneath our bottoms. Depending on the day, the squirrels scamper, romp, or frolic. And there is a sense of satisfaction in escaping the fluorescent lights for a bit of natural sunlight.

In between bites of hummus, these real live lunch-eaters talk about interesting happenings from class (like the time my psychology prof’s dog threw up all over the floor during a demonstration of operant conditioning), discuss politics (which presidential candidate we support), plan weekend activities (checking out the local pumpkin farm), and relish the ones from the previous week (flying kites naked).

Once our tummies are full, we pass around the sections of the New York Times, catch up on current events, and share articles we find particularly amusing. And what’s really spiffy is how often people passing by stop to chat and even join us. There’s something about a picnic that inspires passersby to slow down and enjoy the afternoon.

Grab and Go picnics may not be all you can eat, but the company is all you could want, the scenery is all you can see, and the conversation is all you can imagine. Plus, outside the dining hall you have the freedom to shout, to roll around in the grass, to play bocce ball amongst the squirrels, and to collect pretty leaves to give to a friend later that day.

We’re probably not quite as photogenic as those folks you might see in college mailings — some of us have been wearing the same T-shirt for the past three days, others are bleary-eyed from a long night of paper-writing, and we don’t necessarily represent every single demographic breakdown. But we do come together on green lawns, under blue skies, for one hour each afternoon, to eat, to socialize, and to connect. We are beyond the viewbook. We are Grab and Go.

*Last year, Grab and Go’s format and menu changed in order to accommodate its move to the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center. Since the move, the program has been renamed Outtakes. Regardless of the name change, those old enough to remember the old format continue to adamantly call it Grab and Go.

Erin Sindewald '08 is an English major from Orland Park, Illinois.


Rollicking Roomies

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Author:  Mona Ghadiri '11

Like every other eager Grinnellian, I had a countdown to the day I would get the chance to find out who my roommate would be for that exciting and scary unknown that is the first year of college. I had my doubts about living with a complete stranger, so I did what so many of us often do: I worried.

“What if we have absolutely nothing in common?” “What if she doesn’t like me?”

When the highly anticipated day finally arrived, I logged onto my computer and waited for Pioneerweb to load. Since I knew there were a couple hundred likeminded first-years trying to find out the same information, I worried that all the students on the server would crash the entire system. Luckily, the Internet was able to handle our enthusiasm, and I carefully followed the directions I had received via e-mail. Finally, I had it. Her name was Jessie (a fine name!). She was from a town not too far from me (how convenient!). We were going to live in Rose Hall (new dorm, sweet!). My final verdict: I was excited to meet my new roommate. In a traditionally curious fashion, we looked each other up on the popular social networking site known as Facebook. Technology is a fabulous thing, and we used the website to start messaging each other. We started with the basics: our families, our backgrounds, our favorite things, and then branched out from there. It was really interesting to learn more about Jessie before actually meeting her in person, and I felt this online communication helped quell some of our fears. Since we lived only 15 minutes apart, we decided to put our online chats on hold and meet in person.

After much discussion about whether coffee or tea would be best, we settled on apple cider and donuts from this great little place near my house. We met and chatted for about an hour. As it turned out, living close to each other gave us more common ground, and even though I worried our first meeting would be awkward, the conversation flowed easily. Topics like books and movies led to a philosophical discussion, and by the end of our first meeting, we had also agreed on the who-would-bring-what logistical stuff. Overall, the experience was quite painless and actually a lot of fun. I was relieved to feel comfortable with my roommate, even before we stepped on campus.

Jessie and I kept in touch online for the remainder of the summer, and when I actually got to campus, things just got better. Even though we are very different people, we get along great, and living together has been wonderful. We joke around and have periodic sing-alongs that our neighbors can probably hear from the opposite end of the hall. In our short time together, we have laughed over cookie dough, ranted (and raved) about professors, done homework together, and just mused about life in general. I really can’t imagine having a better first-year roommate.

Although it was helpful to meet Jessie over the summer, I know that even without our preemptive meeting, we would still have gotten along just fine.

Mona Ghadiri '11 is undeclared and from Long Grove, Illinois.


Self-Defining Self-Governance

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Author:  Caitlin Carmody '08

Two years ago I led a small group discussion about self-governance during New Student Orientation. I tried my best to explain the fairly nebulous concept and did a passable job, but there was one persistently inquisitive first-year who just would not let the topic rest. All the other newcomers were squirming on the hard concrete floor because the hypnotist beckoned, and the NSO hypnotist is not to be missed (what better way to bond with your new friends than to see them do humiliating things?). However, this particular new student kept challenging me to further explain self-governance.

After several minutes of a shoddy comparison to John Locke’s social contract theory, I finally threw up my hands and said with exasperation, “It’s about community! Forget Locke. It’s just about living in a community.” He still didn’t seem satisfied, but self-governance can’t really be taught in the way he wanted to learn it. There can and should be dialogue about it. It can’t be reduced to a bullet-point list.

Back when I myself was a skeptical first-year hell-bent on damning The Man, I thought this self-governance thing was a bunch of hooey cooked up by the administration to make us behave ourselves. I thought it was some sort of reverse psychology thing: make the students believe they’re following the rules because they want to, and they’ll feel empowered and be obedient.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The ideal of self-governance has become one of my favorite things about this school. Living in Grinnell, it’s always very clear that you live in a tiny, interdependent community. Self-governance means being cognizant of this fact, understanding that your actions affect the lives of others, and therefore taking appropriate actions in your day-to-day activities.

Self-governance means being honest and actively engaging in the community in which you live. It doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, nor does it connote the absence of any rules. I don’t think there can be any “upholding” or “adhering” to self-governance. It’s more of a philosophy and way of living that translates into your actions in everyday life, and that’s not something anyone can regulate.

You’re expected to clean up after yourself, and people will call you out on it if you don’t. You’re expected to own up to fines you generate, and are usually rewarded with reduced fines for your honesty. People take care of each other, drunk and sober. Classmates lend you books even if they don’t really know you. Instead of complaining to your roommate about the loud music down the hall, you ask your hallmate to turn it down. Instead of complaining to your hallmate about your roommate’s slovenly ways, you introduce your roommate to the wonder of Clorox Wipes. You’re expected to act like the adult that you are, but you’re not required to be perfect. It’s very liberating, sometimes annoying, and helps create an amazing community.

Earlier today my friend and I were walking across Mac Field when we encountered several abandoned tables in the middle of the big grassy field. A few of them were broken down the middle, looking very much like wounded soldiers forgotten in the Saturday night battlefield. We stopped suddenly in our tracks, perplexed by the carnage.

“Well, there’s the graveyard of self-governance,” my friend remarked cynically. Sometimes people like to talk about the death of self-governance, like it’s rolling in its grave somewhere whenever anyone vomits in a stairwell and doesn’t clean it up. Terrible extended analogies aside, I disagree with the proclamation of death. Self-governance is manifested in countless individual actions, both miniscule and large, some of which no one will ever be aware.

No college campus or community can exist in complete harmony. That being said, I do not suggest that Grinnell is a utopian society. What it is, though, is a group of interconnected, thoughtful, and passionate individuals. Stuff does happen, but we are generally a responsible bunch, and are treated as such. While I cannot define self-governance in a way that will please every new student who joins our ranks, I do hope that you can find a way to use the philosophy to create your own worthwhile Grinnell experience.

Caitlin Carmody '08 is a Political Science major from Grand Rapids, Michigan.